HOUSTON, MARGARET MOFFETTE LEA
HOUSTON, MARGARET MOFFETTE LEA (1819–1867). Margaret Houston, wife of Sam Houston, was born near Marion, Alabama, on April 11, 1819, the daughter of Temple and Nancy (Moffette) Lea. On the death of her father in 1834, she moved with her mother from the family farm in Pleasant Valley, near Marion, into town, to the home of Margaret's elder brother Henry Lea, a successful businessman and state legislator. She was educated first at Pleasant Valley Academy and subsequently at Judson Female Institute.
In Mobile, Alabama, in 1839 she was introduced to Gen. Sam Houston at a party held by her sister Antoinette, Mrs. William Bledsoe. Despite an age difference of twenty-six years and Houston's well-known difficulties with drink, they were married on May 9, 1840, after a year-long courtship. Margaret's kin apparently opposed the marriage. Soon after the wedding, members of her family moved to Texas, where they moved in and out of the Houstons' lives for the next quarter century.
Margaret, a beautiful young woman, was utterly devoted to Houston through their twenty-three-year marriage. Some of his faults she openly battled, while others she had to learn to tolerate. Being deeply religious, she could not stand his drinking. Rather than nag him, she made him realize that his drinking hurt her and profaned the sanctity of their home; in this way she led Houston to declare total abstinence, which, with some difficulty, he kept to for the rest of his life. Convincing him to join the Baptist Church and be baptized proved a greater task, but one in which she succeeded, with the help of Rev. George W. Baines, on November 19, 1854, when Houston was baptized by Rev. Rufus C. Burleson in Little Rocky Creek, near Independence.
There were compromises: Houston's wandering she found herself helpless to curtail. Not long after moving to Texas Margaret realized that her health, particularly her chronic asthma, prevented her following him in his restless journeys from place to place; she determined then to make a home that would beckon him, but not to follow. During Houston's long years in the United States Senate, she never once went to Washington, nor did she travel his nearly endless campaign trails. Staying at home, she created a domestic circle on which he looked increasingly as a haven. Her letters to him reinforced the shrine of home. Her method worked, in a great measure, for in his absences he longed for her and the large household, which ultimately included eight children. The letters of husband and wife tell not only of a love of family but a deep love for one another.
The Houstons had numerous houses in Texas. Only one of these they kept continuously, Cedar Point, on Trinity Bay. It was a modest building, like most of the rest, built of logs, weatherboarded, with four or five rooms and the household services in separate buildings in the yard. Mrs. Houston, who loved gardening, maintained vegetable and flower gardens at all of her houses. Of their homes only the house at Huntsville, which is greatly remodeled, the rented Steamboat House nearby, and the Governor's Mansion in Austin are still standing. Raven Hill, Cedar Point, and the house in Independence, near old Baylor College, are gone. Surprisingly few of the Houstons' personal possessions survive.
The palmy days of the Houstons' life together were the years when he was in the Senate. Then they had money to spend and did not have to rely upon farming or land speculation, at which Houston was never successful. When Houston was in Texas the family was not likely to remain long in one place, but traveled about from house to house in a big horse-drawn carryall enclosed in canvas. Nearly every summer they spent time at Cedar Point. Autumn found them in Huntsville or Independence. Before 1853 Nancy Lea lived regularly with them, managing the household, a job that held no interest for Mrs. Houston. Of the fourteen slaves, about five were house servants, presided over by Mrs. Houston's maid, Aunt Eliza, also a slave, who was about ten years older than Mrs. Houston and devoted to her well-being.
Mrs. Houston's inquiring mind led her by the late 1840s wholly away from reading novels and plays into religious studies. Her letters to Sam contained long passages on religion and reflected her great insecurity about the beliefs she professed. Often ill, often pregnant, and often idle, for she was waited upon by others, she became subject to periods of depression. The idea of hell terrified her. Circumstances surrounding the death of her close friend Frances Creath at Huntsville in January 1856 led her to conclusions that finally gave her peace on the subject of religion and strengthened her through difficult times.
The unhappy climax of Houston's long political career in 1861 and his subsequent removal from the office of governor of Texas were followed by his two final years in retirement and relative obscurity. Living between Huntsville and Cedar Point, Mrs. Houston was with her husband constantly, assuming more duties than ever previously in her married life. Sustained by religion and her children, she saw Houston decline rapidly and gave him support where she could.
After his death in Huntsville in 1863, the widow was in serious financial straits. She moved to Independence to be once again near her mother, who had emerged from the war with some money. Mrs. Houston rented a house and labored to hold her family together. Her condition eventually eased when the state legislature voted to pay her the unpaid balance of Houston's salary as governor. In the fall of 1867, while preparing to move with her youngest children to Georgetown to live with her married daughter Nannie, she contracted yellow fever. She died at Independence on December 3, 1867, where because of health laws she was buried at once, next to the tomb that Nancy Lea had built to contain them both.
Alabama Review, October 1964. William Seale, Sam Houston's Wife: A Biography of Margaret Lea Houston (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970). Women of Texas (Waco: Texian Press, 1972).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, William Seale, "Houston, Margaret Moffette Lea," accessed February 13, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fho72.
Uploaded on August 7, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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