Any essay concerned with the history of the Phatwater Bowie would beg of the chronicler some inclusion of the origin of the name Bowie, which is altogether reasonable. “Bowie” takes its stance in the record as a Scottish-Irish development derived from the Gaelic buidhe, meaning “fair haired” or “yellow haired.”
Pressing the spade of discovery a bit deeper into the mix, we find this citation: “The personal name Buadhach [from which 'Bowie' supposedly derives] means ‘victorious’.” This would comport well with those descendants of the man to whom the flame of the Bowie Knife legend owes its spark, Colonel James ‘Jim’ Bowie, hero of the Alamo.
There exists so much controversy in the origin of the Bowie Knife that no attempt will be made here to offer unnecessary debate. Rezin Bowie, of Marksville, Louisiana, one of Jim Bowie’s older brothers, has been documented as the individual responsible for the commissioning of at least one . . . large hunting knife . . . , from a blacksmith of his acquaintance, Jesse Cleft, of Avoylles Parish, Louisiana, some time prior to September, 1827. Another of ‘Jim’ Bowie’s older brothers, John, claimed the knife employed in the Sandbar Fight was commissioned by ‘Jim’ Bowie to a blacksmith of the name Snowden, while Rezin Bowie’s granddaughter claimed she witnessed Jesse Cleft (elsewhere Clifft, Clift) building the knife commissioned by her grandfather for his brother Jim. A third blacksmith from Arkansas by the name of James Black claims he was commissioned in 1830 by James Bowie to build a knife of James Bowie’s own design. Though while this is entirely believable, the date of the construction of this knife falls some three years after the infamous Sandbar Fight, upon whose rumors and reports the fame of ‘Jim’ Bowie and the style of knife which came to bear his name are rooted.
Amid all the furor what should be kept in mind is that any man who exhibited not only a passion but a necessity for sheathed weapons, particularly at a time when period pistols were notoriously unreliable, could be expected to have in his possession at any given time more than one knife. Add to this the certainty that, as with today, knives can become lost, stolen, gifted away, or damaged, and the expectation that a man of Colonel Bowie’s reputation would possess only one such knife throughout the conduct of his career appears dubious.
As to the Sandbar Fight, this too is shaded in glorious controversy. Reportage of the event, which took place on September 19, 1827, involved the testimonies and witness of no fewer than fourteen survivors; two of the 16 initially present having been mortally stricken by the outcome’s conclusion. We don’t know where the fight actually took place. Some reports hold that the duel was held on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River, above the city of Natchez, while others maintain the fight occurred on the Mississippi side of the river, on the first, “large sandbar, north of the City of Natchez”.
In either case, the precise location of the ‘Bowie Sandbar Fight’ no longer exists. Just north of present day Natchez, Mississippi, lies an enormous towhead. The towhead extends west of the Mississippi River, into Marengo Bend, Concordia Parish, Louisiana, though the land, which is today known as Giles Island, belongs to the state of Mississippi. As one looks upstream from the Under-The-Hill area below the bluffs of Natchez proper, the view today of the Mississippi River to the north is that of a half-mile wide channel.
The channel as it exists today was formed over time by the power of the Mississippi, following the dredging across an isthmus by the “George W. Catt” Cutter-Dredger, out of New Orleans, from 1933-1934. The excavation was seen at the time as an effort to shorten the passage of commercial traffic into and out of Natchez by some twenty five miles. The lowland to the west, beyond the isthmus connecting it to the bluffs of Mississippi, was at the time known as Cowpen Point.
In the middle-view of the three panoramas below, the Cutter-Dredger “George W. Catt” can clearly be seen, in views of the “Giles Cut” as it was being excavated from 1933-1934. The Point Of View is from the Bluffs above the Mississippi, north of Natchez. Photos: ©1933-34, 2001, Estate of E.E. Benoist, M.D.
With the completion of this channel, Giles Island was formed from “Cowpen Point”. Somewhere at the southeastern terminus of Cowpen Point there lay a sandbar upon which the Bowie Sandbar Fight took place. An arrow in the panel above gives some indication of where this sandbar could have been found. Following the completion of the dredge in 1934, more than a century after the Wells-Maddox Duel during which Jim Bowie slew his nemesis Major Norris Wright, whatever sandbar proximate to the area that may have existed at that moment was thereafter swept away for all time by the Mississippi River.