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A few weeks ago, I wrote about a lunch I had with former Texas governor Mark White several months before he died. One of the things we found we had in common was almost evangelical respect for Sam Houston.
A few weeks ago, I found out about a new biography on the last days of Sam Houston. So on my Facebook page, I posted these words, “The more I learn about Sam Houston, the more he inspires me. We camp every April in Sam Houston State Park which is just a few miles from his last home, now a tremendous museum. Statesman, drunkard, war hero, coward, Texas governor kicked to the curb and at the end of it all, a man truly trying to do the best he could. I’ll be interested to read this book.”
Never Call Sam Houston a Coward.
I stirred up a s***t- storm based on some of the responses. The most courteously worded comment was this one: “ I don’t know who you are funky texas traveler, but Sam Houston was no coward. He was the architect behind outsmarting Santa Ana at San Jacinto. I take great offense to hearing anyone call him a coward.”
I replied to each one with something like, “That’s what many of his fellow Texans called him after Goliad and the Alamo fell. Sometimes popular opinion is far from correct. History tells us he was a resourceful heroic military leader, just what we needed.”
Target of some angry Texans
Wow, I realized I was experiencing a molecule of what was heaped on Sam Houston’s head when he took unpopular stands. Which made me admire him even more.
Which in turn convinced me how important it is to embrace our heroes as the very human men and women they were, not the sanitized statues we read about in school. It is easy to think our role models were different from us. That they didn’t face the same fears, the same indecision, the same regrets and the same backlash. We may know our history but there is so much more to learn from it.
Sam Houston – then and now
Let’s take old Sam. While he lived, Houston’s reputation rose and fell like a piston. How did the illustrious hero of San Jacinto appear to his contemporaries and us modern Texans from 150 years later?
As a young teen, Sam ran away from home to live for three years with the Cherokees. He became fluent in their language, took their customs to heart, even earned himself the name Colonneh – Raven. Today, we’d say he was ahead of his time in embracing the Native American culture or getting back to the land.
Here’s how some of his extended family and friends probably viewed it. Sam would rather gallivant out with a bunch of outsiders than work as a clerk in his brother’s shop because clerking was boring. Sounds like modern teens taking a few years to live off the land or backpack around South America. “Yeah, go ahead and waste that $100,000 education,” contemporary parents would say. In Sam’s case, he was forsaking a steady job in a family business with room to move up. Not too promising a start for a future Texas hero.
Young Sam straightens up…for a while
Then Sam came back home, somehow hooks up with Andrew Jackson and became governor of Tennessee at age 34. His family and friends had to be breathing a sigh of relief, glad that foolishness was over.
Yet two years later, Houston resigned as governor over rumors of alcoholism and infidelity and scampered off to Arkansas Territory. I even read somewhere his Cherokee friends changed his tribe name to “The Big Drunk.” It’s easy to figure out what the popular opinion of the day was about Sam Houston.
Sinking even lower, Sam got into a fight with a US congressman in 1832 and had to hightail it to the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas. Life in what became Texas was as bumpy as the one he left behind in Tennessee. Hard to believe that this indecisive and unreliable man somehow ends up commander of Texas’ ragtag army.
Bumpy times in Tejas
Here’s the backstory on what was happening in Texas when Sam got here. Land was cheap. Americans were flooding across the border to settle in Texas. And some of these new settlers were breaking Mexican laws, like the one prohibiting slavery. They were bringing their slaves with them. For this and other reasons, Mexico tried to block all immigration from the US.
When Mexican Dictator Santa Anna came to power, he decided to take a hard line and force out these law-breaking foreigners. Santa Anna took his massive army to a place called the Alamo. You know what happened there.
They called Sam Houston a coward
But did you know that as this formidable Mexican army continued to advanced, hundreds of detractors were calling Sam Houston a coward for not saving the Alamo defenders? Called him craven for retreating ahead of Santa Ana. Sam knew there was no military advantage to holding the Alamo when he desperately needed to gather his forces. Not only was he facing Santa Anna, but Houston was fighting contemporary popular opinion.
Houston was running from Santa Anna, looking for some an advantage when he saw a chance to make a “Hail Mary” stand at San Jacinto. Incredibly, he defeated the Mexican forces in an 18-minute battle.
Then they called him a hero…for a while
With his reputation soaring, Houston first became president of the Republic of Texas and later governor of the State of Texas.
And true to his nature, as governor, Sam had a hard time just going along. When something stuck in his craw as not right, he couldn’t get passed it.
Houston was removed from office when he refused to secede and swear allegiance to the Confederacy. He lived and died in humiliation in Huntsville, where his home is now a museum. Go there. Go by yourself. Read the plaques. Sit a spell by his last home and contemplate the man.
Which Sam Houston inspires you?
See who will inspire you more? Is it the Sam Houston immortalized in sculptures – brave, courageous hero of San Jacinto and all-knowing father of Texas? Or is it the man who successfully overcame his short-comings and missteps? The man who stood up to popular derision to win independence for Texas? The man who continued to stand up for what he felt was right for Texas until his last breath? That’s the difference between knowing our history or and embracing it fully for all it can teach us.
I’d still strongly suggest you never call Sam Houston a coward.
Which flawed hero inspires you?
I’d love to hear from you.