TENNESSEE HISTORY Classroom
FULL HISTORY STORIES


Sam Houston


Sam Houston was born on March 6, 1793 in Lexington, VA. His father was a farmer and a member of the Militia, which kept him away for long periods of time. He learned how to read and write at an early age and was a voracious reader. His love of it in fact led to many family fights between him and his eight other siblings. In 1806, his father purchased 420 acres of land in Blount County, Tenn. Before moving, however, Houston’s father died suddenly and, with nowhere else to go, the family moved to the Tennessee farm.
Sam was of an independent mind and didn’t care much for farming. He often wandered away from the fields, but his older brothers would generally find him and force him back to work. At one point, they packed him off to work in a mercantile store as a clerk. Sam quickly grew tired of weighing out potatoes, ladling flour, and measuring out yards of fabric for customers. At age 16, He packed up his books and ran away from home.



Houston found an island in the middle of the Tennessee River and settled there with a band of Cherokee. Oolooteka, (John Jolly), was Chief of the tribe and took a liking to Houston and adopted him. Sam learned to hunt, fish, and speak their language. He was given the name ‘Ka lanu’, Raven, and even took the Eagle as his "medicine animal". After three years, Houston returned home to Blount County and opened a school. He couldn’t let go of the last three years with Chief Oolooteka, however, and kept his hair long in the then current Cherokee fashion. While many thought it was crazy for a 19-year-old to open a school and charge $8 per term, Houston managed to get enough students enrolled in one term to pay back his debts.
It was during this time that an army recruiting party came to town trying to raise men for a militia. The sergeant gave an inspiration speech and threw a handful of silver dollars on a drumhead saying that whoever decided to pick one up was a member of the United States Army. Sam Houston saw an opportunity for himself–so he stepped forward and picked one up.
His family was furious at him for enlisting when he could have probably obtained an officers commission with his education. Houston’s mother eventually decided to go along with her son’s decision and helped him prepare to leave. She gave her son a ring with the word "Honor" inscribed on the inside and told him:
"While the door of my cabin is open to brave men, " she said, "it is eternally shut to cowards."
With those words still ringing in his ears, Sam Houston enlisted as a private and joined General Andrew Jackson’s Army. Sam marched with the Army, but never saw combat or had a chance to prove himself until a year later. He did, however, impress Jackson with his knowledge and was soon promoted to ensign.
During what would become known as The Battle Of Horseshoe Bend, Houston got an opportunity to prove he could fight. He led a platoon against the earthwork rampart. The first man to go against the Red Stick Creeks was Major Montgomery, who was killed on sight. The second man to scale the works and gain access to the compound was Sam Houston. His platoon crossed over behind him–many of his men were killed, but they had gained real estate and now fought furiously to protect it. One battle suddenly became many and Houston was in the thick of it. He was fighting one warrior, being fought by another, and holding his own. Suddenly a warrior let loose an arrow that hit him in the upper thigh piercing his groin. Houston, asked the lieutenant next to him to pull it out. The man tried, but couldn’t and told Houston to report to the army doctor. Remembering his mother’s words–Houston pointed his sword at him.
"Try again." Houston demanded.
The lieutenant pulled hard and ripped the arrow out of his thigh leaving a gaping wound that wouldn’t stop bleeding. Houston was then forced to report to the doctor, who took him out of the battle. The wound would never completely heal and plagued Houston throughout his life.
Following the war, Houston remained in the service for a time as a subagent for the Cherokee. While in Washington, D.C., he learned that Secretary of War Calhoun had made complaints against him for strictly enforcing the illegal importation of African slaves through Florida, then a Spanish province, to the southern United States. Houston felt slighted and soon left the army and studied law in Nashville, where he was admitted to the bar and set up a practice in Lebanon.
Within five years in Tennessee, Houston had served as district attorney, adjutant-general, and major-general of Tennessee’s militia. He was soon regarded as a premier frontier statesman.
In 1823, Houston was elected to Congress, reelected in 1825 and, at age 34, was overwhelmingly elected the seventh governor of Tennessee. In January 1829, Houston married Eliza Allen, but, before long, the marriage began falling on hard times–due in part to a difference in age and Houston’s old wound from the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Two months into his term as governor and at the peak of what everyone thought was his career, Houston got up one morning, packed his belongings, and resigned the Office of Governor. Before leaving for Arkansas, Houston went to the Presbyterian minister that had married him and asked to be baptized. His wife would later file for divorce from him. Houston’s odd behavior devastated his supporters, but the Tennessean shrugged it off and traveled west to Arkansas to join his adoptive Cherokee family. He tried to get back on his feet numerous times, but was discouragingly turned back again and again.
In December 1831, he received word that his mother was dying. He immediately rushed to her bedside and was with her until her last moments of life. When Houston emerged from her room, he seemed to posses a new purpose.
Following her death, the Tennessean went on a trip to Washington, D.C. as a delegate for the Cherokee. As such, Houston again rose to prominence when he became involved in a national incident. Houston got into a war of words with an Ohio Congressman accusing him of a crooked scheme to get Indian rations. Houston challenged him, but it was never acknowledged. When he approached the Congressman on the street, a scuffle broke out and the congressman pulled a gun and pressed it into Houston’s side. When it didn’t fire, Houston took it away from him and caned the congressman like a schoolboy with a walking stick he always carried. The City of Washington flew into a rage and a spectacular trial was held with Francis Scott Key representing Houston. Even though he wrote the "Star Spangled Banner" and was considered a prominent figure, Key wasn’t a good lawyer by any means. Houston was let off, however, with a reprimand from the Speaker of the House and a $500 fine that President Jackson remitted.
During a parting visit with the President, the man Gen. Jackson had once described as "being made by the Almighty and not a tailor" decided to leave D.C. for the Texas territory.
Houston made one more stop in Arkansas to visit his Cherokee family. He gave his wife Tiana the home and everything else and rode out towards Texas. Houston quickly became useful in the state’s fight for independence. Even then, American interests prompted Jackson to consider the territory for inclusion into the U.S., but decided against it because of the ongoing controversy in his administration.
Houston, however, was making his mark in the territory. Within two years of arriving, he helped form the provisional government and was appointed commander-in-chief to organize the state militia.
Houston immediately went to work trying to organize an army and enlist help against the oncoming fight with Mexico. In 1836, he served as a member of the convention that officially called for Texas independence. Following the Battle of the Alamo, Houston engaged General Santa Anna at San Jacinto pitting 750 Texans against 1,800 Mexican regulars. It was hard fought, but Houston, in a brilliant tactical maneuver, defeated the army killing 630 soldiers and capturing 730, including General Santa Anna. The victory and capture of the General gave Texas its freedom from Mexico. In the fall of the same year, Houston was elected President of Texas with four fifths of the vote. He served two years and left the state in great shape with both the Indian and Mexican governments.
Houston was returned to the Texas Congress and served in that capacity until he was reelected President of the state in 1842. During his time in Texas office, he continued his fervent fight for the rights of the Texas Cherokee.
Following the death of his Cherokee wife in 1840, Houston remarried for the last time to an Alabama lady who would come to be a trusted partner. In 1842, trouble began brewing again in Mexico and Houston vetoed a Texas congressional bill that would have made him dictator of Texas. The trouble subsided and three years later Texas was officially admitted to the United States.
Sam Houston was immediately elected to the U.S. Senate where he served until 1859. Houston was forced to resign his seat when he was elected the seventh governor of Texas. During his time in office, Houston’s name had been submitted no less than three times as a candidate for President of the United States. Houston’s first love, however, was the people of Texas and he looked forward to serving as Governor.
A year later, however, Texas voted to secede from the Union and Houston was again caught between two worlds. He was an ardent supporter of the United States, but also understood the sympathies of his fellow Texans. President Lincoln is said to have written Houston a letter offering his assistance to keep Texas in the Union. After reading the contents of the letter, however, Houston threw the letter into the fireplace in disgust.
With no other option at his disposal, Houston once again resigned a post as Governor and retired to his home in Cedar Point, Texas. His family moved from the home to another one in Huntsville where age and wear started catching up with the old warrior and Houston came down with pneumonia.
On July 26, 1863 at 6:15 in the evening, Sam Houston died of complications due to pneumonia. The entire state of Texas, although caught up in the War Between the States, came together and took time to mourn the passing of a man many regarded as the Founding Father of Texas.
No man in the history of the United States would ever again accomplish what Houston had in his lifetime. From age 13 until his death at age 70, he had worked as a farmer, store clerk, school teacher, soldier, district attorney, congressman, major-general, commander-in-chief, president of a republic, Indian agent, senator, and was both the seventh governor of Tennessee and Texas. In addition, he had done so without ever changing who he was or what he believed in the face of strong opposition. When they laid him to rest, he still had the ring his mother had given him all those years before. It was worn from wear but still inscribed with the single word "Honor" on the inside of the band.



Margaret Houston left Huntsville after Sam Houston’s death and moved her family to Independence where she remained until dying in 1867 of Yellow Fever.
While Sam Houston is a man often overlooked by Tennessee historians, there are several good books about his colorful life and career.
The Sam Houston Schoolhouse where he taught after returning from his time with the Cherokee is a state historical site in Blount County that has been recognized numerous times for keeping Houston’s name in Tennessee history. The facility maintains the school building and the grounds as well as an interpretative center on his life in Tennessee. It is open Monday through Saturday and features various activities throughout the year.
As this story often mentions, there were many characteristics about Houston deemed "legendary". The one that can’t be emphasized enough about him was his love of reading. In a day where a man’s ability with a gun and sword often took precedent, Houston was a man who believed in self-education. In fact, his favorites from childhood were the romantic Greek and Roman classics and he was never far from them.
No place better memorializes Houston, as does the state of Texas. The City of Houston was named in his honor and statues of him are erected across the state. Numerous museums throughout Texas display artifacts from his brilliant life and, as a final tribute, all of the clocks at the Houston Museum in Huntsville and both of his homes in the city are stopped at 6:15 p.m. marking his time of death on July 27, 1863.
Following his departure and resignation from the Tennessee Governor’s Office, Houston fell into what can only be described as a clinical depression. He became subject to drinking binges and black moods that were legendary among his friends. On one occasion, he even contemplated suicide on a riverboat, but took an eagle swooping down on him as a Cherokee sign that all was not lost.
He was a man often trapped between two worlds and two ways of living. Although he could never entirely leave the American arena, he saw the independent way of life of the Cherokee as a home that accepted him as he was without question. In fact, it is evident that Houston always emerged from his refuge with the Cherokee with self-confidence and renewed energy.
The Cherokee family that adopted him were forever tolerant in his dark moods and helped him wherever they could. Following an incident where a drunken Houston and his adoptive father got into an argument, Houston scared himself and began to retake control of his life.
During the battle of San Jacinto, Houston’s ankle was shattered in the first round of fire and the horse beneath him shot. He would lose another horse and retake a third in the eighteen minute battle that won Texas it’s independence. The wound from that battle as well as the one from the Battle of Horseshoe Bend never slowed him down. As a politician in Texas, Houston was the poster frontier statesman. His ability to adapt to the outdoors and deliver blistering campaign speeches overwhelmed his opposition, who would often only travel in more luxurious and time consuming methods. On the campaign trail, Houston was a man who expressed belief in individual liberty and patriotism and he stood his ground in the face of often brutal political opposition. Although his stances on issues may have gone against the grain of then current political thought, he never wavered.
Houston knew early in 1863 that he was dying and began settling his affairs and his estate. He had managed to cover his campaign debts and still had a little extra for his family. The sword he carried at San Jacinto and some other personal artifacts he gave to his son Sam Houston, Jr.
Sam Houston, Jr., like most Texans, joined the Confederate Army. He was seriously wounded at the Battle Of Shiloh and the young Confederate was left for dead on the field. He was discovered alive and rescued by a Union Chaplain, who saw that he received medical care for his wounds. Houston was later returned home to Texas to recover from his injuries and help his ailing mother.