Bowie Knives and Duelling Pistols
W HEN IS a duel not a duel? According to the terminology of Bowie's day, a fight could be a "free-for-all," a "fracas," a "medley," a "transaction," or a "difficulty." Just what the distinctions among them were, nobody now knows; perhaps they were rather nebulous at the time. They probably encompassed all common kinds of unscheduled personal conflict, with or without weapons. But the formal duel, usually fought with pistols, was the order of the day among "gentlemen." The code duello was printed in this country as early as 1836,1 perhaps earlier, and supersensitivity of honor had been developed to a degree equal to that of the most punctilious European practitioner of the art.
But duelling was by no means universally accepted. There was much caustic editorial comment against it in newspapers of the early 1800's, continuing well past the half-century. The churches, the Masons, and other religious and secular groups opposed it; and laws prohibiting duelling had been passed in several states, including Texas, prior to 1840.2 There was also considerable early support in Congress for similar Federal legislation.3
James Bowie probably had little use for the niceties of formal duelling. But, as we shall see, Rezin, Jr., was not entirely truthful when he insisted that neither he nor James had ever "had a duel with any person [whom]soever."4 He must also have known that many of James's knife fights were gorier than most duels. Estimates of the number of men James killed in "non-military" encounters vary between fifteen and twenty; however, the seeker after cold-blooded killings is doomed to disappointment. More often than not, he fought to help a friend, to rescue somebody who was