Sam Houston was a Virginia-born lawyer, soldier and politician who gained enduring fame as a leader of the Texas Revolution. After commanding Texan troops to victory over Mexican forces in the Battle of San Jacinto, he became the first president of the Lone Star Republic and one of the first two U.S. senators to represent Texas after it joined the Union in 1845.
Born in Virginia on March 2, 1793, Houston moved to Tennessee with his mother and eight siblings after his father died when he was 13. He ran away from home in 1809 and spent nearly three years living among the Cherokee in eastern Tennessee. Adopted by a clan led by Chief Oolooteka, Houston learned to speak the Cherokee language and adopted many of their customs; they gave him the Indian name Colonneh, or “the Raven.”
Houston joined the U.S. Army to fight against Britain in the War of 1812. While serving under Andrew Jackson in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend on March 26, 1814, Houston suffered three near-fatal wounds and would carry fragments of the musket ball that lodged in his right shoulder until his death. His wounds healed slowly, and by the time he returned to duty Jackson’s forces had won a decisive victory in the Battle of New Orleans.
Relationship with Andrew Jackson
Impressed by Houston’s valor, Jackson became a protector and father figure, arranging personally for Houston to serve on his staff in Nashville. Houston resigned from the army in 1818 to launch his law career, but Jackson helped him become general of the Tennessee militia, a post Old Hickory himself had once held.
After serving as attorney general in Nashville, Houston won election to the U.S. House of Representatives and headed to Washington, D.C. in 1823 alongside Jackson, a newly minted U.S. senator. Houston won a second congressional term in 1825, and two years later became governor of Tennessee at the age of 34.
By 1829, Jackson was in the White House and his protege appeared well-positioned for a future presidential run. That year, Houston married Eliza Allen, who left him just three months later to move back to her father’s house. Details of what happened are scarce, but the scandal irreparably damaged Houston’s reputation. He resigned as governor in April 1829 and left Tennessee to seek refuge with the Cherokee in Arkansas Territory.
Life with Cherokee and Return to Political Life
Houston took an active role in Native American affairs, helping to broker peace between various tribes in the Indian Territory. In 1830, he married a Cherokee woman, Tiana Rogers, and they opened a trading post together. He also began traveling to Washington, D.C. as a member of the Cherokee delegation to the U.S. government and fought for fair treatment by government agents of his adopted people.
In March 1832, during a debate in Congress over Jackson’s Indian policy, Ohio congressman William Stanbery suggested Houston was part of an effort to defraud the government. Two weeks later, a furious Houston ran into Stanbery on Pennsylvania Avenue and beat him soundly with a hickory cane. Houston was arrested and tried before the U.S. House of Representatives; the Washington attorney Francis Scott Key (who later became famous as the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner”) defended him. Though the incident got Houston an official reprimand and a fine, it put him back in the political arena and energized him for a new challenge.
Arrival in Texas and Role in the Texas Revolution
With Jackson’s blessing, Houston soon left Tiana and his life with the Cherokee and headed across the Sabine River to Texas, which at the time was part of Mexico. He arrived in late 1832, and settled in Nacogdoches, where he was baptized into the Catholic Church (a requirement under Mexican law), opened a law practice and formally obtained a divorce from his wife Eliza.
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Houston represented Nacogdoches at the Convention of 1833, during which Anglo-Texan settlers, led by Stephen Austin, decided to petition the Mexican government to grant Texas independent statehood status. When Austin traveled to Mexico City to deliver the petition, the government of General Antonio López de Santa Anna arrested and detained him until mid-1835.
In October 1835, Texan (or Texian) and Mexican forces clashed in the Battle of Gonzales, beginning the Texas Revolution. Houston was appointed commander in chief of the Texan army and helped negotiate a treaty with the Cherokee living in eastern Texas. Even as Mexican forces besieged the Alamo in March 1836, Houston attended the convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos that voted for Texan independence.
With news of the Alamo’s fall, Houston ordered his army to retreat eastward from Gonzales as Santa Anna’s forces advanced. The strategic retreat enabled Houston to better prepare his soldiers for battle, and on April 21 the Texans caught Santa Anna’s troops in a surprise attack along the San Jacinto River. The stunning victory led to Santa Anna’s capture and surrender, and the battle for Texan independence was won.
President, Senator and Governor of Texas
Houston’s heroic reputation as “Old San Jacinto” helped him win two non-consecutive terms as president of the Republic of Texas (1836-38 and 1841-44). In between, he served in the Texas House of Representatives. The city of Houston, incorporated during his first presidential administration, served as the first Texas capital.
In 1840, Houston married 21-year-old Margaret Moffette Lea. They went on to have eight children, and her devout Baptist faith helped keep her husband’s more outlandish side (and his drinking) in check. After Texas joined the Union in late 1845, Houston headed back to Washington as one of the new state’s two U.S. senators. In the Senate from 1846 to 1859, he made a name for himself as a staunch Unionist in an era of increasing sectional tensions over the issue of slavery. Houston was a slaveholder himself and defended slavery in the South, but he repeatedly voted against its expansion into the territories.
Opposition within the Texas legislature to Houston’s position on the Kansas-Nebraska Act (he was one of only two Southern senators to vote against it) spelled the end for his Senate career. In 1857, he lost a bid for governor of Texas and the state legislature voted not to return him to the Senate. Houston defied calls to resign immediately and served until the end of his term in 1859, using his last year in the Senate to advocate establishing a protectorate over Mexico and Central America, which he believed would bring unity to the United States.
Opposition to Secession and Final Years
Houston ran again for governor in 1859 and won. In the months leading up to the Civil War, he became the only governor of a Southern state to oppose secession. When Texas voted to secede, Houston accepted the decision but refused to swear allegiance to the new Confederate States of America. In response, the Texas convention removed him from office and replaced him with Lt. Gov. Edward Clark.
Houston nominally supported the Southern cause during the war; his son, Sam Jr., fought for the Confederacy and was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh. After being ousted from the governor’s office, Houston and his family moved to Huntsville, Texas, where on July 28, 1863, Houston died of pneumonia at the age of 70.
Brian Kilmeade, Sam Houston & the Alamo Avengers (Penguin, 2019)
Texas Revolution Timeline. The Alamo.
Thomas A. Kreneck, Sam Houston (1793-1863). Handbook of Texas: Texas State Historical Association.