Destiny's Child

'Sam Houston' biography details the boyhood, manhood, and mythology of a Texas legend

Austin author James L. Haley
Austin author James L. Haley (Photo By John Anderson)

Austin author James L. Haley is greatly aided in his ambitious biographical labors by having chosen Sam Houston, the hero of the Battle of San Jacinto and an extraordinary man by any measure, as his subject. Houston's father was Captain Samuel Houston of Timber Ridge plantation in Rockbridge County, Va. He had served with distinction during the American Revolutionary War with Morgan's Rifle Brigade. Sam of Texas fame was the family's fifth-born son. In Sam Houston (University of Oklahoma Press, $39.95) Haley traces the Texan's clan back through history, to the Norman Conquest and their subsequent successes in Scotland and America. The author then reviews everything that has come to light about Sam Houston's life as a boy and young man, in as great of detail as the source materials will permit. The studious examination of these formative years does much to illuminate the outsized character of history that Houston became. He was enamored of books as a boy, and his father had a library in which the youngster could educate himself. His particular favorite was The Iliad.

The boy Houston dreamed as large as the mythical tales of ancient derring-do he read. While Houston was an indifferent student, he was an avid reader, especially after the death of his father when the boy was 13. Captain Houston's widow, the formidable Elizabeth Paxton Houston, moved her brood to Tennessee, where the older brothers established a farm and mercantile store. Young Sam referred to his stern, taskmaster older brothers as the "Holy Apostles." He much preferred reading to plowing or working in the store stocking shelves.

The Houston farm bordered the Cherokee Nation and Sam began his lifelong interest in the American Indian during long visits among the tribes. He spent so much time among the Cherokee that he was soon adopted by the Cherokee chief known among the whites as John Jolly. Houston's tribal name was Hiwassee (the Raven). Once, when Sam's older brothers came to fetch him home for work, he refused to go and stayed among his adoptive tribe. This event proved truly pivotal in his life. For the remainder of his life he seldom spoke of his older brothers or mother. He became his own man and was determined to live a heroic life. Plowing and store-clerking might claim others, but not Sam Houston.

Throughout the biography, Haley very successfully repudiates a number of revisionist theories about Houston and his career: that he was a rank opportunist -- self-dealing while posing as a hero, a reluctant warrior, and other calumnies. In the close examination of Houston's youth, these theories all but evaporate. Here was a gifted and handsome frontier youth that had determined to live a heroic life or no life at all.

Houston's enlistment in the army at age 18 perfectly exemplifies this aspiration to greatness. The War of 1812 was in full roar, giving the young sergeant the opportunities for heroic action he craved. At 6-foot-2 and with a commanding voice, Houston made a striking soldier, and took to military life with zeal. The Cherokee Nation remained loyal to the U.S. government while the Creek tribe supported the British, so Houston fought battles alongside his adoptive Cherokee tribe.

Destiny's Child

At his first opportunity, Houston distinguished himself by fighting in a battle on the Coosa River in Alabama. He fought with such ferocity that he was twice wounded seriously, with a musket ball to his shoulder and an arrow in his groin. In the fury of battle, there were so many wounded that the triage corpsmen placed Houston among those who were too far gone to get useful medical attention. The following morning, when Houston was still alive, the army surgeons made an effort to tend his wounds. These wounds troubled Houston for the remainder of his long life -- they never fully healed and had to be packed and drained from time to time -- but he had somehow survived.

Houston's soldierly efforts did bring him to the attention of Andrew Jackson, a connection that subsequently favored the young Houston greatly in finding his place in the world. During these years Houston began to display the "Indian cunning," intelligence, wit, oratorical skills, and other leadership qualities that amply equipped him to become the liberating general of Texas and its first executive officer. The intervening accomplishments, such as service in the U.S. Congress from Tennessee and then as governor of that state, seemed like mere résumé-builders compared to the talents he displayed in the new nation of Texas.

The failure of Tennessee Gov. Houston's first marriage to Eliza Allen is much less mysterious since Haley has rounded up all the facts. It now appears that Ms. Allen's politically ambitious father and uncle persuaded her to make the match when she, in fact, preferred another. When she told Houston some version of this, he sent her back to her family home, resigned the governorship, and migrated to western Arkansas, where he pickled himself in spirits for several years and ran a trading post with an informal "Indian wife." His behavior was a great scandal among his friends and fodder for his political enemies. But by the time Houston came to Texas, he had already lived an incredible life as a soldier, merchant, Indian agent, congressman, and governor, and the Lone Star State would provide greater glories still.

Haley is even-handed in his treatment of Houston, although his admiration of him is undeniable. The author presents a clear-eyed picture of a hugely talented adventurer, with flaws intact, including Houston's fondness for hard spirits. Most notable in Haley's hands, though, is Houston's amazing political prescience. He knew when to retreat and when to engage, when to dissemble and when to speak plainly. He could predict with incredible accuracy the outcomes of the many chaotic developments in the fledgling nation that was riven with factions and self-aggrandizing poseurs. Houston was not above "confiding" secrets to a man he knew would gossip, certain that his privy information would land in the intended ear in short order.

He won an unlikely war against the trained army of Mexico, then marching under the orders of Santa Anna. He restrained the adventurers who would have given the victory away with ill-advised raids into Mexico. He pacified the Indians with his respect for their customs and his knowledge of their ways. He coincidentally fomented the Indians against Mexico, happy to deliver trouble to his old enemy Santa Anna, who was once again ruling Mexico and threatening the new nation of Texas.

Since then, the study of Texas and its historical personalities has often branched into hagiography practiced by partisans long on zeal and short on history. Haley has eschewed the customary devotions and elevated the bar considerably with Sam Houston. Haley's first step in this effort is to explain why a new biography is needed since some 60 books on Houston were on library shelves before he started researching. In this task Haley acquits himself well, mentioning the three existing biographies that he feels merit continuing attention, including the 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Raven by Marquise James. Haley also adds Sam Houston: The Great Designer, by the late University of Texas historian Llerena Friend, to this short list. (He quotes from Friend's work a number of times. His only criticism is the same as her own: Friend simply did not have enough source material concerning Houston's early life. She has him in public office by page 30 of her book.)

He also recites the recent availability of certain Houston papers like the trove given by a Houston granddaughter to the Catholic Diocese of Texas, a treasure which came to light as recently as 1987. And he spent 15 years working on Sam Houston. It is thoroughly researched, exhaustive in its detail, and well written. Haley's hard work is almost invisible to the reader; he makes this complex life accessible, even understandable, in light of the times in which Houston lived. Along the way, the author has given the reader not only a painless lesson in Texas history, but a very good review of U.S. history from the Revolutionary War to the beginning of the Civil War, a 50-year chunk of our national life that gets short shrift in schoolhouses and lecture halls. It is a satisfying journey.

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Sam Houston, James Haley, University of Oklahoma Press, Andrew Jackson, Eliza Allen, nation of Texas, Santa Anna, Cherokee Nation, John Jolly, Tennessee, U.S. Congress

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