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The Raven

The Raven
A Biography of Sam Houston

A biography of a legendary Texan.

Series: Texas Classics

Sales restrictions: Not for sale in the British Commonwealth except Canada
January 1988
532 pages | 6 x 9 | 20 b&w illus., 5 maps |
  • Book One: Romance
    • Chapter I. ". . . One Sword, $15"
    • Chapter II. Deer Tracks and Tape
    • Chapter III. White Pantaloons and Waistcoats
    • Chapter IV. Mr. Calhoun Rebukes
    • Chapter V. The Steps of the Temple
    • Chapter VI. Six Feet Six
    • Chapter VII. Sic Transit
  • Book Two: Exile
    • Chapter VIII. A Wall to the East
    • Chapter IX. The Indian Theater
    • Chapter X. Pagan Sanctuaries
    • Chapter XI. Notions of Honor
    • Chapter XII. The Wigwam Neosho
    • Chapter XIII. A Hickory Cane
    • Chapter XIV. The Muddier Rubicon
  • Book Three: Destiny
    • Chapter XV. Don Samuel
    • Chapter XVI. Halls of the Montezumas
    • Chapter XVII. Revolt
    • Chapter XVIII. The Retreat from Gonzales
    • Chapter XIX. The Plain of St. Hyacinth
    • Chapter XX. "The Crisis Requires It"
    • Chapter XXI. A Toast at Midnight
    • Chapter XXII. The Bachelor Republic
    • Chapter XXIII. The Talented Amateur
    • Chapter XXIV. Washington-on-the-Brazos
    • Chapter XXV. The Lone Star Passes
    • Chapter XXVI. The Heritage
    • Chapter XXVII. The Forlorn Hope
    • Chapter XXVIII. The Last of His Race
    • Chapter XXIX. Stars to Clay
  • Notes
  • Recapitulation
  • Sources and Acknowledgments
  • Index

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The vessel seemed off her course, and the crew grumbled about its work while a troubled landsman paced the quarterdeck. The Captain was below in irons, the passengers on their knees in the waist thanking God that matters were no worse—which easily might have been. But for a chance discovery and a bold plan carried boldly through, who could say what should have been their fate at the hands of the wicked mariner to whom they had entrusted their lives and their fortunes?


The fortunes were at the root of the trouble. At Belfast too many kegs of gold sovereigns had gone on board under the meditative eye of the Master. It was uncommon for emigrants to be so well fixed. Half-seas-over the situation got the best of the Skipper. But his buccaneering plot was found out, and the passengers overwhelmed the ringleaders and took charge of the ship. One of their number said he understood enough navigation to bring her into Philadelphia.


That had happened eight days ago, and a landfall was overdue. But prayer fortified the voyagers' spirits, and surely enough, before the day was out, a seaman cried, "Land ho!" and the South River capes spread into view.


When the ship came to berth a thick-set man in middle life, with silver buckles on his shoes, stepped ashore with his mother, his wife and six children. The family of "John Houston, Gent.," descendants of baronets, whose ancestors were in the company of Scottish archers that led the way for Jeanne d'Arc from Orleans to Reims, stood on the wharf and saw their keg of sovereigns safely on the soil of the New World, in the year 1730.




Twenty-four years later Gentleman John could have looked back on a span of life extraordinary for its success at colonial endeavor. He had tarried in Pennsylvania long enough to marry off young John, his son, and two daughters. Then the tide of Scotch-Irish immigration streaming southward had swept him up and set him down in the upper Valley of Virginia among the Stuarts and the McCorkles, the Paxtons, Davidsons, Montgomerys, McCormicks and McClungs. He had become one of the first citizens of the new Presbyterian commonwealth beyond the Blue Ridge, at which the Episcopalian aristocracy of the Tidewater was beginning to cease to tilt its nose. His lands were extensive and he had been among the first to import negroes across the mountains—not without a twitch of his nonconformist conscience in the beginning, perhaps, for until then the rougher tasks had been undertaken by indentured white servants who were slaves but temporarily. He had built roads that exist to this day and a stone church in which Valley folk still worship. He had administered the Ring's justice as a magistrate and fought the French and the Indians.


At the age of, sixty-five, rich and honored, he continued the pioneer. He was clearing a new field, and when something went wrong, Squire John stepped under a tree that was afire to give an order. A great limb fell, pinning him to the earth. When his servants reached him John Houston, Gentleman, the founder of an American family, was dead.




Squire John's son, Robert, had married one of the well-to-do Davidson girls and established himself on the Timber Ridge Plantation. There Robert built a fine house (though aristocratic Tidewater would not have thought it much), with a two-story gallery supported by square columns. He could sit on his gallery and look down the rows of locust and maple trees he had planted along the driveway that joined the main road to Lexington. He could extend his field of vision for a long way down the Valley, and much of what he saw he owned.


The Valley had prospered and begun to lose some of the rawness and severity that irritated the Tidewater. It built better houses and made a beginning at the art of living accord ing to what was already a Virginia tradition. But on the whole Tidewater remained unimpressed and was disposed to regard the Valley as a barbarous region where gentlemen worked with their hands and a man might be put in jail for skipping church service.


Tidewater's criticisms do not appear to have disturbed Robert Houston, who was not the kind to borrow trouble. When his work was caught up, he could enjoy his breeze-swept gallery or a court-day excursion to Lexington, the county-seat, seven miles away, to hear the news. Perhaps he heard, and passed an opinion on the fact, that William Gray had been presented to the grand jury for driving a wagon on Sunday, and that Charles Given was complaining to the authorities that his left ear had been bitten off by Francis McDonald.


Yes, the court-house was the place to go for the news: Judith Ryley accused of killing her bastard child.... Nat, an Indian boy, complains that he is held in slavery by the rich Widow Greenlee.... John Moore presented for staying away from public worship.... Elizabeth Berry sentenced to receive twenty-five lashes on the bare back for stealing a shirt of Margaret McCassell.... Malcomb McCown indicted for the murder of Cornstalk and three other Indians; no prosecution. Malcomb McCown suspected of stealing a horse; to jail without bail.... Sam Jack presented for saying "God damn the Army to hell."


General Washington's Army was the one Sam Jack had in mind. This made the transgression a grievous one, offending the Deity and the cause of freedom as well. Upper-crust Tidewater had its share of Tories, but the Valley was for "independency" almost to a man. Mr. Jack was fined fifty pounds and sentenced to spend twenty-four hours in jail, which Robert Houston doubtless felt was no less than he deserved. For Robert was a rebel—and had a boy in the war.




Samuel Houston, the son of Robert, liked the military life and came home a captain in Morgan's Rifle Brigade, the most celebrated corps in the Continental Army. When his father died, Captain Houston got the Timber Ridge place. He married Elizabeth, a daughter of Squire John Paxton, one of Rockbridge County's richest men. The new mistress of Timber Ridge was tall and handsome. She was counted a lady—almost in the Tidewater manner.


The war had brought wonderful changes to the Colonies, and some of these had reached the sheltered Valley. Captain Houston, for one, had traveled and learned to prefer the easy life and cavalier tone of the seaboard. With his inheritance, and a rich wife, he felt in a position to order his life to conform to his new ideas. He decided to embrace the profession of arms as a career. It was a gentleman's occupation.


Consequently the Captain remained in the military establishment, the State establishment, with appointment as brigadier inspector, which was the utmost Virginia could do toward providing professional standing for an officer of militia. But it suited Captain Houston, who gravely pursued his uneventful rounds for twenty-three years—which is a long time to sustain an illusion.




Ten of these years had gone by when one day the Captain rode home in haste. It was late February and the last ascending curve of the Plank Road from Lexington lifted the rangy outlines of the homestead on the hill against a sunless back ground of sky and valley. On the maple and locust trees a few buds put forth their points shyly as if committing an indiscretion. The Captain crossed the two-story gallery, turned the small, burnished, brass door-knob and stepped briskly within.


All was well and he had arrived in time—in good time, for not until the second day of March, in 1793, was the baby born. It was the fifth that had blessed the union of Samuel and Elizabeth Houston and, like the others, a boy. Captain Houston gave his own name, Samuel, to the little fellow and posted away again, the hoofs of his saddle horse drumming on the great puncheons of the Plank Road an axiom of the trade of arms. It is hard for a soldier to have any home life.


The black nurse girl, Peggy, took charge of Sam, which enabled Mistress to resume supervision of the plantation sooner than otherwise.




When Sam was three his brother William was born. A year later a baby sister came. That was an event. Six boys and then a girl. They named her Mary. She was Sam's favorite, and grew up to be a great belle who lived bravely and died tragically. When Sam was five there was another girl—Isabelle. Two years after that, in 1800, the turn of the century brought Elizabeth Paxton her ninth child, christened Eliza Ann. In 1803 instead of another baby, the household at Timber Ridge was thrilled by the Louisiana Purchase and Papa's promotion to major. Then, presently, a war with Spain was spoken of.


Sam Houston had attained his eleventh year, one of six brothers and three sisters who rode horseback, swam in Mill Creek, hunted in the woods, and as Sam afterward recalled, slew Redcoats and Redskins impartially, with father's second best sword. The cream of juvenile society in the Valley was theirs. They visited at Cousin Matthew Houston's, near High Bridge, which is now called Natural Bridge. Cousin Matthew's house was then as now a show place of the region, reckoned as grand, indeed, as Mr. Jefferson's Monticello and, unlike Monticello, maintained without bankrupting its proprietor. They visited at Cousin Samuel Houston's, saw his wheat-cutting machine and heard the inventor discourse on the Greek and Latin classics. Cousin Samuel expected to make a fortune with his reapers. He might have done so had not Cyrus McCormick, the son of another Rockbridge County planter, who was always tinkering at his father's forge, fashioned a better machine for cutting wheat.


Sam and his brothers and sisters went to church every Sunday—the stone Timber Ridge Church, a hundred yards from the homestead, a monument to the pious initiative of their great grandfather and to the women who had brought sand for the mortar in their saddle-bags from South River. They went to school in a building of logs that stood a short distance from the church. Major Houston had donated forty acres of land and with a few neighbors started the school.


Sam was a poor student and a truant. He preferred his father's library to the classroom, and was often stretched with a book before the white five-foot-high mantel that lent bright ness and charm to the somber walnut-paneled living-room at Timber Ridge.' The book might have been Brook's Gazetteer or one of the eight volumes of Rollin's Ancient History. And not improbably, in his explorations of the family copy of Morse's Geography, the boy's fingers wandered over a nebulous representation of "Téjas"—for the Spanish war talk had touched the routine of life at Timber Ridge.


Expresses from the West indicated that Kentucky and Tennessee accepted the early coming of hostilities as one of the few certainties of life on a frontier. The Virginia militia was stirred. Never had the Major been busier with his inspections. The gravity of matters left little time for personal affairs. Perhaps this was a relief, for the Major's personal affairs were not a pleasant topic to consider. Timber Ridge was feeling the effect of a military career. The cash accumulations of two thrifty generations had been spent. A sizable inheritance from Mrs. Houston's father was gone. Slaves had been sold off, and then land—a parcel here and a parcel there, and some lots in Lexington. But with a war on the horizon a soldier puts selfish thoughts aside. Timber Ridge was still a valuable property and sufficient, with economies, to keep the family until the public crisis was over.


This crisis hinged—and with it Major Houston's expectations of a call to the field of honor—somewhat on the outcome of the designs of Aaron Burr, although no one knew, or has since found out, what those designs were. Colonel Burr had a way of keeping his projects flexible. They seemed to comprehend anything from a colonization scheme in the Spanish province of Téjas, to the seizure of New Orleans, the alienation of the Mississippi Valley, the conquest of Mexico and the coronation of Aaron I as emperor of the Southwest against a twinkling background of orders of nobility and star and garters. One paid his money and took his choice.


In any event, a part of the program was war with Spain, which the West was hot for, and therefore hot for the Burr business under the notion that it was somehow an instrument for hastening the humiliation of the dons and snatching a slice of territory in the bargain. Ohio and Kentucky were delirious with patriotic intentions. In Tennessee a lean backwoods lawyer named Andrew Jackson awaited a signal to rally two thousand frontiersmen and swarm southwestward. Western Virginia was on the qui vive.


In the summer of 1806 the flatboat flotilla that was to convey Burr and the vanguard of his "colonists" to their adventure was loading on the Ohio and on the Cumberland. Young Samuel Swartwout, of New York, rode through Virginia bound for the tropical Sabine. In his saddle-bag was a cipher message signed by Aaron Burr. That message got young Mr. Swartwout in jail and helped to encourage Mr. Jefferson's zeal to hang Mr. Burr. Consequently, no colonization of the Washita, no Emperor Aaron, or star and garters, or war with Spain. A little sheepishly the taken-in West turned to other forms of entertainment. The experience was also a lesson to young Mr. Swartwout.




Sam Houston was thirteen years old when the Burr bubble burst, and the Major, his father, was left free to resume the interrupted consideration of his personal affairs. There was much to consider. Timber Ridge was bankrupt. The Major was past fifty, and his health had begun to fail. A reckoning was on the way.


The old militiaman met the crisis with soldier-like poise. He made a plan. He would resign his commission and leave Virginia which had set the stamp of failure on his affairs. He and his would remove to Tennessee, a new country shimmering with the prospects that far fields almost infallibly display before the impaired in fortune.


The West tugged like a magnet. On the seaboard from Maine to Georgia waves of men were on the move. Few had rolled farther, or gathered as much moss with each roll, than a certain Connecticut Yankee, as astute as he was restless. Moses Austin had tried Pennsylvania and Virginia. Now he was in Missouri working lead mines in a wilderness, and listening with a shrewd squint to the tales trappers and traders brought from beyond the Sabine. Already Moses Austin's roving eye was on Texas. With him was a son named Stephen, born in Virginia the same year Sam Houston was.


The reckoning that was on the way never quite overtook Major Houston. In September of 1806 he sold for a thousand pounds what was left of the Timber Ridge plantation. The Major was ill, but duty called and he rode away on his last tour of military inspections, dying at Dennis Callighan's friendly tavern house on the New Road to Kentucky. A large turnout of Valley gentility saw him buried in the High Bridge churchyard, near the elaborate mansion of Cousin Matthew.


"One sword," noted the executors in their appraisal of the estate, "one sword, $15....


"One Negro Woman named Peggy aged 27 years $166.66 One Negro Woman named Lucy aged 17 years 250 One negro boy Jerry 13 years 250 One negro Boy a child named Andrew 2 years 40 one do a Boy named David 10 months 20 one iron grey mare 90... One Riding Chair and Harness 55 One red cow 10... One womans sadle bridle and martingale 20 one mans sadle Plated stirup 17 . . . One card table $6.50 three tea boards $3 One bottle case & contents 4... One umbrella $2... One pistol 50... 2 turkey counterpins $7. Nine sheets $.50... Morse's Geography 2 vol 6.50... Sundry bonds and notes amounting to 1468.20" and other items sufficient to fill two sheets of foolscap and foot up to $3,659.86.


Riding chair, card table, tea boards, wine set, bed linen, eight saddles—relics of a Virginia gentleman who had seen better days. Still, thirty-six hundred dollars was no trifling inheritance. But debts took a large part of this residue.




Fearing he might not live to conduct his family to the promised land, the Major had taken steps to outwit the hand of death. In the closing weeks of his life he had opened negotiations for a grant of land in East Tennessee, and had inserted in his will a clause directing his executors to set aside "as much as they,may actually find nessery... to Enable... [the family] to move with convenience." Two-thirds of what was left "is to be applied to purchase land.. . . and such articles as may be needful" for the family's "support until they can be otherwise provided for." The remaining third was "to be at the disposal of my wife" with the injunction that having made the move "shee is to apply as much of the property of horses and other things which they will require in Moving to the purchase of [additional] Lands, [which] shal be divided at the deceas of my wife... in the following manner, to my son John two shares and to my other children one share each."


Western land. Sell the horses, the wagons that took you—and buy more land and be rich. Major Houston had imbibed the spirit of his age. Almost his last purchase had been a new "wagonn with chain and gears compleat for five horses [$] 174." Fourteen-year-old Sam (calculated the Major) should ride in this wagon and have for his own a tenth part of the greater legacy that lay where the rainbow dipped in the southwestern sky.