Born March 2, 1793 Rockbridge County, Virginia
Died July 26, 1863 Huntsville, Texas
As one of the most important and colorful figures in the early history of Texas, Sam Houston seemed to embody the state's bigness and independent spirit. A tall, friendly man who was both flashy and courageous, Houston was devoted both to Texas and to the United States as a whole. Soon after Texas declared itself the Lone Star Republic, Houston led a Texan army against a much bigger and more experienced Mexican force at the Battle of San Jacinto. The Texan victory in the battle brought a temporary peace to the region that would be shattered ten years later, when, following the admission of Texas to the union, the United States declared war against Mexico.
A teenager called "the Raven"
Sam Houston was born in Rockbridge County, Virginia, near the town of Lexington. The fifth in a family of nine children, he was the son of Major Samuel Houston, a veteran of the American Revolution (1775-83) who continued to make his living as a soldier after the war was over. Houston remembered his mother, Elizabeth Paxton Houston, as a woman of intelligence, morality, and strength. As a child, Houston hated school but loved reading, especially adventure stories. He received only about a year and a half of formal education.
When Houston was fourteen years old, his father died while inspecting frontier military outposts. Just before his death, the elder Houston had made plans to move his family to the frontier state of Tennessee, where he had acquired 419 acres of land. After his father's death, Houston's mother packed her children and belongings into a wagon and headed west. When they reached their new home, Houston's brothers began the hard work of starting a farm in an undeveloped area. Although old enough to help with the daily chores, Houston found farming boring and did little to help his brothers. His brothers often scolded Houston for his laziness around the house. Since Houston was not aiding his brothers with the farm, the family arranged for him to work as a clerk in a store when he turned sixteen.
Deciding he had had enough of his brothers bossing him around, and having found neither school nor clerking to his liking, Houston escaped across a river into land inhabited by Native Americans of the Cherokee nation. He spent the next three years living with the Cherokees, an experience that he would always remember fondly. Adopted by a chief named Ooloteka (also known as John Jolly) who gave him the name "the Raven," Houston learned the Cherokee language and customs and developed what would be a lifelong respect for them and concern for their welfare.
Soldiering with Andrew Jackson
Returning to the white community and his family in 1812, Houston opened a school, even though many people laughed at the idea of Sam Houston as a schoolteacher, charging his students a tuition fee of $8.00 per term. But after a year, he was off on his next adventure, which was serving as a soldier in the U.S. Army. The United States was now involved in a second war with Great Britain, the War of 1812 (1812-14), this one begun primarily because England had interfered with U.S. ships and sailors on the high seas. Assigned to serve under a fellow Tennessee native, General Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), Houston took part in the U.S. Army's attempt to bring a rebellious band of Creek Indians under control. At the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in March 1814, Houston was severely wounded but nevertheless contributed to the U.S. victory. His courage and ability were noticed by Jackson, and the two men began a strong friendship that would last until Jackson's death.
A young lawyer and politician
Houston served under Jackson for several more years, based at Nashville, Tennessee, and serving as a sub-agent (a representative between them and the U.S. government) to the Cherokees. In 1818, Houston decided to leave the army and become a lawyer. Even though the process of preparation for the bar exam (the test by which attorneys become qualified) usually took much longer, Houston passed after only six months of study. He set up a law practice in Lebanon, Tennessee. Houston's large size, physical vigor, and fondness for dramatic, unconventional clothing made him stand out. He also was admired for his skill as a public speaker, and in 1819, he was elected attorney general of Tennessee (the top position in the state's legal system). This election launched Houston's political career.
In 1823, Houston was elected to represent his district of Tennessee in the United States Congress. He held this position for the next four years. Houston was only thirty-five years old when, in 1827, he was elected governor of Tennessee. Two years later, he married Eliza Allen, a young woman from a wealthy family. It seemed that he was now at his personal and professional peak. Only three months after the wedding, however, Eliza left Houston and returned to her parents' home. The short marriage was over, but no one ever knew why since neither Eliza nor Houston would talk about it. Some historians speculate that Eliza had been forced into the marriage by her father and did not like being married to Houston, while others guess that either Houston or his wife had been unfaithful.
A troubled time
Whatever the reason for the breakup, it left Houston devastated. To his friends' surprise, he resigned the governorship and went to live among the Cherokee again, this time in the western part of what would later become the state of Arkansas. Known among his Native American friends as a very heavy drinker, Houston opened a trading post and married a Cherokee woman named Tiana Rogers. During this period he made several trips to Washington, D.C., to ask the U.S. government to help the Cherokees.
On one of these trips, Houston was insulted by something Ohio representative William Stanberry had said about him on the floor of the House of Representatives. In his speech, Stanberry had accused Houston of being dishonest in his dealings with the Indians. Encountering Stanberry on the street, Houston attacked him with a cane. Stanberry charged Houston with assault, and he was brought before the House to answer the charges. Relying on his public speaking skills, Houston was so successful in defending himself that he got away with only a mild reprimand. This success also inspired him to start a new life in the white community.
Texas: A land of opportunity
Like many U.S. citizens, Houston was attracted to Texas, the sprawling, sparsely populated part of Mexico that was adjacent to the southeastern United States. Under Spanish control for several hundred years, this area called Tejas y Coahuila was now ruled by Mexico, which had gained its independence from Spain in 1821. At around the same time, a land speculator (someone who buys land and then sells it again for a profit) named Moses Austin (1761-1821) had struck a deal with the Mexican government. U.S. citizens would be allowed to settle in Mexico, provided they become Mexican citizens, obey the country's laws, and join the Roman Catholic Church (Catholicism was Mexico's official religion). Austin's son Stephen (1793-1836) took over as leader of this movement after his father's unexpected death.
By the early 1830s, "Texas fever" was raging as pioneers streamed in, looking for the fresh start and opportunities that seemed to lie in the rolling hills and wide-open grasslands of Texas. Houston caught the fever too, moving to the town of Nacogdoches in 1832 and setting up a law practice. Soon he also was involved in Texas politics. This was a turbulent period in the region's history, for trouble was brewing between the U.S.-born Texans and the Mexican government. The Texans ignored many Mexican laws, especially those banning slavery and the Mexican law requiring the registration of guns. The Texans also refused to go along with the Mexicans' wish for them to blend in with the local culture. Few bothered to practice Catholicism or even learn to speak Spanish. Most also considered themselves superior to the native Mexicans, who resented these arrogant newcomers.
Called to lead fellow Texans
In 1833, Houston was chosen to take part in a special convention at which Texans voted to ask the Mexican government to allow them to form a separate state within Mexico. Stephen Austin went to the Mexican capital, Mexico City, to deliver the proposal, only to find the Mexicans so suspicious of the Texans that they not only turned down the request but arrested Austin and kept him in prison for eighteen months. The Mexican government was now headed by a former military hero named Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794-1876), who had made himself the country's dictator (absolute, all-powerful ruler).
Determined to squash the Texans' rebelliousness before it grew, Santa Anna sent Mexican troops to take over Texas towns. But this, of course, only made the Texans more angry. Violent clashes occurred across Texas as settlers battled Mexican troops. In the town of Gonzales, the Texans forced a sizable Mexican army to retreat. As defiant men began to sign up to defend the land they now considered theirs, what became known as the Texas Revolution got underway.
Houston's military experience and dynamic personality made him a natural choice to lead the still-tiny Texas army, so he took charge of the four hundred-man force. For some time, however, Houston played a low-key role as he found that individual units were reluctant to take his advice and to act in unison. One of these groups was, in early 1836, holed up at the Alamo, an old Spanish mission located just across the river from San Antonio. Some months earlier, the Texans had managed to chase the Mexican troops out of San Antonio, but it was rumored that Santa Anna would soon send more to retake the town.
Disaster at the Alamo
Houston believed the Alamo would be a deathtrap if the Mexicans surrounded it, and he ordered its less than two hundred defenders under the command of Colonel James O'Neill to abandon the place and burn it down. O'Neill, who was soon to be replaced by Colonel William Travis, refused to follow this order. In late February, Santa Anna arrived at San Antonio with several thousand troops and quickly took control of the town. He ordered Travis to surrender, and when Travis refused, the Mexicans raised the red flag. This meant that there would be no mercy for any Texans who managed to survive the coming battle.
On the morning of February 24, the Mexicans began bombing the Alamo. The same day Travis, whose appeal for more troops would not reach Houston in time, issued a message "to the people of Texas and all Americans in the world," vowing that he would "never surrender or retreat" and that he would seek "Victory or Death!" Legend has it that Travis offered his men a chance to escape with honor from the Alamo. It is believed that perhaps only one man chose to leave. On March 6, Santa Anna ordered a full-scale attack on the Alamo. His troops quickly penetrated the mission's walls and began slaughtering its defenders, who included the legendary frontiersman Jim Bowie (1796-1836), known for the big knife that carried his name, and Davy Crockett (1786-1836), a veteran Indian fighter and former Tennessee congressman.
All of Travis's men were killed, and their bodies burned in a heap. Only the wife of one of the men, Susana Dickinson, was allowed to escape. Carrying her baby in her arms, she managed to reach Houston and deliver the horrifying news. Just days before, Houston had taken part in a historic meeting where Texan delegates had written up a constitution for their new country, which they had christened the Lone Star Republic. When he received Travis's call for reinforcements, Houston had set out for San Antonio but had only gotten as far as Gonzales when he heard what had happened at the Alamo.
The Runaway Scrape
There was soon more bad news. On March 19, 350 Texans under the command of Colonel James Fannin (1804-1836) were forced to surrender to a Mexican force at Goliad. Although other Mexican officers disagreed, Santa Anna ordered the prisoners shot. News of the massacres at the Alamo and Goliad spread among the Texas settlers like wildfire, setting off a northward scramble for safety that came to be known as the Runaway Scrape. Meanwhile, Houston planned a new, cautious strategy of retreating to regroup his troops, to continue to train them for battle, and to wait for Santa Anna to make a mistake.
The ranks of the Texan army soon were bolstered by fresh volunteers, fueled by the desire to teach the Mexicans a lesson. Eager for revenge, they grumbled about Houston's order to retreat. That was the last thing they wanted to do, but Houston held firm. One day he had two graves dug, announcing that they were for the first two men who chose to desert his army. Houston now moved his force eastward (toward the site that would one day become the city of Houston), just ahead of Santa Anna, who was trying to locate and squash the leaders of the Texas independence movement.
A surprising victory on the San Jacinto River
His army now just under eight hundred soldiers, Houston halted at the place where the San Jacinto River meets the Buffalo Bayou. They camped in a grove of oak trees, and watched as Santa Anna's much larger force arrived in the area and set up their own camp. Still Houston did not make a move, even as Santa Anna received reinforcements. For his part, Santa Anna was more convinced than ever that the Texan army was incompetent and Houston, a coward. On the afternoon of April 21, tired of waiting for a U.S. attack that never came, Santa Anna allowed his troops a siesta (nap).
Houston took advantage of this opportunity. Just after 4:30 P. M ., he ordered his troops to attack the Mexican camp. Taken utterly by surprise, with cries of "Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!" ringing in their ears, the Mexicans could barely defend themselves. A large number of them fled in panic toward the nearby river, where many drowned or were shot in the water. The Battle of San Jacinto lasted only eighteen minutes, with the Texan soldiers brutally slaughtering every Mexican they could get their hands on, even when their officers ordered them to stop.
Houston had been severely wounded in the lower leg by a bullet that also took the life of his white horse, Saracen. (Another horse also had been shot from under him during the battle.) Refusing any pain medication that would have made him sleepy, he surveyed the battlefield. Only nine Texans had been killed, while more than six hundred Mexicans were dead and another seven hundred taken prisoner. Santa Anna was missing, but a few days later he was found disguised as a farm worker and brought into camp. This attempt to conceal his identity failed, however, when some Mexican prisoners saw their general and the leader of their country and yelled, "El presidente!" (the president).
Serving as president of Texas
Although many U.S. officers and soldiers wanted Santa Anna executed for ordering the massacres at the Alamo and Goliad, Houston believed the Mexican general could be more valuable alive than dead. Thus Santa Anna was kept a prisoner for several months, during which period he signed treaties that required him to leave Texas, quit fighting, and persuade the Mexican government to accept the independent status of the Lone Star Republic. When Santa Anna finally returned to Mexico in disgrace, however, his government promptly ruled the treaties invalid.
Houston's reputation, by contrast, could not have been better. In September 1836, he was elected, by an overwhelming majority, president of Texas. His term was fairly calm and peaceful, as large numbers of settlers poured into Texas, and Houston worked actively to develop smooth relations with Native Americans in the area as well as the still-hostile Mexicans. Houston's presidency was followed by that of Mirabeau Lamar (1798-1859), a man of much more extravagant visions who involved Texas in some foolhardy schemes, especially his attempt to convince the residents of Santa Fe, New Mexico, to join the Lone Star Republic. This resulted in the imprisonment of several hundred Texan soldiers in Mexico.
By 1841, when Houston regained the presidency of Texas, there was much talk of Texas becoming part of the United States. It seemed that defending Texas from Mexico, which continued to stage periodic small-scale attacks across the border, was just too difficult for the small republic. In addition, most Texans still identified strongly with the ideals and culture of the United States. Within the United States, however, the possible annexation (being made a state) of Texas posed problems.
The annexation of Texas
The practice of slavery had become a controversial issue, with citizens of the northern states calling for it to be abolished (made illegal) while the southerners defended it as necessary to their livelihood. The states were evenly divided between those that allowed slavery and those where it was illegal. Texas was sure to be admitted to the union as a slave state, which would upset the balance. Thus, southerners pushed for, and northerners opposed, its annexation. Meanwhile, U.S. leaders hesitated to take a firm stance either way because they did not want to alienate voters in either the South or the North.
Houston's opinion, however, was very firm. He was in favor of statehood for Texas. By the time he left office in 1844, he had made it clear to the United States that its arch-rival, Great Britain, was making very friendly overtures to Texas. This was a good strategy, for nobody in the United States wanted the British to get a foothold in North America again. Now there was much more pressure to annex Texas. In 1845, Texas did become a state, much to the delight of Houston and most Texans.
At around the same time, Houston's personal life also was taking a turn for the better. By 1840, Houston had divorced his first wife and his second had died. So he was free to marry Margaret Lea, with whom he would have a very happy, twenty-three-year marriage that produced eight children. Much younger than her husband, Margaret also was very religious and was able to convince Houston to stop drinking.
War with Mexico
In the summer of 1845, President James K. Polk (1795-1849; see biographical entry) sent U.S. troops to Texas. Less than a year later the United States, using as its excuse an incident in which a Mexican force had attacked and killed some U.S. soldiers, declared war on Mexico. Despite their much larger army, the Mexicans suffered from poor leadership and inferior weapons, and they lost battle after battle. In September 1848, General Winfield Scott (1786-1866; see biographical entry) rode in triumph into the Mexican capital, Mexico City, which his troops had captured. The war was over.
With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States not only tightened its grip on Texas but gained the territories of California and New Mexico, an area of 525,000 square miles and more than half of Mexico's total land. Most U.S. citizens were happy with the treaty, but Houston did not much like it. He agreed with those who thought the United States should take over all of Mexico.
The sanctity of the Union
Houston served as one of his state's two U.S. senators from 1845 until 1859. During this period the slavery issue became more and more divisive. Despite his status as a devoted southerner from a slave state, Houston believed that slavery should one day be abolished, and he voted for measures that prevented its extension into the new states that were now being formed. Like his friend and mentor Andrew Jackson, Houston believed that the Union must be preserved above all, no matter how strong the disagreements between individual states might be.
Elected governor of Texas in 1859, Houston made many Texans unhappy by warning them of the danger of seceding from (leaving) the Union, which was now a strong possibility. In late 1860 and early 1861, eleven southern, slaveholding states did secede and form the Confederate States of America, leading to the outbreak of the Civil War (1861-65). Texas was one of those states, but Houston refused to sign the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. Turning down an offer from President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) of federal troops to aid him, Houston was forced to leave office. He also had to endure the taunts of "Traitor!" that he heard from some of his fellow Texans.
Still a devoted supporter of Texas, despite what he saw as its mistakes, Houston returned to his home in Huntsville. Houston died on July 26, 1863, and the last words on his lips were the two names most precious to him, "Margaret" and "Texas." His role in the history of Texas, a state that was to become a vital part of the United States in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was acknowledged when one of its most important cities was given his name.
For More Information
De Bruhl, Marshall. Sword of San Jacinto. New York: Random House,1993.
Friend, Llerena. Sam Houston: The Great Designer. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1954.
Fritz, Jean. Make Way for Sam Houston. New York: Putnam's Sons, 1986.
James, Marquis. The Raven: A Biography of Sam Houston. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1929.
Roberts, Madge Thornall. Star of Destiny: The Private Life of Sam and Margaret Houston. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1993.
Robson, Lucia St. Clair. Walk in My Soul: The Story of Tiana of the Cherokee, the Young Sam Houston, and the Trail of Tears. New York: Ballantine Books, 1985.
Williams, John Hoyt. Sam Houston: A Biography of the Father of Texas. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Wisehart, M. K. Sam Houston: American Giant. Washington: Robert B.Luce, 1962.
Nevin, David. "'Fight and Be Damned!' Said Sam Houston." Smithsonian 23, No. 4 (July 1992): 82.
Dingus, Anne. "Sam the Man." Texas Monthly 21, No. 3 (March 1993):110.
"Houston, Sam." Handbook of Texas Online. [Online] Available http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/HH/fho73.html (accessed on January 27, 2003).
"Sam Houston." PBS: New Perspectives on the West. [Online] Available http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/d_h/houston.htm (accessed on January 27, 2003).
"Sam Houston 'The Raven' (1793-1863)." The Lone Star Junction. [Online] Available http://www.lsjunction.com/people/houston.htm (accessed on January 27, 2003).
"Sam Houston 'The Raven' (1793-1863)." Lone Star Internet, All About Texas. [Online] Available http://www.lone-star.net/mall/main-areas/txtrails.htm (accessed on January 27, 2003).
"Sam Houston." Texas State Library and Archives Commission. [Online] Available http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/treasures/giants/houston-01.html (accessed on January 27, 2003).