Backstory and Context
Born in 1800 in New Jersey, James Black ran away to Philadelphia at the age of 8, where became a silver-plating apprentice. After a brief time in Louisiana, Black moved to Washington in 1823, and set up a partnership with local blacksmith William Shaw. Their partnership deteriorated over Shaw’s disapproval of Black’s marriage to his daughter, Anne. She died a few years later.
Later, while recovering from sickness, Black was severely beaten in his home by Shaw, an attack that cost him most of his eyesight. After leaving the region to seek medical help for his blindness, Black lost custody of his five children to Shaw, who also seized and sold his property. Now officially a pauper, Black was taken in by the family of Dr. Isaac Newton Jones in 1841. Full blindness and dementia effected Black until his death in the home of Jones’s son, future Arkansas Governor Daniel Webster Jones, in 1872.
As early as 1841, James Black had been attributed with forging the famous knife for Jim Bowie. Regardless of the various other origin stories, it was Black’s supposed design on which most Bowie knives are based on. James Black would entertain locals by telling stories of the early frontier in Washington. In 1870, he tried to recount the way he made the “Bowie Knife” to Daniel W. Jones. He could not remember and supposedly rubbed his forehead with such ferocity as to draw blood while screaming “My God! My God! It has all gone from me!” He went to his grave with his knife making method.