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    Description

    James K. Polk and Texas: Exciting Pair of Mexican War Sheathed Bowie Knives with Impeccable Provenance. We are pleased to offer two knives that are both historically significant and which have a story to tell. The first knife caught our attention by virtue of the hand-painted slogan on the leather sheath: "Polk & Texas". The inscription coincides with the presidential campaign of 1844, pitting Whig candidate Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson's protégé, James K. Polk, known as "The Young Hickory". There was great support for annexing Texas as a slave state. In late 1843, Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay, assuming they would be their party's nominees, met privately and negotiated a mutual pact; namely, that neither would advocate for Texas statehood in the coming campaign. Plans went awry when dark horse James K. Polk was nominated by the Democrats. When Clay's son gave him the news, the elder statesman reportedly exclaimed, in exasperation, "Defeated again!" Accurately gauging public sentiment, Polk and the Democrats argued for the annexation of Texas, which turned out to be a winning strategy. The knife measures 14.75" long. It is accompanied by a similar knife, of Mexican origin, which is 12.25" long, housed in its original brass & leather sheath. This is the only pair of documented Mexican War Bowies known.

    What is the connection between the two? The accompanying provenance and research material, which is substantial, traces the ownership of the Polk knife to Lewis H. Wunder (1823-1897) of Reading, Pennsylvania. When the Mexican War broke out and calls for volunteers were issued, Wunder responded by enlisting in Co. A, 2nd Pennsylvania Volunteers. He rose to the rank of Sergeant. It is believed he acquired the Mexican knife as war booty. In 1844, he embellished the sheaf of his personal knife with the slogan "Polk & Texas", as a demonstration of his political allegiance. On a personal note, Wunder was married and the father of five children, four of whom survived childhood. He initially worked as a merchant, likely in a dry goods store and later as a railroad ticket agent.

    The knives were found in Western New York, acquired by a picker and consigned to an antiques dealer who quickly found a good home for them for a price way beyond the modest expectations of the picker. Efforts to gain more information on their origin bore fruit with the disclosure that they had belonged to Lewis H. Wunder of Reading, Pennsylvania. In the years that followed, efforts were made to authenticate the items and glean historical background and context. The painted inscription on the sheath was analyzed to verify its 19th century origin, the knife was examined by a noted weapons expert, military records were obtained, census records examined and genealogies assembled. The results of this research are housed in the accompanying binder, all of which support the bona fides of these wonderful artifacts which reflect events that led to Texas statehood. It also includes a signed, 4-page letter of provenance dated 2003 from the original purchaser.

    The extended description, available online, includes highly-detailed and technical descriptions of both knives.


    More Information: The Polk & Texas Bowie knife was made from a cut-down American sword during the time when all available arms were hurriedly being assembled at the outbreak of the Mexican War. The knife is 14 7/8" overall, with a 9 7/8" clip blade that has a 1" false edge. The clip blade is 1/4" thick, 1 5/16" wide at the ricasso and tapers to 1/8" thick and 1 1/16" width near the tip. There are 5/8" fullers on both sides of the blade. The engraving patterns are difficult to make out, but one image is definitely the military motif of a cannon. The entire blade is in untouched condition with an aged dark brown/black patina. The blade shows spots of deep pitting, previous sharpening and several small nicks to the blade edge. The brass hilt with dark patina is 3/32" thick, rounded at the top, and tapers slightly to a square bottom. The brass ferrule with dark patina is 7/16" wide with two grooves. The 4 7/8" grip is carved ebony in a ribbed rope pattern. The brass pommel cap with dark patina is a hooded design with thin border. The blade tang extends through the hilt and pommel cap and is peened at the end. There is an additional piece of brass between the pommel cap and the peened tang. There are two areas of surface loss to the ebony grip at the pommel cap and ferrule apparently caused when the end of the knife was used as a hammer (there is one small but deep indentation on the pommel cap), as well as some hairline cracks. The original sheath is also in untouched condition. It is 10 1/8" long, 2" wide, made by hand stitching two pieces of leather together and has the same upswept design as the blade. The 5/8" brass frog button was inserted through the sheath leather and reinforced with leather patches, and hand-sewn on both the inside and outside of the sheath. The outside of the sheath is marked in period burnt orange paint "Polk & Texas" in 1/2" high block letters, nicely done. There are also two olive branch designs and half-asterisk designs at either end of the front panel. The borders on both sides, as well as the sheath edges, are also decorated with burnt orange paint.

    This Mexican knife, also being a cut-down sword like the Polk & Texas knife, is of the same period, age and condition, and obtained from the same family estate as the Polk & Texas knife. It is 12 3/8" overall, with a 7 3/4" blade that has an 1 1/4" tapering false edge on the top of the blade. The straight blade is 5/16" thick at the hilt, tapers to 3/16" near the tip, is 1 3/16" wide at the ricasso and has 7/8" wide fullers on both sides. There are traces of hand engraving on both sides and etched lettering on both sides as well. One side has the word "Libertad" [Liberty] in large block lettering, which is difficult to read, but can be made out in the proper lighting and angle. The other side also has block lettering, en suite; however, these letters are much more difficult to decipher. Some of the letters may have been cut off when the sword was converted into a knife. The entire blade is in untouched condition with pitting and a dark grey/brown rust patina overall. The 1/8" thick iron crossguard shows it was once a knuckle bow of a sword, and the top and bottom edges are rough, showing that the crossguard quillons were simple bent back and forth until they were broken off, not cut off, as would be expected. The grip is of typical sword shape & size and has an iron ferrule with four hand-engraved decorative grooves. There is a small rectangular notch on the underside that originally held the end of the knuckle bow to the pommel. This also was simply broken off, rather than cut off. The grip is made from scalloped carved bone with a serpentine profile with eight carved grooves. There is a double line border with a leaf design carved near the pommel cap. The entire bone grip is aged yellow with patina with two age cracks extending the entire length of each side. There is one large chip on the underside near where the knuckle bow was removed, as evidence of hard use. There are also several smaller chips near the edge of the bird's head pommel. The blade tang extends through the pommel cap and is peened over a small round raised lip at the end. The sheath fits the knife like a glove, cut from the original sword sheath. The 5 1/4" metal tip of the sheath appears to be brass with a deep dark patina. The tip end of the sheath is lighter in color than the deep dark patina of the other end, and shows cleaning marks. Since there are remnants of red paint near the brass staple-like fasteners, it appears that someone at some time partially cleaned the sheath tip in removing the red coating, with just a few traces remaining. The leather is old and aged and is original to the sword tip. There is a 3/4" split on the top of the leather, at the hilt end.


    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    February, 2021
    27th-28th Saturday-Sunday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 0
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
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