Sam Houston is revered in both Tennessee and Texas. The man who held the unique distinction of being Governor of two states stands out in American history as one who successfully straddled the cultural, social and political divide at a time when the United States was expanding as a nation, from sea to shining sea.
In both the Volunteer State (Tennessee) and Lone Star State (Texas), they speak in awe and intense admiration of what Sam Houston achieved over a large part of the 19th century. There is also wide recognition that Sam’s pioneering credentials in pushing American frontiers west and south were moulded by his distinctive Ulster-Scots (Scots-Irish) Presbyterian family roots and characteristics.
Earlier this month, I had the privilege and honour to be invited to attend and speak at events surrounding the unveiling of a 200,000-dollar bronze statue to Sam Houston in Maryville, a pretty East Tennessee town in the Great Smoky Mountains foothills, where Sam spent his younger years.
This highly auspicious event cemented the very close bond that exists between Tennessee and Texas, for it was brave Tennesseans like Sam Houston and David Crockett who moved in the early 1830s to the ‘Texian’ territory. then part of Mexico.
For Crockett it was a fateful move that cost him and others their lives at The Alamo siege in San Antonio in March 1836, but, for Houston, it was a journey that led him to become the most influential man in Texas.
Sam Houston spent his early years in Maryville and was a teacher at the local rustic log cabin school, today preserved as an historical and educational monument.
The DUP Mayor of Antrim/Newtownabbey Councillor Thomas Hogg and I were warmly welcomed by leading East Tennessee civic leaders and politicians at the unveiling ceremony of the statue in front of Maryville’s municipal building and at other week-end celebrations marking Sam Houston’s contribution to the life of Tennessee and Texas. Mayor Hogg represented his council and I, along with Glen Pratt, from Amarillo, Texas, the Ulster-Scots Agency. Glen is president of the United States Ulster-Scots Society .
The Mayor of Maryville Tom Taylor led the welcomes. He was joined by US Republican Congressman for Tennessee John J. Duncan and US Republican Senator Lamar Alexander.
Houston was the only American to be Governor of two states - Tennessee and Texas - and present at the ceremonies was Andy Brauninger, Mayor of Huntsville, Texas, where Sam spent his last years.
Direct family members of the Houston clan from Tennessee, Texas and Colorado were guests, as were several representatives of the existing Cherokee nation.
Sam wrested Texas from Mexican control in April 1836 after the fall of David Crockett and others at The Alamo siege, defeating Mexican president General Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto.
From a Northern Ireland perspective, there is good reason to be very proud of Sam’s Ulster family roots. US Senator for Tennessee Lamar Alexander, whose Alexander and Rankin ancestors emigrated from Londonderry in the 18th century, said he was interested in Sam Houston for most of his life.
“As a boy, I was fascinated by this man. Whether he had grown up in Maryville or not, Sam Houston is my hero,” echoed the Senator, who said his son and grandson are named after Houston. The Senator showed off Sam’s walking stick which he treasures in his family collection.
US Congressman John J. Duncan said both Tennessee and Texas states are inhabited by “freedom-loving people”. “There are not two American states with more historic ties than Tennessee and Texas. There wouldn’t be a Texas without a Tennessee,” he said.
The city of Houston in Texas, fourth largest city in the United States - population two and a half milion people - is named after Sam.
Andy Brauninger, Mayor of Huntsville,Texas, proclaimed March 19 - date of the unveiling - to be ‘Sam Houston Day’. “Sam Houston loved America, Sam Houston loved Tennesseee, Sam Houston loved Texas,” said Mr Brauninger.
Born in Virginia’s Shenendoah Valley in 1793, Sam Houston moved to Blount County in 1807 after his father Sam’s death with his mother Elizabeth Paxton Houston and eight siblings, settling on a farm purchased by his father before his death.
Sam, as a youth, lived for a while with Cherokee Indians at Hiswassee Island between Knoxville and Chattanooga. There, he was nicknamed ‘The Raven’. About 1812, aged 19, he taught school in Blount County before embarking on a career that saw him becoming a miltary general as well as Governor of Tennessee, and later Texas.
Houston’s great-great grand-daughter Madge Thornall Roberts said that while Sam’s time in Maryville was short, it made a major impact on his life due to the positive influence of his mother and association with the Cherokees, who he later engaged with in land treaty negotiations. She noted Sam once remarked that teaching school in Maryville was the activity he enjoyed most in his life.
The impressive 450-pound, seven foot tall statue was constructed by sculptor Wayne Hyde, from Pennsylvania, in collaboration with noted Tennessee historical painter David Wright.
The sculpture shows Houston with a Kentucky rifle in hand, wearing an early 19th century Tennessee settler hunting shirt and carrying a pouch and powder horn, as well as a pipe and tomahawk to also depict Cherokee influences. The ‘Old Betsy’ rifle belonging to David Crockett was used as a model for the gun.
After the unveiling, VIPs and other guests moved to the Sam Houston school house near Maryville for a reception and further tributes to Sam’s enduring legacy.