Sam Houston’s wounds healed slowly. He underwent several surgeries to repair his arm and thigh. But the young soldier’s subsequent rise to power and prominence was surprisingly swift.
By the time Houston returned to active duty in the infantry, General Jackson and his army had won a stunning victory at the Battle of New Orleans, in January 1815, ending once and for all American battles with the British. But even as the war came to a close, Houston’s relationship with Jackson continued to grow. Houston became Jackson’s protégé—and more, almost a son to Old Hickory—after the twenty-two-year-old, at Andrew Jackson’s personal request, was assigned to the general’s staff in Nashville, Tennessee.
And Houston needed a father. His own had died when he was thirteen, and he had spent his early teens in frontier Tennessee, with a rocky relationship with his mother. Finally at age sixteen, unhappy with life on his mother’s farm, he ran away, finding a home with Chief Oo-Loo-Te-Ka of the Cherokee nation. Houston embraced life with the Cherokee, since he liked “the wild liberty of the Red Men better than the tyranny of his own brothers.”1
The Cherokee had trained the restless young man, equipping him for a life of war. Now Houston wanted to be equipped for a life of politics, and he needed someone from his own culture to take him under his wing. Jackson, perhaps perceiving Houston’s need and remembering his own fatherless youth, became that man.
When Houston resigned his commission, in 1818, to start a legal career, Jackson continued to support him. Thanks to his mentoring, Houston gained an insider’s view of the intricacies of Tennessee politics and was appointed general of the Tennessee militia, a post Jackson once held. And he became a regular visitor to Jackson’s beloved plantation home, the Hermitage, where not only Andrew Jackson, but his wife, Rachel, continued to embrace him as if he were a son.
Supported by Jackson, Houston flourished, eventually running, with Jackson’s encouragement, to represent Tennessee in Congress. Jackson became a U.S. senator in the same election cycle, and the two men together headed for Washington. Houston’s rise didn’t stop there. Five years later, he was back in Tennessee as governor and seemed destined for a long and prosperous political career. America was young and growing, and there was much a young man with courage and ambition could do. It seemed that a fatherless child raised in poverty and then by Cherokee was going to make it to the top.
Seeming to cap his success was his luck in love. On January 22, 1829, the thirty-five-year-old Houston and lovely Eliza Allen exchanged marriage vows, by candlelight, in her father’s sprawling plantation house. The best of Nashville society toasted to the couple’s happiness and to the groom’s rise to ever-greater political success.
But the marriage was the turning point in Houston’s luck. Just three months later, Eliza abruptly left her husband to return to her father’s house. Houston had questioned her faithfulness, and whispers and rumors blossomed into a full-blown scandal. Few details surfaced, but it seems Eliza was vindicated, suggesting Houston to be in the wrong. He disclaimed any accusation, but their relationship was ruined and so was his political career. By allegedly insulting her honor, Houston had violated the social code of the day, leaving him no choice but to resign as governor. As his predecessor, Governor Billy Carroll, observed, “Poor Houston rose like a rocket and fell like a stick.”2
Houston left Tennessee. He found refuge with the Cherokee once again. Nearly twenty years after he had first asked them for help, the chief welcomed Houston’s return.
The man who only weeks before had seemed destined to be president of the United States disappeared entirely from American political life. Tortured, he did all he could to forget his former world. He abandoned his city clothes, the English language, and his birth name, once again becoming known in Cherokee as Co-lon-neh (“the Raven”). For months, he attempted to numb his pain with alcohol, admitting later that he “buried his sorrows in the flowing bowl.”3 His huge liquor consumption soon earned him a second name, Oo-tse-tee Ar-dee-tah-skee—Cherokee for “the Big Drunk.”4
Sam Houston’s fall from grace was far from President Jackson’s only concern. While his protégé was off drowning his sorrows with the Cherokee, Jackson worked hard to undo what he saw as one of the biggest mistakes of the previous occupant of the White House, John Quincy Adams.
To put it bluntly, Jackson hated Adams. First of all, he hated him for having beaten him in the presidential election of 1824. Although Jackson won the popular vote by a solid margin, he got less than the required majority of electoral votes. The House of Representatives had decided in Adams’s favor, thanks to the support of Henry Clay. Adams rewarded Clay by naming him secretary of state,* and Jackson accused Adams of making a “corrupt bargain” in accepting “thirty pieces of silver” from Clay, whom Jackson called the “Judas of the West.” Despite the outcry from Jackson and others, Adams took possession of the president’s house.
But Jackson’s dislike of Adams went back further and deeper than the presidential defeat. He thought that the New Englander fundamentally misunderstood the needs of the frontier—and that he had given away land necessary to America’s future. Years before, in May 1818, General Jackson and his army, as part of a campaign to protect his fellow citizens from the Seminole Indians, captured the port city of Pensacola in Spanish Florida. The next year Spain agreed to cede Florida to the United States in a treaty negotiated by none other than John Quincy Adams, then serving as James Monroe’s secretary of state. This would have been good news for Jackson, had it not been for what Adams gave up in return for Florida.
President Thomas Jefferson had believed Texas to be part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. It was a link to the expanse of territory extending to the Pacific, as well as a buffer with Spain’s colony, Mexico, to the south. Jefferson had also understood the region’s potential value: “The province of Techas will be the richest state of our Union,” he told James Monroe.5 But in negotiating with Spain, Adams agreed to make the Sabine River—rather than the Rio Grande—the new border between American territory and Spanish, effectively handing over all of Texas to Spain.
In Andrew Jackson’s mind, that left him with two Adams wrongs to right: The first he corrected, in 1828, when he became president, defeating the incumbent Adams in a landslide. The second—the giveaway of Texas—would take longer to fix.
For one thing, the players had changed. Mexico had gained its independence from Spain in 1821. Then, three years later, the new nation south of the border adopted a federal constitution that echoed on the U.S. Constitution. Instead of freeing Texas from a European colonial power, Jackson would now have to coax it away from a democratic republic that had also recently won its freedom. And that was exactly what he hoped to do, sending an emissary to Mexico just a few months after his election.
Jackson wasn’t the only U.S. citizen with an interest in Texas: By the thousands, American settlers were flooding over the Louisiana line to homestead in the rich farmland of Texas, which Mexico was making available cheaply to any who wanted it.
Earlier in the century, Americans looking to settle the frontier had been able to buy land on credit. But in 1820, Congress passed a new land act, which made it much, much harder for the average settler to afford it. Now settlers were required to buy a minimum of eighty acres, to be paid for in gold or silver, for $1.25 per acre. That hundred-dollar entrance fee closed the door to lots of people—when, just over the border, a settler could buy land for 12½¢ per acre. For those lacking the cash, the government in Mexico City extended credit, thinking they would have a firmer hold on Texas if they had more people residing in its largely empty expanse. As a result, Americans who wanted a fresh start poured over the border with the blessing of Mexico.
To Jackson, restoring Texas—where his countrymen had rapidly become a majority—to American ownership only made sense, but he knew the bargaining for it would be tough. On Jackson’s orders, Colonel Anthony Butler made the Mexicans an offer. The United States would pay $5 million in return for the territory framed by the Sabine River on the east and the Rio Grande to the southwest. Though the Mexicans refused Jackson’s proposal, the two nations continued the diplomatic conversation, and Americans continued to move. But with the leadership of Mexico shifting from one election to the next, there was little progress to be made. Jackson’s dream was foiled for the moment. Jackson bided his time.
THE PRESIDENT AND HIS PRODIGY
After his withdrawal from polite society, Sam Houston reappeared, in January 1830, in Washington, D.C., arriving as a member of the Cherokee delegation to the American government. Unsure how he would be received, he wanted his arrival to be a surprise. “Don’t say to any one,” he had instructed a cousin, “that I will be in tomorrow.”6
He took a room at an old haunt, Brown’s Hotel. But he did not dress in the formal tailcoat of stylish Washingtonians. Wearing buckskin pants and a brightly colored blanket draped around his shoulders, he looked like the Cherokee he had become. Shiny metal decorations sewn loosely to his coat jangled when he walked.
Houston quickly became the talk of the town. Both old friends and entrenched enemies held their breath as they waited to hear how the general would respond to the return of his disgraced protégé, who was representing Cherokee interests, no less. Jackson’s reaction, whatever it might be, would be public at a diplomatic reception at the president’s house, to which the Cherokee delegation had been invited.
Even when dressed conventionally, Houston’s height made him unmistakable. He stood at least six feet, two inches tall, though some claimed he stood six-four or even six-foot-six. At the reception, a turban wrapped around his head added to his height, making it easy for the president to spot his former lieutenant from across the room.
When the president called out to him, the crowd parted. Jackson approached. To the relief of many, the aging, rail-thin president pulled Houston to him, wrapping the younger and taller man in a bear hug. The message was clear: Whatever he had done, and wherever he had been, the general’s affection for Sam Houston was undiminished.
For much of the next two years, Houston would remain with his adopted Native American family. In his sober moments, he served as a council leader. He married again, in 1830, this time taking for his wife a Cherokee woman, Tianh, known in English as Dianah Rogers. (Although they were not formally divorced until 1833, Houston and Eliza had already ceased to be man and wife under Cherokee law because they had “split the blanket.”)7 Houston traveled deep into the Arkansas Territory, acting as a Cherokee ambassador, a peacemaker negotiating with the Osage, Creek, and Choctaw. He and Tianh operated a trading store, selling kettles, blankets, soap, and rope to their Native American brethren. Houston represented the Cherokee on trips to Washington, too, arguing that government agents had consistently cheated his adopted people. His former standing in the nation’s capital helped him win some small victories. Then, early in 1832, his Cherokee association entangled Houston in a legal case that almost ended Houston’s career once again.
During a debate on the Jackson administration’s Indian policy, on March 31, 1832, Ohio congressman William Stanbery suggested Houston had been part of a scheme to defraud the government. When Houston read about Stanbery’s speech, he was furious. He tried to confront the man who had slandered both him and General Jackson, but for two weeks Stanbery managed to avoid the seething Houston. Then, by chance, Houston spied him as he strolled along Pennsylvania Avenue after dark.
Stanbery was armed with pistols, but Houston was undaunted. After politely inquiring, “Are you Mr. Stanbery?” Houston lit into him with a cane that he had carved from a hickory tree growing at the Hermitage.8 As Stanbery told the story, “Mr. Houston . . . struck me with the bludgeon he held in his hand . . . repeatedly with great violence.”9
Stanbery tried to run, but Houston, despite a nearly useless right arm from his Horseshoe Bend wounds, leapt on Stanbery’s back and dragged him to the ground, still battering him with his cane. Stanbery tried to fend off his attacker with a pistol, but it misfired. Houston tore the firearm from Stanbery’s grip, then delivered a few more licks with his cane. According to one witness, the last blow, aimed below Stanbery’s belt, “struck him elsewhere.”10
At Stanbery’s insistence, Houston was arrested and, a month later, tried in Congress on charges of battery and contempt of Congress. Frank Key, a Washington attorney (and the man later remembered by his full name, Francis Scott Key, and as the author of “The Star Spangled Banner”), helped Houston argue his case on the House floor. General Jackson paid for the fashionable suit Houston wore and welcomed Houston to the president’s house for updates on the proceedings during the month-long trial. When the case finally drew to a close, Houston, suffering from a brutal hangover after a long night of drinking, gave his own summation. The long speech won the gallery over; it was met with tumultuous applause and calls of Bravo! and Huzzah! Yet, despite the defendant’s persuasive words, the House, after deliberating four days, found him guilty.