General and President of Texasby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Sam Houston was a wild boy. Born in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, he ran away in 1809 from the farm in Tennessee that his family moved to after his father’s death, to live with the Cherokee Indians. He had received little education – fewer than six months, he himself said later.
He showed initiative, though. Leaving the Cherokee, he joined the army during the War of 1812 and performed bravely at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, earning recognition and the rank of first lieutenant. After the battle he met General Andrew Jackson, who would become his friend and whom Houston would later name one of his sons after. Houston also became an Indian sub-agent, and made his first trip to Washington with a delegation of Cherokees, meeting President Monroe and the Secretary of War. In 1818 he left the military and began to study law; the same year he passed the bar examination. Houston found employment as Attorney General in the Nashville district of Tennessee from 1819 to 1821, and in the meantime was rising through the ranks of the Tennessee militia.
In 1821 he successfully ran for Congress as a Democrat – no doubt influenced by the Democrat Andrew Jackson, who had befriended him. In 1827 he was elected governor of Tennessee, and two years later he married Eliza Allen. Everything seemed to be going well. But then his life met with sudden upheaval. He separated from his wife and resigned his governorship. Few can explain this; but it seems that for just cause or no, Eliza rejected Houston, causing the split and because of the scandal, forcing Houston to resign as well. Houston truly wasn’t a very much of a family man; he was known as a heavy drinker. Whatever the cause, Houston retreated back to his refuge: the Cherokee Indians. There he wed Tiana Rogers, a Cherokee woman. But he couldn’t stay inactive for long. In 1831 he was back in Washington representing the Cherokee Nation.
But after the death of his mother, and a scandal in which he beat a Congressman who had accused him of fraud with a cane, he decided to leave the United States and head for Texas. Houston had long ago rejected his family’s Presbyterian background, and his adoption of Catholicism in Texas would be equally empty – only fulfilling the legal requirement for owning land – so he could find no encouragement from his troubles in religion.
Houston set up a law firm in Nacogdoches, Texas, in 1833. Of the place he would later say, “All new states are invested, more or less, by a class of noisy, second-rate men who are always in favor of rash and extreme measures, but Texas was absolutely overrun by such men.”1
He became involved in the movement for Texas independence from Mexico. Mexico had created an immigrant-friendly policy to encourage migration to the sparsely populated area, but only too late did they realize their mistake; by 1835 there were 30,000 Americans in Texas, many times the number of Mexicans.2 Manifest Destiny, the idea that America rightly deserved to expand across the continent, was a strong influence on many Texas immigrants, and the U.S.’s growing population pushed people west. Aside from the numerical advantage, the Texans justified their revolution on several wrongs they alleged had been done them: official religions repression, and an unstable government that failed to provide needs such as trial by jury. Another motivation for many Texans (but not Houston) was a desire to own slaves – something forbidden by the Mexican government. So a mix of good and bad reasons and justifications influenced the Texas revolution.
Houston was appointed a major general in the provisionary Texas Army. Days after Texas declared its independence on March 2, 1836, Houston learned that the Alamo – which he had suggested should be destroyed rather than defended – had fallen to the approaching army of Santa Anna, Mexico’s dictator. Houston led his army on a zigzagging retreat eastward, pursued by Santa Anna. Near the river of San Jacinto, Houston decided to make his stand. Burning the bridge over the river behind him, he led a noon charge that totally surprised the Mexican army during their siesta, and routed them. Santa Anna was captured. Houston was one of only thirteen Texans wounded – six were killed. In contrast, Santa Anna’s army lost 630 men and had 208 wounded.
After recovering from his wound, Houston headed up the Texas government, serving two terms as President. (Other Presidents of the Republic of Texas included David G. Burnett, Maribeau B. Lamar, and Anson Jones.) During this period he married again, this time to Margaret Lea. This marriage was more successful, and they had several children. She had a very positive effect on Houston, as well. Under her influence, he was able to quit drinking, and he gradually began to take interest in religion as well – first attending a Baptist church, and was ultimately baptized in 1854.
Houston strongly advocated joining the United States, which was accomplished in 1845. Houston was one of the first senators to represent the new state of Texas to Congress. After serving one partial term and one full one, Houston left Congress and ran for governor of Texas.
Houston had been a moderate at Congress, supporting bills such as the Compromise of 1850 which aimed to solve the dangerous issue of slavery. However, war was unavoidable, and Texas seceded on March 4, 1861. Houston refused to support the new Confederate States of America, and he was deposed as governor. Unlike Samuel Austin, another prominent Unionist Texan, Houston did not flee north, probably because of his great popularity in spite of his opposition to the war. He did not live to see its end. After his forced retirement, he lived at home in Huntsville, Texas until he died of tuberculosis on July 26, 1863.
Sam Houston was a remarkable man. A rebel and fighter in his early days, he also had the courage and leadership ability to begin his rise to power. But on his own, he was unable to hold his life together, and suffered a midlife crisis that would push him to Texas. There he was a decisive and intelligent leader and general, securing Texas’ independence and helping to stabilize the new country afterwards. There, also, he’d find salvation and freedom from alcohol in Christianity. Houston has become a hero that looms large over the history of Texas.
1 “Notable Quotes of Sam Houston”. Author n/a. http://www.shsu.edu/~smm_www/History/quotes.shtml
2 “Anglo-American Colonization in Texas”. Ersdal, Kjetil. http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/E/texas/texas03.htm