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Old 1st June 2021, 07:37 PM   #1
Jim McDougall
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Default Whats in a Name: The Arkansas Toothpick

Most are familiar with the famed Bowie knife of 1830s Texas and its many descendants, but for many years the term has been loosely applied to unusually large knives, and often termed colloquially 'Arkansas Toothpick'. The thing is that while many inadvertently called the 'Bowie' an 'Arkansas Toothpick' it was actually a different form of large knife that carried that term.
This was referenced in "The Bowie Knife: Unsheathing an American Legend", Norm Flayderman, 2004.


We know that James Black, a blacksmith of what is now known as 'Old Washington' Arkansas, made a knife for James Bowie in Jan. 1831. It remains unclear what the actual knife looked like, however it is generally held that it was quite large, had a cross guard and a clipped point.
What is further unclear is whether it had the regular type grip and pommel or if it was what became popularly known as a 'coffin' shaped grip.

Returning to the term noted in the title, as James Bowie's fame grew as a knife fighter, particularly in regions of the Chihuahua Trail in Texas, people began to go to Black to make them, 'a knife like Bowie's'.

Black had by then developed another large knife(or perhaps more popularized it), more of a dagger for throwing, with double edges coming to a point. These were actually the knives that became known as the 'Arkansas Toothpick', more of a hubris laden reference to these as oversize and deadly knives as exaggerated toothpicks'.

These in antebellum times were known as both 'Arkansas knife' or 'Arkansas toothpick', and eventually both the Bowie and 'Toothpick' became collectively regarded, with the 'toothpick' nickname prevailing in many cases. Both were well known especially among Confederate forces.

In time, Arkansas' reputation became somewhat slighted for its association with violence and these deadly knives, primarily the 'toothpicks' and for some time it became known as 'the Toothpick State'.

ref: "Arkansas and the Toothpick State Image", William B. Worthen, 'Arkansas Historical Quarterly', 53, Summer 1994, 161-90

While Bowie's tended to be worn at the side, the 'toothpick's' were inclined to be worn and drawn over the shoulder, and thrown (much in the manner as seen in the 'Crocodile Dundee' rendition).

So as with the nicknames of many weapons, the 'Arkansas toothpick' was so termed with somewhat fearful and respectful, but cautious, regard.
So things often are here in 'these parts' here in Texas.
I have been to the shop in Old Washington, Arkansas (rebuilt on the exact location of the original) where they still busily produce knives in the traditional way, an experience not to be forgotten.
\

The bottom two knives (double edged daggers) are the deadly 'toothpicks;.
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Old 2nd June 2021, 08:25 PM   #2
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I'm enthralled by both the bowie and Arkansas toothpick knives! I used to own a nice one myself, but in my brainless youth, I traded it for a sword not worth a fifth of what it would have brought. Sigh... I particularly like some of these types I've seen with the so-called 'coffin' grips. Considering how deadly these blades could be, the hilt seemed aptly named!
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Old 2nd June 2021, 09:20 PM   #3
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Originally Posted by M ELEY View Post
I'm enthralled by both the bowie and Arkansas toothpick knives! I used to own a nice one myself, but in my brainless youth, I traded it for a sword not worth a fifth of what it would have brought. Sigh... I particularly like some of these types I've seen with the so-called 'coffin' grips. Considering how deadly these blades could be, the hilt seemed aptly named!
Thank you for answering Capn!!
As noted, these knives are pretty much a standard hereabouts, and have a remarkable history to them. Dare I say, these have become a tradition carried even into modern times!! The term 'Bowie' seems very loosely applied to any big knife, and the 'toothpick' term as noted also loosely used in the same manner. Kind of like the elaborate similes used in American lore and Davy Crockett etc.

Those coffin hilts are as noted rather morbidly fashioned, sort of like some hilts on British sabers of late 18th c. In many weapons there is is a kind of memento mori theme.
With Mexican knives, many of them 'Bowie's, there are phrases like, 'when this snake bites, there is no remedy' or to that effect.

I have a huge Mexican Bowie, which I cannot post here because of its period despite being quite old (but then so am I , but it is most fascinating because of its cactus hilt, and the notable 'notch' in the blade, a distinction used by Black on his blades.
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Old 3rd June 2021, 04:01 AM   #4
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I'm in total agreement, Jim, with the importance and incredible history of these blades! During the American Civil War, many Confederate soldiers carried both 'types'. Likewise, many Sheffileld-made bowies were carried as side knives by the Union troops. It is hard to imagine the deadly wounds these monsters could inflict in hand-to-hand fighting! The story of the infamous Sandbar fight between Bowie and his rival on that spit of land in the middle of the Mississippi River really captures the lethality of these weapons!

Here's a pic of the coffin handle variety I mentioned-
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Old 3rd June 2021, 11:22 AM   #5
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Default Myths ... and legends

Jim, i didn't realize that the phrase Si esta vibora te pica no hay remedio en la botica,, originally seen in Spanish navajas, has crossed the ocean and (also) found residence in modern Mexican Bowies.

Mark, also amazing that historic knives like the 'coffin handle' are presently imortalized by modern Pakistani cuttlers, as you show us.

On a different note, although there appears to be evidence that Bowie (or better, his brother Rezin ?) ordered the famous big knife from James Black, there is no actual detailed description, or image, of such knife's form ... and size. As i see it, the picture in Flayderman's book cover is completely a thing different from all 'Bowie' variations we see out there, including the one in Bowie's portrait posted by Jim.
Guys, just tell me i am talking nonsense .



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Old 3rd June 2021, 02:51 PM   #6
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Hi Fernando,

On a different note, although there appears to be evidence that Bowie (or better, his brother Rezin ?) ordered the famous big knife from James Black, there is no actual detailed description, or image, of such knife's form ... and size. As i see it, the picture in Flayderman's book cover is completely a thing different from all 'Bowie' variations we see out there, including the one in Bowie's portrait posted by Jim.
Guys, just tell me i am talking nonsense .


That knife held by JB (in the illustration that Jim uploaded) bears a very strong resemblance to the the controversial Joseph Muso's Bowie. If I recall correctly, many years ago the renowned expert Bernard Levine thought that it was a fake. I remember seeing one in Australia back in the 1960s, around the time that Muso obtained his, so by then a number must have been made and sold.

A quick search on the internet will reveal many images of the Muso Bowie and the ongoing debates about its authenticity.

Cheers
Chris

Last edited by Chris Evans; 3rd June 2021 at 02:53 PM. Reason: Add additional iformation
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Old 3rd June 2021, 04:14 PM   #7
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Thanks so much for the responses guys!
Actually in my title for the thread, I was illustrating the affectionate term 'Arkansas toothpick' which became inextricably linked between the true Bowie knife and the double edged dagger also of large size contemporary to the evolving Bowie's.
The term of course was a hubris laden expression toward these formidable knives, and the deadly reputations of the men who used them.

Cap'n thank you so much for this excellent illustration of the 'coffin hilt'. I was remiss in not posting one myself, and this example shows exactly the style and shape which I was referring to. It is not at all surprising that these are so widely produced, as the form became so popularized in America, that it was much admired in many other countries as well.

The 'Bowie' knife itself is an American legend, an icon, and as often the case where such National pride is involved, it has evolved into an image which has become instantly recognized by most people aware of American history.
Naturally, the exact original form of Bowie's knife is unclear, as that knife was lost when Jim Bowie was murdered at the Alamo.
However, as I mentioned earlier, Bowie himself was legendary in these regions in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, and people faithfully implored James Black, to make them knives 'like Bowie's'.
As tenacious as it may be, we might presume that Black would indeed follow that design, which had become somewhat known popularly.
As a master knifemaker, we may also presume that Black would quite probably have embellished and improved from the original design. It is thought that Bowie possibly was given the option of two designs, but as with much of this, that notion is apocryphal.

Bowie and his brother Rezin were profoundly influenced by the knife fighting techniques learned in New Orleans from Spanish sailors, as well as French.
Undoubtedly the knives used by these sailors also influenced the brothers, and the knives, often navaja as well as other fixed blade knives often carried a distinctive 'notch' in the blade.
This has been often noted in knife lore as the 'Meditteranean notch', and it seems that it was added by Black to Bowie's knife and others he made.
The purpose of the notch has been much debated, but never, as far as I have known, been conclusively determined.

Naturally, the phrases, designs and other elements of Spanish knives would have been thoroughly transmitted to New Spain over the centuries of colonization, and into the eventual Republic of Mexico.

The portrait of Jim Bowie I posted is of course done in the style of the later 19th century CDV (carte de visite) photography of the Civil War period and after where subjects were posed with studio props . Most portraits of soldiers in these are holding Colt revolvers and Bowie knives in this manner, with obviously many exceptions, but those most commonly seen.
We cannot presume this 'refined' version of the Bowie, with the brass bar along the back etc. is the original knife or form, but it is consistent with the generally held image .
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Old 3rd June 2021, 07:51 PM   #8
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This reminds me how national pride inflates history and promotes legends.
We have in exhibition in the Oporto military museum a sword attributed to our first King, Afonso Henriques (11XX-1185), the founder of our nationality. Despite this sword is admitedly a weapon of one Monarch (won't bore you with details), there is no doubt, even for the least experienced newbie that, this sword is of a style developed three centuries later. I understand this discrepancy has been raised a thousand times to the centers of decision but, who has the guts to dismantle such an historic legend ... one phisicaly depicted ?
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Old 4th June 2021, 03:19 AM   #9
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I have been able to do a little more reading and retracking notes etc. as its been quite a few years.
According to Bernard Levine in his 1997 book, it appears that the original knife used by Bowie at the famed Vidalia sandbar fight was from his brother Rezin, and made by a guy known to them both named Jesse Clift.
The knife was described by Rezin in later years, and it was actually more like a butcher knife with wood grip, three rivets, blade about 9 1//4 " by 1 1/2" wide.
Apparently shortly after the sandbar fight, Bowie sent the knife to an actor friend. It remained in that family for years and eventually ended up in a well known collection .
In Levine's opinion this knife is credible.

The story with Black in Arkansas was greatly hyped and while he may have become active in producing 'versions' of the 'Bowie', he was not the one who made the original. As with most lore and legends it is hard to determine where truth and tales separate.

I also that the 'Arkansas toothpick' moniker was not actually differentiated between the types or forms, and was an 1840s term as has been described for these large knives and in fact was even emblazoned on many of the knives made in Sheffield.

I just wanted to clarify more of what I discovered to ensure transparency and try to get as much of the true history of these famous knives shared here.
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Old 4th June 2021, 03:51 AM   #10
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I am glad we are 'sifting through the mists' to find the reality when it comes to these knives. I understand there is a lot of myth, but we also know that thousands of these type blades (both 'Arkansas' and bowie)went to war as side knives proven by the records. Now how much actual battlefield play they had is up for opinion.

According to several sources I read, when Sam Houston and his Texian Army pursued and ultimately defeated Santa Anna's forces, much of the fighting devolved into bloody, hand-to-hand fighting with bowies and tomahawks (these men rejected the bayonets usually carried by traditional troops). Such was the rage after the Alamo massacre that many of Mexican forces were quite literally cut to pieces. The battle lasted 18 minutes and hundreds of Mexican troops perished. This is quite a graphic and squeamish subject, but war can be brutal.
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Old 4th June 2021, 11:28 AM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Chris Evans View Post
...That knife held by JB (in the illustration that Jim uploaded) bears a very strong resemblance to the the controversial Joseph Muso's Bowie...
Yes indeed Chris.
Could this have therefore been the one acquired by Phil Collins and later offered to San Antonio Museum ... or one of the same kind !
A pity that i was at this museum in 2018, took pictures of several weapons but did not focus on this one.
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Old 4th June 2021, 12:10 PM   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim McDougall View Post
...According to Bernard Levine in his 1997 book, it appears that the original knife used by Bowie at the famed Vidalia sandbar fight was from his brother Rezin, and made by a guy known to them both named Jesse Clift...
A version consistent with what we can read out there in that Rezin passed the (his) knife on to Jim after this has been previously wounded in a way that was no longer able to handle firearms.

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The knife was described by Rezin in later years, and it was actually more like a butcher knife with wood grip, three rivets, blade about 9 1//4 " by 1 1/2" wide...
This being evidence, it was not such an enormous knife, but a large one; although apparently smaller than the Joseph Musso's specimen, or the one Jim carries in the Alamo movie.
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Old 4th June 2021, 10:28 PM   #13
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.


I am not quite clear on what this means. ...."Rezin passed his knife on to Jim after THIS has been previously wounded in a way that was no longer able to handle firearms". What was wounded? who was not able to handle firearms?

Rezin gave the knife to Jim as I previously had posted, after he had it made by Jesse Clift, and prior to the famed Vidalia fight. Jim Bowie had two guns at the fight, expended both, and was indeed wounded several times before he gave the fatal knife blows that dispatched two opponents.

Both he and Rezin, as noted, were notorious knife fighters, and after the Vidalia fight, even more renowned. They were very enterprising and capitalized on that, and apparently gave out knives on occasion to select individuals. These kinds of gifting adds to the confusion on which knife was which.





This being evidence, it was not such an enormous knife, but a large one; although apparently smaller than the Joseph Musso's specimen, or the one Jim carries in the Alamo movie.[/QUOTE] Fernando.



As previously noted the original knife was of about 9 1/4" blade and 1 1/2" wide, very much in appearance like a butcher knife, with wood grips with three rivets. This is believed to have been made from a file, which was often the case with many knives of the time.
In years after the Alamo, Rezin Bowie was very straight forward and protected his brothers reputation.
With all the popularity and contrivances with 'Bowie knives' he noted,
"...the imprivements in its fabrication and state of perfection it has acquired from experienced cutlers, was not brought about by my agency". \
open letter to editor, "Planters Advocate", Iberville, La. 24 Aug. 1838.

As to James Black as maker of Bowie knives, let alone the original:

"...there is no evidence that James Black ever made a knife for either of the Bowie's".
- "Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David
Crockett, James Bowie and William Travis".
Willam C. Davis.

The Musso Bowie remains highly suspect despite its highly noted status, and resembles more the 'styles' of Bowie knifes produced in 60s and 70s.
and of course, movie props of recent times.


The 'toothpick' term seems to have been in use just after the Alamo and to have come from the elaborately fanciful versions of 'Davy Crockett's Almanacs' which were written in England and popularized versions of much of this lore. It was said that Kentuckian's were 'half horse/ half alligator' for example, which accounts for the zoomorphic hilts of these animals on many Bowie knives, combining these colorful attributes.

True, the original Bowie knife must have been substantial, but not as elaborate and huge as the examples created and fashioned later as noted by Rezin Bowie. However, in the hands of a skilled knife fighter it would seem enormous.
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Old 5th June 2021, 01:13 PM   #14
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Originally Posted by Jim McDougall View Post
.


I am not quite clear on what this means. ...."Rezin passed his knife on to Jim after THIS has been previously wounded in a way that was no longer able to handle firearms". What was wounded? who was not able to handle firearms? ...

Sorry i was not clear enough, Jim; perhaps due to language differences ... As per (my) posted sentence order, that (previous) would be Rezin and this (late) is Jim.
Whether or not a speculation, as any other, you may read it here:

https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Bowie

In a rough translation:

The Bowie Knife Legend began in 1826, when Bowie survived a duel against Sheriff Norris Wright. He was injured and found it difficult to use pistols. To help his brother, Rezin gave Jim the famous knife, which he began carrying.



Quote:
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... True, the original Bowie knife must have been substantial, but not as elaborate and huge as the examples created and fashioned later as noted by Rezin Bowie. However, in the hands of a skilled knife fighter it would seem enormous.
In my assessment, i was not referring to the visual impact of a determined knife in the hands of a dangerous handler, but to its actual dimensions; my Mudela najava, as many, has a rather larger blade.
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Old 5th June 2021, 05:12 PM   #15
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Thank you for the clarification, actually I was not aware of this fight in 1826, and the Wikipedia entry is quite correct. In reading more on this in Norm's book, this was apparently quite a scuffle, and Jim had only a clasp folding knife (probably a navaja) which he could not get open in the fray. He was indeed wounded but not badly, and kept fighting...it was the difficulty in getting the knife opened that was the problem.

Rezin then gave him his own knife (as previously described a hunting knife that looked like a butcher knife), which he said he had made (other accounts say it was made FOR him). This knife of Rezin's was apparently the one carried a year later at Vidalia.
He had no issue in using pistols, and at Vidalia discharged the two he was armed with, as well as another which had been dropped in the confusion of the fight by one of the other men.

It is my turn to clarify re: size and circumstance.
What I meant is that when faced with an armed and formidable opponent, and in the heat of the moment, the dimensions and character of the weapon can be expectably exaggerated visually........for example, looking down the barrel of a gun pointed at you (which unfortunately I know from first hand experience) ....no matter what it is, it 'looks like a howitzer'!!!

Much as use of the term 'toothpick' in the sense being discussed for these 'large' knives, however minimalizing it in bravado.
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Old 5th June 2021, 06:08 PM   #16
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... (which unfortunately I know from first hand experience) ...
Who hasn't gone through one of those ... but no details available .
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Old 5th June 2021, 07:18 PM   #17
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Who hasn't gone through one of those ... but no details available .
I rest my case
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Old 13th June 2021, 01:43 AM   #18
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Here is an example of the similar type knife(example B) Jim Bowie used at the Sandbar fight, which was actually a blacksmiths rasp ( for shoeing horses) filed into a blade. It was given to him by his brother Rezin after the fight he was in and had difficulty opening the folding blade.

The other picture is the Bowie belonging the the famed Sioux leader Sitting Bull.
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