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Exhibit at Historic Washington honors inventor of Bowie Knife

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Billy Nations

By John R. Schirmer

News-Leader staff

HISTORIC WASHINGTON – A new exhibit at Historic Washington recognizes the bladesmith who forged the Bowie knife in the early 1830s.

“James Black: Life and Legacy” opened Sunday afternoon, April 10, in the Visitor Center at the 1874 Courthouse. The exhibit will be open daily from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. through Jan. 28, 2023, with the exception of Mondays, when the park is closed.

Billy Nations, assistant superintendent at Old Washington Historic State Park, discussed Black and his impact in a presentation Sunday in the Courtroom of the 1874 Courthouse.

“If the world holds together for another 190 years, will you have made a mark,” Nations asked those attending the event. “One individual, the subject of this exhibit, did make a mark; 190 years later, we’re still talking about him.”

Black was a public servant in Hempstead County, according to Nations, and “wore many hats,” in addition to being a husband and a father.

Black “made his mark – dare I say legend – because of his craft,” Nations said.

The future bladesmith began his career as a child in New Jersey. Later, he was apprenticed to a silversmith in Pennsylvania, where he learned to read and write, along with working with silver.

“By 1818, Black was 18. He was proficient in silver plating,” Nations said.

Eventually, Black moved west because there was “a lot of competition on the Eastern seaboard. He settled in Louisiana around Bayou Sara, the largest Mississippi River port from Natchez, Miss., to New Orleans.

Later, Black decided “to move to ply his trade. He moved to Washington, Ark., on the Southwest Trail,” which roughly followed the route of today’s U.S. 67/167 from northeast Arkansas to Little Rock and today’s Interstate 30 from Little Rock to Fulton.

At Washington, he was hired by local blacksmith William Shaw. He eventually married Shaw’s daughter Anne over her father’s objections. 

During his time at Washington, Jim Bowie asked Black to design a knife for him. Following Bowie’s specifications, Black forged what became known as the Bowie knife in late 1831. Today, “The Bowie knife is part of our culture,” Nations said.

The exhibit provides details of Black’s life before and after his move to Washington, along with his problems with Shaw. Items that Black owned are included, including a reproduction of the Bowie knife.

The James Black School of Bladesmithing and Historic Trades was established in Washington. It is operated by the University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana and works with the state park and Arkansas Department of Heritage “to teach and celebrate Arkansas’s history, bladesmithing and other heritage trades,” according to information from the school.

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