Awesome People in History: Sam Houston

Sam Houston image from Wikipedia

Texans are going to be really happy about this one.

It’s been a while since we’ve done one of these, and I have never shared the story of a man that I think is a true American hero. Sam Houston, the man who is one of the key reasons Texas is now a part of the United States and not Mexico, lived one of the most interesting lives of anyone I’ve ever known. He was governor of two states, the only U.S. governor to have previously been a foreign head of state, an officer in two different wars for two different armies, and a citizen of four nations. And he did all of it by being by all accounts both a real rough-and-tumble fighter and a man far ahead of his time. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Sam Houston was born to a pioneer family in Virginia. His father had fought in the American Revolution, but died when Sam was 14 years old, leaving the family deep in debt. He moved with his mother and siblings to the then-very-new settlement of Maryville, Tennessee. Young Sam worked as a shop clerk in his older brother’s store, but felt very unsatisfied with his job and his life. At 16, he ran away from home, and joined the Cherokee Indians, living among them for three years. He was adopted by the Cherokee chief Ahuludegi (better known as “John Jolly”), who called him Colonneh, “the raven”.

In 1812, Sam Houston returned home to Maryville and started the first school in Tennessee. Shortly after, however, news arrived that America had declared war on Britain. Sam volunteered, and rose to the rank of lieutenant. At the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, he took an arrow to the groin but kept right on fighting. He also was wounded by bullets in the shoulder and arm before the war was over.

Returning home, he was briefly assigned as an ambassador to the Cherokees, returning to his adopted father Ahuludegi to convince him to relocate the tribe to Arkansas. It was a difficult assignment, and Sam chose to show up to negotiations in traditional Cherokee dress to make trust-building easier. For this, he was chewed out by his superiors, and therefore Houston quit.

Instead, Houston pursued a career in law and politics. He was elected to Congress in 1822, and in 1827 he took office as Governor of Tennessee. During this time, he also joined the Freemasons. Houston was widely believed to be a political supporter of Andrew Jackson, and this was mostly true, though he objected very strongly to the way Jackson’s government treated the Native Americans.

Gee, I wonder what he could have objected to?

Gee, I wonder what he could have objected to?

In 1829, he married the wealthy heiress Eliza Allen, but the marriage blew apart in a matter of months. The ensuing scandal shamed Houston out of office and out of state; he resigned on April 16 and moved back in with his adopted Cherokee family, who were now living in Oklahoma. He began drinking his problems away, earning the nickname “Big Drunk” among the Cherokees. Gradually, though, Houston got over himself, was declared a formal Cherokee citizen, remarried the half-Indian Tiana Rogers Gentry, and founded a trading post.

Houston saw many things he didn’t like about the way the U.S. government treated the Indians in Oklahoma, and in the early 1830s he made several trips to Washington, D.C. to protest. When he got nowhere, he finally snapped on April 13, 1832. He took his trademark hickory cane, and beat the living snot out of Rep. William Stanbery of Ohio. Convicted of assault, Houston was ordered to pay a fine and to pay $500 in damages to Stanbery. Instead of paying up, Houston fled to Mexico.

Not Canada? Really?

Not Canada? Really?

Now, we need a little background. In 1820, American businessman Moses Austin was given a grant by the Spanish government to settle 300 American families in Texas. Before the plan could take effect, two things happened that shook things up. First, Moses Austin died, and second, Mexico won its independence from Spain and Texas was now part of Mexico. Moses’s son, Stephen F. Austin, persevered and got the new Mexican government to recognize the original Spanish grant, and to later increase the number of American immigrants allowed into Texas. There were conditions, though. These American immigrants were required to convert to Roman Catholicism and learn to speak Spanish.

Thus, Sam Houston was baptized in the Catholic faith and became a Mexican citizen under the name “Samuel Pablo”. He tried to convince his wife Tiana to move to Texas with him, but she chose to remain in Oklahoma. She died of pneumonia in 1838.

No sooner had Houston arrived than he became embroiled in the growing political struggle between the American colonists and the Mexican government. In 1835, he was chosen to lead the new Texas Army. On March 2, 1836, he signed the Texas Declaration of Independence.

The war, at first, didn’t go so well for the rebels. After the defeat at the Alamo, Houston spent several weeks trying to train his not-at-all-fit “army” while retreating from the Mexican forces. Finally, on April 21, he was able to crush the Mexican forces in a surprise attack at San Jacinto. Though his horse was shot out from under him and his ankle was shattered, Houston was able to win with few casualties and even capture Mexican president Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, forcing him to recognize Texan independence.

Okay! Okay! I'll give you your stinkin' independence already! Sheesh!

Okay! Okay! I’ll give you your stinkin’ independence already! Sheesh!

Houston easily won election as the first president of the new Republic of Texas. Right away, he tried to get the new country annexed to the United States, but Uncle Sam was not all that interested at the time. Furthermore, Houston was distracted by the struggle to maintain the fragile peace in the new country between Americans, Mexicans, and Indians. Constitutionally barred from serving consecutive terms as president, Houston stepped down in 1839 but remained involved in politics as a legislator. He spent most of his time in the Texan Congress fighting to protect the rights of Texas’s Indians. In 1840, he married yet again, this time to the strict Baptist and Alabama native Margaret Moffette Lea. She helped Houston get over his alcoholism, and had eight children with him. Eventually, Houston would become a Baptist himself.

In 1841, Houston won the presidency once again. He faced a country that was virtually bankrupt, and made many unpopular decisions to try to reduce expenses and maintain the peace. Several times, citizens and protesters blatantly violated his orders and prevented them from taking effect. Eventually, though, Texas secured annexation to the United States as its 28th state.

And giving a famous amusement park franchise its name.

And giving a famous amusement park franchise its name.

From 1846 to 1859, Sam Houston represented Texas in the U.S. Senate, where he was a moderate that opposed the break-up of the United States and incurred the political wrath of both pro-slavery and anti-slavery extremists. Though he was disliked by Texas politicians, he remained popular, and in 1859 he was elected Governor of Texas. Almost immediately, the political crisis that would lead to the Civil War overtook him. He begged the government of Texas not to leave the Union, but was ignored. On March 16, 1861, he was declared removed from office for refusing to swear an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy. He retired and settled in Huntsville, Texas, where he died in 1863.

Houston was quite the character, and although flawed, he seemed in the end to be a man with a great heart. To me, Houston was a man far ahead of his time. His constant struggle to defend Native Americans, at a time when many Americans wanted to wipe them from existence to get them out of the way for “civilization” to spread, and his failed attempt to keep Texas from siding with the South in the Civil War, teaches us that the right thing is worth fighting for, even if it is unpopular.

Information from The Texas State Historical Association, Wikipedia, and PBS.

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3 Responses to Awesome People in History: Sam Houston

  1. Raphael Cena says:

    I found something similar elsewhere and really enjoyed. Some more of this please! Thanks

  2. Pingback: Awesome People In History: Fred Rogers | Cat Flag

  3. Pingback: Awesome Villain in History: William Walker | Cat Flag

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