Historian Gordon Lucy looks at Ulster-Scot Sam Houston, a man whose roots go back to Ballyboley near Ballyclare, and whose heroic deeds led to the US city of Houston – currently in the news due to tropical storm Harvey – being named after him
The city of Houston is the focus of worldwide attention because of tropical storm Harvey.
While most people are aware of the devastating impact of the storm, fewer may be aware that the fourth largest city in the United States – after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago – is named after a man, regarded as ‘the Father of Texas’ and the state’s greatest hero, whose forebearers came from Ballyboley, near Ballyclare.
The Alamo, the former Franciscan Misión San Antonio de Valero, remains for modern Texans the symbol of heroic resistance against Mexican rule but Texan independence was secured 46 days after the fall of the Alamo at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836.
On that day Sam Houston, commander-in-chief of the Army of Texas, surprised General Antonio López de Santa Anna, the Mexican president and self-styled ‘Napoleon of the West’, and his army at San Jacinto during their afternoon siesta.
The Texans advanced against the Mexican foe beneath the flag of the independent Republic of Texas which was of pure white silk, with a five-pointed azure star and the Latin motto ‘Ubi Libertas Habitat, ibi nostra patria est (Where liberty lives, there is our homeland).’
Taking ‘Remember the Alamo’ as their war cry, in less than 20 minutes Houston’s 800-strong force defeated a superior Mexican force of 1,500. The Texans killed about 600 Mexicans and wounded 200 more at the cost of six Texan fatalities and about 30 wounded.
Houston struggled to restrain the blood lust of his troops. The Texans had asked for no quarter and intended to grant none. Nevertheless, Houston managed to restrain his men sufficiently to take 700 prisoners, including Santa Anna.
Modern Texans are not slow to point out that the Mexican president received from a generous foe the mercy he had denied the defenders of the Alamo. It was an astonishingly comprehensive victory.
Santa Anna was forced to sign the Treaty of Velasco by which he publicly undertook never personally to take up arms against Texas again; that all hostilities between Texas and Mexico would cease immediately; that the Mexican army would withdraw beyond the Rio Grande; and all ‘American’ prisoners would be released.
By secret treaty, Santa Anna pledged to work within Mexico for diplomatic recognition of Texas; Texan independence; a treaty of commerce; and recognition of the Rio Grande as the boundary between Texas and Mexico.
The complete details of the battle, like those of all the battles of the Texan Revolution, are simply not known, or agreed upon. Few wars of such eventual historic significance have been so poorly documented or reported.
The Texan participants were overwhelmingly doers, not writers. Furthermore, all the principal figures at the Battle of San Jacinto were at odds with each other before the battle and most became political enemies afterwards. Thus, virtually no two accounts of the Battle of San Jacinto coincide exactly.
Before the battle Houston appeared unwilling to attack Santa Anna despite the frequent orders of David Burnet, the president of Texas, to do so. Ordinary Texans even jeered at their commander-in-chief as he passed and his own officers threatened to seize command. Houston said that he would shoot anyone who tried. However, Houston was merely biding his time and may be easily acquitted of the charge of cowardice because he played a very active role in the short but furious fighting at San Jacinto, being shot in the left ankle and having two horses shot from under him.
Sam Houston was an Ulster-Scot whose Ulster roots may be traced back to Ballyboley, near Ballyclare. A life-long admirer of Andrew Jackson and of the same ethnicity, Houston was a man of power, vigour and determination who in early middle age stood six foot three tall (rather than the six foot six of legend) and weighed 240 pounds.
According to TR Fehrenbach: ‘He despised Europe, all its works and its so-called cultured men who willingly seemed to bow to tyrants and aristocrats.’
He married three times, always to much younger women.
He was born in March 1793 in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, an area densely settled by Ulster emigrants. The young Sam, with his family, moved to Tennessee, following the death of his father in 1807.
In 1809, dissatisfied with working as a shop clerk, he absconded and resided for a time with the Cherokees, being adopted into the Cherokee Nation. He returned home and – at 19 – founded a one-room schoolhouse. Houston served in the War of 1812 and pursued a successful career in Tennessee politics, culminating in a term as governor of Tennessee (1827-29).
However, a fight with a congressman, followed by a high-profile trial, led to his flight to Texas and ultimately his involvement in the Texas Revolution.
Houston served two terms as president of the independent Republic of Texas (1836-38 and 1841-44) and was instrumental in securing the admission of Texas as the 28th state of the American union in 1845.
Houston is the only person in United States history to have served as governor of two different states: Tennessee and Texas. He served as governor of Texas between 1859 and 1861. And, as president of the Republic of Texas, he is one of a very select group of Americans to have been head of state of an independent country.
Although a slaveowner and opponent of abolition, Houston refused, because of his unionist convictions, to swear allegiance to the confederacy when Texas seceded from the union. To avoid bloodshed, he declined the offer of a union army to put down the rebellion and instead retired to Huntsville, Texas, where he died – ignored and vilified by those whose independence he had secured – before the end of the Civil War. Happily, the eclipse of his reputation was brief. Today, he is revered as ‘the Father of Texas’ and the state’s greatest hero.
The city of Houston – the fourth largest city in the USA and the largest city in Texas – is named in his honour. Posthumous commemoration has included a memorial museum, a United States Army base, at least three US warships, a national forest, a historical park, a university, and the largest free-standing statue of an American figure.