Oldham, Williamson Simpson (1813–1868)

By: Thomas W. Cutrer

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: May 1, 1995

Williamson Simpson Oldham, Confederate legislator, was born in Franklin County, Tennessee, on July 19, 1813, the son of Elias and Mary (Burton) Oldham. As the son of a poor farmer, Oldham was largely self-educated, but at the age of eighteen he opened a school in the Tennessee hills. He subsequently read law and was admitted to the bar in Tennessee in 1836. Soon afterward he moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he prospered in the practice of law and in politics. On December 12, 1837, he married Mary Vance McKissick, the daughter of the wealthy James McKissick; the couple had five children. Mary died, and on December 26, 1850, Oldham married Mrs. Anne S. Kirk. After her death he married Agnes Harper, on November 19, 1857. In 1838 he was elected to the General Assembly, the Arkansas House of Representatives, from Washington County, and in 1842 he became speaker. In 1844 he was appointed associate justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, where he served until 1848. He ran unsuccessfully for the United States House of Representatives in 1846 and was defeated in a senatorial race against R. W. Johnson in 1848. Suffering from a mild case of tuberculosis and hoping to repair his political fortunes, Oldham moved to Austin, Texas, in 1849. In 1852 he was president of the Austin Railroad Association. From 1854 until 1857 he served as an editor of the Austin State Gazette. He ran for the Texas House of Representatives in 1853 and for Congress in 1859, without success. He moved to Brenham in 1859 and in 1861 was elected to the Secession Convention. That body sent him to Arkansas to encourage that state's secession and appointed him a member of the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America. The following November the Texas Senate elected him to the regular Confederate Senate, a position he held until the collapse of the Confederacy. Oldham chaired the Committee on Post Offices in both regular congresses and the Committee on Commerce in the Second. He served on the Indian Affairs, Naval Affairs, Finance, Judiciary, and Joint committees. As a firm believer in states' rights, he was fearful of what he called the "battering ram of executive influence" and the claim of "military necessity" as prejudicial to democratic principles. He opposed the building of a navy, the conscription of civilians, and centralized control of the economy, all features of a too-powerful central government. When state sovereignty was not a question, however, Oldham supported the Jefferson Davis administration by favoring high taxes and heroic methods of countering the rampant Confederate inflation. He was also an advocate of the arming of slaves for Confederate military service. Like other members of the Texas delegation, he argued forcibly for stronger defensive measures for the Texas frontier and protested many of the apparently arbitrary actions of the Confederate Cotton Bureau. With the end of the war, Oldham became an expatriate. He lived for a time in Mexico and then moved to Canada, where he learned photography and began a book about the Confederacy. Part of this manuscript, which he apparently never finished, was serialized after his death in De Bow's Monthly Review (1869–70) under the title "Last Days of the Confederacy." A longer version is in Oldham's papers at the Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas at Austin, where his manuscript Memoirs of a Confederate Senator is also housed. Oldham returned to Texas in 1866 to make his home in Houston. He died of typhoid fever on May 8, 1868, and was buried in the Masonic Cemetery, Houston. In 1938 his remains were moved to Masonic Cemetery in Eagle Lake. Oldham County in the Panhandle is named in his honor.

Alma Dexta King, "The Political Career of Williamson Simpson Oldham," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 33 (October 1929). James A. McMillan, The Works of James D. B. De Bow (Hattiesburg, Mississippi: Book Farm, 1940). William C. Nunn, ed., Ten Texans in Gray (Hillsboro, Texas: Hill Junior College Press, 1968). Jon L. Wakelyn, Biographical Dictionary of the Confederacy (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1977). Ezra J. Warner and W. Buck Yearns, Biographical Register of the Confederate Congress (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1975). Willis Duke Weatherford and Don L. Moore, Analytical Index of De Bow's Review (1952).
Time Periods:
  • Civil War

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

Thomas W. Cutrer, “Oldham, Williamson Simpson,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 25, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/oldham-williamson-simpson.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 1, 1995

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