Samuel Houston

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Samuel Houston

Samuel Houston (1793-1863), American statesman and soldier, was the person most responsible for bringing Texas into the Union.

Sam Houston's life was controversial and colorful. It exemplified the opportunities that existed on the American frontier: he rose from humble origins to become governor of two states and to represent both in Congress.

Houston was born on March 2, 1793, in Rockbridge County, Va. Following the death of his father, he and his mother moved to Blount County, Tenn., in 1807. Houston received less than a year and a half of formal education. In 1809, when farming and clerking proved distasteful to him, he ran away to live with the Cherokee Indians for 3 years. The Cherokee called him "The Raven." In 1812 he established a subscription school, where he also taught for a year.

Soldier and Lawyer

During the War of 1812 Houston enlisted as a private and rose to the rank of second lieutenant. He was severely wounded during the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, and Gen. Andrew Jackson, commander in the engagement, commended him for his coolness and courage. After the war Houston applied for a commission in the Regular Army and was assigned to Jackson's command at Nashville, where he also served as subagent to the Cherokee. Resigning his commission in 1818, he studied law and was quickly admitted to the bar. He established his practice at Lebanon, Tenn.

Entering politics in 1819 as a Jacksonian Democrat, Houston proved a colorful and magnetic orator and was elected attorney general of Tennessee. Two years later he was named major general of the Tennessee militia. In 1823 he was elected to Congress and reelected in 1825. He was elected governor of Tennessee in 1827 and probably would have been reelected in 1829 had not personal tragedy interfered. In January 1829 he had married Eliza Allen, but in April she left him. In response, Houston resigned his governorship and went to live with the Cherokee in the western part of Arkansas Territory.

Establishing himself near Ft. Gibson (in present Oklahoma), Houston opened a trading post and took a Cherokee wife, Tiana Rogers. Twice he represented the Cherokee in dealings with the Federal government. On the second trip, in 1832, Ohio representative William Stanberry charged him with misdealings with the Indians; enraged, Houston beat the congressman with a cane. Houston was tried by the House of Representatives, which issued a reprimand.

Career in Texas

In late 1832 President Andrew Jackson sent Houston to deliver peace medals to tribes of western Indians and to negotiate with them. After fulfilling this obligation, he decided to cast his lot with Texas, at this time a Mexican province, because of the land available there at reasonable prices. He established a law practice at Nacogdoches.

Houston was elected a delegate to the Convention of 1833, which advocated separate statehood for Texas within the Mexican Republic. He aligned himself with the militant faction of Texans, and when the revolution began in October 1835, he was elected commander in chief of the army. However, the volunteers refused to follow his lead during the winter of 1835/1836, and he spent his time with the Cherokee. Again, in 1836, he was named commander in chief of the Texan forces, this time by the convention that met to declare Texas independent.

Houston rallied a small army, drilled it briefly, then led it into battle. On April 21, 1836, he met the force commanded by Mexican president Antonio López de Santa Ana at San Jacinto. Houston's 783 men fought an estimated 1, 500 Mexicans. The battle lasted 18 minutes and was a decisive defeat for the Mexicans. Santa Ana was later captured.

In 1836 Houston was elected the first president of the Republic of Texas. During his 2-year term he followed a conservative policy, seeking annexation to the United States, peace with the Indians and with Mexico, and minimum government spending. He served as president again from 1841 to 1844. His chosen successor, Dr. Anson Jones, concluded the annexation of Texas to the United States in 1845, and Houston became one of the state's first senators.

National Politics

Houston served Texas as a senator from 1845 to 1859. He was the only Southern Democrat to vote for the Compromise of 1850 and against the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Also, he frequently spoke for Indian rights. In 1859, fearing the drift toward Southern secession from the Union, he returned to Texas to campaign for the governorship. Despite charges of cowardice and treason, he was elected. He opposed secession and was able to force a statewide vote on the issue. When the vote favored secession, Houston refused President Abraham Lincoln's offer of troops to help him retain office. In March 1861 Houston was deposed from office for failure to take the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy.

Houston had remarried in 1840, following a Texas divorce. His third wife, Margaret Lea of Alabama, bore him eight children. They maintained a home at Huntsville, Tex., and there Houston died on July 26, 1863, having seen most of his predictions about the disaster of secession borne out. Proud to the point of being vain, Houston in later years had signed his first name with an "I" instead of an "S, " so that his signature read "I am Houston."

Further Reading

Most of the known writings of Houston are contained, with adequate footnotes and introduction, in The Writings of Sam Houston, edited by Amelia Williams and Eugene C. Barker (8 vols., 1938-1943). A thorough and factual biography of Houston is Llerena Friend, Sam Houston (1954). Marquis James, The Raven: A Biography of Sam Houston (1929), is slightly more readable but very romanticized. □

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Samuel Houston

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