Cover image for Sam Houston
Sam Houston
Haley, James L.
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Publication Information:
Norman : University of Oklahoma Press, [2002]

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xxii, 513 pages : illustrations ; 27 cm
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F390.H84 H34 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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In-depth biography explores the story of Houston's many accomplishments and the complex man behind them.

Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

There is no shortage of good biographies of Houston, and the bicentennial of his birth (1993) created a cottage industry of lives, such as Marshall de Bruhl's Sword of San Jacinto (LJ 2/15/93) and John Hoyt Williams's Sam Houston: A Biography of the Father of Texas (LJ 12/92), both out of print. Haley (Texas: From Frontier to Spindletop) argues that most biographies fail to provide a completely accurate picture of the man and that, despite over 60 biographies, Houston remains a mystery in many ways. Using an amazing array of primary source materials, including many recently discovered Houston papers in scattered collections, Haley explores a more personal angle, looking at what "made Houston tick" by examining topics that were important to Houston himself (e.g., Native American dealings). From his rise and fall in Tennessee politics and through his many roles in Texas, Haley paints a lively picture of a sometimes deeply troubled man. While this is not a definitive biography, it is a refreshing, important look at a weighty yet often overlooked figure in American politics. Ample illustrations and Haley's easy style make the book accessible to lay readers, while his exhaustive research should appeal to academics. Recommended for public and academic libraries. Mike Miller, Dallas P.L. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One THE RUNAWAY GROCERY BOY The fledgling United States secured its independence with victory in battle at Yorktown, Virginia, in October of 1781. In the Treaty of Paris two years later, Great Britain was not only compelled to accept defeat but the American negotiators, Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, also played skillfully on the rivalry between England and France. Their former enemy proved so anxious to keep America out of the French orbit that, in the end, Franklin and Jay euchred Britain out of her land claims as far west as the Mississippi River. It was a loss said to have cost England's brittle king, George III, his last grip on reality.     But America was not a country, it was a "league of friendship" among thirteen independent and jealous states, "bound" together by the largely nonbinding Articles of Confederation, which had been drafted during the second year of the Revolution. This form of national government, with multiple currencies and domestic tariffs and tax contributions paid to the central authority whenever the states felt generous, proved intolerable. In 1786, delegates gathered in Annapolis and proposed that a convention be held the following year in Philadelphia to draft a revised instrument of government.     That convention opened on May 25, 1787, in Philadelphia's Independence Hall, and during sixteen sweltering weeks in that hothouse of summer sweat and contesting intellect, thirty-nine delegates forged the greatest political compact ever conceived, the Constitution of the United States, which was signed on September 17. Upon ratification by nine of the thirteen states, the Constitution was to become binding on those states who consented to it, and most did so quickly. But of the four leading states, Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania, only the fourth moved with speed. Massachusetts refused to sign on until it was agreed that a Bill of Rights would soon be submitted as amendments. In New York, Alexander Hamilton had to threaten to split New York City off from the rest of the state before that legislature complied. But the hardest fight was in Virginia, where James Monroe and Patrick Henry fought against it. James Madison and John Marshall undertook a parliamentary brawl to save it, and in the end they prevailed by a vote of 89 to 79.     In a way it was appropriate that the toughest test came in Virginia because, of the original thirteen states, it stood just a forehead taller than the others. Massachusetts had produced the blunt but brilliant John Adams, and New York produced the lawyering Jay and the calculating Hamilton. Pennsylvania, founded by Quakers, contributed the deeply loved Franklin. But of founding stock, Virginia stood preeminent. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Marshall alone defeated all comers to that claim. But just as the United States now was a union of diversity, so too was Virginia. There was not one Virginia--there were two.     There was the Virginia of the tidewater, of Jamestown and the other early settlements. Predominantly English, many residents had been in the New World for generations before revolution was ever thought of. They now regarded themselves as America's aristocracy, and their world, and their snobbery, extended inland to the eastern flank of the Appalachians. Their only interest in Virginia west of the mountains was as land speculators. People living in that wilderness they regarded as mostly ruffians--guaranteed their rights under the Constitution now, and that was well enough, but a breed apart and set a little down. To well-bred Virginians of the tidewater, intermarriage, for instance, with the mountain people was unthinkable.     This was unfair, for many of the western Virginians were every bit as well educated and cultured as those of the tidewater--a few, like Jefferson, moreso. But the realities of living in the western lands were different. There, a livelihood still had to be wrested from the wilderness; the conditions were raw, and the opportunities to rise by one's own merit were fresher. It should be no surprise, then, that the difference between eastern and western Virginia also defined the first meaningful divergence in American political philosophy, the split between Federalists and Jeffersonian Democrats. It was no accident that Washington's beloved Mount Vernon overlooked the sloughing tides of the Potomac, while Jefferson's equally beloved Monticello sat atop its Little Mountain near the Blue Ridge like a gracious Greek eyrie.     One part of the tidewater's ledger against the west was true enough. The Virginians of the mountains, and of the broad valley of the Shenandoah River just beyond, were a different breed. That region was not settled primarily by Virginians who went west over the mountains. It was settled rather by Scots-Irish immigrants who came down the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road from the population centers of the Northeast. Many were of families who had been familiar with each other for generations: the clans Davidson, McCormick, Paxton, McCorkle, Houston, Stuart, and others. They had come southwest, up the Shenandoah Valley all the way to its headwaters and beyond, before settling in the environs of Rockbridge County and the town of Lexington.     At the time Virginia acquiesced to the Constitution, if there was a first among equals of these very democratic families, it was the Houstons, and more particularly the family of Capt. Samuel Houston of Timber Ridge plantation in Rockbridge County, seven miles east of Lexington. During the Revolution he had served as captain and paymaster of Morgan's Rifle Brigade, the closest thing to an elite unit in the Continental army. He gained enough of a reputation to return home and in 1783 marry Elizabeth Paxton, daughter of the richest man in the region. When he inherited his father Robert Houston's Timber Ridge, with its fine, two-story porticoed mansion, Captain Houston seemed justified in thinking himself a fitting scion of his family. * * * Reckoning of the modern genealogy usually begins with Sir John Houston, builder of the family's baronial estate near Johnstone, Scotland, in the late 1600s, but the ancestry stretches much further back to one Sir Hugh of Padivan, a Norman knight and retainer of William the Conqueror. For later service in racing through the thick of battle to save the life of Malcolm, king of Scotland, Sir Hugh received an addition to his coat of arms: two swift greyhounds supporting the motto "IN TEMPORE" over his older Norman escutcheon of three ravens. He also received an estate in Renfrew, and the settlement that grew up around it became known as Hughstown, the common source of variant family spellings of Houstoun, Houston, and Huston.     Sam Houston's great-grandfather John Houston, son of the above John Houston who built the castle, after a lengthy sojourn in Ireland immigrated to America in 1735, accompanied by his aged mother, his wife Margaret Mary (née Cunningham), and six of their seven children. They prospered many years in Pennsylvania, but eventually the prevalence of Germans, with their Lutheranism, and the call of greater opportunities to be had in the Virginia Appalachians led him to join the train of Scots-Irish Presbyterians that creaked and rumbled up the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road into the Shenandoah Valley. He purchased the land east of Lexington, and as he slowly added slaves and acres to his Timber Ridge plantation, his means and social prominence led to the people calling him "squire." The title was unofficial, but he took his noblesse oblige seriously, building a stone church for his neighbors to worship in and serving them as soldier and judge. In 1754 the squire, then about sixty-five years old, was killed, according to family tradition, by a limb falling from a burning tree. Ownership of Timber Ridge passed to his son Robert, who continued its skillful management until in good time he bequeathed it to his son Capt. Samuel Houston, formerly of Morgan's Rifle Brigade.     Like his father, Samuel Houston was a second son, and like his father he had married well. Elizabeth Paxton bore him four sons--Paxton, Robert, James, and John--before her fifth confinement produced yet another boy, this one selected to bear his father's name: Sam Houston was born on March 2, 1793. In the following years four more children appeared: a sixth son, William, and finally three daughters, Isabella, Mary, and Eliza Ann. But unlike his father, Samuel Houston was not a skillful manager. In the years after the Revolution, Captain Houston served as inspector of the frontier militias, a post that he enjoyed and at which he excelled, for he relished the ruggedness of military life. It came at a cost, however, for militia officers were expected to pay their own expenses. Although the job required long absences from home, Houston managed to keep up a commitment to improving his community, including a lively interest in education. As early as May of 1776, he and Capt. Hamilton Stuart donated several acres of land in the village of Timber Ridge for the establishment of an academy, upon which land his neighbors underwrote the erection of a lofted hewn-log structure twenty-four by twenty-eight feet. The academy, rather daringly named Liberty Hall, prospered and later relocated. In 1798 the corresponding clerk of the Board of Directors, still Captain Houston, wrote former president George Washington seeking his sanction to rename the institution in his honor. Washington agreed. Over time, however, Captain Houston's militia expenses, time spent tending to what he perceived as his civic responsibilities, and most of all his long absences from and inattention to Timber Ridge left the plantation hopelessly in debt.     Financial ruin in the era of the open frontier was commonly handled in a fashion no longer available: sell out, patent raw land in a new place, and begin again. Although he was now sixty-two years old, Captain Houston resolved to do exactly this. Some of his relations had already established themselves in the hills of east-central Tennessee and were doing well. Arranging to sell what was left of three generations of effort for a thousand pounds, he bought land near his kin around the settlement of Maryville, fifteen miles south of Knoxville, and spent $174 on a large wagon and a five-horse hitch to make the move. Then in the spring of 1807, while fulfilling his duties as militia inspector, Captain Houston died unexpectedly at Dennis Callaghan's tavern on the New Road to Kentucky. He was buried in a cemetery near the High Bridge--a scenic natural feature now known as Natural Bridge--fifteen miles southwest of Timber Ridge and one mile from Forest Tavern, a substantial operation run by his cousin Matthew Houston.     The following November, his widow and their favorite son, John, who inherited the captain's sword and a share double that of the other children, appeared in court to probate the estate--five slaves, all women and children, and an assortment of personal property appraised at $3,659.84. After the creditors had lined up for payment, she was left with enough, and Elizabeth Paxton Houston, aged fifty-two, with feelings unknown, loaded up all she thought necessary in two wagons and struck southwest up the valley. * * * Through his educational interests, Captain Houston had accumulated a library that was, by frontier standards, luxurious. His first four boys, occupied with schooling and work, seem to have taken little notice. It was his fifth son and namesake, Sam, thirteen at the time of his father's death, who could lose himself in the shelves of books even to the detriment of his formal education. He was, in fact, more truant than in attendance, finding he could work up little interest for mathematics when he had Pope's translation of the Iliad waiting for him at home. He was better about church, attending services with the family in the stone edifice built by his great-grandfather, Squire John, but from his often-incorrigible behavior, no one took him for an aspirant to the cloth. Young Sam was big for his age. Traditional history in Rockbridge County has it that shortly before the move to Tennessee, curious about his height, he flattened himself against the frame of his cellar door, leveled a pistol over his head, and fired. Judged by the bullet hole, if his aim was steady, he stood five feet, eleven inches--an estimate that corresponds with Houston's own reckoning that around this time he stood "nearly six feet tall." In the years after Elizabeth Paxton Houston moved her brood to Tennessee, her Virginia home was razed and the foundation partly incorporated into Church Hill, the family seat of Washington College trustee Horatio Thompson. The newer dwelling cannibalized the Houston house for its locks and hinges, a mantel, and the cellar door with the bullet hole in the frame.     The road southwest followed the James River valley. The family would have passed the High Bridge and probably spent the night a mile farther on at Forest Tavern. Matthew Houston had built the place three years before Sam was born, and it was one of the boy's favorite romping places. This may well have been the uncle who, as Elizabeth Houston's two wagons rumbled away to a new life, shook his head about the boy's future. "I have no hope for Sam," he sighed. "He is so wild."     In 1807 the United States of America was thirty-one years old; the state of Tennessee was eleven. Thomas Jefferson was ending his second term as president, and the frontier had hardly moved west of the Appalachian Mountains. When the widow Houston packed her necessities and immigrated to Tennessee, she showed uncommon courage and determination, traits that, from all accounts, matched her large build and forceful personality. In the Appalachian foothills of east-central Tennessee, she reached Maryville and then continued up Baker's Creek into the higher and more rugged hills until she reached her relations and her 419-acre farm. There she started anew. She cleared land, built a house, and planted crops. All the children shouldered their share of the labor; a better manager than her husband, she soon acquired an interest in a Maryville mercantile.     Within a few years of the move, the eldest son, Paxton, and the eldest daughter, Isabella, died, and her second son, Robert, also died without issue. Elizabeth Paxton Houston then came to depend upon her next two sons, James and John, to operate the farm, help run the store in Maryville, and help raise the other children properly. Sam was a different case. He was good looking, made friends easily, and never wanted for companions when he roughhoused through the woods. Like his father, however, he was a combination of ambition and indolence, a mix of big dreams and, apparently, an averseness to work. For his education, Sam was enrolled in the Porter Academy, with some hope that he would have greater success as a pupil than he had in Virginia. Certainly the young dreamer had shown a passion for his father's books. The Houston library had come to Tennessee with the family, and in those volumes Sam could abandon the dreary reality of pulling stumps and hoeing corn. Reliving the epics of Homer and Virgil, he compared these legends with actual events as recorded in Rollins's Ancient History . His fascination with Morse's two-volume Geography manifested itself throughout his life with references and allusions that left his many correspondents scratching their heads. But although the young Houston could secret himself away for hours enraptured by the classics, in a classroom he remained, from all indications, terrible. "Often I had determined to whip Sam Houston," recalled Maryville schoolmaster Dr. Isaac Anderson of that era when teachers ruled with the rod, "but he would come up with such a pretty dish of excuses that I could not do it." He had wit quick enough to escape a beating, but a lifetime later, in a letter to his own son, Sam Houston admitted that he was able to endure formal education for less than a year altogether. About the only thing that interested him in school was the sound and use of language, and even when playing hooky he would draw within earshot to absorb the spelling lessons. Otherwise, he could not be bothered with classes.     It probably did not help that two of Porter Academy's trustees were his brothers James and John, whom he derisively referred to as the "Holy Apostles"--an attitude that also summed up the surface, but not the depth, of his attitude toward religion. In this truant youth the current of spirituality ran deep but muddy. His mother was a strict Presbyterian, and although young Sam sensed the reality of the Almighty, he found in the dour frontier sermons on hellfire and damnation more to terrorize than to uplift him--a confusion that lasted through most of his life. What he did find appealing was the free and unsophisticated spiritual expression of the Native Americans. The Houston farm lay almost at the boundary of the Cherokee Nation, and with easy access and trade across the border, Sam Houston found plenty of opportunities to gratify his curiosity about this most advanced of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes.     The "Holy Apostles" could not have cared less about the Cherokees, and when repeated attempts to get Sam to take an interest in the farm came to naught, they and their mother decided to put him to work in the Maryville store. However, except for his chums and the Cherokees who came in to trade, this was a labor he found even less bearable. The youth withstood his family's hounding for three years, then one day he did not come in to work. Sam Houston, age sixteen, a dreaming, frustrated grocery boy, ran away from home. Ever afterward he corresponded warmly with his cousins; kept informed of the welfare of his only younger brother, William; and retained an affectionate solicitude for his sisters. But of his immediate family whom he found guilty of ill using him, he was--except for one brief interlude in 1815--free. He did once write a touching tribute to his mother, in his autobiography, characterizing her as "an extraordinary woman ... distinguished by a full, rather tall, and matronly form, a fine carriage, and an impressive and dignified countenance. She was gifted with intellectual and moral qualities, which elevated her, in a still more striking manner, above most of her sex. Her life shone with purity and benevolence, and ... her name was called with gratitude by the poor and the suffering." Houston's autobiography, though, was published to enhance his presidential prospects in a day when family loyalty was a paramount virtue. The fact was that in after years he hardly spoke the names of his mother or older brothers. * * * What would Sam Houston's life have been had he not bucked the family traces, had he knuckled under to his mother and brothers and spent himself guiding a plow and shelving dry goods--if, in sum, he had been satisfied reading Homer's Odyssey instead of setting off to create his own? The only thing known is that he was not content there. Perhaps after leafing through his father's classics one last time--Greece and Rome and the Renaissance--Sam Houston disappeared into the woods.     His family's loss, certainly, was history's gain. But how very odd that at that small spot on the vast continent the heritage of western civilization, leather-bound in the Houston library, lay separated only by a hewn threshold from the dark forest of possibility. And how luminously eerie that it was Sam Houston and not another who crossed it. Doubtless the frontier presented the same stark choice to other restless youths, but they were boys who did knuckle under to their families and became clerks and plowmen. Perhaps their libraries--if they had libraries--did not fire their imaginations; perhaps they could not grasp the scope of what could be accomplished on the boundless, sparsely cast stage of North America. Maybe others took the challenge only to be felled by disease, or Indians, or melancholy, or drink; certainly in subsequent years Sam Houston only narrowly escaped death at the hand of each. Most frontier youths chose to grasp what comforts the age could afford them--a hearth, a family, a job. Most people do live for lesser things than greatness, but that is nature's way: a million seeds are shed that one may root.     When he left, Sam headed southwest, skirting the flank of the Appalachians, until he came to an Indian settlement clustered on an island in the Hiwassee River above its confluence with the Tennessee. The town had been the birthplace in 1770 or 1771 of the great Cherokee leader The Ridge and was now guided by Oolooteka ("He Puts away the Drum"), known to the whites as John Jolly. The name of the village, and river, came from Ayuhwa-si , the Cherokee word for "meadow." Moravian missionaries visiting the place a few years earlier had found about three hundred people living there, mostly Cherokees but also a few whites who, like young Houston, had bucked against an American society that placed a great premium on conformity. The Moravians believed the population was in decline owing to its location, which they described as low, damp, and unhealthy. When Houston arrived there, though, he must have thought he had found a new utopia. The Hiwassee was "a cold, clear torrent that brawled from a cleft in the Great Smoky Mountains.... Along the edge of the village spread fields of corn, beans, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and tobacco, while beyond rippled a prairie of waving grass. The grass sheltered countless strawberry plants, and when the berries were ripe, the ground seemed carpeted in crimson. The plain was bordered by forests of oak, maple, pine, sourwood, and hickory trees. Peach and wild apples abounded, along with several kinds of plums, and at either end of the straggling settlement the forest walls closed down against the river, vine-draped and flowery."     The strapping, precocious youth became a favorite of Oolooteka, who adopted him, and Houston became known in Hiwassee by a Cherokee name, the Raven, in that tribe's cosmology a great symbol for good luck--but also, according to one contemporary source, a symbol of wandering. It is unknown whether the chief bestowed it on Houston or whether the headstrong boy, aware of the ravens on his existing family crest and now aware of the bird's role in Cherokee mythology, appropriated it to himself. But along with the Cherokee name he adopted their dress and ways and, remarkably for a lad who had been a dullard in school, became fluent in their language. Oolooteka's interest in him was natural, for the young Raven had done what the chief himself had done: walked out of a strife-filled existence to go do better for himself. The Cherokee Indians lived up to their billing as "civilized" by splitting into acrimonious factions over what their response to increasing Anglo presence should be. Oolooteka was a maverick, moving to his island in the river to get away from the rest of his people and their clamoring, and earning his new name, John Jolly, by his geniality toward the whites. Doubtless he understood the Raven better than anyone in Sam's own home. (Continues...) Excerpted from SAM HOUSTON by James L. Haley. Copyright © 2002 by University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.