James Black: Master Blacksmith

James (Jim) Bowie perished at the Alamo holding back Santa Anna to allow Sam Houston the time he needed to gather forces to win the Texas battle for independence from Mexico.  However, his legend and the legend of his famous knife refused to die.  While tales about the knife dubbed the “Bowie Knife” and the “Arkansas Toothpick” circulated, little was ever told about the man responsible for the design and craftsmanship behind this famous knife: James Black.  Bowie’s fame can hardly hold a candle to the life experiences of Black.

Born in New Jersey on May 1, 1800, James Black’s childhood was not typical of the day.  His mother died while he was only a small boy.  After his father remarried, young James disliked his stepmother so much that he ran away from home at the age of eight.  He made his way to Philadelphia where he secured an apprenticeship with a silversmith by passing himself off as an eleven year old.  Nine years later,  when his father passed away, he traveled back home.  While there, legend has it that he looked in the family Bible.  It was there he confirmed his true age was only eighteen even though he was passing himself off as a twenty-one year old.  After returning to Philadelphia, he didn’t share this information with his employer.  As a “twenty-one” year old, he was able to become a journeyman.

At the time of his apprenticeship, Black faced an obstacle too large to overcome – British competition in the silversmith trade.  With the market suffering from this competition, Black decided to go west.  He traveled a route that took him down the Ohio River and then down the Mississippi.  Arriving in Bayou Sara, Louisiana, young Black sought employment and found work.  First he worked as a helper aboard a ferryboat.  Next, he found work as a deckhand on a boat that traveled up and down the Red River.  The boat’s route stopped at Fulton, Arkansas.  As the result of land grants to veterans of the War of 1812, the region was increasing in population causing the landing at Fulton to become an integral port.

In 1824, a little town sprang up in area.  Named after the “father of the country” the small hamlet was located at a major crossroad in the region.  Running east and west was Fort Towson Trail.  It was the major connection route to Fort Towson in the far west, an area now known as Oklahoma.  Crossing the Fort Towson Trail was another trail running northeast to southwest known at the time as the Chihuhua Trail.  With the nearby port and the major intersection of the trails, Washington, Arkansas experience a population boom.

Among the early residents in this Hempstead community was James Black.  Upon his arrival, the young man, then about age twenty-four, obtained work in an established blacksmith shop.  It was here that he learned the blacksmith trade and became a valuable asset to the community.  While he is given credit for helping build the town, Black would have also been responsible for making plow blades and the metal farm implements for the farmers in the region.   He would also have been the one locals would have turned to when they needed a gun repaired.  In fact, the blacksmith was the “go to” guy for all things metal.

According to Black, his boss had a son and a daughter.  The son was near Black’s age, and they quickly became friends.  The daughter was said to have been quite beautiful.  She definitely caught the attention of Black.  The two fell in love, however, their affections were frowned upon by her father.  Like many fathers, Black’s boss wanted a husband for his daughter who could provide better for her.  He strictly forbade their relationship and nixed their plans for marriage.

The last thing any businessman wanted in frontier towns was competition.  It was this fear that kept Black’s employer from firing him.  However around 1825, Black decided to leave on his own.  He moved about fifty miles west of Washington to an area along Rolling Creek which is located today in Severe County, Arkansas. It was here that Black hoped to build a home and make his fortune.  After doing so, he planned to return to Washington for the beautiful girl he had left behind.  She had promised to wait for him.

Black set his mind on prosperity.  As more and more people arrived in the area, he saw a need for a grist mill.  He constructed a dam on the creek in order to provide the water power he would need for the mill.  But as his luck would have it, before he completed construction of the dam, the sheriff delivered a proclamation to the area announcing that the land on which the people were homesteading had been ceded to the Native Americans by the national government.  The settlers left, and Black decided to return to Washington in hopes that his beloved Anne was indeed waiting.

He must have been overjoyed to learn that she was still waiting.  The couple married but not with the blessings of her father.  He disapproved of the union so much that he vowed to never forgive Black.  He also swore his vengeance on him.  These feelings were aggravated by Black’s opening of a competing blacksmith shop.

Black’s business proved quite successful, and he developed a reputation as a superior craftsman of knives.  In the 1800’s, every man carried a knife.  Black’s knives were different.  He made them using his own secret process which was said to be somewhat like the Damascus steel.  He used his metallurgy skills he learned why being a journeyman silversmith, and plated most of his blades with one of two precious metals, silver or gold.  He used the greensand along a creek in the area in this process.

While no one can definitely say that Black was the craftsman who made the Bowie knife, experts in the field have concluded that he surely must have been.  No one else in the area was using the process used to make the metal the Bowie knife is crafted from except Black.  Besides, why would a man with Bowie’s reputation turn to anyone who was not considered the best in the business.  And Black was definitely considered to be the top bladesmith.  Black had been making knives for some time.  They were of such rare quality that men were willing to pay prices that at the time were considered high.  He charged anywhere from five to fifty dollars for a single knife.

Legend has it that Jim Bowie arrived in the City of Washington in January, 1830.  It is said that he brought a design he had created himself to James Black.  Black however, made a knife of his own design which greatly impressed Bowie.

Black’s design had a blade of at least 6 inches (15 cm) in length.  Later creations of this type of knife  reached 12 inches (30 cm) or more, with a relatively broad blade that was an inch and a half to two inches wide (4 to 5 cm) and made of steel usually between 3⁄16 to 1⁄4 in (4.763 to 6.350 mm) thick. The back of the blade sometimes had a strip of soft metal (normally brass or copper) inlaid which some believe was intended to catch an opponent’s blade while others hold it was intended to provide support and absorb shock to help prevent breaking of poor quality steel or poorly heat treated blades. The knife had an upper guard that bent forward at an angle (an S-guard) intended to catch an opponent’s blade or provide protection to the owner’s hand during parries and corps-a-corps.

As Bowie’s reputation as a knife fighter grew, especially after the Sandbar Fight, so did the business of James Black.  The knife style did not originally have a name.  According to the legends, people began coming to Black asking to have a knife like Bowie’s made.  Their requests evolved into,  “I want a Bowie knife.”

The original knife was lost at the Alamo.

Life on the frontier was not easy.  Black lost his beloved Anne who died about seven years after their marriage.  He was left to raise three sons and a daughter alone.  Black once again experienced loss when his daughter died.  He was overcome with grief.

In 1839, Black was stricken with a fever.  He was so weakened by the fever that he was bedfast.  His vengeful father-in-law saw this as his opportunity to take his revenge.  He went to Black’s home and with a stick, beat him.  Black credited his faithful dog for saving his life.  Nonetheless, he was left with injuries to his eyes that rendered him blind.

The master knife craftsman set out for Philadelphia in search of medical help to heal his eyes and end his blindness.  As he traveled, he was convinced by someone that a physician in Cincinnati, Ohio that could help him see.  The doctor he was referred to turned out to be bogus.  In fact, Black left Cincinnati in worse condition that he arrived.  As he made his way back to Arkansas, he made a stop at New Orleans seeking another doctor’s opinion.

How difficult it must have been to learn that his blindness was permanent.  He returned to Washington, to live out his days at home.  Instead of the comfort of home, Black returned to a real tragedy.  He had been gone from Washington for about a year.  During that time, his enemy, his father-in-law had administered Black’s business affairs and his estate.  He did so as though Black were dead.  The famous blacksmith was broke, not a penny to his name.  With the law obviously on Black’s side, it would seem that winning in court would have been easy.  However, without funds, he could not secure legal counsel.  His father-in-law was able to hire the best lawyers in the area.

Homeless, he accepted the invitation of John and Jacob Buzzard, two brothers who lived in Miller County, to live with them.  After staying two years with the brothers, Black learned that Dr. Isaac N. Jones had set up practice in Washington.  The Buzzard brothers took Black to consult with this physician.

Without money nor a job, how would Black pay for any medical services?  The doctor and the blind Black made an arrangement.  Dr. Jones had make calls in the rural area he served.  He had four sons.  Black agreed to look after the Jones boys in return for medical care.  Black moved into the Jones home where he looked after the boys for the doctor and his wife.

Dr. Jones tried to restore sight to Black without success.  He asked him to remain in their home and advise his sons as well as continue to look after them.  Black agreed and was a part of the Jones household for thirty years.

Dr. Jones was killed in an explosion of a steam engine on the family’s plantation in 1858.  The family asked him to continue to stay with them.  By this time, he had become a part of the family.  When Mrs. Jones passed away, Black went to live with Daniel W. Jones, one of the sons who grew up to become a Governor of Arkansas.

Daniel Jones recorded much of he life of the blacksmith as it was told to him by Black.  He also wrote about his last days.  He told about an occurrence that happened on Black’s 70th birthday.  According to his report, Black instructed him to get his pen, ink, and some paper.  However, upon gathering the writing materials, Black sent him away and asked him to return in an hour.  He returned twice and was told the same thing each time.  Finally, he said, Black burst into tears saying,  “My God!  My God!  I have put it off too long.”  Black had intended to give the instructions for the twelve processes needed to make his famous knife.

According to Jones, Black lived for two more years but described his life as one of an “imbecile.”  He died on June 22, 1872 and was buried in the graveyard in Washington.  He took his secret with him.

The blacksmith shop has been recreated at Historic Washington State Park.  Bladesmiths give interpretive talks and demonstrations daily.  To visit the state park is to take a step back in time.  Visitors can see the Confederate Capitol Building, tour homes from the frontier time period, see early 1800’s printing presses in action, and visit a one room school house.  Each year the first weekend in November, the park is invaded by Civil War reenacts as they camp and reenact events in the area about the Civil War.

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One Response to James Black: Master Blacksmith

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the good read. I’ve always been a fan of bowie knives.

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