J. R. Edmondson - Historian of The Alamo and the Bowie Knife

Profile of Alamo and Bowie historian, reenactor, and author J.R. Edmondson of Texas, who makes history come alive.

Historian J.R. Edmondson is a scholar disguised as a history aficionado. The native Texan's ardor for Western history generally, for Texas history specifically and for the Alamo and all its sub-categories in particular is not just compelling but downright contagious. With his encyclopedic knowledge, he seems to live and breathe Texas history with an almost matchless personal enthusiasm that lights up a discussion.

I'd been "warned" by various people, at different times and independently of each other, that once Jack Edmondson gets started on a discussion of Western history, he can pursue it with the determination and intensity of engagement the Alamo defenders demonstrated during their last thirteen days. My informants weren't aware that you can't choke a cat with cream.

Edmondson holds degrees from the University of Texas and from Texas Christian. His publication accomplishments include articles for Blackpowder Annual, Blade Magazine, and Knife World. Now in preparation are two books: Colonel Bowie's Blade - The History of a Legend in Steel, and The Alamo Story: From Early History to Current Conflicts, scheduled for November publication. He also produced Texas And Texians, a historical calendar for the Texas sesquicentennial, and Victory or Death, the pageant performed every March at the Alamo.

Not surprisingly, the historical figure with whom he identifies most closely is James Bowie. Edmondson encapsulated the situation with a perceptive and revealing comment, "There are so many wonderful legends enshrouding him, but you almost have to take a Bowie knife to cut through the mythology to find the real man." Edmondson is considered an expert on Bowie, whom he's portrayed in several films for the History and Discovery channels ("The Alamo" and "Battle of the Alamo," respectively), on the American TV series "Unsolved Mysteries," and even in a German production for Euro-Television. All were made near the Mexican border in Brackettville, Texas, the site of the still-extant set of John Wayne's film, The Alamo.

Casting Jack Edmondson as James Bowie in these later films was not only fitting but even providential, and for good reasons. Makeup can do a lot but there's no substitute for a true physical likeness: when in costume he has an almost uncanny resemblance to the historical Bowie - the features themselves differ but the facial structure corresponds. The only known life-painted portrait of Bowie bears this out. If not an actual "clone," Edmondson is arrestingly convincing in the role of Bowie: the height and build, the demeanor and bearing, carriage, conduct, presence and poise - all of these traits give the concept of reincarnation a new credential. Bowie's life-portrait gives him a rather fierce look, and though Edmondson's countenance, too, is an earnest one, his eyes reveal not severity but kindness.

He's also portrayed Bowie on several other occasions, "Mostly small parts in large productions and large parts in small productions," he said. It's a matter of record that many actors find more personal fulfillment performing before an audience than on film or TV. It's therefore no accident that Edmondson's acknowledged personal favorites among his numerous performance achievements are the Living History in-person presentations he's given at schools and historical organizations, where he has also portrayed Sam Houston and Alamo commander William Barret Travis.

While his background has no "dark secrets" in the usual sense, some of his past activities have a certain mystery that fittingly corresponds to some of the Old West's shrouded legends: on his last visit to New York, he was called as a material witness at a murder trial.

That he's now an independent historian and author gives his work a different but totally genuine and valid perspective of Western history. One investigative two-part article he wrote appeared in successive issues (January & February, 1993) of Knife World magazine. Reading almost like a Stephen King thriller, the article is absolutely riveting and assumes edge-of-your-chair "Twilight Zone" characteristics with nearly cinematic, Hitchcock-like overtones. Titled The Brass-Backed Bowie, it discusses the extraordinarily shaped and massive Bowie knife owned by California artist, blade collector and fellow Bowie historian Joseph Musso. The weapon is pictured in the article with the studio prop knife used in the Alan Ladd film, The Iron Mistress, based on the book by Paul Wellman. Though the handsome prop knife is unusually large, Musso's brass-backed Bowie is even larger: the blade itself is almost 14 inches long, making the weapon effectively a small sword.

The Knife World article offers if not "proof" then certainly some very convincing evidence that the knife was made ca.1830, very possibly by James Black in Washington, Arkansas. The initials JB appear on part of the quillon - and some believe the knife may have been owned by James Bowie himself. Conjecture may be fruitless but it's still fascinating. Though we'll never know for certain if Musso's weapon is literally a Bowie knife, there are those who share a common view about it, a common feeling. Rather singular and historically almost unique of shape, positively frightening of configuration and monstrous in its size, there is an undefinable mood about it which is, in a word, very disturbing, as though it has some hidden story to tell, if only it could speak. Inanimate, the weapon has no life of its own - but it seems to have a very distinctive and almost palpable presence. This cannot be "explained." It can only be felt.

Outsiders often have preconceptions about those from other countries and cultures - and even from other areas of their own country - and who envision the local populace from a groundlessly elitist viewpoint. Visiting Texas and getting to know some of its people will easily dispel such myths for strangers. Enlightenment, refinement, cultivation, and pride of heritage are only some of the traits that mark Texans. We usually see only the tips of icebergs. As there's more to Dimitri Tiomkin than just his music for The Alamo and more to Max Steiner than his scores for The Iron Mistress and The Last Command, there's much more to Texas than cowboy boots, Stetsons, sagebrush and chicken-fried steak. These are stereotypes that can narrow one's views and, more importantly, limit one's experience. Western treasures, embodied in its culture, traditions, historic sites and especially in its people, are many and varied for those who seek them.

An ideal blend of engaging conversationalist and considerate listener, Edmondson offered his views on some of the confusion that plagues the subject of Bowie. Inquiries of ten different scholars can net twelve different findings. Contradictions about Bowie are legion, and even the family name has two different pronounciations (BOO-ee and BOW-ee). It seems the former is the correct one, as indicated by the different phonetically written renderings of it by others in his era - before the age of mass media coverage and when standardized spelling wasn't yet the norm. The name is written in Mexican documents (wrongly spelled but phonetically right) variously as "buey" and "buy," and even as early as 1837 an Alabama law regulated the sale and use of "booey" knives.

Edmondson chose an appropriate site for our meeting: the San Jacinto monument park. The personal tour of the grounds he and his friend Stacie gave me was effectively a veritable Texas history education in microcosm, which I found even more enlightening and personally enjoyable than the Charlton Heston-narrated multi-media presentation in the monument's theatre. Edmondson showed me the spot believed to be where Santa Anna was captured.

In a voice not as identifiable as Heston's but just as dramatic and certainly more informed on the subject, Edmondson had told me about "the twin sisters" that were brought across a San Jacinto field toward the Mexican general's encampment. We learn every day: I thought he was referring to some companionship for Santa Anna (who was prone to pursuing his interest in women like an adolescent boy). Edmondson explained that The Twin Sisters were a pair of cannon Houston's men used that day to defeat Santa Anna's forces, and he gave me an informed, detailed commentary on the historical strategies, tactics, and logistics of that day's events. He also refreshed my memory about the well-known Emily Morgan tale, adding that it might be spurious. According to legend, she was a beautiful mulatto servant-girl who was "entertaining" Santa Anna in his tent when General Houston surprised the Mexican army, and in less than twenty minutes Houston's forces were victorious. Some say she was actually sent to the Mexican encampment for the very purpose of distracting Santa Anna.

The apex of San Jacinto's monument is emblematic of Western resourcefulness. Though it's an obelisk almost identical to the Washington Monument, Stacie told me the government had not allowed the San Jacinto monolith to be taller than the Washington structure. In keeping with the ruling, the obelisk erected at San Jacinto was itself no taller than the one in Washington - but Texas circumvented the restriction by placing a massive, three-dimensional Texas star atop the obelisk, surpassing the overall height of its Washington counterpart. This Texas star "finial" also distinguishes the San Jacinto Monument from Washington's "Cleopatra's Needle" structure, whose top forms a pyramid.

Edmondson had brought with him three Bowie knives, each more impressive than the other, from his collection of almost 170. Many are hand-crafted; those who are aware of what's involved in the generation and cost of such custom-made pieces know what this means. Edmondson told me it's illegal to wear these in Texas. I already knew this through my own experience with a polite but dauntingly firm Texas state trooper on the morning I visited Brackettville in June of 1995.

A dinner vignette at the nearby Monument Inn revealed something about Edmondson's character as well as his modus operandi. When the announcement came, "Table for Travis" (as in Colonel William Barret Travis), the knowing glances I got from my two hosts told me the table was for us and no-one else. It seemed an ideal combination of private joke and clever ruse for camouflage, considering that the announcement of a table "for J.R. Edmondson" might attract some attention. He also gave me a personalized copy of his book, Mr. Bowie With A Knife: A History Of The Sandbar Fight, a recounting of the now-legendary duel that set James Bowie on a path that ultimately, maybe inevitably, gave him nearly iconic status even during his own lifetime.

Some historical reports claim Bowie was a rowdy, a trouble-maker, a sot, a swindler, had shady business dealings, and that he might have been among the least admirable Alamo defenders. Others say he had a noble character; that he developed a cultivation that belied his modest beginnings; that he was kindly and pleasant with strangers who, having heard of him, approached him to make his acquaintance; that he was absolutely courtly with women; that he aided defenseless men without solicitation (a benevolent and remarkably revealing trait), and that he had that elusive quality of charisma - impossible to define, difficult to explain, hopeless to imitate, but very easy to recognize. Because he was far above us in some ways doesn't mean he had to be far above us in every aspect of general daily virtue. Like us, he had a full set of human weaknesses, and the personal frailties to which he was subject make him more, not less, of a human being. He may have been all of those things, and more - a colorful nature precludes black & white judgements. Edmondson considered this a matter worthy of thought, and he acknowledged the preference, the very understandable human tendency, for us to believe that the truest features of Bowie's real nature were shaped by his most positive attributes.

Few men would drive for five hours (each way) across Texas, from Ft.Worth to Houston, to spend time in the company of someone he's never met. J.R. Edmondson did this. Was it kindness of spirit and generosity of time? - or an investigative character and an adventurous nature? It might have been both. In either case, Edmondson's consideration and treatment of others gives a new dimension to the concept of Western hospitality and he's living proof that it exists.

His sense of humor was exemplified when he said, "I'll go for help" if some crisis arose. By day's end, I had concluded that you don't need any help when you're in the company of Jack Edmondson.

JEFFREY DANE is a widely-published New York-based historian, researcher and author. He's been a Contributing Editor to several publications including Heritage, Austrian Culture, and The Alamo Journal. His most recent book, Beethoven's Piano, was published by New York's Museum of the American Piano. He's contributed to several volumes including a college texbook, and to On The Crockett Trail by Rod Timanus (publication pending). He's written on subjects ranging from Goethe to George Washington, antiques, travel, historic structures, essays on the relationships between the independent and academic scholar, and pieces about the practical and conceptual difficulties authors face today.

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