The History of The Bowie Knife

Our Bowie Knives are rich in history and industrial heritage.

The American Bowie Knife Era

Wostenholm Bowies From Circa 1855

It is likely that many of the first hunting knives carried in America by settlers and adventurers were adapted swords or butcher’s knives, or even crude knives converted from used files by local blacksmiths. 

The Bowie Knife was so named after legendary frontiersman James Bowie, most likely following the much publicised Mississippi Vidalia Sandbar Duel of 1827 involving Bowie and his rival Major Norris Wright.  The popularity of Bowie Knives in America grew dramatically as a result of this, and the great Sheffield makers like Joseph Rodgers and George Wostenholm stepped in with highly-crafted knives to satisfy the demand. Sheffield Bowie Knives continued to be highly sought-after beyond the Civil War, right through to the late 1800's. The classic Sheffield knives of the American Bowie Knife era are very much the inspiration for the hand-crafted Bowies we are offering for sale today. 

Bowie Knife Blade Markings

Blades are marked using the traditional techniques of stamping and deep acid-etching.

For the Wostenholm Bowie Knives, we have delved deep into the archives for authentic markings from the mid 1800’s period when I*XLs were the most coveted of Bowie Knives in America. Some of the first Wostenholm Bowie knives were stamped with “the officer on horseback,” a likeness of Mexican war hero and future president General Zackary Taylor.  

Many of the marks are typical of the turbulent era. Many featured patriotic scrolls, defiant mottos and symbolic American Eagles. During the Civic War it was possible to determine where a man's loyalties lay by the markings on the blade of his knife. Wostenholm made knives with "Death to Abolition" etched on the blade.

Etched I*XL California Knives were carried by Americans making the perilous journey west in search of gold. Bowie Knives were not just carried by adventurers and prospectors though. Highly crafted I*XLs, were carried by gentleman, judges and politicians as symbols of their status in society.

Americans Pride Bowie Blade   Front View

James Bowie and George Wostenhom

The origins of Bowie’s own knives have been the subject of considerable debate ever since he died at The Alamo, on March 6th 1836 while General Santa Anna's Mexican Army attacked. From a knife forged for Jim’s brother Rezin Bowie by Louisiana blacksmith Jesse Clifft, through to a knife made to Jim’s instructions by Arkansas blacksmith James Black, the latter a colourful character who may also have claimed to have rediscovered the ability to make Damascus steel blades. It is highly unlikely that the truth will even be known.

There are two claims made about Wostenholm and their relationship with James Bowie. The first claim is that Bowie ordered knives for himself and his close friends directly from Wostenholm. The second, more famous claim is that, when Bowie died at The Alamo, a knife on his body was one made by Wostenholms.

Whether or not these two stories are true is impossible to say for certain as company records from that period no longer exist. Such was Bowie’s reputation that any knife found at The Alamo would surely have been plundered, along with Bowie's other possessions, by the victorious Mexicans. What can be said is that the previous owners of the Wostenhom company seem certain that there is validity in these links. Perhaps they had access to conclusive proof long since lost. It is certainly nice to imagine that the paths of two men as great as Jim Bowie and George Wostenholm once crossed. What is without question is that Wostenholm’s dedication to his company and it's products meant that the I*XL trademark is regarded as the absolute pinnacle in knife manufacture not only across America but across the world.

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References & Further Reading

Sheffield Exhibition Knives by Bill Claussen, Bill Adams et al (1999)

The Sheffield Bowie & Pocket Knife Makers 1825-1925 by Richard Washer (1974)

I*XL Means I Excel - A Short History of the I* XL Bowie Knife by William R Williamson (1970)