Port Gibson and Jim Bowie's knife-crafting, bullet-making brother
Port Gibson, Mississippi, the town U. S. Grant supposedly called “too beautiful to burn,” is well known for two houses of worship that sit on U. S. Highway 61, the road that forms the chief street of that town (there’s still no bypass around Port Gibson). Most Mississippians at least have seen photos of the town’s Presbyterian Church with its towering steeple topped by a large hand, like something from Belshazzar’s feast, pointing toward heaven.
Perhaps equally familiar is tiny Temple Gemiluth Chessed, the 1890s Moorish revival style synagogue that once housed a small but vibrant Jewish congregation. A little further down 61, at Coffee Street, is the lesser known St. Joseph Catholic Church, a lovely brick gothic revival style structure with ornate interior woodwork worth a visit for its architectural significance alone.
The parish graveyard, adjoining the church, is the final resting place of an interesting and historically significant man: Rezin Pleasant Bowie, brother of James, or Jim, Bowie, who died with Crockett and Travis at the Alamo. Rezin (b. 1793) and James Bowie (b. 1795) were the eighth and ninth of ten children born to Rezin and Elve Bowie, a pioneer couple who moved repeatedly from South Carolina to Tennessee to Kentucky to Missouri and to various places in south Louisiana before finally settling in the Opelousas area around 1812.
Jim and Rezin, close in age and in relationship, grew up running loose in the woods of Louisiana and learned to hunt, track, and fight, as one 19th century writer put it, “like Indians.” They also managed to acquire reasonable educations and, from growing up in what had only recently been Spanish territory, became fluent in Spanish and French as well as their native English.
The Bowie brothers were great entrepreneurs who did business in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas, but who, like many in the old southwest, saw the law and morality as small impediments to any scheme for turning a profit. On the legitimate side, they were great innovators.
Rezin is credited with being among the first to make and use conical bullets (as opposed to round projectiles) in rifles, and the brothers reputedly developed the first sugar plantation to use a steam-powered cane mill. On the other hand, they were, at least for a time, business partners in a slave-smuggling scheme with the pirate Jean LaFitte, and they apparently did a brisk trade in fraudulent Spanish land grants, to boot.
Despite any sins of their youth, by the early 1830s the brothers had good reputations among their lower Mississippi River country associates. Rezin, one of his contemporary’s said, was “a man of noble bearing . . . [who] was faithful in friendship, mild and affable in social intercourse,” and who had sufficient popularity and goodwill to get himself elected to “the Louisiana legislature in the days when such position was an honor."
His brother James, the same writer noted, shared his brother’s positive traits and was “a prince among men.” Jim, though, had a fierce temper, was quick to respond to a provocation, and was known along the lower Mississippi a fighter and duelist nonpareil. That reputation grew largely from the famous sandbar fight, a melee that occurred below the bluff at Natchez in which Bowie, despite sustaining multiple knife and gunshot wounds, managed to kill a Louisiana sheriff with a large knife he carried – the Bowie knife.
It was not the family’s first run-in with a sheriff. Jim’s mother, Elve Jones Bowie, once freed her husband, also named Rezin, from detention on a trumped up manslaughter charge by sneaking two pistols into the county jail. The sheriff, who had arrested Rezin, retreated without the Bowies having to fire a shot. The stories surrounding the Bowie knife – including the one that says Jim used it at the Sandbar Fight – are as suspect and open to challenge as one of the Bowies’ Spanish land titles.
The most commonly told story, though, is that Rezin invented the knife – or at least designed it -- after he cut himself butchering a wild steer he had killed when his hand slipped from the bloody handle onto the sharp blade. He had the plantation blacksmith forge a long (9 to 12 inches), heavy, deep blade with a low heel – the rear part of the blade closest to the handle. The idea was that if his hand slipped on the new knife, it would stop against the blunt part of the steel above the heel rather than slide onto the sharp edge of the blade.
Later Bowie knives would include a guard for even greater protection. The design proved popular, commercial versions soon appeared, and the Bowie knife rapidly became the iconic knife of the American frontier. Jim Bowie moved to Texas, and, in 1831, married the daughter of Juan Martin de Veramendi, the governor of Mexican Texas. The couple had two children.
Bowie’s wife, children, and father-in-law died in a cholera epidemic in 1833. The bereaved Bowed joined the Texian cause against the Mexican government and died at the Alamo in 1836. A marble coffin purporting to contain the ashes of Bowie and other Alamo defenders – another disputed claim – occupies a place of honor in the narthex of San Antonio's San Fernando Cathedral, which also was the church in which James Bowie was married.
Brother Rezin bought a plantation in Iberville Parish, Louisiana, where he lived until his death in 1841, He was buried there in the cemetery of St. Gabriel Catholic Church. Rezin’s daughter Elve (named for her jail-busting grandmother) married John Taylor Moore and moved to Port Gibson.
When a Catholic parish was organized there -- due in large part to Elve’s efforts – in the late 1850s, she had her father’s body exhumed and reinterred in the churchyard of St. Joseph in Port Gibson. A marble coffin purporting to contain the ashes of Bowie and other Alamo defenders – another disputed claim – occupies a place of honor in the narthex of San Antonio's San Fernando Cathedral, which also was the church in which James Bowie was married.
Elve died in 1873 and is also buried in St. Joseph churchyard, next to her husband. May they all rest in peace.
James T. McCafferty is a lawyer and award-winning writer who grew up in the Mississippi Delta and now resides in McComb. He is the author of many magazine and newspaper articles, two children’s books about Delta bear hunter Holt Collier, and the full-length The Bear Hunter: The Life and Times of Robert Eager Bobo in the Canebrakes of the Old South. For more information see his website: www.canebrakes.com. His great-great grandmother’s name was Lucinda Bowie.
Copyright 2018 James T. McCafferty