Thursday, June 16, 2016

Learning From Our History: Sam Houston

Sam Houston (1793-1863) remains one of the most fascinating figures in American history (THC has written of him before).  THC has often thought that a study of his life could be a wonderful instructional tool for students trying to better understand the young and expanding United States between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, raising issues of nationalism versus regionalism, slavery and race, the growth of political parties, western expansionism, relations with the Indian tribes, and all during a period when today's political classifications would be completely inapplicable. Houston, 1850s, from

Sam was governor of two states; the first president of the Republic of Texas and a United States senator from Texas after its admission to the Union; a slaveholder who opposed secession and the only southern senator to vote against the Kansas-Nebraska Bill; who lived with the Cherokees for several years as both a teenager and a middle-aged adult, a citizen of the Cherokee nation and protector of Indian rights, whose political mentor, Andrew Jackson, was hostile to such rights.

Today from the Facebook page of the producers of the movie, Sam Houston: American Son, Texas Legend, which has been shown on Texas and Tennessee PBS stations, comes another reminder of why he remains so interesting and could be so instructive in telling our nation's history: 
In June of 1863 Houston's old war wounds, both in his shoulder shattered by Creek muskets in 1814 and his San Jacinto ankle, caused him such pain that Margaret sent him to a health spa in Sour Lake, near Beaumont, to bathe in the warm mineral muds. Before he left a group of Alabama and Coushatta Indians arrived to thank him for his help freeing some of their braves from the Confederate Army and to cheer him up.

Jeff Hamilton witnessed the event and wrote of it in his memoirs:
"He had them sit in a circle about him on the big porch. The Indians and my master talked a long time in the Indian language. Before they started back to their homes, my master asked them to sing his favorite Indian song. This pleased the Indians very much. They sang two or three songs for him, and wound up with the one he liked so well, which was sung in a low chant. It was a pretty song, but sad."
The event occurred in the last year of Houston's life, after he refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy and resigned his office as governor of Texas.  It tells us of the deep connection he felt with his Indian friends throughout his entire life, a connection that created consternation among many Texans, who felt Houston was too friendly.

And in Jeff Hamilton, who tells us of the event, we have another example of the complex web of Houston's life.  Jeff Hamilton was purchased as a slave by Houston in 1853, when he was 13 years old and freed by Houston in 1862.  He lived until 1941.
(Jeff Hamilton, probably in 1930s from smmercury)

Here's Jeff Hamilton's biography courtesy of The Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas:

Jeff Hamilton (1840-1941) was born a slave on the Singleton Gibson plantation in Kentucky on April 16, 1840, and was taken from his mother in October 1853 to sell at auction in Huntsville. Senator Sam Houston was in town that day, noticed the crying child, and purchased him.

Houston took Hamilton to his home, where he was a playmate of the Houston children, a personal bodyguard and valet of Sam Houston, and had a close, loving relationship with the family. Hamilton was a driver for Houston during his two campaigns for governor. He learned not only reading, writing, and arithmetic but also had lessons on religion and responsibility with the Houston family. 

When Houston was elected governor of Texas in 1859, he appointed Hamilton as his office boy. Hamilton met many important historical figures during this period in his life and attended many important events. He was with Houston when the governor refused to take the oath to join the Confederacy. When Houston freed his slaves in October 1862, Hamilton remained with the family. He was Houston's personal body servant and was with him at the time of his death. Afterward, Hamilton moved with the Houston family to Independence, Texas, and remained with them until Mrs. Houston died. In Independence Hamilton helped the Houstons and worked as a janitor at Baylor College from 1889 to 1903. When the female college (now Mary Hardin-Baylor University) moved to Belton, Hamilton moved there too. [Note: He went on to marry and have eleven children]

Throughout his life Hamilton remained an honorary member of the Houston family and attended all their reunions and special family events. During his later life he was honored throughout the United States for his association with leading historical figures of his lifetime. He spoke at many historical events, especially during the Texas Centennial, and was widely interviewed about his life as a slave and his life with the Houston family.

1 comment:

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