· · · TEXAS · · ·

SAM HOUSTON

The Man Who Lassoed Texas

Speaker of the House: Samuel Houston, you have been brought before this House, by its order, to answer the charge of having assaulted and beaten William Stanberry, a member of the House of Representatives of the United States from the State of Ohio, for words spoken by him in debate upon a question then depending before the House.… If you desire the aid of counsel … your request will now be received.

Samuel Houston: Mr. Speaker, I wish no counsel.

—REGISTER OF DEBATES, 22ND CONG., APRIL 17, 1832

If you think Texas is big, take a look at the man whose name is now the state’s biggest city: Sam Houston. He stood nearly six and a half feet tall, and that was the least of his outsized aspects. Houston, along with Stephen Austin, are the two people most associated with the fact that Texas is today part of the United States. While Austin followed a relatively direct path (continuing his father’s founding of a colony in Mexico’s sparsely populated region of Tejas), Houston’s path was far more erratic. In retrospect, however, Houston’s life seems inevitably to have led to Texas. Or to being shot dead.

Houston was born in Virginia, the son of a distinguished officer in the American Revolution. When his father died in 1807, the family moved to Tennessee, where fourteen-year-old Sam was enrolled in a Christian school run by his brothers. He played hooky so often the family put him to work in their farm-based trading post. Many of its customers were Cherokees from a nearby settlement. Sam was fascinated both by them and by the novels and literary classics he’d bring to the store from his father’s library. The only downside to being a clerk was being a clerk. So Sam took off at age sixteen and headed into the woods to live with the Cherokees. Over the next several years, he learned their language and customs and found a second father. Houston was adopted by Oolooteka, known also as John Jolly, the leader of these Cherokees and, after their relocation, chief of the Arkansas Cherokees.

Following in the footsteps of both fathers, Sam Houston fought in the War of 1812, which involved the Cherokees, allying with the Americans in response to the fact that their enemy, the Red Stick Creeks, had allied with the British. Wounded at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Houston nevertheless led a courageous charge when the battle seemed lost, only to discover that his comrades hadn’t followed. Within moments Houston was again wounded, this time, it was believed, mortally. But he defied the doctors and lived, and also came to the attention of the commanding general, Andrew Jackson, who became yet another father—or, more accurately, godfather—to Sam Houston. “Old Hickory,” as Jackson was known, appointed his young protégé to serve as the military’s subagent to the Cherokees. In this capacity, Houston accompanied an 1818 delegation of Cherokees to Washington, DC, where, meeting with Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, Lieutenant Houston wore the blanket and loincloth of his adopted brethren. Calhoun was not pleased and, following the meeting, let Houston know it. Houston, equally displeased, resigned.1

Returning to Tennessee, Houston studied law and, for a brief time, was a local attorney. In rapid succession, he was appointed by the governor to the honorary post of major general in the Tennessee militia, elected to Congress in 1823, and reelected in 1825. In 1826 a flurry of gossipy newspaper items regarding one of Houston’s numerous spats noted “information which may be relied upon has been received … that Gen. Houston and Gen. White had gone to Kentucky to fight a duel.” This item, from Richmond’s Constitutional Whig, included a curiously convoluted coda: “Gen. White accompanied Col. Smith when he bore the challenge from John P. Erwin, Esq. to Mr. Houston.” One might think duels the most straightforward way imaginable of resolving differences. Evidently not in this case: someone named Erwin, angry at Houston, got someone named Smith to deliver his challenge, in response to which Houston ended up dueling someone named White, who accompanied Smith.2 Honor among politicians, even then, had its intricacies.

Sam Houston (1793-1863) (photo credit 25.1)

The press reported on the duel as if it were the sporting event of the year, which, in effect, it was. The New York Spectator wrote in October 1826:

The parties met on Thursday morning beyond the Kentucky line. They fought at the distance of fifteen feet only, and at the first fire Houston’s aim took effect, striking White very near the center of the body, but, as he was in a walking position and the ball striking on a rib, it passed round the back and lodged on the opposite side, from which it was easily extracted. Had the ball passed directly through from the point of entrance to the point of extraction, it would have caused instant death.… They were accompanied by their friends on each side, who bear united testimony of the fair and chivalric conduct of the parties.

Clearly, Houston did not lack courage. But he could also tap-dance his way out of danger. Throughout his career, he was challenged to duels by numerous colleagues, including a naval commander and two of the presidents of the Republic of Texas.3 Houston accepted none of their challenges. In fact, he never dueled again, possibly because the practice was coming to entail an additional risk: one could get arrested. Kentucky charged Houston with attempted murder following his duel with White. But he nimbly managed to stay one step ahead of the law, as revealed in an exasperated editorial in Kentucky’s Frankfort Commentator:

A grand jury at Nashville, Tenn. has presented Gen. Houston, of that place, for having lately fought a duel within the limits of this state with Gen. White, who was severely wounded—not as having been guilty of a violation of the laws of God and man, but as having performed a manly act, quite necessary and altogether proper for a gentleman, and which ought to have no unfavorable effect upon his election of Governor of Tennessee!!

That Houston managed to get a grand jury in Tennessee to consider an act he committed in Kentucky attests less to his guilt or innocence than to his ability to maneuver—as does Houston’s subsequent use of the Tennessee grand jury’s ruling as an asset in his bid to become the governor. With the duel having become a campaign issue, outgoing Tennessee governor William Carroll opted not to decide on a response to Kentucky’s request for extradition. The decision then fell to the next governor, Sam Houston, who opted not to order himself to face trial in Kentucky.

While governor, an event took place that exploded Houston’s political plans and landed him, badly damaged, facing Texas. That event was marriage. Three months after Houston wed Eliza Allen, she returned to her parents. The most likely cause was that Eliza had revealed to Houston her love for another man. Houston was twice the age of this eighteen-year-old girl, who may have yielded to her parents’ pressure that she marry the more prestigious man.4 Houston, for his part, said only that the matter was private. But he resigned as governor of Tennessee and went back into the woods, returning to his adopted father, Chief Oolooteka.

Oolooteka, now located in Arkansas, welcomed his prodigal son—though this prodigal son, as the astute chief knew, was closely connected to the new president of the United States, Andrew Jackson. Initially, Chief Oolooteka sent Houston on local missions to mediate intertribal disputes. Other relationships also occupied Houston’s time—one in particular with a Cherokee widow named Diana Rogers Gentry. They soon married. How officially they were married depends on one’s cultural customs, but among the Cherokees and in their own hearts, they were wed. Houston’s relationship with the tribe also deepened as he formally became a full-fledged Cherokee.

Chief Oolooteka then sent Houston to Washington as part of a delegation working out details resulting from the Treaty with the Western Cherokee Nation of 1828. Houston was again in Cherokee garb, this time in the presence of the president. Old Hickory reacted with a grin and an embrace.

Houston’s appearance in Washington as a Cherokee fooled no one—with the possible exception of Houston. His plans at this point were a mystery, perhaps even to himself. Speculation was rampant. Friends in Tennessee began setting the table for his return to elective office. Foes in Tennessee pulled the tablecloth off. In May 1830 the Nashville Banner reported:

At a meeting of sundry respectable citizens … it was resolved that a committee draw up a report expressive of the opinions entertained of the private virtue of Mrs. Eliza Houston, and whether her amiable character has received an injury among those acquainted with her in consequence of the late unfortunate occurrence between her and her husband, Gen. Samuel Houston.… It has been suggested that  … a belief has obtained in many places that he was married to an unworthy woman and that she has been the cause of all his misfortunes and his downfall as a man and a politician. Nothing is further from the fact.… The committee has no hesitation in saying that he is a deluded man; and his suspicions were groundless.

Tennessee was not Houston’s only option. He had also been approached by friends in Texas, where the Anglo population had grown to the point that there was talk of separation from Mexico. Here too his enemies sought to undermine him, reporting that Houston planned to exploit rebellion in Texas by taking its helm. President Jackson wrote to his unpredictable protégé, laughing off the rumor “that you had declared you would, in less than two years, be emperor of that country by conquest.” Jackson then mentioned that the military would suppress any such effort.5

Houston responded to these efforts to confine him by placing an ad in the Nashville Banner. Knowing that the press loved every aspect of his public and private controversies, Houston was assured his ad would soon appear as a news story nationwide. Worded as it was, it did:

Now know all men by these presents, that I, Sam Houston, “late governor of the State of Tennessee,” do hereby declare to all scoundrels whomsoever, that they are authorized to accuse, defame, calumniate, traduce, slander, or vilify and libel me, to any extent in personal or private abuse.… Be it known … I do solemnly promise on the first day of April next, to give to the author of the most elegant, refined, ingenious lie or calumny, a handsome gilt copy (bound in sheep) of the Kentucky Reporter, or a snug plain copy of the United States Telegraph (bound in dog).6

Houston’s humor concealed the dynamite around which it was wrapped. By detonating ridicule beneath the feet of his detractors, Houston obtained time to make a move. That move was to Texas, ostensibly as a business venture. To do so, however, Houston needed to clear the concerns of President Jackson. His move to Texas, therefore, was via Washington.

Jackson too, by dint of his flinty personality, was also an embattled man. Shortly after Houston’s arrival in Washington, Congressman William Stanberry delivered a speech on the floor regarding Jackson appointees who had, or should have been, fired. Amid those he was listing, Stanberry declaimed, “Was the late Secretary of War removed in consequence of his attempt, fraudulently, to give to Governor Houston the contract for Indian rations?” The answer to that question was yes and no. No, that was not why Secretary of War John Eaton had left office. And yes, there had been fraud—but not in Houston’s contract. The fraud was in the previous contract, the holder of which deprived the Cherokees of adequate rations while pocketing the surplus profits. Secretary of War Eaton awarded Houston the new contract knowing it would be administered honestly. In so doing, Eaton aroused the wrath of entrenched political interests.

Houston’s anger at being wrongly accused of fraud was intensified by the fact that he had no legal recourse. Congressmen and senators have immunity from slander for anything they say in session. Houston did what any man worth his salt would do; he sent Stanberry a note. To which Stanberry replied:

I received this morning, by your hands, a note signed Samuel Houston, quoting from the National Intelligencer of the 2nd a remark made by me in the House. The object of the note is to ascertain whether Mr. Houston’s name was used by me in debate, and whether my remarks were correctly quoted. I cannot recognize the right of Mr. Houston to make this request.

Very respectfully yours etc.,

William Stanberry

One might wonder what Stanberry intended to achieve. Why not stand behind his statement, rather than imply the note might not be authentic (and therefore unfair to Houston) and then insult Houston? Elsewhere, Stanberry acknowledged that he knew the note was authentic and also knew the character of the man who sent it. “It was the opinion of one of my friends that it was proper that I should be armed,” he stated on the floor of the House, “that, immediately upon the reception of my note, Mr. Houston would probably make an assault upon me. Mr. [Thomas] Ewing accordingly procured for me a pair of pistols.”

Houston, however, did not assault Stanberry upon receiving his reply. He assaulted him ten days later. There could have been any number of reasons for the delay, including the “hot-headed” Houston’s contemplation of the political chessboard.

One thing certain is that on the evening of April 13, 1832, Stanberry crossed the street from his boarding house and, as he later testified:

At the moment of stepping on the sidewalk, Mr. Houston stood before me. I think he called me by my name and instantly struck me with the bludgeon he had in his hand with great violence, and he repeated the blow while I was down.… Turning on my right side, I got my hand in my pocket and got my pistol and cocked it. I watched an opportunity while he was striking me … and pulled the trigger, aiming at his breast. The pistol did not go off.… He wrested the pistol from my hand and, after some more blows, he left me.

Stanberry’s testimony was not given in court. Houston’s trial took place in the House of Representatives after it voted that its sergeant-at-arms should arrest Houston. Congressman James K. Polk strenuously opposed this action:

Was not the law of the District of Columbia open to the member? Was not the individual who had assaulted him … guaranteed by the Constitution to a trial by jury?

But a counterargument was made by Congressman Daniel Jenifer:

The Constitution … expressly declared that no member might be brought into question elsewhere for words spoken in the House.… Now, [I] would like to know, whether in the present case there had not been an attempt not only to question the words of the member assaulted, but to … deprive him altogether of the power of exercising it.… Was it credible, was it possible, that … in such a matter the House had no right to interfere … that their fellow-member was to be left to the courts of the District of Columbia?

All of this behooved Houston. The attack on the snooty congressman became national news, as Houston likely expected. But the decision to try him in the House of Representatives was a bonus, adding constitutional importance to the story in a way that cast him in the role of victim.

During the trial, Houston’s array of skills was in peak form. Courageously declaring that he wished no counsel, he then, without fanfare, obtained the most celebrated defense attorney of the day: Francis Scott Key. From April 14 to May 14, the House of Representatives devoted nearly all its time to Houston’s trial, ultimately finding him guilty and sentencing him to hear an official reprimand.

Stanberry next chaired a special committee to investigate fraud in Houston’s government contract and brought criminal charges against him in court. Houston was fined $500. Newspapers outside of Washington, DC, devoted no more than nine lines total to the trial—far less than their concurrent coverage of the official report from Stanberry’s committee, which found no fraud.

Houston was now free to go. With his newly bolstered public esteem raising him above the rumormongers, he went where he had intended to go all along: Texas. His successful maneuver, however, was not without cost. Houston’s Cherokee wife, Diana, was unwilling to part from her people. When Houston arrived in Nacogdoches, 165 miles southeast of present-day Dallas, he was alone.

All the rumors Houston’s detractors had circulated about his ambition to lead a revolution in Texas proved true. No sooner had “businessman” Houston arrived than he wrote to President Jackson regarding American acquisition of Texas. “That such a measure is desired by nineteen-twentieths of the population of the province, I cannot doubt,” Houston informed the president. “The course which Texas must and will adopt will render the transfer of Texas inevitable to some power, and if the United States does not press for it, England will most assuredly obtain it by some means.”

Within two months, Houston was elected to be a delegate to a convention seeking Mexican statehood for Texas (then part of the Mexican state of Coahuila). While many at the convention urged independence from Mexico, Houston (contrary to his letter to Jackson) publicly sided with Texas patriarch Stephen Austin in urging loyalty to Mexico. Houston chaired the committee drafting a Mexican statehood constitution. Austin then delivered the document to the national government in Mexico City, where he ended up in jail.

With Mexican president Antonio López de Santa Anna threatening to send troops into Texas, Houston was chosen to head the militia in Nacogdoches. Skirmishes commenced between Mexican troops and the various Texas militias. After a year in prison (and no trial), Austin returned and resumed leadership. But his health had deteriorated during his confinement, and his brilliance was in creating, not destroying. Though Austin had misgivings about Houston, he recognized him as the man most able to lead the military. In 1836 Houston was given command.

In that same year, the two battles that stand out as mileposts in the Texas War of Independence took place: the Battle of the Alamo, a stunning defeat for the Texans, and the Battle of San Jacinto, a victory that marked the end of the war and commenced the independent Republic of Texas. Houston was not at the Alamo. He had, in fact, issued orders for its abandonment and destruction, upon learning of its vulnerability as Mexican forces approached. But his orders were not obeyed. Consequently, as the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin reported:

On the 6th March about midnight, the Alamo was assaulted by the whole force of the Mexican army, commanded by Santa Anna in person. The battle was desperate until daylight, when only seven men belonging to the Texian garrison were found alive who cried for quarters but were told that there was no mercy for them; they then continued fighting until the whole were butchered.… The bodies of the slain were thrown into a heap at the center of the Alamo and burned.

Though the accuracy of this report is open to question, it was the version that “Texians” received. The same news report continued:

Immediately after the capture, Gen. Santa Anna sent … [a] servant to Gen. Houston’s camp … offering the Texians peace and general amnesty if they would lay down their arms and submit to his government. Gen. Houston’s reply was, “True, sir, you have succeeded in killing some of our brave men—but the Texians are not yet conquered.” The effect of the fall [of the Alamo] throughout Texas was electrical. Every man who could use a rifle and was in a condition to take the field marched forthwith to the seat of war.

Once again, an unfortunate affair ended up working in Houston’s favor. Six weeks later, with the Texans’ manpower boosted, events went differently. In May Washington’s National Intelligencer reported:

During the night of the 20th, after the skirmish between Mexican and Texian forces, Gen. Houston … gained a position within rifle distance of the enemy before they were aware of his presence. Two discharges of small arms and cannon loaded with musket balls settled the affair.… The officers broke and endeavored to escape; the mounted riflemen, however, soon overtook all but one.… The pursuers … searched the woods for a long time in vain, when it occurred to an old hunter that the chase might, like a hard-pressed bear, have “taken a tree.” The tree tops were examined, when lo! the game was discovered snugly ensconced in the forks of a large live oak. The captors did not know who their prisoner was until they reached the camp, when the Mexican soldiers exclaimed, “El General! El Gefe! Santa Anna!”

The captured Mexican leader signed a surrender. Though it did not include recognition of the Republic of Texas, for all practical purposes Texas was now an independent nation.

On September 5, 1836, Sam Houston became the second president of Texas, defeating the ailing Stephen Austin by a margin of nearly ten to one. Though Houston, like his mentor, Andrew Jackson, had earned a reputation for brash statements and acts, both men were capable of caution, as reflected at this politically critical moment. President Jackson’s remarks on Texas called for moderation:

My friend Sam Houston, after he thrashed Stanberry of Ohio, went to Texas.… Santa Anna said to Houston … “You must give up your arms.” At this, Sam, whom I taught to fight, the rogue, stood straight up and told him, “Come and take them.” On this Santa Anna … marched into Texas, passed the Rio del Norte and all the other rivers whose names I cannot remember, till he got as far as the San Jacinto. There Sam and his troops … attacked the Mexicans—routed, killed, chased, and captured the whole lot—pulled Santa Anna from a tree, up which he had climbed, and thus almost equaled—not quite—my victory at New Orleans. On this the Texians have established their independence.… I am informed that they want to be admitted into the Union, but we must not let that come yet. Let their recognition be openly made. Let Mexico and Europe be persuaded that it is no use to think of stopping Texas from going her own way.7

Houston echoed this view when addressing the Texas legislature on the subject of annexation to the United States. “It is not possible to determine what are to be [our] future relations,” he stated. “Texas, with her superior natural advantages, must become a point of attraction, and the policy of establishing with her the earliest relations of friendship and commerce will not escape the eye of statesmen.”

Houston devoted his presidency to the mundane tasks required to bring economic stability to his deeply indebted nation. Limited by law to one term, Houston subsequently served in the Texas House of Representatives, where he counseled moderation regarding plans to expand into regions of Mexico that today include New Mexico, Arizona, and California. The initial target was an expedition to occupy Santa Fe, since the town was within the Rio Grande boundary that Texas declared to be its border. Houston declared the expedition foolhardy: the Hispanic population of Santa Fe would receive them as enemies, and the act of aggression would provide sympathy for, and justify military action from, Mexico. The bill was defeated.

Still, Houston did not completely oppose expansion; his views were simply more pragmatic. After returning to the presidency in December 1841, Houston described to the U.S. minister to Texas an astonishing vision for the future if the United States did not offer it statehood:

Houston’s vision of United States without Texas

The union of Oregon and Texas will be much more natural and convenient than for either separately to belong to the United States.… Such an event may appear fanciful to many, but I assure you there are no Rocky Mountains interposing to such a project. But one thing can prevent its accomplishment and that is annexation.… Most of the provinces of Chihuahua, Sonora, and Upper and Lower California, as well as Santa Fe, which we now claim, will have to be brought into the connection of Texas and Oregon. This you will see, by reference to the map, is no bugbear to those who will reflect upon the achievement of the Anglo-Saxon people.8

Such a map did indeed seem both fanciful and logical. The time had come for the United States to make up its mind about Texas.

On April 12, 1844, President John Tyler signed and sent to the Senate a treaty with the Republic of Texas that would convert the republic into an American territory. During the treaty’s negotiations, public opinion was highly divided over whether or not the nation wanted Texas. Many in the North vehemently opposed the annexation of Texas, and not simply because it would be a slave state, but because Congress gave Texas the option of becoming as many as five states more equal in size with other states. Consequently, Southerners, envisioning ten additional proslavery votes in the Senate, vehemently supported its annexation. Texans, however, had developed such a strong sense of identify that they never considered subdividing the state. To remain a slave state, though, Texas had to relinquish its land north of 36°30’ (the top of its Panhandle) to be in compliance with the Missouri Compromise.

Ultimately, a quest shared by Northerners and Southerners—expansion of the nation—prevailed over their slavery conflict, and Texas was admitted to the Union on March 1, 1845. Houston was elected to represent Texas in the U.S. Senate, where he participated in an additional boundary change. With the state still facing enormous debts from its days as a republic, Houston supported the $10 million sale to the United States of a large chunk of western Texas, which was then annexed to New Mexico.

More important was the context in which that sale took place: the Compromise of 1850, in which the central issue was slavery. Without the Compromise of 1850, the South would have seceded, as ten years later it nevertheless did. Though Sam Houston supported slavery, he opposed secession till the day he died in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. Back during the debate in 1850, he had summoned all of his oratorical skills on behalf of loyalty to the Union. Those skills, like so many of Sam Houston’s skills, were formidable. So formidable that a future president filched one of the lines from Houston’s speech: “A nation divided against itself cannot stand.”9

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