Famous Affinities of History
By Lyndon Orr
Public Domain Books
Germaine de Staël
By Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun
The Wives of General Houston
Sixty or seventy years ago it was considered a great joke to chalk up on any man’s house-door, or on his trunk at a coaching-station, the conspicuous letters “G. T. T.” The laugh went round, and every one who saw the inscription chuckled and said: “They’ve got it on you, old hoss!” The three letters meant “gone to Texas"; and for any man to go to Texas in those days meant his moral, mental, and financial dilapidation. Either he had plunged into bankruptcy and wished to begin life over again in a new world, or the sheriff had a warrant for his arrest.
The very task of reaching Texas was a fearful one. Rivers that overran their banks, fever-stricken lowlands where gaunt faces peered out from moldering cabins, bottomless swamps where the mud oozed greasily and where the alligator could be seen slowly moving his repulsive form–all this stretched on for hundreds of miles to horrify and sicken the emigrants who came toiling on foot or struggling upon emaciated horses. Other daring pioneers came by boat, running all manner of risks upon the swollen rivers. Still others descended from the mountains of Tennessee and passed through a more open country and with a greater certainty of self- protection, because they were trained from childhood to wield the rifle and the long sheath-knife.
It is odd enough to read, in the chronicles of those days, that amid all this suffering and squalor there was drawn a strict line between “the quality” and those who had no claim to be patricians. “The quality” was made up of such emigrants as came from the more civilized East, or who had slaves, or who dragged with them some rickety vehicle with carriage-horses–however gaunt the animals might be. All others–those who had no slaves or horses, and no traditions of the older states–were classed as “poor whites"; and they accepted their mediocrity without a murmur.
Because he was born in Lexington, Virginia, and moved thence with his family to Tennessee, young Sam Houston–a truly eponymous American hero–was numbered with “the quality” when, after long wandering, he reached his boyhood home. His further claim to distinction as a boy came from the fact that he could read and write, and was even familiar with some of the classics in translation.
When less than eighteen years of age he had reached a height of more than six feet. He was skilful with the rifle, a remarkable rough-and-tumble fighter, and as quick with his long knife as any Indian. This made him a notable figure–the more so as he never abused his strength and courage. He was never known as anything but “Sam.” In his own sphere he passed for a gentleman and a scholar, thanks to his Virginian birth and to the fact that he could repeat a great part of Pope’s translation of the “Iliad.”
His learning led him to teach school a few months in the year to the children of the white settlers. Indeed, Houston was so much taken with the pursuit of scholarship that he made up his mind to learn Greek and Latin. Naturally, this seemed mere foolishness to his mother, his six strapping brothers, and his three stalwart sisters, who cared little for study. So sharp was the difference between Sam and the rest of the family that he gave up his yearning after the classics and went to the other extreme by leaving home and plunging into the heart of the forest beyond sight of any white man or woman or any thought of Hellas and ancient Rome.
Here in the dimly lighted glades he was most happy. The Indians admired him for his woodcraft and for the skill with which he chased the wild game amid the forests. From his copy of the “Iliad” he would read to them the thoughts of the world’s greatest poet.
It is told that nearly forty years after, when Houston had long led a different life and had made his home in Washington, a deputation of more than forty untamed Indians from Texas arrived there under the charge of several army officers. They chanced to meet Sam Houston.
One and all ran to him, clasped him in their brawny arms, hugged him like bears to their naked breasts, and called him “father." Beneath the copper skin and thick paint the blood rushed, and their faces changed, and the lips of many a warrior trembled, although the Indian may not weep.
In the gigantic form of Houston, on whose ample brow the beneficent love of a father was struggling with the sternness of the patriarch and warrior, we saw civilization awing the savage at his feet. We needed no interpreter to tell us that this impressive supremacy was gained in the forest.
His family had been at first alarmed by his stay among the Indians; but when after a time he returned for a new outfit they saw that he was entirely safe and left him to wander among the red men. Later he came forth and resumed the pursuits of civilization. He took up his studies; he learned the rudiments of law and entered upon its active practice. When barely thirty-six he had won every office that was open to him, ending with his election to the Governorship of Tennessee in 1827.
Then came a strange episode which changed the whole course of his life. Until then the love of woman had never stirred his veins. His physical activities in the forests, his unique intimacy with Indian life, had kept him away from the social intercourse of towns and cities. In Nashville Houston came to know for the first time the fascination of feminine society. As a lawyer, a politician, and the holder of important offices he could not keep aloof from that gentler and more winning influence which had hitherto been unknown to him.
In 1828 Governor Houston was obliged to visit different portions of the state, stopping, as was the custom, to visit at the homes of “the quality,” and to be introduced to wives and daughters as well as to their sportsman sons. On one of his official journeys he met Miss Eliza Allen, a daughter of one of the “influential families” of Sumner County, on the northern border of Tennessee. He found her responsive, charming, and greatly to be admired. She was a slender type of Southern beauty, well calculated to gain the affection of a lover, and especially of one whose associations had been chiefly with the women of frontier communities.
To meet a girl who had refined tastes and wide reading, and who was at the same time graceful and full of humor, must have come as a pleasant experience to Houston. He and Miss Allen saw much of each other, and few of their friends were surprised when the word went forth that they were engaged to be married.
The marriage occurred in January, 1829. They were surrounded with friends of all classes and ranks, for Houston was the associate of Jackson and was immensely popular in his own state. He seemed to have before him a brilliant career. He had won a lovely bride to make a home for him; so that no man seemed to have more attractive prospects. What was there which at this time interposed in some malignant way to blight his future?
It was a little more than a month after his marriage when he met a friend, and, taking him out into a strip of quiet woodland, said to him:
“I have something to tell you, but you must not ask me anything about it. My wife and I will separate before long. She will return to her father’s, while I must make my way alone.”
Houston’s friend seized him by the arm and gazed at him with horror.
“Governor,” said he, “you’re going to ruin your whole life! What reason have you for treating this young lady in such a way? What has she done that you should leave her? Or what have you done that she should leave you? Every one will fall away from you.”
Houston grimly replied:
“I have no explanation to give you. My wife has none to give you. She will not complain of me, nor shall I complain of her. It is no one’s business in the world except our own. Any interference will be impertinent, and I shall punish it with my own hand.”
“But,” said his friend, “think of it. The people at large will not allow such action. They will believe that you, who have been their idol, have descended to insult a woman. Your political career is ended. It will not be safe for you to walk the streets!”
“What difference does it make to me?” said Houston, gloomily. “What must be, must be. I tell you, as a friend, in advance, so that you may be prepared; but the parting will take place very soon.”
Little was heard for another month or two, and then came the announcement that the Governor’s wife had left him and had returned to her parents’ home. The news flew like wildfire, and was the theme of every tongue. Friends of Mrs. Houston begged her to tell them the meaning of the whole affair. Adherents of Houston, on the other hand, set afloat stories of his wife’s coldness and of her peevishness. The state was divided into factions; and what really concerned a very few was, as usual, made everybody’s business.
There were times when, if Houston had appeared near the dwelling of his former wife, he would have been lynched or riddled with bullets. Again, there were enemies and slanderers of his who, had they shown themselves in Nashville, would have been torn to pieces by men who hailed Houston as a hero and who believed that he could not possibly have done wrong.
However his friends might rage, and however her people might wonder and seek to pry into the secret, no satisfaction was given on either side. The abandoned wife never uttered a word of explanation. Houston was equally reticent and self-controlled. In later years he sometimes drank deeply and was loose-tongued; but never, even in his cups, could he be persuaded to say a single word about his wife.
The whole thing is a mystery and cannot be solved by any evidence that we have. Almost every one who has written of it seems to have indulged in mere guesswork. One popular theory is that Miss Allen was in love with some one else; that her parents forced her into a brilliant marriage with Houston, which, however, she could not afterward endure; and that Houston, learning the facts, left her because he knew that her heart was not really his.
But the evidence is all against this. Had it been so she would surely have secured a divorce and would then have married the man whom she truly loved. As a matter of fact, although she did divorce Houston, it was only after several years, and the man whom she subsequently married was not acquainted with her at the time of the separation.
Another theory suggests that Houston was harsh in his treatment of his wife, and offended her by his untaught manners and extreme self-conceit. But it is not likely that she objected to his manners, since she had become familiar with them before she gave him her hand; and as to his conceit, there is no evidence that it was as yet unduly developed. After his Texan campaign he sometimes showed a rather lofty idea of his own achievements; but he does not seem to have done so in these early days.
Some have ascribed the separation to his passion for drink; but here again we must discriminate. Later in life he became very fond of spirits and drank whisky with the Indians, but during his earlier years he was most abstemious. It scarcely seems possible that his wife left him because he was intemperate.
If one wishes to construct a reasonable hypothesis on a subject where the facts are either wanting or conflicting, it is not impossible to suggest a solution of this puzzle about Houston. Although his abandoned wife never spoke of him and shut her lips tightly when she was questioned about him, Houston, on his part, was not so taciturn. He never consciously gave any direct clue to his matrimonial mystery; but he never forgot this girl who was his bride and whom he seems always to have loved. In what he said he never ceased to let a vein of self-reproach run through his words.
I should choose this one paragraph as the most significant. It was written immediately after they had parted:
Eliza stands acquitted by me. I have received her as a virtuous, chaste wife, and as such I pray God I may ever regard her, and I trust I ever shall. She was cold to me, and I thought she did not love me.
And again he said to an old and valued friend at about the same time:
“I can make no explanation. I exonerate the lady fully and do not justify myself.”
Miss Allen seems to have been a woman of the sensitive American type which was so common in the early and the middle part of the last century. Mrs. Trollope has described it for us with very little exaggeration. Dickens has drawn it with a touch of malice, and yet not without truth. Miss Martineau described it during her visit to this country, and her account quite coincides with those of her two contemporaries.
Indeed, American women of that time unconsciously described themselves in a thousand different ways. They were, after all, only a less striking type of the sentimental Englishwomen who read L. E. L. and the earlier novels of Bulwer-Lytton. On both sides of the Atlantic there was a reign of sentiment and a prevalence of what was then called “delicacy.” It was a die-away, unwholesome attitude toward life and was morbid to the last degree.
In circles where these ideas prevailed, to eat a hearty dinner was considered unwomanly. To talk of anything except some gilded “annual,” or “book of beauty,” or the gossip of the neighborhood was wholly to be condemned. The typical girl of such a community was thin and slender and given to a mild starvation, though she might eat quantities of jam and pickles and saleratus biscuit. She had the strangest views of life and an almost unnatural shrinking from any usual converse with men.
Houston, on his side, was a thoroughly natural and healthful man, having lived an outdoor life, hunting and camping in the forest and displaying the unaffected manner of the pioneer. Having lived the solitary life of the woods, it was a strange thing for him to meet a girl who had been bred in an entirely different way, who had learned a thousand little reservations and dainty graces, and whose very breath was coyness and reserve. Their mating was the mating of the man of the forest with the woman of the sheltered life.
Houston assumed everything; his bride shrank from everything. There was a mutual shock amounting almost to repulsion. She, on her side, probably thought she had found in him only the brute which lurks in man. He, on the other, repelled and checked, at once grasped the belief that his wife cared nothing for him because she would not meet his ardors with like ardors of her own. It is the mistake that has been made by thousands of men and women at the beginning of their married lives–the mistake on one side of too great sensitiveness, and on the other side of too great warmth of passion.
This episode may seem trivial, and yet it is one that explains many things in human life. So far as concerns Houston it has a direct bearing on the history of our country. A proud man, he could not endure the slights and gossip of his associates. He resigned the governorship of Tennessee, and left by night, in such a way as to surround his departure with mystery.
There had come over him the old longing for Indian life; and when he was next visible he was in the land of the Cherokees, who had long before adopted him as a son. He was clad in buckskin and armed with knife and rifle, and served under the old chief Oolooteka. He was a gallant defender of the Indians.
When he found how some of the Indian agents had abused his adopted brothers he went to Washington to protest, still wearing his frontier garb. One William Stansberry, a Congressman from Ohio, insulted Houston, who leaped upon him like a panther, dragged him about the Hall of Representatives, and beat him within an inch of his life. He was arrested, imprisoned, and fined; but his old friend, President Jackson, remitted his imprisonment and gruffly advised him not to pay the fine.
Returning to his Indians, he made his way to a new field which promised much adventure. This was Texas, of whose condition in those early days something has already been said. Houston found a rough American settlement, composed of scattered villages extending along the disputed frontier of Mexico. Already, in the true Anglo-Saxon spirit, the settlers had formed a rudimentary state, and as they increased and multiplied they framed a simple code of laws.
Then, quite naturally, there came a clash between them and the Mexicans. The Texans, headed by Moses Austin, had set up a republic and asked for admission to the United States. Mexico regarded them as rebels and despised them because they made no military display and had no very accurate military drill. They were dressed in buckskin and ragged clothing; but their knives were very bright and their rifles carried surely. Furthermore, they laughed at odds, and if only a dozen of them were gathered together they would “take on” almost any number of Mexican regulars.
In February, 1836, the acute and able Mexican, Santa Anna, led across the Rio Grande a force of several thousand Mexicans showily uniformed and completely armed. Every one remembers how they fell upon the little garrison at the Alamo, now within the city limits of San Antonio, but then an isolated mission building surrounded by a thick adobe wall. The Americans numbered less than three hundred men.
A sharp attack was made with these overwhelming odds. The Americans drove the assailants back with their rifle fire, but they had nothing to oppose to the Mexican artillery. The contest continued for several days, and finally the Mexicans breached the wall and fell upon the garrison, who were now reduced by more than half. There was an hour of blood, and every one of the Alamo’s defenders, including the wounded, was put to death. The only survivors of the slaughter were two negro slaves, a woman, and a baby girl.
When the news of this bloody affair reached Houston he leaped forth to the combat like a lion. He was made commander-in-chief of the scanty Texan forces. He managed to rally about seven hundred men, and set out against Santa Anna with little in the way of equipment, and with nothing but the flame of frenzy to stimulate his followers. By march and countermarch the hostile forces came face to face near the shore of San Jacinto Bay, not far from the present city of Houston. Slowly they moved upon each other, when Houston halted, and his sharpshooters raked the Mexican battle- line with terrible effect. Then Houston uttered the cry:
“Remember the Alamo!”
With deadly swiftness he led his men in a charge upon Santa Anna’s lines. The Mexicans were scattered as by a mighty wind, their commander was taken prisoner, and Mexico was forced to give its recognition to Texas as a free republic, of which General Houston became the first president.
This was the climax of Houston’s life, but the end of it leaves us with something still to say. Long after his marriage with Miss Allen he took an Indian girl to wife and lived with her quite happily. She was a very beautiful woman, a half-breed, with the English name of Tyania Rodgers. Very little, however, is known of her life with Houston. Later still–in 1840–he married a lady from Marion, Alabama, named Margaret Moffette Lea. He was then in his forty-seventh year, while she was only twenty-one; but again, as with his Indian wife, he knew nothing but domestic tranquillity. These later experiences go far to prove the truth of what has already been given as the probable cause of his first mysterious failure to make a woman happy.
After Texas entered the Union, in 1845, Houston was elected to the United States Senate, in which he served for thirteen years. In 1852, 1856, and 1860, as a Southerner who opposed any movement looking toward secession, he was regarded as a possible presidential candidate; but his career was now almost over, and in 1863, while the Civil War–which he had striven to prevent–was at its height, he died.