Rezin Bowie

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Rezin Pleasant Bowie
Rezin P. Bowie.png
Born 8 September 1793
near Gallatin, Sumner County, Tennessee, USA
Died 17 January 1841
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
Nationality Anglo-American
Occupation adventurer, treasure-hunter, smuggler, slave-trader, land-speculator, inventor, cattle-man, sugar-planter

Rezin Pleasant Bowie (September 8, 1793 – January 17, 1841) was an American inventor and designer of the Bowie knife. He also served three terms in the Louisiana House of Representatives.[1]

With his brother James, Bowie smuggled slaves and worked as a land speculator. The brothers set up the first steam mill in Louisiana to be used for grinding sugar cane. Bowie took credit for inventing the Bowie knife, which came to prominence when used by James in the Sandbar Fight in 1827. After James moved to Texas, Rezin accompanied him on an expedition to find the Lost San Saba Mine. They did not find the mine, but their adventures in fending off a much larger Indian raiding party became widely known.

In his later years Bowie suffered from poor eyesight. He lived with his wife and daughters on a plantation in Louisiana.

Early years[edit]

Rezin Bowie was born September 8, 1793, near Gallatin, Tennessee,[2] one of ten children born to Rezin Bowie and Elve Ap-Catesby Jones.[3] Bowie was one of twins, with brother Rhesa.[2] His father had been injured while fighting in the American Revolution, and, in 1782, married the young woman who had nursed him back to health. The Bowies moved a great deal, first settling in Georgia, where they had six children, and then moving to Tennessee.[3] The year after Bowie's birth, the family moved to Logan County, Kentucky.[2] By 1796, his father owned 8 slaves, 7 horses, 11 head of cattle, and 1 stud horse. The following year the family acquired 200 acres (80 ha) along the Red River. In 1800, Rezin Bowie sold his property and the family spent two years in Missouri. They moved to Spanish Louisiana in 1802, settling on the Bushley Bayou in Rapides Parish.[3]

The Bowie family moved again in 1809, settling on Bayou Teche in Louisiana before finding a permanent home in Opelousas, in St. Landry Parish, in 1812.[4] Each of their homes was on the frontier, and even as a small child Bowie was expected to help clear the land and plant crops. He and his siblings were educated at home, and learned to read and write in English. With his younger brother James, Bowie learned to speak, read, and write Spanish and French fluently.[5] The children were also taught how to survive on the frontier, as well as how to fish and run a farm and plantation.[6]

Bowie converted to Roman Catholicism in 1814 and married Margaret Nevil in the St. Landry Parish Catholic Church on September 15, 1814. Later that year he and James enlisted in the Louisiana militia in response to Andrew Jackson's plea for volunteers to fight the British. The War of 1812 ended on December 24, 1814 with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, and the Bowie brothers arrived in New Orleans too late to participate in the fighting.[7] Bowie later joined the Avoyelles Battalion, and was commissioned a captain of the Mounted Rifles in 1825, later becoming a colonel.[2]

Land speculator[edit]

Shortly before Bowie's father died in 1818 or 1819 he gave Bowie and his brother James each 10 servants, horses, and cattle. For the next seven years the brothers worked together to develop several large estates in Lafourche Parish and Opelousas Parish.[8] Louisiana was gaining population rapidly, and the brothers wished to take advantage of rising land prices by speculating in land but did not have the capital required to buy large tracts.[9] To raise money they entered into partnership with pirate Jean Lafitte in 1818. The United States had previously outlawed the importation of slaves, and, to encourage citizens to report the unlawful activity, most southern states allowed anyone who informed on a slave trader to receive half of what the imported slaves would earnhow at auction. They made three trips to Lafitte's compound on Galveston Island, where they bought smuggled slaves, then brought69 the slaves directly to a customhouse and informed on himself. The customs officers offered the slaves for auction, and the Bowies would buy them back. Due to the state laws, they would receive half of the price paid. They could then legally transport the slaves and resell them in New Orleans or areas further up the Mississippi River.[10][11] The brothers continued this scheme until they had collected $65,000, then began speculating in land.[11][12]

In 1825, the two brothers joined with their younger brother Stephen to buy Acadia, a plantation near Thibodaux. Within two years they had set up the first steam mill in Louisiana to be used for grinding sugar cane.[8] The plantation became known as a "model estate", but on February 12, 1831 they sold it and 65 slaves for $90,000. With their profits, Bowie and James bought a plantation in Arkansas.[8] In this time period Bowie served in the Louisiana legislature three times.[2]

Bowie knife[edit]

One afternoon Rezin was hunting and killed a rabbit. He was going to skin his rabbit when he hit a bone, his hand slid down and badly cut his fingers. Inspired to prevent reoccurrence he subsequently designed what became known as the Bowie knife.[13] This knife had a blade nine and a quarter inches long and one and one-half inches wide.[14]

The following year, on September 19, 1827, James Bowie and Major Norris Wright attended a duel on a sandbar outside of Natchez, Mississippi, supporting opposing sides. The duel was resolved with a handshake,[15][16] but other members of the groups, who had various reasons for disliking each other, began fighting. James Bowie suffered several serious injuries, and was repeatedly shot and stabbed, but managed to pull his knife and use it to disembowel Wright, who died instantly.[17][18]

Newspapers picked up the story, which became known as the Sandbar Fight, and Bowie's fighting prowess and his knife were described in detail.[19] There is disagreement among scholars as to whether the knife used in this fight was the same kind of knife now known as a Bowie knife. Many different accounts exist of who designed and built the first Bowie knife. Some claim that James Bowie designed it and others attribute the design to noted knifemakers of the time.[20] However, in a letter to The Planter's Advocate, Bowie claimed to have invented the knife,[21] and many Bowie family members and "most authorities on the Bowie knife tend to believe it was invented by" Bowie.[22] His grandchildren, however, claimed that Bowie merely supervised his blacksmith who created the knife.[23]

After the Sandbar Fight, and subsequent battles in which James Bowie successfully used his knife, it became very popular. Many craftsman and manufacturers made their own versions of the knife, and many major cities of the Southwest had "Bowie knife schools", which taught "the art of cut, thrust, and parry."[24] His fame, and that of his knife, spread to Britain, and by the early 1830s many British knife manufacturers were producing Bowie knives, shipping many of them to the United States for sale.[25] The design of the knife continued to evolve, and it is generally agreed to have a blade 8.25 inches long and 1.25 inches wide, with a curved point. It had a "sharp false edge cut from both sides" and a cross-guard to protect the user's hands.[26]

Woodcut illustrating Rezin Bowie's 1833 account of an 1831 Indian fight in Texas appearing in the Saturday Evening Post and Atkinson's Casket.

Lost San Saba Mine[edit]

James Bowie's 1831 report of Indian fight near San Saba from Brown's History of Texas 1892

James Bowie moved to Texas in 1830 and became fascinated with the story of the "lost" Los Almagres Mine, said to be west of San Antonio near the ruin of Santa Cruz de San Sabá Mission.[14] The mine had been operated by the local Indians before being seized by the Spanish. After Mexico won independence from Spain, government interest in the mines waned. A number of hostile Indian tribes roamed the area, including Comanche, Lipan Apache, and Karankawa, and without government troops to keep the tribes at bay, mining ceased. It was believed that after the Mexican citizens left the area, the Lipan Apaches took over the mines.[27]

On November 2, 1831, Bowie accompanied his brother and nine others on a search for San Saba. Six miles (ten kilometers) from their goal the group realized that they were being followed by a large Indian raiding party and stopped to negotiate. The attempts at parley failed, and Bowie and his group were forced to fight for their lives for the next thirteen hours. When the Indians finally retreated Bowie had reportedly lost only one man, while over forty Indians had been killed and thirty more wounded.[12][14][28]

In 1832, Bowie began having trouble with his vision. Accompanied by his brother James, he travelled to New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. to seek medical treatment. While in Philadelphia, the publisher of the Saturday Evening Post persuaded Bowie to write an account of the San Saba fight, which was reprinted in 1833 in the book Atkinson's Casket or Gems of Literature, Wit and Sentiment.[2]

Later years[edit]

Rezin Bowie's account of an Indian fight in Texas in 1831 [with 1833 woodcut illustration].

After returning home, Bowie and his family moved to a plantation in Iberville Parish. While there, Bowie, along with General John Wilson, acquired the papers of Captain Vicente Sebastian Pintado, the royal surveyor for the Spanish government. Pintado had kept his surveys and records of deeds and grants in the Louisiana Territory as his personal property and refused to sell them to the United States. After Pintado's death, his widow sold the papers to Bowie and Wilson for $24,500 (the United States declined to pay the high price). Bowie wanted the papers to help him in his land speculation dealings, but it is unknown whether he derived any benefits from them.[2]

Bowie died in New Orleans on January 17, 1841, leaving his wife and three daughters. He was originally buried in the San Gabriel Catholic Church cemetery, but in the 1850s his body was disinterred and reburied at St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery in Port Gibson, Mississippi, the home of his daughter Elve.[2]


  1. ^ Rezin Pleasant Bowie
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Williamson, William R., Rezin P. Bowie, Handbook of Texas, retrieved 2007-10-15 
  3. ^ a b c Hopewell (1994), pp. 2–3.
    Groneman (1990), p. 19.
    Edmondson (2000), p. 86.
  4. ^ Hopewell (1994), p. 4.
  5. ^ Hopewell (1994), pp. 5–6.
  6. ^ Hopewell (1994), p. 7.
  7. ^ Edmondson (2000), p. 88.
  8. ^ a b c Hopewell (1994), p. 11.
  9. ^ Hopthenewell (1994), p. 18.
  10. ^ Hopewell (1994), p. by19.
  11. ^ a b Edmondson (2000), p. 91.
  12. ^ a b Peatfield et al. (1889), p. 175.
  13. ^ Edmondson (2000), pp. 84–85.
  14. ^ a b c Kennedy (1841), pp. 122–128.
  15. ^ Hopewell (1994), pp. 28, 30.
  16. ^ Edmondson (2000), pp. 97–98.
  17. ^ Hopewell (1994), pp. 31–32.
  18. ^ Edmondson (2000), pp. 99–101.
  19. ^ Hopewell (1994), pp.33–34.
  20. ^ Hopewell (1994), pp. 35–36.
  21. ^ Hopewell (1994), p. 41.
  22. ^ Hopewell (1994), pp. 37, 39.
  23. ^ Edmondson (2000), p. 123
  24. ^ Hopewell (1994), p. 55.
  25. ^ Hopewell (1994), p. 56. Edmondson (2000), p. 122.
  26. ^ Hopewell (1994), pp. 40, 42.
  27. ^ Hopewell (1994), p. 172.
  28. ^ Edmondson (2000), p. 109.