Houston, Temple Lea (1860–1905)

By: H. Allen Anderson

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: October 26, 2019

Temple Lea Houston, attorney, the son of Sam and Margaret Lea Houston, was born on August 12, 1860. He was the first child born in the Governor's Mansion at Austin. After the deaths of his parents, the seven-year-old boy went to live with his older sister in Georgetown. In 1873, at the age of thirteen, he joined a cattle drive to Great Bend, Kansas. Later he worked his way east and was employed as a night clerk on a riverboat. He traveled down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, where he met Senator James Winwright Flanagan, an old political crony of his father's, who obtained employment for him as a page in the United States Senate. Three years in Washington, D.C., influenced Houston's decision to enter law, and in 1877 he returned to Texas and enrolled as a cadet at the newly established Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Texas A&M University). Later he transferred to Baylor University at Independence, where he studied law and philosophy and graduated with honors in 1880. After reading law in Georgetown, Houston was admitted to the bar and became the youngest practicing lawyer in Texas when he opened his office in Brazoria. In 1881 he was appointed Brazoria county attorney.

In 1882 Governor Oran M. Roberts offered him the post of district attorney of the Thirty-fifth Judicial District, which encompassed twenty-six unorganized counties in the Texas Panhandle. Houston returned to Brazoria to marry Laura Cross, a planter's daughter, on February 14, 1883. They set up housekeeping just outside Fort Elliott. The Houstons had seven children, but only four survived infancy. Although flamboyant and sometimes eccentric in dress and appearance, Houston won a reputation as a brilliant trial lawyer and a gifted speaker, whose oratory was laced with allusions to the Bible and classical literature. He was a dead shot and often carried a pearl-handled pistol, but his alleged shooting contest in Tascosa with Bartholomew (Bat) Masterson and Billy the Kid (see MCCARTY, HENRY) is strictly fiction; Masterson was in Colorado and the Kid already in his grave by the time Houston arrived in the Panhandle.

On November 4, 1884, Houston was elected to succeed Avery L. Matlock as senator from the Fifty-sixth District of Texas. He served in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Legislatures from 1885 to 1887 and in a special session in the spring of 1888. During that time he was a member of the treasury, education, law enforcement, and Panhandle grass-lease committees and wrote or supported bills to establish pensions for the heirs of Texas war dead and to give the Alamo to the city of San Antonio for preservation. He gave the dedication speech at the opening of the new Capitol on May 16, 1888. As a result of espousing some unpopular political causes, he decided not to seek a third term in the legislature in 1888; he was also unsuccessful in his bid to become attorney general. Thereafter, Houston concentrated on his work as attorney for the Santa Fe railroad (the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway). He moved his family to Canadian, where he continued his private practice as a defense attorney and became closely associated with Harvey E. Hoover. In September 1891 Houston represented Henry B. Sanborn in his aborted lawsuit against the Murphy-Thomason-Wisner interests over the title to Block 88 in Amarillo.

The great land-run into Oklahoma's Cherokee Strip on September 16, 1893, prompted Houston to move his practice to the new town of Woodward, and the next year he brought his family to the booming frontier hamlet. There he embraced his wife's Catholic faith and helped establish Woodward's first Catholic church. His silver-tongued oratory and unorthodox behavior became legendary throughout the Oklahoma Territory. He soon came to be in wide demand as a lecturer, and on May 1, 1897, he delivered the Tennessee Centennial address at Nashville. His colleagues in law included Robert J. Ray, Sidney B. Luane, and David P. Marum. Houston's reputation as a gunfighter gained him dubious fame, as well as a number of dangerous enemies. Once, while he was in Enid on business, an unknown assailant fired on him, but a copy of the Oklahoma Territorial Statutes that he was carrying stopped the bullet. Houston incorporated the firing of a six-shooter loaded with blanks into his courtroom theatrics on one occasion. He also successfully defended Minnie Stacey, a reputed "madam," at Woodward in 1899. All the while, he continued making frequent visits to the Panhandle towns as legal counselor for the Santa Fe railroad and established a lifelong friendship with Judge James D. Hamlin.

Houston's enormous popularity made him a prime candidate for various public offices. Finally, in 1904, he agreed to let his name appear among the possible contenders to be Oklahoma's first state governor, but he was in poor health and had less than a year to live. On August 15, 1905, Houston died from a brain hemorrhage at his home in Woodward. He was interred in the town's Laurel Land Cemetery. Among the several fictional characters inspired by Houston's life was that of Yancey Cravat in Edna Ferber's novel Cimarron.

James D. Hamlin, The Flamboyant Judge: As Told to J. Evetts Haley and William Curry Holden (Canyon, Texas: Palo Duro, 1972). Sallie B. Harris, Cowmen and Ladies: A History of Hemphill County (Canyon, Texas: Staked Plains, 1977). Glenn Shirley, Temple Houston (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980). Bernice Tune, Golden Heritage and Silver Tongue of Temple Lea Houston (Burnet, Texas: Eakin Press, 1981).

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

H. Allen Anderson, “Houston, Temple Lea,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 14, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/houston-temple-lea.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 26, 2019