At the Battle of Horseshoe Bend during the War of 1812, a young Sam Houston (all 6’3” of him) charged through withering fire into hand-to-hand combat, sustaining a near-mortal wound. He and others tried repeatedly to wrench a long arrow out of his thigh until a final attempt succeeded leaving him in a pool of his own blood. When General Jackson called for another assault, the severely injured and badly limping Houston roused himself with musket in hand to lead a second charge. He took two musket balls and hit the ground with a triple wound. Andrew Jackson was duly impressed.
When Houston was born in Virginia on March 2, 1793, George Washington was beginning his second term and the US population was 4 million–mostly farmers. After Sam’s father died in1806, his mother and nine children re-settled on the Tennessee frontier. As a boy, Sam rarely darkened the door of a school house but he ravenously read classics like The Iliad, Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Caruso and the Bible. He dreamed of heroic and exciting deeds and was soon prone to long absences from the family farm. One time, he disappeared into the forest and was found living with a Cherokee Indian tribe. The chief took a liking to Sam, adopted him and named him ‘Ka lanu’ (‘The Raven’). He learned to hunt, fish and speak their language fluently. After three years he came back to Maryville to work as a clerk and then, despite his lack of schooling, a school master to pay off debts. Then, at age 20, he joined the U.S. Army. Upon his departure, his mother told him, “While the door of my cabin is open to brave men, it is eternally shut to cowards.” The rest is history.
After his exploits in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Houston was promoted to a lieutenant and sent to New York for surgical care. His next post was to General Jackson’s staff at the Hermitage near Nashville. Houston survived his wounds to live a colorful, controversial and accomplished life as an Indian agent, trader, district attorney, major general, congressman, Governor of Tennessee, signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, commander-in-chief of its rebel army, Governor of Texas (elected with four-fifths of the vote), two-time President of the Republic of Texas, and, after Texas was admitted into the Union in 1845, a U.S. senator for thirteen years. In 1859, he was elected Governor of Texas again, becoming the only person elected to serve as governor of two U.S. states by popular vote. Still, his greatest triumph was at the Battle of San Jacinto, April 21, 1836, when General Houston surprised the Mexican forces led by Santa Ana during a “siesta” to win a decisive victory in less than 18 minutes. Two horses were shot out from under the General and his ankle was shattered by a bullet, but Texas had her independence.
In 1829, Houston’s first marriage dissolved for reason’s unexplained. We know their age gap was large and she was repulsed by his war injury. This led to his resignation as Governor of Tennessee in 1829 at the peak of his early career. His quick rise was met with a hard fall. Black moods and bouts with binge drinking recurred. He called himself “a ruined man.” He soon re-joined his adoptive Cherokee family. Eventually, after his mother died, he emerged from his funk and took a trip to Washington, D.C. as a delegate for the Cherokees. A street fight with a congressman led to a notorious trial in 1832 in which he was defended by none other than Francis Scott Key. It became a huge “media event.” In the end, Houston rose to his own defense with a rousing speech that evoked a standing ovation from the galleries. A split vote still found him guilty of assault. A mild reprimand and a $500 fine was issued, which President Jackson eventually pardoned. From that point on, Sam turned his face toward Texas.
Houston championed individual liberty with a passion. He once preached, “When tyrants ask you to yield one jot of your liberty, and you consent thereto, it is the first link forged in the chain that will eventually hold you in bondage.” He was a brash self-promoter with plenty of enemies. A short list of famous Americans who bitterly opposed him includes John C Calhoun, John Quincy Adams, Martin van Buren and Jefferson Davis. The support of Andrew Jackson was often enough to counter the opposition and keep him coming back. True to form, he rose up the ranks quickly in Texas too.
Houston, a dual citizen of the USA and the Cherokee nation, frequently fought for the rights of Indians, often standing alone. As early as 1836, although he owned slaves himself, he partially ended the slave trade in Texas. As early as 1848, his warnings of a looming civil war showed more prescience than any statesman in his day. When war came in 1861, Governor Houston opposed the secession of Texas from the Union and was removed from office for this unpopular stand.
On a happy note, Houston’s third marriage was the charm. In 1840, he married Margaret Lea of Alabama, a minister’s daughter. She persuaded Sam to stop drinking and join the Baptist church. They had eight children. When Sam died of pneumonia in 1863, his last words were “Margaret! Margaret! Texas! Texas!” She noted his death in the family Bible and described him as “Gen. Sam Houston, the beloved and affectionate Husband, father, devoted patriot, the fearless soldier—the meek and lowly Christian.” That last line may not ring fitting to his early enemies but Margaret got the last word.
Four years after Sam’s passing, Margaret volunteered during a yellow fever epidemic to nurse the sick and dying. The fever that took many of her friends also got her. She died while living out her evangelical faith.
POSTSCRIPT: /strong>Since childhood I have been told that I am a descendant of Sam Houston. My maternal grandfather’s middle name was “Houston.” Claiming the Founding Father of Texas as my “great, great, great . . . Uncle Sam” always gets me some respect from my Texan friends.
PRIMARY SOURCE: Sam Houston: A Biography of the Father of Texas, by John Hoyt Williams (Simon & Schuster, 1993).