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
ither 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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
And again he said to an old and valued friend at about the same
"I can make no explanation. I exonerate the lady fully and do not
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
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
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
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
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.