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Black and white photographic portrait of Samuel Houston in formal dress.
[Sam Houston, half-length portrait, three-quarters to the left, in civilian dress, clean shaven.] Made by Mathew B. Brady, between 1848 and 1850. Prints and Photographs Division.

Man and Metropolis: The Story of Houston

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On this date 230 years ago, Samuel Houston, the man who would come to share his name with one of the United States’ largest cities, was born. I knew very little of Sam Houston, or Texas history more broadly, having grown up in northern Virginia where mentions of Texas prior to the Civil War are seldom made, and the Alamo is hardly remembered let alone part of the curriculum. However, despite this oversight in my education, what I do have is a born and bred Texan as a partner, which has led me to seek to learn more about his home state. Whether you are a Texan or not, I compel you to read on and learn a bit more about the man, who ironically was a native Virginian, and the metropolis that now bears his name.

Sam Houston had a fascinating life long before he set foot on Texas soil. Born on March 2, 1793 in Rockbridge County, Virginia, he lived on the Timber Ridge plantation which his father had inherited from his colonial-settler ancestors. As an adolescent, Houston’s mother moved him and the rest of the family to Tennessee after the death of his father in 1806. At the time, Tennessee was the west-most point of the country, and commonplace skirmishes with the Native Americans that resided there made the land cheap, but also dangerous. As a youth Houston ran away from home and lived amongst the Cherokee people for several years where he learned their customs and language, growing a strong bond with them. This familiarity and affinity for the Cherokee would lead to Houston serving as a political envoy, brokering deals and negotiations between the Federal government and several native tribes later in his life.

Houston returned from living amongst the Cherokee to learn and practice law. In 1823 he was elected to represent Tennessee’s 7th district in the House of Representatives, and just four years later, in 1827, he ascended to the governorship of Tennessee. After a brief two-year stint in that role, a somewhat disillusioned Houston resigned and again took refugee with the Cherokee people before eventually parting ways and traveling to Texas.

Map of the United States of Mexico which features each of the states highlighted in different colors. Map also shows some of the Midwest United States.
This map of Mexico from 1826 showcases the administrative region of Coahuila y Tejas which modern day Texas was a part of at the time. A map of the United States of Mexico: as organized and defined by the several acts of the Congress of that Republic, constructed from a great variety of printed and manuscript documents. Made by H.S. Tanner, 1826. Geography and Map Division.

Once in Texas, Houston took up the mantle of public office again, serving as an elected representative of Nacogdoches, Texas during the Convention of 1833. At the time of the Convention, Texas was subsumed as part of the Mexican joint state of Coahuila y Tejas. Houston and other Mexican-Texan representatives had gathered to codify their qualms and petition Mexico for independent statehood for Texas. However, these demands would go unheeded, and the Texas Revolution ultimately broke out in the fall of 1835. Having gained respect and proven his leadership capabilities to the local populace, Houston was chosen to be Commander in Chief of the Texas army in their battle against Mexico. The Texan army faced heavy losses during the fight for independence, most notably when Mexican General and President Antonio López de Santa Anna took the Alamo, massacring the Texan defenders there in March 1836. However, the winds of war changed, and just a month later Houston ordered a successful surprise attack on Santa Anna and his troops during the Battle of San Jacinto in southeastern Texas. Santa Anna was ultimately captured by the Texan troops and forced to concede the region in the wake of the battle.

Black and white negative photostat which features military positions during the Battle of San Jacinto with the San Jacinto Bay marking the eastern boundary and the Buffalo Bayou marking the northernmost point.
This map published in 1836 showcases the location of Santa Anna’s camp along with Texan military positions during the Battle of San Jacinto which broke out on April 21, 1836. Plan of Battle. Made by R. S. Bross, 1836. Geography and Map Division.

Santa Anna’s defeat and the removal of the Mexican army laid the foundations for an independent Texas. Houston would go on to become the first elected president of the Republic of Texas in September of 1836. When the Lone Star State joined the Union nearly a decade later in 1845, Houston would continue to represent Texas, first serving as a Texas senator and later as governor of the state.

Colorful map of the Republic of Texas showing the land granted to individuals in different colors. Also features some of the United States to the north and east, as well as some of Mexico to the south.
The Republic of Texas existed as an independent nation from 1836 until 1845 when Texas was annexed by the United States. This map from 1837 shows the Republic of Texas as it was during Sam Houston’s presidency. Map of Texas with parts of the adjoining states. Made by H.S. Tanner, 1837. Geography and Map Division.

Today the city that bears the name of this founding father of Texas is a behemoth. Houston is now the largest city in the state of Texas, and the fourth largest in the United States. Though, as you might imagine, that was not always the case. The city of Houston grew from humble beginnings in the new Republic of Texas in August of 1836 when two property investors founded a town just 25 miles from where the Battle of San Jacinto had taken place. The investors named the town Houston after the great military figure who had helped grant Texas victory and secure independence. An ad was placed in the Telegraph and Texas Register to try and persuade new settlers to move to the town, assuring that Houston was destined to become a trading powerhouse thanks to its proximity to the port of Galveston.

Black and white newspaper page in three columns. Features an advertisement for the new settlement of Houston in the lower right-most column entitled "The Town of Houston."
This page from the August 30, 1836 edition of the Telegraph and Texas Register features an ad for the new town of Houston on the right side of the page. G.& T.H. Borden. Telegraph and Texas Register (Columbia, Tex.), Vol. 1, No. 27, Ed. 1, Tuesday, August 30, 1836, newspaper, August 30, 1836; Columbia, Texas. University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, crediting The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.


Sparse blue and white plat map of the city of Houston featuring labeled plots along five streets. Map is bordered to the south by the Buffalo Bayou.
This early plan for Houston shows minimal development from the town’s inception in 1836. Plan of the City of Houston. Made by G. Borden and T. H. Borden, 1836. Geography and Map Division.

Houston in its infancy was indeed a small town. The advertisement featured above for the town boasts that a public house was in the works and would open soon. One of the earliest plans that we hold for the city from 1836 shows a plot of land reserved for a school house and little else. Still, the prophecy scripted for the tiny town in that late August newspaper seems to have played out. In 1837 Houston was officially incorporated as a city, and would even briefly serve as the capital of the Republic of Texas until that title was transferred to Austin in 1839. While its destiny was not to be the political epicenter of Texas, Houston became a premier city in its own right. It did indeed become a magnet for trade, serving as a railroad hub for cotton exports through the port of Galveston during the latter half of the 19th century. Houston would go on to become a prominent location for scientific research in the 20th century, developing into a center for healthcare-based study and of course presiding over the famous NASA Mission Control Center which the Apollo 13 astronauts would send urgent communications to.

Colorful panoramic map of Houston oriented looking south. Map also includes ten inset images of notable buildings in town, along with an directory for public and commercial buildings and a separate directory of churches.
This late 19th century panoramic map features Houston’s sprawl roughly 55 years after the town’s original establishment. Houston, Texas… 1891. Geography and Map Division.

From fairly modest origins, Houston has grown to a metropolis of more than two million people. Built on the foundations of a man who will forever loom large in the annals of Texas history, rose an immense and dynamic city. It seems true what they say – from personality to population, everything is bigger in Texas.




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