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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.