Sam Houston compiled an incredible political resume, serving at various times as a congressman, governor, senator and even a foreign head of state. He may be best known, however, for his military exploits that helped Texas earn its independence from Mexico. Find out more about the “George Washington of Texas.”
On March 31, 1832, Ohio Congressman William Stanbery accused Houston of fraud in a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. When Houston encountered Stanbery walking down Pennsylvania Avenue two weeks later, he called the congressman a “rascal” before beating him repeatedly over the head with a cane that was fashioned from hickory harvested from the Hermitage, the estate of his political mentor, President Andrew Jackson. The congressman drew his pistol in self-defense, but when he pulled the trigger, the gun jammed and never fired. After Houston delivered several more blows, he left the bludgeoned Stanbery on the side of the capital’s main thoroughfare. Although high-profile lawyer Francis Scott Key, who penned the lyrics to the “Star-Spangled Banner,” represented Houston, Congress convicted him of contempt. A civil court also found Houston guilty and ordered him to pay $500, but he never paid a dime and Jackson eventually ordered the fine to remain uncollected.
The Virginia-born Houston was elected governor of Tennessee in 1827 after serving the state for four years in the U.S. House of Representatives. When the 35-year-old Houston’s arranged marriage to 19-year-old Eliza Allen fell apart after just 11 weeks, rumors of alcoholism and infidelity drove him to resign as governor in 1829. Three decades later, in 1859, Houston was elected governor of Texas.
After running away from his family as a teenager, Houston lived for nearly three years with the Cherokee tribe in eastern Tennessee. Houston learned fluent Cherokee, embraced the tribe’s customs and was given the name “Black Raven.” After resigning in disgrace as Tennessee governor, the despondent Houston took refuge with the Cherokee in the Arkansas Territory. There, the tribe formally adopted him, and he married a Cherokee woman, Tiana Rogers, in a tribal ceremony. Houston served as the tribe’s spokesman and advocate with the federal government, and as a U.S. senator he pressed for Native American rights. He sometimes wore traditional Cherokee garb to government meetings in Washington, D.C.
As the Alamo was under siege in March 1836, the convention of Texans that voted for independence selected Houston commander-in-chief of the Texas Army. After the disastrous defeat at the Alamo, the War of 1812 veteran ordered a series of strategic retreats. Although unpopular with his men, the tactic bought Houston time to train his ill-equipped and poorly provisioned army. On April 21, 1836, Houston caught the Mexican forces under General Antonio López de Santa Anna completely by surprise as they camped along the banks of the San Jacinto River. Spurred on by the battle cry “Remember the Alamo,” Houston’s 800 men defeated a force twice its size in a mere 18 minutes. The spectacular rout at the Battle of San Jacinto forced Santa Anna to surrender and sign an armistice that granted Texas independence.
After Texas gained its independence, the new country elected Houston its first president in a landslide, giving him 80 percent of the vote against opponents Stephen F. Austin and Henry Smith. Prohibited by the Texas constitution from running for consecutive terms, Houston served in the Texas legislature before being elected president of the self-proclaimed Lone Star Republic once again in 1841. After Texas joined the United States in 1845, Houston was elected as one of the state’s two new senators.
Several months after Santa Anna’s forces burned the provincial capital of Harrisburg to the ground, a new settlement arose near its ashes. Named for the hero of San Jacinto and the first Texan president, Houston was incorporated in 1837 and made the Lone Star Republic’s capital. Two years later, the national capital moved to Waterloo, which was renamed in honor of another hero of Texan independence, Stephen F. Austin. Today, Austin remains the state capital and Houston is the fourth-largest city in the United States.
Although a slaveholder himself, Houston repeatedly voted against the spread of slavery to new territories of the United States during his 13 years in the Senate. An ardent advocate of the Union, Houston was the only Southern governor to oppose secession in the lead-up to the Civil War. Over his opposition, a state convention voted on February 1, 1861, to secede by a margin of 168 to. 8. When Houston refused a month later to swear allegiance to the Confederate States of America, the Texas legislature deposed him and replaced him with the pro-Confederacy lieutenant governor. Houston turned down a Union offer to lead a 50,000-man force against the Confederate rebels and retired to Huntsville, Texas, where he died in 1863.