A relatively new phenomenon in modern society is the rise of the influencer – a person on social media who is skilled at persuading followers to buy things. Some are influencers by design and some are accidental influencers, finding without trying that they have attracted an army of imitators. I wondered how many of these now popular influencers, like Kylie Jenner or Selena Gomez, will have any influential prowess in 200 years? How many will have the lasting magic of Jim Bowie?
Many people think that James “Jim” Bowie was made famous by defending the Alamo. He was, in truth, already quite famous nearly 10 years before he gave his life for Texas freedom. He was famous as a knife fighter, knife designer, frontiersman, and all-round, world-class badass. He was truly a man’s man by any standard. If we were to make a movie of him today we’d have to get Keanu Reeves to play him.
His world-renowned Bowie knife was probably first made at the direction of his own brother, Rezin. But the classic design came from Jim in subsequent versions that had his modifications.
Jim used his brother’s version in a bloody skirmish called the Sandbar Fight. Jim was nearly killed by two assailants who both shot him. One endeavored to finish him off by stabbing him with a cane sword, but the sword bent when it hit Jim’s sternum, and so it gave Jim a moment to spring upon his attacker with his huge knife. He killed him instantly. He then badly wounded the second assailant who only survived by fleeing as fast as his injuries allowed him to run.
You see, in those days you wanted to take a knife to a gun fight because guns were notoriously unreliable. Bowie miraculously survived and the account of the Sandbar Fight, thanks to a journalist who witnessed it, went “viral” in national papers, even making it to Europe. Jim Bowie and his knife were thus immediately immortalized.
What made the knife different was its size. The original was almost a foot long. But the next model, Bowie Knife 2.0, was even longer, and razor sharp on the bottom and the top. About a third of the top of the knife, the clip point, was honed to a fine edge – so it cut both ways. Its lethality became legendary. The Red River Herald of Natchitoches, Louisiana, would one day write, no doubt hyperbolically, that after the Sandbar Fight, “all the steel in the country, it seemed, was being converted into Bowie knives.” That’s influence!
Some later models had false edges on the clip point, which made them look sharp, though they weren’t. This provided advantages in strength to the blade.
When Bowie arrived at the Alamo nine years later with his notoriety on the rise and his famous knife at his side, even Davy Crockett was impressed. He said the sight of it “makes you queasy … especially before breakfast.”
Bowie’s last stand at the Alamo elevated his fame to the level of a demigod. It was widely claimed, at least what I heard as a kid, was that he took out 10 Mexican soldiers with his knife in close-quarters combat. This is improbable given that Bowie was critically ill from typhoid fever at the time, but a good legend will kill probability any day of the week. Of course, no one can say for certain what happened in those last minutes, and given his reputation for cat-like reflexes mixed with the adrenaline of battle, who can say? I do like what Bowie’s mama said when she learned of his death: “I’ll wager no wounds were found in his back.”
After his death, the Bowie knife, in various versions, began to be made by blacksmiths, from the American Southwest to Sheffield, England, where the finest ones were made and exported to America. Texas Rangers carried them. The U.S. Marines had their own version. In popular films, Rambo never left home without his, and neither did Crocodile Dundee. It’s the one he’s holding when he says, “That’s a knife.” And Brad Pitt does some fancy swastika carving with his Bowie Knife in “Inglourious Basterds.”
It’s as famous as the Swiss Army knife or the Buck knife. Given the ubiquity of his knife in the world today, nearly 184 years after his death, I’d say Jim Bowie is a greater influencer than any social media star you can name.