Houston, Sam (1793–1863)

By: Thomas H. Kreneck

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: November 9, 2020

Sam Houston, one of the most illustrious political figures of Texas, was born on March 2, 1793, the fifth child (and fifth son) of Samuel and Elizabeth (Paxton) Houston, on their plantation in sight of Timber Ridge Church, Rockbridge County, Virginia. He was of Scots-Irish ancestry and reared Presbyterian. He acquired rudimentary education during his boyhood by attending a local school for no more than six months. When he was thirteen years old, his father died; some months later, in the spring of 1807, he emigrated with his mother, five brothers, and three sisters to Blount County in Eastern Tennessee, where the family established a farm near Maryville on a tributary of Baker's Creek. Houston went to a nearby academy for a time and reportedly fed his fertile imagination by reading classical literature, especially the Iliad.

Rebelling at his older brothers' attempts to make him work on the farm and in the family's store in Maryville, Houston ran away from home as an adolescent in 1809 to dwell among the Cherokees, who lived across the Tennessee River. Between intermittent visits to Maryville, he sojourned for three years with the band of Chief Oolooteka, who adopted him and gave him the Indian name Colonneh, or "the Raven." Houston viewed Oolooteka as his "Indian Father" and the Cherokees much as a surrogate family. He henceforth maintained great sympathy toward Indians. At age eighteen he left the Cherokees to set up a school, so that he could earn money to repay debts.

After war broke out with the British, he joined the United States Army as a twenty-year-old private, on March 24, 1813. Within four months he received a promotion to ensign of the infantry; in late December he was given a commission as a third lieutenant. As part of Andrew Jackson's army, he fought at the battle of Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River on March 26, 1814. During the engagement he received three near-fatal wounds. One of them, from a rifle ball in his right shoulder, never completely healed. For his valor at Horseshoe Bend, Houston won the attention of General Jackson, who thereafter became his benefactor. Houston, in return, revered Jackson and became a staunch Jacksonian Democrat.

While convalescing, he was promoted to second lieutenant and traveled extensively—to Washington, New Orleans, New York, and points between. While stationed in Nashville, he was detailed in late 1817 as sub-Indian agent to the Cherokees. In that capacity, he assisted Oolooteka and his clan in their removal to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River, as stipulated by the Treaty of 1816. Houston, by then first lieutenant, resigned from the army on March 1, 1818, and shortly thereafter from his position as subagent, following difficulties with Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. Still in poor health, Houston read law in Nashville for six months during 1818 in the office of Judge James Trimble. He subsequently opened a law practice in Lebanon, Tennessee. With Jackson's endorsement, he became adjutant general (with the rank of colonel) of the state militia through appointment by Governor Joseph McMinn. In late 1818, Houston was elected attorney general (prosecuting attorney) of the District of Nashville, where he took up residence. After returning to private practice in Nashville by late 1821, he was elected major general of the state militia by his fellow officers. He was likewise prominent in the Nash Masonic order by the early 1820s.

Houston's rapid rise in public office continued in 1823, when, as a member of Jackson's political circle, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives from the Ninth Tennessee District. As a member of Congress, he worked mightily, though unsuccessfully, for the election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency in 1824. In 1825 he was returned to Congress for a second and final term. In 1827, ever the Jackson protégé, Houston was elected governor of Tennessee. He was thirty-four years of age, extremely ambitious, and in the thick of tumultuous Tennessee politics. Standing six feet two inches tall and handsome, he cut a dashing figure wherever he went.

On January 22, 1829, he married nineteen-year-old Eliza Allen of Gallatin, Tennessee. Houston subsequently announced his bid for reelection to the governorship. After eleven weeks and amid much mystery, the marriage ended. Eliza returned to her parents' home. Extremely distraught, Houston abruptly resigned from his office on April 16 and fled west across the Mississippi River to Indian Territory. Both parties maintained a lifelong silence about the affair. Houston's exit brought the Tennessee phase of his career to an end. As a possible heir apparent to Andrew Jackson, he may well have given up an opportunity to run eventually for president of the United States.

He made his way to the lodge of Oolooteka in what is now Oklahoma to live once again in self-imposed exile among the Cherokees, this time for three years. Among the Indians he tried to reestablish his tranquility. He dressed Indian-style and, although he corresponded with Andrew Jackson, he secluded himself from contacts with White society. Initially, too, he drank so heavily that he reportedly earned the nickname "Big Drunk." He quickly became active in Indian affairs, especially in helping to keep peace between the various tribes in Indian Territory. He was granted Cherokee citizenship and often acted as a tribal emissary. Under Cherokee law, he married Diana (also known as Tiana) Rogers Gentry, an Indian woman of mixed blood. Together, they established a residence and trading post called Wigwam Neosho on the Neosho River near Fort Gibson.

Gradually re-involving himself in the White world, he made various trips East-to Tennessee, Washington, and New York. In December 1831, while on the Arkansas River, Houston encountered Alexis de Tocqueville, the latter on his famous travels in the United States. Houston impressed the Frenchman as an individual of great physical and moral energy, the universal American in perpetual motion; Houston undoubtedly served as an example for Tocqueville's composite description of the "nervous American," the man-on-the-make so pervasive in the United States during the Age of Jackson.

On the evening of April 13, 1832, on the streets of Washington, Houston thrashed William Stanbery, United States representative from Ohio, with a hickory cane. The assault resulted from a perceived insult by Stanbery over an Indian rations contract. Houston was soon arrested and tried before the House of Representatives. Francis Scott Key served as his attorney. The month-long proceedings ended in an official reprimand and a fine, but the affair catapulted Houston back into the political arena.

Leaving Diana and his life among the Indians, Houston crossed the Red River into Mexican Texas on December 2, 1832, and began another, perhaps the most important, phase of his career. His "true motives" for entering Texas have been the source of much speculation. Whether he did so simply as a land speculator, as an agent provocateur for American expansion intent on wresting Texas from Mexico, or as someone scheming to establish an independent nation, Houston saw Texas as his "land of promise." For him, it represented a place for bold enterprise, rife with political and financial opportunity.

He quickly became embroiled in the Anglo-Texans' politics of rebellion. He served as a delegate from Nacogdoches at the Convention of 1833 in San Felipe, where he sided with the more radical faction under the leadership of William H. Wharton. He also pursued a law practice in Nacogdoches and filed for a divorce from Eliza, which was finally granted in 1837. As prescribed by Mexican law, he was baptized into the Catholic Church, under the name Samuel Pablo. In September 1835 he chaired a mass meeting in Nacogdoches to consider the possibility of convening a consultation. By October, Houston had expressed his belief that war between Texas and the central government was inevitable. That month he became commander in chief of troops for the Department of Nacogdoches and called for volunteers to begin the "work of liberty." He served as a delegate from Nacogdoches to the Consultation of 1835, which deliberated in Columbia in October and at San Felipe in November. On November 12 the Consultation appointed Houston major general of the Texas army.

During February 1836, Houston and John Forbes, as commissioners for the provisional government, negotiated a treaty with the Cherokee Indians in East Texas, thus strategically establishing peace on that front. In March, Houston served as a delegate from Refugio to the convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos, where, on his birthday, March 2, the assembly adopted the Texas Declaration of Independence. Two days later Houston received the appointment of major general of the army from the convention, with instructions to organize the republic's military forces.

After joining his army in Gonzales, Houston and his troops retreated eastward as the Mexican army under Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna swept across Texas. This campaign caused Houston much anguish because the Texan rebels suffered from a general lack of discipline. He likewise fretted when the citizenry fled in the so-called Runaway Scrape. Despite these problems, Houston and his men defeated Santa Anna's forces at the decisive battle of San Jacinto on the afternoon of April 21, 1836. During this engagement, his horse, Saracen, was shot beneath him, and Houston was wounded severely just above his ankle. The capture of Santa Anna the next day made the victory complete. At San Jacinto, Sam Houston became forever enshrined as a member of the pantheon of Texas heroes and a symbol for the age.

Riding the wave of popularity as "Old Sam Jacinto," Houston became the first regularly elected president of the Republic of Texas, defeating Stephen F. Austin. During his two presidential terms he successfully guided the new ship of state through many trials and tribulations. His first term lasted from October 22, 1836, to December 10, 1838. The town of Houston was founded in 1836, named in his honor, and served as the capital of the republic during most of his first administration. During this term Houston sought to demilitarize Texas by cannily furloughing much of the army. He also tried, with limited success, to avoid trouble between White settlers and Indians. One of his biggest crises came with the Córdova Rebellion, an unsuccessful revolt in 1838 by a group of Kickapoo Indians and Mexican residents along the Angelina River. In late 1836, Houston sent Santa Anna, then a prisoner of war, to Washington to seek the annexation of Texas to the United States. Although Houston favored annexation, his initial efforts to bring Texas into the Union proved futile, and he formally withdrew the offer by the end of his first term.

After leaving office because the Constitution of the Republic of Texas barred a president from succeeding himself, Houston served in the Texas House of Representatives as a congressman from San Augustine from 1839 to 1841. He was in the forefront of the opposition to President Mirabeau B. Lamar, who had been Houston's vice president. Houston particularly criticized Lamar's expansionist tendencies and harsh measures toward the Indians.

On May 9, 1840, Houston married twenty-one-year-old Margaret Moffette Lea of Marion, Alabama. A strict Baptist, Margaret served as a restraining influence on her husband and especially bridled his drinking. They had eight children: Sam Houston, Jr., (1843), Nancy Elizabeth (1846), Margaret (1848), Mary William (1850), Antoinette Power (1852), Andrew Jackson Houston (1854), William Rogers (1858), and Temple Lea Houston (1860).

Houston succeeded Lamar to a second term as president from December 12, 1841, to December 9, 1844. During this administration, Houston stressed financial austerity and drastically reduced government offices and salaries. He and the Congress even tried to sell the four-ship Texas Navy, an effort forcibly prevented by the people of Galveston. Houston reestablished peace with the Indians by making treaties with the bands that still remained in Texas. Although many Texans clamored for action, President Houston deftly managed to avoid war with Mexico after the two Mexican invasions of 1842. After the first incursion Houston directed that the government archives be moved from Austin, an order that ultimately resulted in the "Archive War," in which residents of Austin forcibly prevented removal of the files. After the second invasion Houston authorized a force under Gen. Alexander Somervell to pursue the enemy to the Rio Grande and, if conditions warranted, to attack Mexico. Part of Somervell's legion became the disastrous Mier expedition, an escapade that Houston opposed. In 1843 Houston approved of the abortive Snively expedition, which sought to interdict trade along the Santa Fe Trail. In 1844 Houston found it necessary to send the militia to quell the Regulator-Moderator War in Shelby County, an East Texas feud that presented one of the most vexing problems of his second administration. Houston was succeeded to the presidency by Anson Jones, whom the electorate viewed as a "Houston man." Sam Houston's name had become synonymous with Texas. Indeed, Texas politics during the republic had been characterized by a struggle between Houston and anti-Houston factions.

When Texas joined the union, Houston became one of its two United States senators, along with Thomas Jefferson Rusk (see SENATORS). Houston served in the Senate from February 21, 1846, until March 4, 1859. Beginning with the 1848 election, he was mentioned as a possible candidate for president. He even had a biography published in 1846 by Charles Edwards Lester entitled Sam Houston and His Republic, which amounted to campaign publicity. As senator, Houston emerged as an ardent Unionist, true to his association with Andrew Jackson, a stand that made him an increasingly controversial figure. He stridently opposed the rising sectionalism of the antebellum period and delivered eloquent speeches on the issue. A supporter of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which banned slavery north of latitude 36°30', Houston voted in 1848 for the Oregon Bill prohibiting the "peculiar institution" in that territory, a vote proslavery Southerners later held against him. Although he was a slaveowner who defended slavery in the South, Houston again clashed with his old nemesis who led the proslavery forces when he opposed John C. Calhoun's Southern Address in 1849.

Houston always characterized himself as a Southern man for the Union and opposed any threats of disunity, whether from Northern or Southern agitators. He incurred the permanent wrath of proslavery elements by supporting the Compromise of 1850, a series of measures designed to ensure sectional harmony. In 1854, Houston alienated Democrats in Texas and the South even further by opposing the Kansas-Nebraska Bill because it allowed the status of slavery to be determined by popular sovereignty, a concept he saw as potentially destabilizing to the nation. He likewise embraced the principles of the American (Know-Nothing) party as a response to growing states'-rights sentiment among the Democrats. In 1854, he joined the Baptist Church, no doubt in partial response to the troubles of this period of his life. His career in the Senate was effectively ended when, in 1855, the Texas legislature officially condemned his position on the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

As a lame-duck senator, Houston ran for governor of Texas in 1857. He was defeated in a rigorous campaign by the state Democratic Party's official nominee, Hardin R. Runnels. Predictably, the state legislature did not reelect Houston to the Senate; instead, in late 1857, it replaced him with John Hemphill. The replacement took place at the end of Houston's term, in 1859. So concerned was Houston about sectional strife that during his final year in the Senate he advocated establishing a protectorate over Mexico and Central America as a way to bring unity to the United States.

Out of the Senate, Houston ran a second time for governor in 1859. Because of his name recognition, a temporary lull in the sectional conflict, and other factors, he defeated the incumbent, Runnels, in the August election and assumed office on December 21. As governor he continued to pursue his fanciful plans for a protectorate over Mexico, and envisioned the use of Texas Rangers and volunteers to accomplish that end. He likewise tried to enlist the aid of Robert E. Lee, Benjamin McCulloch, and some New York financiers for his scheme. Because of his staunch Unionism, Houston was nearly nominated for the presidency in May 1860 by the National Union party convention in Baltimore, but narrowly lost to John Bell. His possible candidacy received favorable mention by people in many regions of the nation who longed to prevent sectional strife.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States, the clamor of discontent in Texas prompted Houston to call a special session of the state legislature. Adamantly opposed to secession, Houston warned Texans that civil war would result in a Northern victory and destruction of the South, a prophecy that was borne out by future events. The Secession Convention, however, convened a week later and began a series of actions that withdrew Texas from the Union; Houston acquiesced to these events rather than bring civil strife and bloodshed to his beloved state. But when he refused to take the oath of loyalty to the newly-formed Confederate States of America, the Texas convention removed him from office on March 16 and replaced him with Lieutenant Governor Edward Clark two days later. Reportedly, during these traumatic days President Lincoln twice offered Houston the use of federal troops to keep him in office and Texas in the Union, offers that Houston declined, again to avoid making Texas a scene of violence. Instead, the Raven—now sixty-eight years of age, weary, with a family of small children, and recognizing the inevitable—again chose exile.

After leaving the Governor's Mansion, Houston at least verbally supported the Southern cause. Against his father's advice, Sam, Jr., eagerly joined the Confederate Army and was wounded at the battle of Shiloh. Houston moved his wife and other children in the fall of 1862 to Huntsville, where they rented a two-story residence known as the Steamboat House, so called because it resembled a riverboat. Rumors abounded that Houston, though ailing and aged, harbored plans to run again for governor. But on July 26, 1863, after being ill for several weeks, he died in the downstairs bedroom of the Steamboat House, succumbing to pneumonia at age seventy. Dressed in Masonic ceremonial trappings, he was buried in Oakwood Cemetery at Huntsville. See also ANTEBELLUM TEXAS, and HOUSTON, MARGARET MOFFETTE LEA

Donald Braider, Solitary Star: A Biography of Sam Houston (New York: Putnam, 1974). Randolph B. Campbell, Sam Houston and the American Southwest (New York: HarperCollins, 1993). Marshall De Bruhl, Sword of San Jacinto: A Life of Sam Houston (New York: Random House, 1993). Llerena B. Friend, Sam Houston: The Great Designer (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1969). Jack Gregory and Rennard Strickland, Sam Houston with the Cherokees, 1829–1833 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976). Clifford Hopewell, Sam Houston: Man of Destiny (Austin: Eakin Press, 1987). Lenoir Hunt, "My Master:" The Inside Story of Sam Houston and His Time, by Jeff Hamilton as told to Lenoir Hunt (Dallas: Manfred Van Nort, 1940). Marquis James, The Raven: A Biography of Sam Houston (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1929; rpts., New York: Paperback Library, 1967, Atlanta: Mockingbird Books, 1977). C. Edwards Lester, Sam Houston and His Republic (New York: Burgess, Stringer, 1846; rpt., New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1972). Madge Thornall Roberts, Star of Destiny: The Private Life of Sam and Margaret Houston (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1993). William Seale, Sam Houston's Wife: A Biography of Margaret Lea Houston (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970). Frank X. Tolbert, The Day of San Jacinto (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959; 2d ed., Austin: Pemberton Press, 1969). Amelia W. Williams and Eugene C. Barker, eds., The Writings of Sam Houston, 1813–1863 (8 vols., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1938–43; rpt., Austin and New York: Pemberton Press, 1970). John Hoyt Williams, Sam Houston: A Biography of the Father of Texas (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993). Marion Karl Wisehart, Sam Houston (Washington: Luce, 1962).

  • Peoples
  • Native American
  • Politics and Government
Time Periods:
  • Texas Revolution
  • Republic of Texas
  • Antebellum Texas
  • Civil War

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Thomas H. Kreneck, “Houston, Sam,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/houston-sam.

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November 9, 2020

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