Having led the Texans to victory over Mexico in 1836 at the Battle of San Jacinto, Sam Houston went on to serve as president of the Independent Republic of Texas, overseeing its annexation by the United States as the twenty-eighth state in 1845.
Sam Houston was born in western Virginia's Rockbridge County on March 2, 1793. His mother's family, the Paxtons, was one of the county's wealthiest and best known. Their daughter Elizabeth had married Captain Samuel Houston, veteran of George Washington's Revolutionary Army and descendant of Irish Protestants who had come to America in 1730. Captain Houston continued his army service after the war as an inspector of the Virginia militia. It was between two of his frequent inspection trips that his and Elizabeth's fifth son was born, in the spring of 1793. They named him Samuel, after his father, but he would always be called Sam.
The Houstons had another boy and then three daughters in the years following Sam's birth, so that there were nine children in all. Like other "up country" Virginian children of the time, the Houston boys and girls grew up in a land where pioneering and Indian battles were still a memory for their older relatives. They spent their days mostly out of doors, riding horses, swimming in nearby Mill Creek, hunting in the woods, climbing trees, and pretending to fight Indians and Redcoats. Every Sunday, they went to Timber Ridge Church, named after the Houston plantation a few hundred feet away. Houston's father started a school next to the church with his neighbors, but Sam was rarely to be found in the simple log building. A poor student, he frequently skipped school, preferring to steal into the woods with a book or explore the shelves of his father's library.
By wagon to Tennessee
When Sam was fourteen, his father died while traveling on an inspection tour. Elizabeth Houston sold what she inherited from her husband and paid off his debts, which were large due to his poor business dealings. She loaded her family and belongings into two sturdy wagons and took them west to the Tennessee frontier. Two cousins of Houston's father had settled there after the Revolutionary War near what became the town of Maryville. They had been among the first white settlers, though more had followed. Still, when Elizabeth and her children arrived, Maryville was little more than a few rough log houses built along the sides of an old Indian trail. Elizabeth bought more than 400 acres of uncleared Tennessee land here. Her older children built a house and went to work clearing the land for farming.
Dreams of glory
Though old enough to assist his brothers, Sam was bored by farming and did little to help out. And he was no more enthusiastic about going to school than he had been in Virginia. Instead of working or studying, he would take his favorite book, The Iliad, into the forest and disappear for hours or even days at a time. The ancient Greek story of warfare and heroism seemed a far cry from the dull routine of farm life. Sam dreamed of performing such heroic deeds himself. Thanks to his mother's and brothers' hard work, the farm did well. Soon Elizabeth bought a share in Maryville's general store. She sent Sam to work in the store, so that he could at least learn a useful trade. But the store bored him as much as farming, and he couldn't bring himself to stick with it. He also grew increasingly tired of being bossed around by his hard-working older brothers, who kept trying to get him to do his share of work for the family.
Co-loh-neh: the Raven
Just across the Tennessee River from Maryville lay Indian country—the territory of the Cherokee, who had been pushed west from Georgia by white settlers. Sam's wanderings in the forest had taken him among the Cherokee. Impressed by their way of life, he made friends with them. Here, he thought, was the noble society of The Iliad. Prosperous, hospitable, and warlike, the Cherokee had absorbed into their culture many whites who, like Sam, were dissatisfied with white society. As a teenager, Sam began slipping across the river to spend time with his Cherokee friends, who welcomed him. At sixteen, he began living with the Indians and refused to come home when his brothers came for him. Oo-Loo-Te-ka, a powerful tribal chief, adopted Sam as his son, giving him the name Co-loh-neh, or the Raven. Sam lived happily among the Cherokee for most of the next three years. He learned many of their ways and for the rest of his life felt deeply tied to them.
Sam returned to Maryville in the spring of 1812, looking for work to pay off debts he had piled up buying gifts for Indian friends over the past few years. Unwilling to take a clerking job, he told his shocked (and highly amused) family that he had decided to open a school! Now fully grown, he stood six-feet two-inches, with brown hair, clear gray eyes, and strong, handsome features. In his habitual "hunting shirt of flowered calico," the rugged nineteen-year-old did not look much like a schoolmaster (Williams, p. 28). He had spent less than a year in school himself. Still, the school he opened attracted students, whom he lectured about The Iliad and other favorite Greek classics. He was able to pay off his debts.
During the year that he ran his school, exciting events were taking shape in the outside world. War had been declared against the British, and fighting had broken out in the West between the Americans and Britain's Indian allies, the Creek and the Shawnee. Sam closed his school and on March 1, 1813, a day before his twentieth birthday, joined the army.
Horseshoe Bend (1814)
A year later, leading a company of the Thirty-ninth Infantry Regiment, Third Lieutenant Sam Houston arrived at the hastily built outpost of Fort Strother, in present-day Alabama. There General Andrew Jackson was preparing to lead his army against the Creek, who had built a strong fort at nearby Horseshoe Bend, a sharp peninsula in the Tallapoosa River. In the attack that followed, Houston was hit on the inside of the upper thigh by a long arrow. Failing in his attempts to remove the arrow himself, he made a fellow officer pull it out, tearing a deep wound. Then General Jackson called for volunteers to storm the fort. Houston dragged himself to his feet and, limping badly, led the charge. This time he was hit by two bullets at once, one ripping deep into his right shoulder and the other, a few inches lower in his upper arm. He spun to the ground and half-fainted. The army surgeons did not bother to operate, thinking that he would not live. He was lucky. If they had operated, they probably would have amputated his arm. The wounds in his thigh and shoulder never completely healed, but at least he still had use of the arm.
The Battle of Horseshoe Bend broke the power of the Creek, and Houston's bravery during it impressed Jackson. By 1815, with the war over and with Houston nearly recovered from his wounds, Jackson arranged for him to be assigned to Jackson's own staff in Nashville. From the Hermitage, his elegant estate outside of town, Jackson was beginning to build the political machine that would carry him to the White House. Houston became an early member of Jackson's team, which was called the Tennessee Junto. Nashville was a hotbed of political activity, and Houston, still in his early twenties, socialized with governors, congressmen, and future presidents such as James Polk and James Buchanan.
In 1817 Jackson arranged for Houston to be assigned as government subagent for the Cherokee, whose land the government wanted for white settlement. Houston's job was to persuade the reluctant Cherokee to move farther west, a direction that their traditions linked with death and defeat. It was a tough assignment. Many of the Cherokee resented being repeatedly pushed from land they had been given, supposedly forever, in treaties with the U.S. government. Houston, however, did in fact believe that moving west was in the best interests of the Cherokee and was able to convince Oo-Loo-Te-ka to lead them to the Arkansas Territory.
Lawyer, congressman, governor
Houston got into trouble as an Indian subagent for dressing as he wanted, not as he was expected to dress. He appeared in the office of the powerful secretary of war wearing an Indian outfit—breechclout, blanket, and turkey feathers. The secretary, John C. Calhoun, was outraged and gave him a stern lecture. Soon after, corrupt officials whom he had attacked for cheating the Indians accused him of being dishonest himself. He proved his innocence but felt disgusted with the whole thing. Resigning from the army in 1818, Houston returned to Nashville. He began to practice law, using his growing legal practice as a political springboard and resuming his place among Jackson's Tennessee Junto. In 1823 he was elected to Congress, and he won reelection in 1825. Popular and well respected, in 1827 Houston was elected governor of Tennessee. Here, as in Washington, he also made a few enemies, for Houston generally said and did exactly what he wanted.
The Raven flies west
While preparing his reelection campaign early in 1829, Houston married Eliza Allen, the young daughter of a wealthy and powerful friend. His friend Andrew Jackson had just been elected president, and the young governor's political horizons seemed boundless. At this point, however, personal scandal tainted Houston's political life. A few months after they were married, Eliza left Houston and returned to her parents. The Tennessee voters were shocked, for such a breakup was considered a disgrace. The separation would be permanent and became the greatest mystery about Houston's life. Neither he nor Eliza would ever tell anyone what happened between them.
In April, Houston resigned the governorship under the cloud of this personal scandal. Declaring himself "a ruined man" (Williams, p. 69), he left Nashville secretly and headed west by riverboat. In his time of trouble, he intended to take refuge with the Cherokee. Refuge was not the only thing he had in mind, however. Houston had heard tales of a huge, seemingly unbounded land beyond Arkansas. Always ambitious, he now had vague dreams of carving an empire out of the territory owned by Mexico known as Tejas, or Texas.
Houston settled right back into Cherokee life. Although it had been eleven years since he had lived with his adopted family, he still spoke the language well and immediately began dressing Cherokee-style again. The Indians had settled along the banks of the Arkansas River, just a few hundred miles from the Red River, which formed the border with Mexican-owned Texas. In about a year, he opened a trading post he called the Wigwam. In order to avoid paying taxes, he asked Oo-Loo-Te-ka to formally adopt him into the tribe, with "rights, privileges and immunities ... as if he was a native Cherokee" (Williams, p. 81). At the same time, he married a tall, beautiful Cherokee widow named Tiana.
For the next few years, Houston ran his trading post and involved himself in Cherokee affairs, acting as the tribe's unofficial representative to the U.S. government. He discovered, for example, that a corrupt army officer was swindling the Cherokee out of the $50,000 that the United States had agreed to give them each year. Dressed in fine buckskin and a decorative Indian blanket, Houston led an Indian delegation to Washington to complain directly to his friend President Jackson. The dishonest officer and four others were fired from their jobs in disgrace, becoming Houston's enemies. He took such trips to Washington often in the next few years, trying to keep the Cherokee from being treated unfairly. He also worked to keep peace between the Cherokee and their new neighbors, the Osage.
On one trip to Washington, in 1832, Houston heard that a congressman, William Stanbery, had made a speech accusing Houston of being dishonest in his dealings with the Indians. He was furious. A few days later, while out for a stroll around the capital with his thick walking stick, he happened to encounter the congressman. Houston approached Stanbery and demanded an explanation for his accusations. Faced with the large, wrathful Houston, Stanbery tried to draw a pistol. Crying "damn rascal," Houston began beating the congressman over the shoulders with the hickory stick, badly bruising him. Congress tried Houston and gave him a fine, which President Jackson, though embarrassed by Houston's behavior, said he did not have to pay.
On his trips east, Houston had also been slowly moving forward with his plans for Texas, making arrangements with politicians and possible financial backers. It remains unclear what his exact intentions were. Probably he did not know himself. According to some, he was already planning to revolutionize Texas by turning it into an independent nation, possibly with Indian help, or joining it to the United States. With an ever-increasing population and the resulting land shortage, Americans were heading west in droves. In the 1830s and 1840s, Texas was the most popular destination. Pioneers scrawled "G.T.T.," Gone To Texas, on the doors of the cabins they left behind, joining the others on the dangerous journey west. By the early 1830s, 15,000 Americans had settled in Texas, most within recent years. The 3,000 Mexicans living there, called Tejanos, were already outnumbered by white settlers. Houston left his wife Tiana and set out for Texas in 1832" (Tiana would later remarry, as would Houston.) At this time, talk of separation from Mexico was already in the Texas air.
Houston settled in the town of Nacogdoches, about fifty miles from the Louisiana border, and set up a law practice. Like others, he purchased thousands of acres of land to be sold at a profit later. (It is not clear where he got the money to do so, though probably he had eastern partners.) But political issues would have to be settled first. A new Mexican government came to power in 1833, headed by Antonio López de Santa Anna, who was determined to bring the unruly Yanquis (Yankees) in Texas under his control. For their part, the Yanquis had split into two groups. The Peace Party, headed by Texas colonizer Stephen Austin, wanted to negotiate with the Mexicans to gain greater independence. The War Party, made up of leaders like William Travis, were spoiling to fight for complete independence.
By 1835 it was clear that war was coming. In October, the Texans elected Houston commander in chief of their small army. Soon after, bands of Texans, disobeying Houston's orders, captured Mexican forts at the Alamo and Goliad. By the end of March 1836, however, both forts had been recaptured by the Mexicans and their Texan defenders wiped out.
Fresh from victory at the Alamo (in which nearly 200 Americans died, including Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie), Santa Anna personally led his tough and experienced army deeper into Texas. Houston organized the now frightened Texans in a month-long, eastward retreat known as the Runaway Scrape.
During the retreat, Houston did his best to train his men and give them courage. April 20th found the two armies facing each other, both camped along the San Jacinto River. Santa Anna commanded an advance guard of about 800 men, the same number as the Texans. Hearing of the Mexicans' low numbers, Houston decided to let his once-again eager troops face their pursuers. During the night, however, reinforcements slipped into the Mexican camp, nearly doubling Santa Anna's force. It seemed as if the Texans' chance had slipped away. But the following afternoon, as the tired reinforcements slept, Houston's Texans attacked and completely defeated the overconfident Mexican force. In what remains one of the most lopsided battles in history, nearly half the Mexicans died, with the rest taken prisoner, while the Texans lost only six men. Santa Anna himself was captured, while Houston's ankle was shattered by a bullet.
Houston's spectacular victory ended the war and assured Texan independence. It also led to the war hero's election as president of the Independent Republic of Texas in the summer of 1836, with over 5,000 votes against Stephen Austin's 587. President Houston's main goal was to arrange for the United States to annex, or add, Texas to the Union as quickly as possible. Unfortunately a business collapse known as the Panic of 1837 temporarily shattered the U.S. economy, and Houston's old friend President Jackson refused to consider annexation, though he did officially recognize the new republic. Meanwhile, a city sprang up near the site of the battle of San Jacinto. Its founders named it Houston, and invited its namesake president to make his capital there. It quickly grew into a flourishing, hard-drinking frontier town.
Marriage and family
Always known for his ability to enjoy a good time, Houston was as hard-drinking as anyone else in town. Yet in 1840, after he ended his term as president, his drinking days became numbered. He even began attending church occasionally. In that year, at age forty-seven, he married a quiet, serious, and intensely religious young woman of twenty named Margaret Lea. Beautiful, dark-haired and very shy, Margaret had fallen in love with Houston at first sight, as he had with her. The love proved lasting, and the couple had eight children between 1843 and 1860.
Houston was reelected president in late 1841, serving until 1844. During his second term he continued his efforts to win annexation, also defending his country against renewed threats from Mexico. Houston's main weapon in the fight for annexation was the possibility that his state would make alliances with foreign powers such as France or Britain. His skillful diplomacy was rewarded shortly after he retired from the presidency, when annexation finally took place in July of 1845. Texas joined the United States as the twenty-eighth state. Its population had grown to 200,000, with more arriving every day. Many of the newcomers were European immigrants. Germans settled entire towns, giving them German names like New Braunfels, for example. Texas prospered as the hard-working immigrants—mostly farmers and craftsmen—replaced the frontier types of past years.
From 1846 to 1859, Houston served in Washington as Texas senator, fighting to stop the regional divisions that increasingly pitted North against South. He was the only Southern senator who voted for every part of the Compromise of 1850, which attempted to find a middle ground in the argument over slavery. Part of the compromise gave away Texas land to the government. Houston became increasingly unpopular in Texas for such positions, which put the Union interests before that of his state. Through much of his Senate career, he warned that the course pursued by the South could end only in bloody civil war.
Personal downfall for the Union
Yet in 1859 he was elected governor on a platform that called for the Union's preservation. Two years later, however, after Texans voted for secession, Houston was removed from office when he flatly refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy.
Houston, now badly troubled by his old wounds, retired quietly to his farm in Huntsville. From there he watched as his predictions about civil war came true. His oldest son, Sam Jr., was wounded and captured by Northern soldiers in 1863. All of his other children were at his bedside when Houston died on July 26, 1863, in Huntsville. Reportedly, his final words were "Margaret! Margaret! Texas! Texas!" (Williams, p. 362).
- De Bruhl, Marshall, Sword of San Jacinto: A Life of Sam Houston, Random House, 1993.
- James, Bessie Rowlan, and Marquis James, Six Feet Six: The Heroic Story of Sam Houston, Bobbs-Merrill, 1931.
- Latham, Jean Lee, Sam Houston, Chelsea Juniors, 1991.
- Sanford, William R., and Carl R. Green, Sam Houston: Texas Hero, Enslow, 1996.
- Williams, John Hoyt, Sam Houston, Simon and Schuster, 1993.