I watched C-Span this morning (don’t judge) and came across a brief introduction of Sam Houston on the anniversary of his becoming President of the Republic of Texas. Now, while I spend a lot of time studying historical moments- I am not going to lie, the amount of Texas history that I know can easily fit onto an Oreo. Not even a whole Oreo! An Oreo that has been taken apart, filling eaten, and the cookie dunked into a glass of milk. The crumbs floating in the milk- that is the equivalent of my knowledge of Texas history.
When did Texas have a President? Was this taught in school? It might have been. Right along with Texas Independence Day is celebrated on Sam Houstons birthday- March 2. Who knew that?
On September 5, 1836, Sam Houston, the champion of San Jacinto, was elected President of the recently created Republic of Texas. Contenders for the office had included Henry Smith, Governor of the provisional government, and Stephen F. Austin. Houston became an energetic candidate just eleven days before the election. He received 5,119 votes, Smith 743, and Austin 587. Mirabeau B. Lamar, the “keenest blade” at San Jacinto, was designated Vice President. Houston received strong backing from the Army and those who believed that his selection would ensure internal steadiness, accelerate acknowledgment by world powers, and bring about early annexation to the United States.
But that is not what stopped me in my tracks…it was the brief comment that the keynote speaker said about 8 minutes into the show. Did you know that after only a year of schooling, Sam Houston fled the family farm and local store and went to live three years with the Cherokee Indians on an island in the Tennessee River?
Ummm, no. No, I didn’t. So the future President of the Republic of Texas lived with the Cherokee Indians, and there is a river in Tennesse large enough to have an island that could hold a whole village? It seems so!
In 1809, he was just 16 years old, and he was adopted by a Cherokee clan led by Cheif Oolooteka (also known as John Jolly). It was here where he learned to speak the language and adopted many of their customs. They even gave him an Indian name of Colonneh– or ‘the Raven”.
It seems that Sam Houston lived a full life of many ups and downs- but for the purposes of time and keeping your attention- I have decided to focus mainly on Sam Houston’s interactions with the from the time he fled to the Tennesse River Island, up to him heading to Texas to fight for the Revolutionary Army. Maybe in another blog, we will move onto his time in Texas and his desire to keep Texas with the Union before the Civil War rather than join the succession. It is just as exciting and just as important to American history.
Back to the story:
It seems that after three years of living with the Cherokees, Sam Houston needed to return to polite society to work off a drinking debt of $100.00. So, with his considerable amount of schooling (all of one year), – he opened up a successful school that is now a state historical site just outside of Maryville, Tennesse. His tuition was $8.00 for the term. 1/3rd was payable in cash, 1/3rd in corn, and 1/3rd in varicolored calico, from which he was to have his shirts made. Thus, in one six-month term, he wiped out the debt and had money left over.
When Sam Houston was 20, he, like so many young men, joined the Army to fight against the British in the War of 1812. Sam Houston served under General Andrew Jackson, fighting the Creek Indians. During the battle, he suffered not just one near-fatal wound but three. One of the wounds left fragments of a musket ball in his right shoulder that would seep and ooze until his death.
I find it interesting that someone who spent three years with the Cherokee Indians ends up the political protegee of General Andrew Jackson. General Jackson was known then and throughout history as maybe one of the greatest enemies to all Native American Tribes. And yet, Sam Houston was able to use his knowledge of the local Native Americans in Tennesse and his relationship with Jackson to have the Cherokee’s safely moved to the west. The treaty he negotiated in 1818 stipulated that tribal members should get the same quantity of land that they had in Tennessee. They were to have free navigation of the waterways, all rights for their land, and obtain money to make necessary improvements. Unlike the later Trail of Tears, there was no forced removal of the Cherokee. Their removal was well-organized, with much of the travel on riverboats. Once they arrived, though, they learned that they had been given land that had been Osage and Quapaw hunting grounds.
Sam Houston resigned from the Army in 1818, after a disagreement with the Secretary of War John C. Calhoun over Sam Houston wearing traditional Native American dress to a meeting between Calhoun and the Cherokee leaders. Calhoun felt that Sam Houston’s attire was unbecoming of an Officer in the United States Army, and Houston thought it was respectful of the Native American delegation. A bitter battle ensued between the two until Calhoun died in 1850.
Sam Houston went on to served as the DA of Nashville, was selected as the General of the Tennessee militia, and then was elected to Congress in 1823. On his way to Washington D.C., Sam Houston, bearing a letter of introduction from Jackson, stopped at Monticello and visited with the 80-year-old Thomas Jefferson. By 1825, Sam Houston has found his place in the government and even became great friends with the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette gave Houston two pieces of wisdom that guided his career forward:
- You must end slavery but do so in a way that can benefit both the country and the new citizens created from the freedom.
- It would be best not to break up the Union, regardless of the domestic quarrels between the North and South.
I was able to find a small article written by the United States House of Representatives- History, Art and Archives, that in 1926 Sam Houston gravely wounded General William A. White in a pistol duel. Sadly, General White was a stand in for Nashville Postmaster John P. Erwin, who was angry with Sam Houston for writing to President John Q. Adams that Erwin:
Is not a man of fair and upright moral character.
Erwin sent Colonel John Smith T., a professional duelist, to deliver a challenge to Sam Houston for tarnishing Erwin’s character. That challenge was rejected, but General White then continued to challenge Sam Houston, who grudgingly accepted. Sam Houston prepared by working on his marksmanship at General Andrew Jackson’s home, The Hermitage.
Old Hickory even recommended that he bite on a bullet while dueling, stating that: “It will make you aim better.”
On the prearranged morning, Sam Houston and General White squared off at 15 paces. Sam Houston emerged unscathed. General White, however, was struck in the groin, calling out to Sam Houston, “you have killed me.”
General White survived, but in June 1827, a Kentucky grand jury delivered a felony indictment against Sam Houston, who had left the House to campaign for Governor of Tennessee. However, the state’s sitting governor, William Carroll (whom Houston succeeded that October), refused to arrest or extradite Sam Houston, arguing that he had acted in self-defense.
After his congressional term, (and even with a felony indictment) he was elected Governor of Tennessee at the old age of 34. Unfortunately, like all the other stories I share- there is a bit of drama that unfolds. Sam Houston falls in love with a young woman named Eliza Allen, and they get married in 1829. Within ten weeks, Eliza (who has been coined the Scarlett O’Hare of Tennesse) is back at her father’s home, and Sam Houston is resigning as Governor in disgrace. There are few first-hand details about what happened, as both parties refused to talk about the marriage, and the only known papers of that particular time in Sam Houston’s life were sold at an auction to a private buyer. These documents have not resurfaced. However, there is a reported rumor, accepted by many historians, that Eliza was in love with another man and confessed this to Sam Houston right before she left home.
What we do know, though, is that Charles Love wrote to then-President Andrew Jackson on April 11, and stated:
Our friend Houston has separated from his wife; and will resign tomorrow [April 16] and leave the state Immediately for the Arkansas Territory to reside among the Indians. There is a hundred reports about the cause of separation; he gave her father a certificate that she was virtuous. I lament his unfortunate situation, his hopes for happiness in this world are blasted forever.
Sam Houston flees for comfort within his second family and retreats to Arkansas Territory, where Cheif Oolooteka (John Jolly) and the Cherokee tribe lived. By May 1830, he married Tiana Rogers Gentry (even though officially not divorce from Eliza), niece to Chief Oolooteka. Sam Houston and Tiana bought or built a large log cabin and named it “The Wigwam Neosho,” where Houston set up his famous Trading Post.
Interesting Side Note: Tiana was not the name given to her at birth; instead, it was Diana. Her father was a Scots-Irish trader, and her mother was the sister of Chief John Jolly.
Here, he attended to the accounts of the wrongs that the Creek Indians claimed to have suffered at the hands of their agent, Colonel Brearley. With Houston’s help, they prepared a memorandum to President Jackson, which Houston, because of his close relation to the President, was promptly brought to his notice. It contained several charges, some of them indicating faults of the governmental method of dealing with the Indians, and others charging wickedness at the hands of their agent. It claimed that for personal gain, the government agent had gambled on their contracts for subsistence, had retained the cash provided for their annuities, and had given them ‘due’ bills instead.
Interesting Side Note: Due to Sam Houston’s excessive drinking, he was nicked named “Big Drunk”.
Houston became a bitter critic, not only of Brearley and Crowell (their agent in the east whom they blamed for killing their chief, General McIntosh) but also of Colonel Thomas McKinney, head of the Indian Department at Washington. He charged that McKinney’s department had failed to give the Indians, who were in desperate need, the blankets, guns, ammunition, beaver traps, and kettles promised them in the treaty. Due to this interjection into the matter, the President dismissed the government agents, appointing new ones.
On June 22, 1830, Houston wrote in an article that Native Americans:
might indeed look to this, as a land of happiness and contentment. But until suitable Agents are sent to them, then can only regard this as the land of promises; where fraud will supplant faith, and injustice triumph over humanity.
Houston expressed concern for the Cherokee from the east being able to find “peace or happiness” in the Indian Territory until the people already there had honest and competent agents. Sam Houston signed it TAH-LOHN-TUS-KY. Such was Sam Houston’s passion for fair treatment of Native Americans.
Ironically, with everything that Sam Houston had accomplished in providing for the Native Americas, he was accused of working with government agents in defrauding Cherokee Indians while he was the Governor of Tennessee by Congressman William Stanbery. Sam Houston demanded an apology and even hinted that this would lead to a duel between the two men, but Stanberry ignored him.
That is until April 13, 1832, when the two men happened to meet each other on Pennsylvania Avenue on their way to the theater. Houston allegedly yelled, “Damned rascal!” and began thumping the much-smaller Stanbery with his wooden cane. In protection, Stanbery pulled a gun from his pocket. However, the weapon misfired and only infuriated Houston further and incited more blows with the cane. When the beating finally ended, Houston continued to the theater, and Stanbery staggered back to his room.
The occurrence sent shock waves through the city and up to Capitol Hill. Congress ordered that Houston be arrested and tried. Despite the best efforts of his lawyer, Francis Scott Key (yes, THAT Francis Scott Key), Houston was found guilty of Contempt of Congress. Still, the event demonstrated to be primarily a victory for Sam Houston. Because of his political connections, he was scolded but not condemned. In other words, he got off easy.
In 1833, I believe to get Sam Houston away from trouble; he was offered a position in Texas to settle the disagreements between the Native Americans and the people living in the area. Sam Houston quickly agreed, playing on the concept of ‘Manifest Dysntay’ and wanting to bring Texas under the banner of the American flag. Sam Houston did ask Tiana to come with him to Texas, and she refused.
Sam Houston rides into the sunset and becomes a heroic American figure, a President in his own right on September 5, 1836. After securing a divorce from his first wife, he finally becomes a happily married man to Margaret Moffette Lea (26 years his junior) in 1840.
In 1841, Sam was re-elected for his subsequent term as President of Texas. The couple moved to Washington-on-the-Brazos, the temporary capital. For the first time, Texas had its very own first lady. The first of their eight children, Sam Houston Jr., was born on May 25, 1843.
After Sam Houston’s 2nd term ended, he relocated the family to a temporary location on Raven Hill plantation. While he was away in Washington D.C serving as a senator, their first daughter, Nancy Elizabeth, was born. In December, bothered by pain, Margaret moved in with her family. She was later diagnosed with a breast tumor. Margaret rejected any whiskey to ease the pain and, as an alternative bit on a silver coin between her teeth during the operation.
When Sam returned home, he moved the family closer to Huntsville at Margaret’s insistence. She wanted to be closer to the church and the doctor. Their “Woodland Home” became Margaret’s favorite house, and four of their children, Margaret Lea, Mary William Houston, Antoinette Power, and William Rogers, were born there.
In 1853, following Sam Houston’s Senate tenure, the family moved to Independence, Texas. In 1854, Margaret gave birth to her sixth child, Andrew Jackson, in Independence before leaving for Huntsville
In December 1958, after the birth of their seventh child, they sold their “Woodland Home” to pay off debts and moved to Austin to live in the Governor’s Mansion, where their last child, Temple Lea, was born.
After Sam Houston refused to sign an oath to the Confederacy and was removed from his position as Governor, the family returned to Independence. The location allowed their older children to attend Baylor University. At the end of 1862, the family moved to the Huntsville region and rented the “Steamboat House” from Rufus W. Bailey.
In July 1863, Sam Houston passed away surrounded by his loved ones.
On December 3, 1867, Margaret passed away from yellow fever. Interestingly- she is buried next to her mother and not Sam Houston.
As always, my friends, I invite you to do some more research into this story on your own. I happened upon this part of Sam Houston’s life because of a side mention of his political career. And I don’t think it should be a side note; I believe that Sam Houston truly cared about what was happening to the Native American population and wanted to see it right. And while I did not get too detailed, Sam Houston was one of the only southern politicians who did not want to break with the Union and did not believe in the institution of slavery. I will most likely have to do more research into Sam Houston…I would like to know what his time as President of the Republic of Texas was like.
While there are many great books written on Sam Houston- some that speak highly of him, and some that do not like him at all- I recommend that you try James Haley’s published work- Sam Houston. The book explores the Texan’s controversial career, including his maneuvering the republic into the Union and his failure to keep it from joining the Confederacy in secession. Mr. Haley talked about Sam Houston’s days as a rebellious youth, his entire political career, including his relationship with Andrew Jackson, and his views on such controversial issues as slavery and Southern secession.
And remember- Be Great at something you are Good at!
Interesting side notes: John Jolly had a large plantation worked by up to twelve enslaved people and owned more than 500 head of cattle. Jolly was a generous host to whoever visited his large, fine house. The wealthier members of the Cherokee Nation lived like southern planters. Enslaved black people supplied their labor; they purchased fine goods from Baltimore, Philadelphia, or New Orleans, and they copied the fine mansions of the planters when they built their own homes. They did not favor, though, the way that whites existed and relished their cultural traditions.
The leaders that Houston knew, such as Jolly, John Drew, Captain John Rogers, and Walter Webber were successful men who operated mercantile businesses or plantations, where cotton or corn crops were grown and harvested by African American enslaved people. Many of the leaders were partially of European lineage, their fathers or forefathers being white traders who intermarried with the Cherokee people. They aimed to live like successful white people, but there were also full-blooded Cherokee people who preferred to live according to Cherokee traditions.
Further Research: Sam Houston by James L. Haley.