Samuel May Williams, entrepreneur and associate of Stephen F. Austin, was the eldest child of Howell and Dorothy (Wheat) Williams. He was born on October 4, 1795, in Providence, Rhode Island, where his father, a descendant of Robert Williams, the founder of Roxbury, Massachusetts, was a sea captain. Three of Williams's four brothers lived in Texas during the 1840s and 1850s, and two of his three sisters made an extended visit. Henry Howell Williams of Baltimore served as Texas consul from 1836 to 1838 and moved to Galveston in 1842 to assume control of the McKinney and Williams commission house, where he remained off and on until the 1850s. In 1838 Matthew Reed and Nathaniel Felton Williams opened a sugar plantation on Oyster Creek in Fort Bend County purchased from their brother; it became Imperial Sugar Company in the twentieth century. Samuel Williams was educated in Providence and apprenticed around the age of fifteen to his uncle, Nathaniel F. Williams, a Baltimore commission merchant. He journeyed as supercargo to Buenos Aires, where he remained for a time mastering Spanish and Latin American business practice. He settled in New Orleans in 1819 before departing for Texas in 1822 using an assumed name, E. Eccleston. He resumed his true identity in 1823 when Stephen F. Austin employed him as translator and clerk. For the next thirteen years Williams was Austin's lieutenant; he wrote deeds, kept records, and directed colonial activities during the empresario's absences. In 1826 he was named postmaster of San Felipe and was appointed revenue collector and dispenser of stamped paper by the state of Coahuila and Texas the following year. He became secretary to the ayuntamiento of San Felipe in 1828. For these services he received eleven leagues (49,000 acres) of land which he selected on strategic waterways including Oyster Creek and Buffalo Bayou.
Williams earned notoriety in 1835 while attending the legislature at Monclova by contracting for two of the 400-league grants offered by the state government as a means to raise funds to oppose President Antonio López de Santa Anna. He and six others were proscribed as revolutionaries, but he escaped arrest by going to the United States. He entered a partnership with Thomas F. McKinney in 1833 and used his family's mercantile contacts in the United States to secure credit for the firm. Their commission house, located at Quintana, dominated the Brazos cotton trade until 1838, when they moved to Galveston. The firm of McKinney and Williams used its credit in the United States to purchase arms and raise funds for the Texas Revolution in 1835–36. Neither the republic nor the state was able to repay the $99,000 debt in full, and the partners realized only a small portion of their investment in addition to the passage of favorable relief legislation. As investors in the Galveston City Company, McKinney and Williams aided in developing the city by helping to construct the Tremont Hotel as well as the commission house and wharf. McKinney withdrew from the partnership in 1842, when Henry Howell Williams assumed his brother's interest in the firm, which became H. H. Williams and Company.
Sam Williams concentrated on banking after 1841, when the commission house received special permission from the Texas Congress to found a bank to issue and circulate paper money as an aid to commerce. In 1848 he activated his 1835 charter, obtained from Coahuila and Texas and approved by the republic in 1836, to open the Commercial and Agricultural Bank of Galveston, which also printed its own money. Jacksonian antibanking sentiment inspired his enemies to attack the bank through the state courts on the grounds that it violated constitutional prohibitions against banks. The Texas Supreme Court sustained the bank in 1852, but subsequent suits brought its demise in 1859. Williams, a political supporter of Sam Houston, represented the Brazos district in the Coahuila and Texas legislature in 1835 and Galveston County in the lower house of the Texas Congress in 1839. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the United States Congress in 1846. In 1838 he received a commission to negotiate a $5 million loan in the United States and to purchase seven ships for the Texas Navy. President Houston sent him to Matamoros in 1843 to seek an armistice with Mexico, an unsuccessful ploy. Williams lived quietly with his wife, Sarah Patterson Scott, on a country estate west of the city. His home, a one-story, frame, Greek Revival residence on brick piers, is operated by the Galveston Historical Foundation as a house museum and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (see SAMUEL MAY WILLIAMS HOUSE). Built between 1839 and 1844, it is among the oldest structures on the island. Williams died September 13, 1858, and was buried by the Knights Templars whose chapter he had founded. He was survived by his wife and four of his nine children. One son, William Howell Williams, was Galveston county judge from 1875 to 1880.