1836 Graveley & Wreaks “Sioux Scalper” Bowie with Original Sheath

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One of a kind 1836 Graveley and Wreaks “Sioux Scalper” Bowie Knife with original Sheath.

Graveley & Wreaks, two renowned merchants, resided and operated in the affluent New York City area during the 1800s. They commissioned exquisite Bowie Knives from the finest cutlers in Sheffield, England and provided them to customers across the United States. Records from New York City Directories indicate that the esteemed collaboration of John Graveley and Charles Wreaks thrived for only three years - 1836 to 1838 - at the prestigious Astor House on the corner of Broadway and Barclay Streets. With this prominent location and the backing of John Jacob Astor, it is evident that their clientele consisted of the upper echelon, catering to their refined tastes with top-of-the-line merchandise.

According to popular perception, this “Sioux Scalper" Bowie may not fit the typical description of a Bowie knife. This misconception arises from the conventional image of a long, clip point blade (with the front third of the blade "clipped" off) and a cross guard. However, during that time period, a wide range of knives were labelled as Bowies - including straight or concave clip points, spear points, and drop points, as well as more basic butcher knives. Some featured cross guards, while others did not; some were ornate, while others appeared rugged. Handles were made from various materials and came in different shapes, such as the infamous "coffin handle" made by Graveley & Wreaks - a fitting term for a knife responsible for taking many lives.

According to the New York City directory, Charles Wreaks was a merchant at 82 William Street in 1833. He then became an importer at 7 Platt Street in 1834 or 1835. It is noted that John Graveley moved to New York in April 1836 and resided at Number 1 Park Place until 1838, which was one street north of Barclay. Wreaks and Graveley formed a partnership in 1836, but by 1839, their names were no longer listed in the New York City directory.

In April 1836, John Graveley arrived in New York City at the age of 31 after sailing from Liverpool, England. Evidence suggests that this was not his first trip to the United States, as another man with the same name and birth year made a similar journey in September 1828. Interestingly, the latter also traveled to England and returned to New York City in September 1846.

According to additional research, Charles Wreaks was born in Sheffield, England on April 4, 1804 to Joseph and Judith Wreaks. He immigrated to the United States from Liverpool in 1828 and joined his father's merchant business as a manufacturer of tools such as cutler's grinding wheels, saws, and knives. Charles' siblings also moved to the US, with his brother Richard passing away in New Orleans in 1842 and his older brother Henry in New York City in 1843. It is likely that Richard served as an agent for the company, as he too resided at 7 Platt Street and listed his occupation as "agent." Records show that Charles became a naturalized American citizen on April 9, 1844 at the Superior Court of New York County. The Sheffield Independent reported on April 2, 1867 that Charles Wreaks died in New York City on March 11, 1867 due to "ossification of the heart”.

The young men were well aware about the importance of effective advertising and published ads in the New York Morning Post on April 16, 1836 and May 2, 1836; and in the New York Morning Courier on May 7, 1836, August 29, 1836, and lastly on November 28, 1838. The Graveley & Wreaks advertisement, featured in the New York Herald on May 23, 1836, began with: “New Cutlery Establishment No. 9 Astor House, New York” The presentation was unambiguous, describing the products as "Elegant Bowie & Hunting Knives." Two months later, on August 29, 1836 another ad in the same newspaper expanded the list of products to also include "Arkansas, Texas and Hunter knives… Butcher, Cartouche and Scalping Knives."

According to Bill Worthen, Historic Arkansas Museum, when a visitor walked into the Graveley & Wreaks showroom in 1836, he would see a knife marked “Arkansas toothpick” on the blade of a weapon that had no crossguard, sported a coffin-shaped handle.  Other knives in the establishment featured other slogans; these were advertised as “Bowie,” “Texas” and “Hunters” knives.

The two businessmen saw such success that they decided to broaden their reach beyond the northeast, targeting regions where the Bowie Knife had an even greater fan base. In January 1837, they published an ad in the Nashville Republican, informing readers that one of their partners, currently in England, had secured a large and unique selection of products for their New York cutlery establishment. These goods, the ad stated, would be available for the upcoming spring trade and included a diverse range of "HUNTING & BOWIE KNIVES" that could be beautifully mounted in a new style. Additional items such as knives, razors, shears, and pistols were included in the offering. It is likely that Charles Wreaks, who returned from England on the ship Roscoe on March 27, 1837, was the partner in England. The advertisements were not limited to Nashville but also appeared in Louisville, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, targeting the thriving Ohio River trade.

Sales were strong, but a storm soon arrived, proving fatal for the business. Both men were helpless against the "Bank Panic of 1837" which led many businesses to shutter. Yet, the popularity of the Bowie knife posed a more alarming threat to the weapon entrepreneurs. Its rise in popularity, following the legend of Jim Bowie and his knife at the Alamo in 1836, led to not only an increase in the number of these weapons, but also their use in vicious murders and duels among all social classes - from criminals to gentlemen.

In January 1838, due to public concern and legal outcry, the state of Tennessee - which was not known for its refinement - enacted "An Act to Restrict the Sale and Use of Bowie Knives and Arkansas Toothpicks in this State." Similar laws were passed in Alabama and Mississippi around the same time, though not as stringent as those in the northern state. These laws limited the marketing and purchasing of Bowie Knives, Arkansas Toothpicks, and Dirks.

During the late 1830s, the demand for Bowie knives remained strong in frontier states such as Arkansas, Louisiana, and the Republic of Texas. However, there was a significant decrease in market prices, with some high-end Bowie knives valued at double digits in 1837 selling for as little as $1.50 in 1838.

In an effort to make up for the decrease in Bowie knife sales, Graveley & Wreaks expanded their inventory. On April 8, 1838, they published an announcement in the New York Morning Herald, featuring products from renowned English brands such as Josh. Rodgers & Son, Crooke & Sons, and Wostenholm. While pocket knives, cork screws, cheese scoops, and Champagne openers were mentioned, there was no reference to Bowie knives.

On the 28th of November 1838, Graveley & Wreaks declared the termination of their partnership, citing mutual agreement, stating "The firm of GRAVELEY & WREAKS, which has been in existence heretofore, is now dissolved."

Bowie knives stamped Graveley & Wreaks were only made from 1835 to 1837.  Reading the advertisements of the period indicate that a great variety were made but it is unclear as to how many.

According to Dr. Jim Batson, a well-known authority on Bowie knives, evidence suggests that John Jacob Astor was a major buyer of Graveley & Wreaks knives. This is supported by the fact that both Charles Wreaks and John Graveley were tenants of Astor in the Astor House. Astor, who founded the American Fur Company in 1808, also established the Pacific Fur Company and the Southwest Fur Company as subsidiaries.

An influential figure in the fur trading industry for Astor was Auguste Pierre Chouteau, one of the Chouteau family members, who created trading outposts in what is now Oklahoma. A.P. Chouteau was one of the initial young men to be appointed to West Point by Thomas Jefferson and graduated in 1806 as an ensign in the United States Infantry. After briefly serving as aide-de-camp for General James Wilkinson, A.P. led a trading expedition up the Missouri River, accompanied by a military unit under Nathaniel Pryor. This expedition, known as the Chouteau-Pryor expedition, was a direct result of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

A.P. resigned from the Army in 1807, but during the War of 1812, served as captain of the territorial militia. According to Jim Batson, Auguste Pierre Chouteau likely supplied designs for fur-trade knives to Astor, who then gave them to Graveley and Wreaks. These knives were then executed by cutlery firms in Sheffield, England. With a West Point education in engineering, designing knives would have been well within A.P.'s capabilities. Known as the "Fur Titan," Astor provided Indian trade goods to August Pierre Chouteau at his trading post at the Three Forks of the Arkansas River. These supplies were transported from St. Louis via the Missouri and Osage Rivers and by pack trains and wagons to the post, located above Fort Gibson in Oklahoma. In 1824, the American frontier was guarded by the fort located in what eventually became known as Indian Territory. This military post, known as Fort Gibson, was one of the westernmost forts in the United States and played a critical role in protecting the southwestern border of the Louisiana Purchase. On December 25, 1838, the fort's relationship with A.P. came to an end with the death of Auguste Pierre Chouteau.

John Jacob Astor and the Chouteau family had an extensive relationship. In 1828, they collaborated to build a famous fur trade post at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. The post, known as Fort Union Trading Post, was requested by the Assiniboine tribe and became the most profitable fur trade post on the Upper Missouri. By 1834, Pierre Chouteau, Jr. and his company had acquired all Missouri River interests of the American Fur Company.

During their brief business partnership, Graveley and Wreaks curated a selection of knives from esteemed Sheffield blade-makers. One particular knife bears the inscription "Manufactured by W & S Butcher for Graveley & Wreaks, New York" while another has a crown, the word "ALPHA", and the words "GRAVELEY & WREAKS" and "NEW YORK". The most commonly seen marking reads "GRAVELEY & WREAKS" over the words "NEW YORK". These markings were applied by craftsmen during the forging process, prior to heat treatment, indicating that many of the knives were custom-made.

The Wreaks family was connected to Jonathan Crooke, a renowned blade maker in Sheffield. By 1827, the Jonathan Crookes Company had become Jonathan Crookes & Son. An advertisement for the company mentioned that they imported knives from Crooke, Rogers, and Wostenholm. It is worth noting that not all knives marked as being associated with Graveley & Wreaks were actually made in England. Some were made in the United States, but the exact percentage of American-made knives offered by the company is unknown. It is possible that the more elaborate a Graveley & Wreaks knife is, the more likely it was made in England. Therefore, it is possible that a larger number of knives produced for the fur trade in the United States may have prioritized strength and weight over style and appearance.

Aside from clients in the northeast, Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky, and other states, Graveley & Wreaks also had a prominent customer – the United States Army. From 1815 to 1832, the Army lacked a formal mounted unit, which was detrimental during the westward expansion. However, on June 15, 1832, the Army established the United States Mounted Ranger Battalion. This unit played a crucial role in conflicts with various Indian bands, including the Comanche and Wichita, across Illinois and Arkansas. Despite its disbandment after only a year, Congress had already approved the creation of a mounted regiment, resulting in the formation of the United States Regiment of Dragoons, later renamed as the First Regiment of Dragoons. Then, on May 23, 1836, Congress authorized a Second Regiment of Dragoons to join the Army. The First Regiment of Dragoons was responsible for protecting the southwest border of the frontier in Arkansas, while the Second Regiment of Dragoons was sent to the Seminole War in Florida.

In conclusion, this Bowie is a remarkable and historically significant piece. Its design and construction, featuring the traditional "Plains Indian" bead work associated with the Sioux Tribe, reflects the iconic Fur Trade of the American Mid West prior to the Civil War. The blade, crafted of a high-quality steel, measures 10 inches in length, while the handle and cross guard measure 5 inches. Made of wood and adorned with leather, cloth, and beads, the handle remains in excellent condition, a testament to the original owner's appreciation for the craftsmanship. On the butt of the handle remains a hand crafted, flattened metal cap. Overall an incredible piece ready for further research! 

Collections: All Items, Americana, Edged Weapons, Pre World War One, United States Tags: Americana, Edged Weapons, Pre WWI, USA