Sam Houston and Texas Independence

By January 1, 1970Blog

The triangular racial duel, fought for so long a time for the mastery of North America, came to an end April n, 1836, when in the battle of San Jacinto, the Anglo-American colonists of Texas won their freedom. Since that day — in some respects one of the most significant in our history — the United States has passed through the fiery ordeal of two wars, one of which was the direct result of the annexation of Texas to the Union, while social and political problems never dreamed of by the men of half a century ago, have glided silently upon the stage of our national life. In view of these facts, therefore, it is hardly too much now to expect an impartial estimate of the life and times of a man to whom the people of Texas are perhaps more largely in­debted for their place in American history than to any other one person. It is true that the Austins — father and son— planted the American colony in Texas ; but it was the same strong arm which defeated the Hispano-Mexican army at San Jacinto, that laid the foundations of free institutions in the vast region between the Sabine and Rio Grande rivers.

Samuel Houston—or Sam Houston as he always familiarly subscribed his name—is one of the most interesting per­sonages in the history of our country. Notwithstanding this fact, his biographer has had no entirely delightful task to perform. It is hard enough to go through a pile of letters and other manuscripts ready to hand and from the mass of material compile a biography which will prove at the same time both readable and trustworthy. How much more difficult, therefore, must have been the labors of the biographer of a man like Houston whose three score and ten years were crowded with more than the usual store of experiences, even for a pioneer, and whose varied fortune and tangled skein of life caused the materials for his biography to be scattered far and wide. Patient and faith­ful research, however, are stamped upon every page of this book, and the editor of The Providence Journal is to be commended for the contribution he has made to an impor­tant and somewhat neglected period of our history. A photograph of Houston accompanies the volume, but its value would perhaps have been increased, had one been informed where and by whom it was taken. A map of Texas at the close of the war of independence is also given, nor has the value of an index been overlooked. It is unfortunate that the author omits the use of foot­notes ; but this defect is partially remedied by quite a com­plete bibliography at the end of the volume. Among the list of works on Texas, the history by Morphis, however, does not appear, nor is there any mention of it at all. The style of Mr. Williams is good and his matter well-arranged, while liis treatment is sympathetic and yet impartial to a degree.

Of the early life of Houston little need be said. He was born in Virginia, in 1793, of Scotch-Irish parentage, and was the embodiment, so to speak, of that spirit of emigration which at the beginning of the present century caused the westward movement of population from Virginia and the Carolinas. His father, after whom he was named, was a soldier of the revolution who, dying in 1806, left nine children and a widow, who appears to have been a woman of more than usual good sense. In Virginia, the restless spirit of change found especial emphasis in the section where the Houstons resided, and Mrs. Houston and her large family of fatherless children joined the procession which marched across the Alleghanies to find a home in the then frontier State of Tennessee. Settling in Blount county, they began the hard work? of clearing new ground. Houston was thirteen years old when the exodus into the wilderness took place. His educational advantages in Virginia had been extremely limited and in his new home they were next to nothing ; but we are told that as a lad he was an omnivorous reader—a habit that clung to him through life — and that by the blaze of an East Tennessee fat lightwood fire he read the Iliad, Caesar’s Commentaries, and everything else in the way of literature that his simple surroundings could fur­nish. During his residence in Tennessee occurred “the first of his recorded escapades, that breaking out of the wild blood, the longing for adventure and the free life 01 the wilderness in the companionship of its children, which characterized his whole career and was a part of his nature.” Having been placed by his elder brother as clerk in an In­dian trader’s store, his Scotch-Irish spirit rebelled against the restraints imposed upon him, so one day he ran away and joined the Cherokees who lived on the other side of the Tennessee river. This tribe is said to have been one of the most civilized of the aboriginees. They not only lived in cabins, but had a written language, owned slaves, cultivated the land, and in their way of living did not essentially differ from the whites. Houston was received with open arms and adopted as one of the tribe. Here he lived until he was upwards of eighteen years of age, nor could the efforts of his kinsmen induce him to return to the white settle­ments. He donned the Indian costume — which he ever after affected—learned their vernacular, and to all in­tents and purposes was naturalized by the Cherokees. After a while, however, finding himself in debt for the ammunition he had bought, he returned to civilization, opened a school, and soon discharged his obligations. As to his experience as teacher, it is related that “ he raised the price of tuition from six to eight dollars per annum, one- third payable in corn at thirty-three and one-half cents per bushel, one-third in cash, and one-third in variegated cotton goods such as made the teacher’s hunting shirt.” Apropos of Houston’s brief pedagogical career in an East Tennessee school of the olden time, our author gives us a somewhat

realistic picture drawn by the hero of San Jacinto himself. It appears that while a United States Senator, Houston one day met Col. Peter Burke, an old war comrade, while the two were on a boat steaming up the Buffalo Bayou from Galveston to Houston. k6 There was a warm greeting be­tween the old comrades, and they sat long on the deck ex­changing reminiscences. Finally, the conversation turned upon Houston’s successful career, and Col. Burke said, 4 Now, Houston, you have been Commander-in-chief of the Texan army, President of the Republic, and Senator of the United States. In which of these offices, or at what period in your career, have you felt the greatest pride and satisfac­tion ?’

Well, Burke,’ said Houston, when a young man in Tennessee I kept a country school, being then about eighteen years of age, and a tall, strapping fellow. At noon after the luncheon, which I and my pupils ate together out of our baskets, I would go into the woods, cut me a 4 sour wood’ stick, turn it carefully in circular spirals and thrust one half of it into the fire, which would turn it blue, leaving the other half white. With this emblem of ornament and authority in my hand, dressed in a hunting-shirt of flowered calico, a long queue down my back, and the sense of au­thority over my pupils, I experienced a higher feeling of dignity and self-satisfaction than from any office or honor which I have since held.’ ”

Abandoning the calling of teacher, Houston attended a session or two at the Maryville Academy, where he com­pleted his education. Scarcely, however, had he left school before hostilities broke out with Great Britain. Houston promptly took up arms and having been sent South to aid in quieting the Creeks, was des­perately wounded in the battle fought with the savages at To-ho-pe-ka. His courage displayed during this engage­ment, however, won for him the lasting friendship of Andrew Jackson, under whose political leadership he was destined to become a power in Tennessee public affairs. Having been promoted to the rank of lieutenant, Houston recovered slowly from his wounds, and at the close of the war entered the more peaceful vocation of the study of law in the city of Nashville. After a preparation of six months he was duly admitted to the bar and began the practice of his profession in the town of Lebanon. It seems that his financial affairs—never of the best—were so badly crippled when he removed to Lebanon that he was unable to pay the postage then charged on letters ; but through the kindly in­tervention of friends he tided over his difficulties. He appears to have always remembered gratefully this generosity, and when made prosecuting attorney in 1819—which caused his removal to Nashville—in  his curious ego­tistical and sentimental fashion he addressed a farewell to the citizens of Lebanon from the court-house steps, in which he said, I was naked and ye clothed me; I was hungry and ye fed me; I was athirst and ye gave me drink,’ and moved the hearts of his hearers to such a de­gree that, according to the contemporary account, there was not a dry eye in the whole assembly.’” Houston, al­though never what one could call a lawyer, appears to have discharged his duties as public prosecutor satisfactorily until 1823, when he was elected to Congress.

During his four years in Congress, Houston gained little prominence, owing doubtless to the fact that he was largely overshadowed by Jackson. It was during his second term of service that his first and only serious duel took place.” This was the encounter with Gen. White over, the Nashville post-office, and although his antagonist recovered from his wound, Houston ever afterward remained steadfast in his resolution to abstain from a resort to the code. Among those from whom he afterward received challenges are men­tioned President Lamar, Albert Sidney Johnston, Commo­dore E. W. Moore, and others. It is narrated that on one occasion being visited by a gentleman with a warlike mes­sage, he took the challenge and handed it to his private sec­retary with instructions to indorse it number fourteen and file it away. He then informed the expectant gentleman that his affair must wait its turn until the previous thirteen had been disposed of.” In spite of his persistent refusal to fight duels, Houston appears never to have lost his reputa­tion for courage even after his removal to Texas. In 1827, he was elected Governor of Tennessee. The follow­ing description of his appearance at the time of his election is given by an eye-witness, Col. Claiborne, of Texas : 46 It shows Houston in that theatrical and sensational manner of dress which was a characteristic of him as long as he lived, and which only his magnificent physique and lofty manner could have prevented from seeming ridiculous and puerile. Says Col. Claiborne: He wore on that day (August 2, 1827,) a tall, bell-crowned, medium-brimmed, shining, black beaver hat, shining black patent-leather military stock or cravat, incased by a standing collar, ruffled shirt, black satin vest, shining black silk pants gathered to the waist­band with legs full, same size from seat to ankle, and a gor­geous, red-ground, many-colored gown or Indian hunting­shirt, fastened at the waist by a huge red sash covered with fancy bead-work, with an immense silver buckle, embroid­ered silk stockings, and pumps with large silver buckles. Mounted on a superb dapple gray horse, he appeared at the election unannounced and was the observed of all ob­servers.’ ” Houston’s administration is said to have beeil both a successful and a conservative one. So satisfied, indeed, were the people with it, that there appeared to be no serious, obstacle in the way of his re-election ; but at this juncture a misfortune overtook him which put an end to his success­ful career as a politician in Tennessee, and apparently ruined him forever.” This singular experience scarcely finds a parallel anywhere. Much has been said and written about it; but the truth will, perhaps, never be known, for Houston preserved an almost absolute silence on the sub­ject. On the 16th of April, 1829, he sent in his resigna­tion to the Secretary of State. In January of that year Houston had been married to a Miss Eliza Allen, daughter of a wealthy and influential family of Sumner county, which was numbered among his political friends and adherents. After three months of marriage his wife left him and re­turned to her father’s house. Houston wrote to her father, asking him to persuade his wife to return, but she refused, and he threw up his hold on fortune and life.” Houston al­ways referred in the highest terms to his wife, and the ex­planation of the extraordinary event advanced by his biog­rapher is that his wife had been persuaded against her in­clinations to marry him, attracted by his brilliant polit­ical position and prospects, while her affections had been given to another. The intimacy of married life revealed her coldness or repugnance to her husband, and in a moment of quarrel, she avowed the truth and left him. Houston’s spirit and vanity were deeply wounded, and he acted with all the dramatic intensity of his nature.” So unusual an occurrence naturally created wide-spread discussion, and the chief actor in this social drama not only tumbled from his lofty pedestal, but was even threatened with personal violence. Unable to brave the storm and feeling his sorrow keenly, he left Nashville under a black cloud, and found an asylum once more with his old friends, the Cherokees, who had been removed from Tennessee to the Indian Territory. There is a pathetic, side to this misfortune of Houston, for however much his conduct may have been the result of a petty personal van­ity, it is much to his credit that not a single harsh or un­charitable expression regarding his wife’s action is recorded of him. During his second residence among the Indians he is said to have sunk to the lowest depths of degra­dation—not only by becoming a squaw man,” but also by his otherwise intemperate habits. So great, indeed, became his passion for strong drink that the Indians in disgust gave him the name of Big Drunk.” In the meantime, however, events were rapidly shaping themselves in Texas which were destined to lift him out of the filthy mire into which his heavy sorrow had plunged Him, and to lend to the later years of his life the glory and happiness so suddenly taken from him in the flush of his manhood. But to understand, this subsequent career of Houston, it will be necessary to say a word or two about the character of the region in which he was more than to gain the ground he had lost.

The latter portion of our author’s work is prefaced with a brief review of the early history of Texas. It seems that although the French under La Salle, and as early as 1685, had undertaken the settlement of the country, the Spaniards always claimed it as a portion of New Spain. As part of their colonial policy, therefore, the latter began the work of planting missions north of the Rio Grande as early as 1715, from which year is commonly dated the Spanish occupation of Texas. Of the three monastic orders of Spain—the Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans—it fell to the lot of the followers of St. Francis to set up the cross in the limits of what is now Texas, but was then known as New Philippines. There is some dispute as to the origin of the name Texas. Some historians like Yoakum[1] say that it may have been the name of a petty Indian tribe, or that it is of Spanish origin from the word teja (plural tejas) referring to the frail coverings of the wigwams. In connection with this last idea may be mentioned the probably legendarv story to the effect that on one occasion some Spaniards travelling through the country camped on the Neches. One morning, runs the story, the commander looking out upon the plains saw many 44 spider webs spangled with dew drops,” and exclaimed to his companions, 44 Mira las Tejas ! ”—” Behold the spider webs ”—and thus the country was named.[2] How much truth there is in this fine-spun etymology, so to speak, cannot be .definitely ascertained ; but it seems that it was not until the year 1744 that the country was referred to in the Spanish official documents as Texas. Meanwhile the work of the Franciscans began to bear fruit, and the little missions grew along the rivers of southwestern Texas. When the country was more thickly

[1] Yoakum: History of Texas, Vol. I, p. 51.

[2] Morphis: History of Texas, p. 10.

Andrew Nelson Lytle

Andrew Nelson Lytle (1902-1995) was a celebrated author and poet whose contributions to Southern literature, history, and philosophy helped form the backbone of the Southern intellectual renaissance.

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