Houston viewed himself as a leader and was a man whose vision about others and the shape of the world to come were unusually prescient but whose vision about himself was shorter, often being concerned with where the next adventure lay. In many ways Sam Houston was a mirror for the spirit of America, trying to balance the cohesion of a nation and its people with the tumultuous and often violent seasons of growth it faced in order to achieve the big vision of a glorious nation where “‘the rights of American citizens be preserved safe and unimpaired, and transmitted as a sacred legacy from one generation to another’” (Campbell 37).
Sam Houston’s “American citizens” are technically the white immigrants who established the government of the United States. However, Houston, like the U.S. at the time, was influenced by and always negotiating its relationship with the many groups of Native Americans. Houston’s feelings toward and attitudes about Native Americans were strongly positive but given the political and economic concerns of the United States at the time, his relationship with them was more complicated. One group, in particular, the Cherokee, were influential in shaping Houston as a citizen, soldier, and leader, and it was the Cherokee tribe that became a place to both recover and hide from injuries Houston received in his other life as a politician and public leader.
Driven by his disdain for typical labor and in some cases to escape his debt and obligations, Houston immersed himself in the Cherokee culture by living with a group of them who were located southwest of his home in Maryville, Tennessee, and was eventually adopted by the chief, Oo-loo-te-ka (3). This acceptance and immersion, particularly considering that Houston’s father had died when Sam was young, would likely be extremely influential on Houston’s view of the world, and it is clear that the Cherokee tribe was more of a home than his own family, for he returns to the Cherokee during times of personal crisis, such as during the dissolution of his marriage and his resignation of the governorship (26). Houston’s interest in the contrasts he saw with white culture, the “’ wild liberty’” he saw that Campbell clarifies in a description of some key points about their culture, including its establishment over hundreds of years, its tendency toward peace, and the ease at which it adopted traits and customs from other cultures (3). The Cherokee, then, would be one of the easiest of the Native American tribes to assimilate into, and the kinship Houston felt would be a source of nurtured replenishment.
Houston’s actions on behalf of the Cherokee show a charity uncommon for the time and are further proof that he regarded the Cherokee and other Native American groups as a nation of civilized people. After resigning his governorship of Tennessee in public disgrace, Houston returned to politics on behalf of Native Americans (30). However, Huston was not using his relationship opportunistically—Campbell notes that “such expressions of sympathy for the Indian were decidedly unpopular on the southwest frontier” (34). Houston genuinely believed the Native Americans deserved to be treated more fairly, and the “theme” of “mistreatment of the Indians by government agents” would be a lingering part of Houston’s life (33).
And yet, Houston was forced to violate this belief by lying to, removing, and sometimes violently confronting Native Americans who opposed the treatment that by the government that Houston condemned. In particular, Houston had a conflict with his adopted tribe, playing a significant part in what Campbell described as a “troubled life” following their relocation to Arkansas, resulting in further strife, impatience, and rebelliousness in Oo-loo-te-kah, and conflict for Houston. Some of this conflict with Native Americans was caused by the other father figure who shone brightly in Houston’s sky—Andrew Jackson. Houston’s relationship with Jackson began while dealing with a Creek uprising (7). Jackson befriended Houston but also forced him to aid in the relocation of his Cherokee family (10), an apt metaphor for the struggle between the two worlds Houston’s life would force him to endure.
If life with the Cherokee represented Houston’s withdrawal from the world, his political life under the mentorship of Jackson fueled his ambitions and fed his desire for leadership. Houston’s amazing capacity for memorization enabled him to practice law (13–14), and it was after this that his political career under Jackson began in earnest. As Campbell explains, Houston was ever the dutiful and grateful protégé, stumping for Jackson’s presidency on myriad of occasions (14–16). Whereas Oo-loo-te-ka taught Houston to think of peace, Jackson taught Houston how to use violence. Jackson’s tutelage for the duel Houston fought with William White illustrates the nature of the relationship between the two men—Jackson the capable instructor and Houston the sometimes reluctant student.
After the collapse of his political career in Tennessee and during his return as a member of the Cherokee nation, Campbell notes that Jackson “received [Houston] warmly” (31). Houston was also able to win many of the concessions the Cherokee demanded at a time when Native Americans were being cheated to the degree that they were given paper instead of money or less food than promised (34). The fact that Jackson would concede as much as he did given his personal animosity and racism toward most Native Americans shows how much he thought of Sam Houston, the disgraced governor who shows up to Washington dressed as a “savage.” Jackson gave Houston legitimacy and an opportunity to reclaim a spot in public life and the public eye through his support of Jackson. Of course, Jackson had enemies and Houston, being seen as an easy target to embarrass Jackson, was singled out. However, the incident involving the trumped-up scandal over the contract for rations for Native Americans gave Houston a chance to be exciting again, playing to his prided virtues of honor and loyalty by publicly whipping Congressman William Stanbery for what Houston considered libel (37). The ordeal, serving no real political purpose, achieved the goal of re-launching Houston’s political career. “‘I was dying out ... But they gave me a national tribunal for a theater and set me up again’” (38).
Having re-established his brand as a man of spirit and action, Jackson gave Houston means in 1832 by asking him to employ his knowledge of Native Americans to feel out the Comanches in the Texas Plains (39). This would be the beginning of Jackson’s influence in the career of Houston over Texas. After Texas won its freedom, Houston’s relationship with Jackson was critical for the young nation to survive and eventually become a state. However, Campbell notes that Jackson was diplomatically obligated to take a more neutral hand with Texas to avoid unduly upsetting Mexico (94). Houston knew early on that Texas needed to be part of the United States to succeed, working toward that end at the very beginning of his political dealings between the Jackson administration and leaders in the Texas government (95). Jackson’s potential for support helped Houston win the presidency, and through Jackson, Texas gained legitimacy and financial aid and moved closer to becoming a state. Houston was a man of pragmatism who had a flair for the dramatic. Campbell describes his “spectacular combinations of clothing” that he retained through life (19). Indeed, the image of Sam Houston with his cape and cane is larger than life, and Houston understood how he could channel drama into a career as an orator, lawyer, and politician. It also reflects Houston’s comfortability with, like the Cherokee, adapting to new cultures. Appropriating styles from Native Americans, the frontier, and a refined sense of northeastern fashion, Houston created his singular style. As a person, however, Houston was much more cautious than flamboyant. His stint as commander in chief of the Texas armies gave Houston his largest challenge, toughest conditions, and fewest resources. By all accounts, Santa Ana had an unbeatable force, but Houston was able to gain victory because he played it cautiously, fully understanding the scope of his opponent’s power and the deficits in his own forces. The Battle of San Jacinto was influenced by luck, but it would not have been possible without Houston’s tactic of strategic withdrawal. He displayed that cautious pragmatism throughout his life, often in the face of critics. His stance against secession before the Civil War again made him unpopular. Campbell illustrates Houston’s principles and pragmatism in action:
Houston's role in the secession crisis drew criticism from both secessionists and unionists. The former called him a "submissionist" who sought to betray the South, and many of the latter, especially outside Texas accused him of cowardice and lack of leadership. In reality, Governor Houston was a southerner who loved his section and state, a Democrat who accepted the will of the people, a realist who favored strategic retreat when faced with overwhelming opposition, and an old man with a young family. (194)
Most of all, Houston was a man who came to never compromise his principles. Though it brought shame to him, he never impugned his first wife over their divorce. He accepted ridicule against himself to the point of personal suffering over creating strife for the people he served, but he never let anyone disparage his friends. And he was a man who sought peace and unity, always in deference to the laws of the land and the common good and always looking forward to a larger, brighter day.
Outside of Texas and apart from historians, most people asked would likely have little to say about Sam Houston. Disney and Fess Parker have cemented Davy Crockett in popular culture—at least for anyone over 40—as the defender of Texas at the Battle of the Alamo, but understanding the true nature of Sam Houston makes the Disney image of Davey in his coonskin hat and buckskin coat seem quaint and even a little ironic. Sam Houston was governor of two states, a senator, and president of the Republic of Texas. He served in several military campaigns, including wars against two nations. He was one of the few whites of his time to understand Native Americans, particularly the Cherokee, as a culture that, if not quite equal, was not wild. He found a kindred spirit and surrogate father in Andrew Jackson who was an overall positive force in Houston’s life. Ultimately, Houston was a man of adventure but also of harmony, and though he was part of the necessary conflicts that shaped Texas and the United States, he did so always in service to a vision of a unified, peaceful country.
Campbell, Randolph. Sam Houston and the American Southwest.3rd edition. New York: Pearson, 2006.