The Riverview RV Park in Vidalia, Louisiana was packed to capacity last Saturday. In addition to the crowd of weekend campers, a British car show had attracted a throng of onlookers. They gawked at the shiny automobiles, seemingly unaware that in the back of the park, along the sandy banks of the Mississippi River, the ghost of one of America’s finest knife fighters was being resurrected.
Jim Bowie died at the Alamo, with a pistol in one hand and his famous Bowie knife in the other. How many member of the Mexican army he slayed before he was killed, no one knows. When the Mexican general Santa Anna heard of his capture, he ordered his body buried, saying that Bowie was too brave a man to be burned like a dog on the funeral pyre; he later changed his mind.
It was in Vidalia, where Bowie first garnered fame. In the legendary Sandbar Duel, he used his Bowie Knife to kill one of his attackers and slice off the forearm of another. Newspapers covered the story, with lurid details of Bowie’s incredible fighting prowess, and a hero of the frontier was born. His Bowie knife, distinctive because of its long, curvaceous blade, grew a reputation of its own.
Every September in Vidalia, population 4,553, they celebrate the legacy of Bowie with the annual Jim Bowie Festival. When I arrived last Saturday, it was just in time to catch the awards ceremony of the Little Mr. Wee Bowie Contest. A dozen or so aspiring Jim Bowies, between the ages of 3 and 6, dressed up in their burliest frontier gear. They wore chaps and cowboy hats and Ms. Vidalia, replete in her gown and tiara, crowned winners in each category.
This was only a warm-up for the main source of entertainment: a theatrical reenactment of the Sandbar Duel by the Natchez Little Theater. With a corn dog in one hand and an oversized jug of sweet tea in the other, I watched in awe as the ghost of Bowie came alive in front of my eyes. With the grace of a ballerina, Bowie dodged bullets and swords before slicing and knifing his foes into pieces. He was shot twice and stabbed once and ended the fight sprawled on the ground.
After the reenactment, attendees were serenaded by musical numbers from actors dressed as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I bought a five-dollar frontiersman hat and sat on the riverside bathing in the warm autumn sun. On the other side of the river sat Natchez, Mississippi, full of regal estates and haunted plantations, relics from the Old South. But in Vidalia, history was chronicled with little flair except for the blade of a knife. Bowie, now dead and buried for 164 years, would appreciate it that way.
Check out the video below for video footage from the Jim Bowie Festival in Vidalia,