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The Knifemaking Tradition of Arkansas and the Ozark Mountain Region

Knifemaking Tradition of Arkansas

"These formidable instruments, with their sheaths mounted in silver, are the pride of an Arkansas blood, and got their name of Bowie knives from a conspicuous person of this fiery climate."

Englishman George W. Featherstonhaugh, November 1834

Arkansas and the Arkansas Toothpick

The State of Arkansas also came to be associated with the Bowie knife. The reasons are fairly clear. Arkansas rested on the edge of the United States, the edge of 'civilization,' and was seen that way throughout the antebellum period. The term "Arkansas toothpick" evoked the wild southwest for folks living elsewhere. "The bowie knife of Anthony was one of the very largest size, of the class called, in that country, 'Arkansas tooth-picks,' the most savage looking weapon before which a human eye ever quailed."-- 1849, Alfred Arrington, writing about the Anthony-Wilson altercation in Arkansas's State House. But another bowie knife connection to Arkansas is James Black, a blacksmith in Washington, Arkansas, who, according to many sources, made a knife for Jim Bowie.

An 1841 account in the Washington [AR] Telegraph called him the inventor of the bowie knife. Black became fairly well known for his cutlery, and so the Arkansas association might refer to Black-made or Black-styled knives. (Interestingly, what distinguished his knives in Black's mind, was not the form or the size of knives, but their temper-- the process of hardening the blade.)

(Image: Reproduction of James Black's Shop)

In the summer of 1837, the Alabama General Assembly passed legislation declaring any killing with a "Bowie-knife or Arkansas Toothpick" murder, and taxing the selling or delivering of such weapons in the state. A few nineteenth-century sources describe the Arkansas Toothpick as a narrow bladed dagger. Today's knife-makers follow this general description.

Civil War

"We sharpened the points of our bayonets, and gave a razor-edge to our bowies, that the extermination we intended should be sudden and complete." 1861, Henry Morton Stanley, in Arkansas as the Civil War began.

As the Civil War began, many soldiers counted Bowie knives among their most important weapons. Hundreds of soldiers were photographed armed to the teeth with knives and other weapons. But as the War progressed, the knife lost its practical value to the bayonet. Throughout most of the War, the bowie knife could be regularly found in the drawings of such cartoonists as Thomas Nast, as they sought to characterize the South as a place of violence.

Preserving the Forged Blade: The American Bladesmith Society

The American Bladesmith Society is dedicated to preserving the art of the forged blade and to educating the public concerning the qualities of such blades. Years ago, forging was an integral part of making a blade-- there was no question about its preservation. But when advanced steels began to be produced, steels which could be shaped using only high-powered grinders, forging came to be seen as superfluous, and the heat, hammering, and smoke as unnecessary nuisances to the knife-making process. Only a handful of smiths continued in the old ways.

In 1976, four men gathered in Louisiana to discuss the possibility of creating an organization to keep bladesmithing from becoming a lost art. Bill Moran, Bill Bagwell, Don Hastings, and Bill Hughes met at Bagwell's knife-making shop and traded hopes and fears about the future of forging. After several months of long-distance discussion, they again met this time at the Shreveport, Louisiana, airport, to sign the papers creating the ABS. The ABS is a not-for-profit organization as determined by the IRS.

The organization's success has surprised its founders. The School of Bladesmithing in Washington, Arkansas, a cooperative program among the ABS, Texarkana College, and the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation, is the only such institution in the world. The ABS also sponsors awards programs and has produced educational videos. The organization has certified fifty-seven Master Bladesmiths, hundreds of Journeyman Smiths, and includes more than 500 members.

(This article is sourced from the Historic Arkansas Museum Be sure to visit the Historic Arkansas Museum permanent knife exhibit that has a multitude of historically significant knives on display.