Houston: A Man For All Reasons
By Tom Morrow
Sam Houston was the 19th century’s “man for all reasons.” He was a soldier, a statesman, a governor, a republic president, a congressman, and a U.S. senator. Above all, he was a storied American character.
Born in Rockbridge County, Virginia on March 2, 1793, Samuel Houston was an important leader of the Texas Revolution. He served as the first and third president of the Republic of Texas, and was one of the first two individuals to represent Texas in the United States Senate. But before his Texas years, Houston served as the sixth governor of Tennessee and later became the seventh governor of the state of Texas. He was the only American to be elected governor of two different states.
With the support of Andrew Jackson, in 1823, Houston won election to the United States House of Representatives representing Tennessee He strongly supported Jackson’s presidential candidacies, and in 1827, Houston was elected as the governor of Tennessee. In 1829, Houston resigned from office, and joined his Cherokee nation friends in the Arkansas Territory.
Houston settled in Texas in 1832. After the Battle of Gonzales, Houston helped organize Texas’s provisional government and was selected as the top-ranking official in the “Texian Army,” which he led to victory at San Jacinto, the decisive battle in Texas’s war for independence against Mexico.
After the war, Houston won election in the 1836 Texas presidential election. He left office due to term limits in 1838 but won election to another term in the 1841 Texas presidential election. Houston played a key role in the annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845, and in 1846, he was elected to represent Texas in the U.S. Senate. He joined the Democratic Party and supported President James K. Polk’s prosecution of the Mexican–American War.
He was an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. presidential nomination of the American Party in the 1856 presidential election and the Constitutional Union Party in the 1860 presidential election. In 1859, Houston won election as the governor of Texas. In this role, he opposed secession and unsuccessfully sought to keep Texas out of the Confederate States of America. He was forced out of office in 1861 and died in 1863. Houston’s name has been honored in numerous ways, including having the nation’s fourth largest city named for him.
One of the legends of the Texas Revolution involves a woman who supposedly was a spy for Houston, acting as a concubine for Mexican president General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Emily D. West, also known as Emily Morgan, was a Texas folk heroine whose legendary activities during the Texas Revolution have come to be identified with the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
West was said to be a free woman of mixed race, or what was known as a “high yellow” as people of mixed color were referred. She was an indentured servant for one year in the community of Morgan’s Point, Texas.
Several months into her year of indentureship, on April 16, 1836, West and other residents were kidnapped by Mexican cavalry. West was forced to travel with the forces of General Antonio López de Santa Anna as they prepared to face the army led by Sam Houston. She was in the Mexican camp on April 21 when Houston’s force attacked.
The Texans won the Battle of San Jacinto in 18 minutes, losing only nine men. According to legend greatly helped by information secretly passed by “the Yellow Rose,” Santa Anna had been caught unprepared because he was in an amorous state with West. No contemporary accounts indicate Santa Anna was with a woman at the time, but the story was recorded in the journal of Englishman William Bollaert in 1842, who was told that particular tale by Houston.
Years later, Bollaert’s diary was published in 1956, and amateur historians began to expand Houston’s tale, suggesting that West fit the description of the girl in the then-popular folk song “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” The story continued to grow, with many references to West’s beauty. As her legend took hold, by the 1986 Texas Sesquicentennial it pretty much was considered historical fact. Maybe, maybe not.
In recent years, her story continued in the TV miniseries “Texas Rising.”
But, to quote the late film director John Ford: “when you have reality versus legend, print the legend … it’s always more interesting.”