Bowie, Rezin Pleasant (1793–1841)

By: William R. Williamson

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: August 1, 1995

Rezin P. Bowie, son of Reason (or Rezin) and Elve Ap-Catesby (Jones or Johns) Bowie, was born on September 8, 1793, on a farm one mile west of Gallatin, Sumner County, Tennessee. In 1909 the standing chimney was the only testimony that remained of the Bowie cabin. Neither Rezin P. nor his brother James Bowie, of Alamo fame, was born at Elliott's Springs, Tennessee, as some sources claim. In 1794 Reason Bowie moved his family to a farm he acquired by grant on Terrapin Creek in Logan County, Kentucky. There the family farmed, operated a gristmill, and likely distilled bourbon whisky. The Logan County property was sold in 1800. After a short stay in Livingston County, Kentucky, the family moved to the Spanish-held District of New Madrid, now in Missouri, and remained until 1802. That year they sold the Missouri property and established themselves in the future Catahoula Parish, Louisiana. Reason Bowie, according to Rezin's brother John J., fled "the refinements of civilization" and "retired to wilder regions, where he could enjoy those sports and stirring adventures peculiar to a frontier life." The Catahoula region was wild country, and the Bowie boys, especially Rezin and Jim, gloried in the life. They acquired the survival skills of an Indian and developed expertise in use of weapons. The Bowies lived on Bushley Creek; Reason's twin brother Rhesa and brother David developed land grants nearby. The Bowies' first economic endeavor was a whiskey still that garnered needed cash and trade until it was abandoned in favor of cotton cultivation. Reason had some twenty slaves, more than any other man in the Catahoula area. In 1809 the family moved to the Atakapa country of southeastern Louisiana. Rezin was sixteen, James thirteen, and Stephen twelve. They settled on a 640-acre property, Bowie's Woods, purchased from John Grecian years before on the Vermilion River. The family's last move was to St. Landry Parish, where Reason purchased a large tract of land, a portion of which is in Opelousas today. There the Bowies engaged in land speculation, farming, lumbering, sawmilling, and the slave trade.

Rezin Bowie married Margaret Nevil (Nevill, Neville) on September 15, 1814, at St. Landry's Catholic Church in Opelousas. At this time he adopted Catholicism and chose the name James for the ceremony. The name "James Rezin Bowie" in the church records has been the source of some confusion. War of 1812 rolls list Rezin and James as privates and volunteers in the Second Division Consolidated. The Second Division was composed of the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth regiments, which represented Avoyelles, Rapides, Natchitoches, Catahoula, and Ouachita parishes in 1814 and 1815. Bowie family records state that Rezin and James were en route to the battle of New Orleans and were bitterly disappointed that it ended before they arrived. Rezin was commissioned captain of the Mounted Rifles in the Avoyelles Battalion in 1825 and later became a colonel. The Bowie brothers were involved for a time with the pirate Jean Laffite in the illegal importation and sale of slaves in Louisiana. In 1852, John J. Bowie described the operation: "James, Rezin and myself fitted out some small boats at the mouth of the Calcasieu and went into the trade on shares. We first purchased forty negroes from Laffite at the rate of one dollar per pound, or an average of $140 for each negro; we brought them into the limits of the United States, delivered them to a custom house officer, and became the informers ourselves; the law gave the informer half of the value of the negroes, which we put up and sold by the United States Marshall, and we became the purchasers of the negros, which entitled us to sell them within the United States. We continued to follow this business until we made $65,000, when we quit and soon spent all our earnings." Laffite delivered slaves from Galveston Island by ship to the river mouths. The bayou waterways, at the time, allowed transportation from the Calcasieu River into Rapides Parish. Another route was to deliver the slaves to Bowie Island in Vermilion Bay, where they were received and brought up the Vermilion River and then overland to St. Landry. Both Rezin and James Bowie moved north up Bayou Boeuf from Opelousas and acquired property in St. Landry, Avoyelles, and Rapides parishes. Land speculation in Louisiana properties and land titles became their occupation. Both acquired numerous holdings in various areas and became well established and successful in their endeavors. Their young brother Stephen bought property and farmed in Avoyelles.

Rezin Bowie was best known in the nineteenth century, perhaps in this, as the inventor of the famous Bowie knife. His brother James brought fame to himself and notoriety to the knife when he killed Maj. Norris Wright with it in the noted Sandbar Fight on September 19, 1827. In 1838 Rezin wrote concerning the Bowie knife, "The improvement in its fabrication, and the state of perfection which it has since acquired from experienced cutlers was not brought about through my agency." Rezin's actions belie his words, however, for he had a number of superior Bowie knives made by experienced cutlers that he carried himself and gave to friends. Several of these have been located and documented. Were it not for Rezin's continuing interest and pride, precious little would be known concerning the origin, features, and appearance of the first Bowie knives.

With his brothers James and Stephen, Rezin established Arcadia, a sugar plantation of some 1,800 acres near the town of Thibodaux (Terrebonne Parish). There the Bowies established the first steam-powered sugar mill in Louisiana. Rezin was elected to the Louisiana legislature three times. On February 12, 1831, the Bowie brothers sold Arcadia and other holdings to investors from Natchez for $90,000.

By 1830, James Bowie had moved to Texas. He soon became interested in the "lost" Los Almagres Mine, said to be near the Santa Cruz de San Sabá Mission ruin west of San Antonio. James obtained permission from Mexican authorities for an expedition into Indian country. Rezin rode in from Louisiana, and on November 2, 1831, James, Rezin, and nine others left San Antonio. On the nineteenth, learning that a large Indian war party was following them, they camped in an oak grove six miles from the ruin. Rezin Bowie and David Buchanan sought to compromise with the Indians, but they were fired upon. A thirteen-hour fight known as the San Saba Indian fight ensued. The Indians finally retreated, and the party returned to San Antonio. In 1832 Rezin and James traveled to New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. Rezin was seeking expert medical treatment for his eyes. In Philadelphia Samuel C. Atkinson, publisher of the Saturday Evening Post newspaper induced Rezin to write an account of the San Saba battle. "An Indian Fight" was reprinted in a book entitled Atkinson's Casket or Gems of Literature, Wit and Sentiment in 1833. Rezin's version, the only one in public print, became the only widely read account of the subject.

Following the sale of Arcadia, Bowie and his wife moved for the last time to a plantation on the west bank of the Mississippi River in Iberville Parish. The location was south of Plaquemine across the river from San Gabriel Catholic Church. While living there Bowie and Gen. John Wilson acquired the Pintado papers. Capt. Vicente Sebastián Pintado, the royal surveyor for the Spanish government, took these important surveys and record of deeds and grants to Havana as his personal property, and the Spanish government supported him. From there he sold needed land information and confirmations back into Louisiana, parts of Mississippi, and Alabama. Pintado told his wife to continue selling the valuable data after his death, but not the documents. The United States government wanted the papers, but Pintado would not sell. After Pintado's death his widow set a price of $20,000 and then $24,500 on the papers. The United States decided not to purchase them. Access to the Pintado papers gave a land speculator like Rezin Bowie a trump card. But Rezin's health was poor, and his eyesight had continued to deteriorate. Whether he derived the expected benefits from the Pintado papers is unknown. He died in New Orleans on January 17, 1841, leaving his wife and three daughters. He was buried in the San Gabriel Catholic Church graveyard. In the early 1850s his body was disinterred and moved to St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery in Port Gibson, Mississippi. St. Joseph, also known as the Bowie Church, was financed by funds raised by Rezin's daughter Elve and her husband, John Taylor Moore. Margaret Bowie purchased property and donated it for the cemetery.

Walter W. Bowie, The Bowies and Their Kindred: A Genealogical and Biographical History (Washington: Cromwell Brothers, 1899). Jay Guy Cisco, Historic Sumner County, Tennessee (Nashville: Folk-Keelin, 1909). A. R. Kilpatrick, "Early Life in the Southwest–The Bowies," DeBow's Southern and Western Review 1 (October 1852). Raymond W. Thorp, Bowie Knife (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1948). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

William R. Williamson, “Bowie, Rezin Pleasant,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 22, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 1, 1995