Built in the winter of 1839-1840, this house, and the Texas pioneer who inhabited it, are the central focus of this thoroughly researched and well-written study of Galveston's merchant elite—Gail Borden, Michel Menard, Thomas McKinney, and others—a generation of leaders who did much to shape their city and Texas itself.
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The Samuel May Williams Home
The Life and Neighborhood of an Early Galveston Entrepreneur
By Margaret Swett Henson
Texas State Historical AssociationCopyright © 1992 Texas State Historical Association
All rights reserved.
A MAN "PROUD IN SPIRIT AND CHARACTER"
SAMUEL MAY WILLIAMS used that phrase describing himself in a letter to his wife in 1838, while he was in the United States on business for the new Republic of Texas. He was a successful merchant and land speculator and a partner in the Galveston City Company, which had just held its first sale of lots in the island city. The new town attracted numerous immigrants from the United States who flocked to Texas after it had achieved its independence from Mexico in 1836.
Williams was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on October 4, 1795, the eldest son of a ship captain. In his early teens he joined his uncle's Baltimore commission house as an apprentice to learn bookkeeping and other aspects of international commerce. Sent as super-cargo to Buenos Aires at the close of the War of 1812, the young man remained in the cosmopolitan capital, where he mastered Spanish and French, for several years.
By 1819 Williams was working in a New Orleans commission house, but in May 1822 he boarded a schooner for Mexican Texas, where his linguistic and clerical abilities were immediately useful. Williams was among the first Anglo Americans to leave the United States for Texas and a fresh start after the 1819 banking panic. The Mexican government offered both large grants of land and sanctuary for the unfortunate victims of foreclosures. Empresario Stephen F. Austin returned from Mexico City in 1823 with his colonization contract and employed Williams as his assistant, an arrangement that continued for more than a decade. In his elegant hand, Sam wrote all of the deeds in Spanish for the "Old Three Hundred," the name given those pioneers who filled Austin's first contract. During the empresario's many absences, the loyal lieutenant supervised Austin's land business for the subsequent four colonization contracts.
Williams settled at San Felipe de Austin, the court town established by Austin on the Brazos River, where he married Sarah P. Scott in 1828. He was a busy bureaucrat, not only serving as Austin's right hand man, but also as collector of tonnage duties, dispenser of the stamped paper required for all legal documents, and secretary for the ayuntamiento, the town government whose reports to the state authorities had to be in Spanish. Because of a lack of circulating money on the Mexican frontier, Williams received remuneration in large land grants from the state for his duties. Beyond his headright of two leagues and three labores (9,387 acres), he received eleven leagues, bringing his holdings to over 58,000 acres. The canny businessman located portions along various waterways from the Colorado River to Buffalo Bayou, intending to sell to newcomers. Williams also speculated in land, as did the empresario himself. Poor men who could not pay the required fees to the state in order to receive their 4,428-acre headrights deeded one-half to those who could make the payments. Toward the end of the colonial period and the demise of the empresario system, conveniently located tracts could be sold to wealthy new Texans for fifty cents per acre.
While land was the basis for Williams's wealth, he was a merchant at heart. In 1834, he became the junior partner in the firm of McKinney and Williams in their new town of Quintana at the mouth of the Brazos River. Williams and his partner complemented each other: Sam was the cautious bookkeeper, while Thomas F. McKinney was the gregarious contractor who bought Texas cotton and supervised transporting it to market. Six years younger than Sam, McKinney was an active outdoorsman, more interested in horse racing than in mercantile details. A native of Kentucky, McKinney had joined one of the first caravans from Missouri to Santa Fe in 1823 to trade manufactured goods for specie and livestock. His party found the Santa Fe market saturated and the residents without money, so McKinney continued south to Chihuahua and then returned home through Coahuila to Texas. He received a headright on the Brazos River from Austin in 1824, but settled instead at Nacogdoches, where he had a store and traded with the Indians. In 1830 he moved his wife, Nancy, to San Felipe and went into business taking cotton to market in Coahuila by pack train and later to the Rio Grande by schooner until he joined Williams.
In the 1830s commerce in Texas was hampered by the continued lack of circulating money, and in 1835 Sam Williams traveled to the state capital at Monclova (Texas was combined with its southern neighbor, Coahuila, because of low population) to ask for a bank charter allowing him to print small bills for use in Texas. The legislators approved the plan but before he could return home civil war threatened the state capital. President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna personally led the army against the neighboring state of Zacatecas to punish it for opposing his new restrictive laws. The apprehensive representatives at Monclova feared that Coahuila-Texas would be his next target. In order to raise money and to recruit and equip volunteers to defend the state, the legislature awarded large tracts of vacant land on the Texas frontier to influential men. Sam Williams was one, and when Santa Anna suddenly returned to Mexico City, many Texans viewed the land grants as fraud, and labeled the participants as "speculators," a derogatory term at the time. The Consultation, a body of Anglo Texans provoked by Santa Anna's actions, met in November 1835, and among other acts declared the large grants null and void.
When Santa Anna's army started towards the Brazos River at the end of March 1836, McKinney evacuated his wife and Sam's second wife Sarah Williams with her two boys, Austin and William, ages six and three, and her stepson, Joe, ten, the son of Sam's first marriage. Sarah carefully packed all of Sam's papers in a small trunk and took them on board the vessel that sailed to McKinney's warehouse near the mouth of the Neches River. Also on board were Mrs. William H. Jack, Mrs. James Walker Fannin, and their children all under the age of six. When the men left for the Texas army, their families stayed with McKinney. The pregnant Minerva Fort Fannin was already a widow, although she did not yet know about the massacre at Goliad.
When the Texans declared their independence from Mexico in March 1836, Williams was in the United States seeking funds to start his bank. Abandoning that project, he used his mercantile connections in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore to secure war supplies and ships to carry men and munitions to Texas. Meanwhile, McKinney took a similar course in Texas and New Orleans.
The firm of McKinney and Williams contracted an indebtedness of over $99,000 supplying war materials to oppose Santa Anna, but the new Republic had no means to pay its many obligations. The leaders hoped to borrow money in the United States backed by the sale of vacant land. However, Texas's need for a loan coincided with the banking panic of 1837 and a severe constriction of credit; thus Texas agents were unable to secure any money. The panic also ruined many of McKinney and Williams's creditors in the United States who expected immediate payment from the Texans, which would have endangered the firm. Nevertheless, the two men managed to stay afloat by diversifying their interests.
Land on Galveston Island would be a partial solution to the firm's financial woes. Sam Williams and his partner had taken an early interest in Galveston Island at a time when Mexican policy forbade its occupation by foreigners. In 1833 McKinney's friend, Michel Branamour Menard, devised an ingenious scheme to acquire a foothold on the island by persuading a native Texan, Juan N. Seguin of San Antonio, to locate his bounty league and labor (4,605 acres for militia campaigns against the Indians) on the eastern end of the island. This ploy overcame the proscription against foreigners, and armed with a power of attorney from Seguin, Menard secured a survey and a title from the alcalde at Liberty in July 1834. To defray the costs of acquiring the best harbor on the Texas coast, Menard asked McKinney and Williams to take one-half interest which amounted to $200 each in what Menard called "the wild project of Galveston,"
Before the trio could utilize their title, friction between the Texans and Santa Anna erupted into revolution, which postponed economic development of the island. In December 1836, Menard applied to the first Texas Congress for confirmation of his Galveston title but other potential speculators objected. During the revolution, capitalists in the United States had loaned money to the Texans in exchange for land certificates promising priority location rights. They and others with tenuous claims to the island jostled and maneuvered to acquire the Galveston harbor. To end the political wrangling and charges of favoritism, Congress demanded that Menard pay $50,000 within ninety days to secure his title. The Republic desperately needed money and this step seemed to solve its economic and political problems.
The enterprising Menard had already increased the number of investors to include Augustus C. and John Kirby Allen, the New York brothers who had just established the new town of Houston, and Mosely Baker, who like J. K. Allen was a member of the First Congress. But to raise such a large sum quickly, Menard mortgaged his title to David White, a Mobile merchant; White immediately violated the agreement not to sell shares for less than face value and Menard had to buy back his interest. He managed to persuade a Kentucky capitalist, Robert Triplett, and his associates who had advanced money for the Texas revolution, to join in an expanded Galveston City Company. The new stock company issued one thousand $1,000 shares redeemable in city lots. The company employed John D. Groesbeck to survey and plat the town (to Fifty-sixth Street), and by early 1838 sales began among stockholders. At the first public sale in April, the investors and others bought home sites, business locations, and speculative tracts by paying one-fifth in cash as required by the charter. Menard, Williams, and McKinney were elected to the first board of directors along with Mosely Baker and John K. Allen.
Even before the sale, McKinney had erected a three-story warehouse for the firm at the foot of Twenty-fourth Street across from the new customs house, and by July 1837 began building a wharf. But a hurricane struck the nascent town on October 6–7 and the high winds and water damaged the warehouse and pier and many of the vessels in the harbor. Williams was in the United States at the time, seeking a loan for the Republic and also contracting for naval vessels to defend Texas. McKinney made immediate repairs and with the financial backing of Henry Howell Williams, Sam's Baltimore brother (who had succeeded their uncle), the firm also built the Tremont Hotel, a tavern, a racetrack on the beach, and a number of rental houses.
Thus Sam Williams and his partner were major developers of the new town supplying the necessary attractions for luring outside investors. The pair, with the aid of Henry Howell Williams, remained the leading commission house in the city until the mid- 1840s. Williams and McKinney also took roles in local politics but lost out to more aggressive newcomers. While they were leading citizens, they led quiet social lives in keeping with their desires for privacy.CHAPTER 2
THE HOUSE AND THE WILLIAMS FAMILY
SAM WILLIAMS RETURNED TO GALVESTON from the United States in June 1839 on board the schooner San Jacinto, one of the six war ships he had acquired for Texas. The citizens honored him with a public dinner and soon after elected him to represent them in the Fourth Congress of the Republic of Texas, the first to meet in the new capital at Austin.
When Sam left for Austin in October 1839, he entrusted the building of his house to McKinney, who planned an identical structure for himself southwest of the Williams site. Nancy McKinney had moved from Quintana to one of the company-built houses in Galveston in mid-1838, but while Sam was in the United States Sarah stayed with her widowed mother on the lower San Jacinto River to await the birth of a fourth child. Mary Dorothea (Molly) was born in November 1838, before Sam returned. Sarah and the children briefly came to the island by steamboat when Sam came home, but returned to the comfort of her mother's home when he left to take his seat in Congress.
In 1838 Williams had bought outlots 61 and 86 on either side of Avenue P between Thirty-fifth and Thirty-seventh streets. The land was valued for taxes at $5,000 in the inflated Texas currency. McKinney acquired lots 108 and 109 to the southwest between Avenues Q and R and straddling Forty-first Street. McKinney chose the more remote location because it skirted a bayou that carried his name and provided water for his livestock, and also because the firm's one and one-half mile race track circled twelve outlots between his home and the Gulf.
Williams and his partner were not the first to build on the outlots; Menard had started a "fine" home north of the Williams site along the high ridge leading from town one year earlier. Suburban living was the choice of those who could afford the large lots. Not only was it quieter, it was healthier. Not understanding that mosquitos carried yellow fever, residents along the Gulf Coast blamed the seasonal epidemics on the fetid vapors rising from standing water, garbage, and cesspools in town. Outlot residents hoped that the splendid prevailing breeze off the Gulf would ensure the health of their families. Dr. Ashbel Smith, a Paris-trained surgeon, studied Galveston yellow fever patients in 1839 and noted that most cases occurred near the wharves and along the Strand. He concluded that the disease was not contagious, but came from "the decomposition of abundant animal and vegetable matters ... and the exhalations from the extensive adjacent marsh...."
On December 10, 1839, McKinney wrote to Williams in Austin that the house was "under way." Local lore says that the Williams house was framed with white pine in Maine and shipped prefabricated to Galveston; this is partly correct. Ships from the northeast began coming fairly regularly to Galveston, bringing lumber cut in standard lengths and taking away Texas cotton. These same vessels brought a number of carpenters from Maine in 1838, due no doubt to the hard times in the United States. Preservation architects find no evidence that the house was prefabricated but confirm the use of northern white and yellow pine cut by a gang saw. The heavy timber sills supporting floor joists were assembled on the site with mortice and tenon joints and pinned with wooden dowels. This method was used also for the corner posts, sills, and plates.
Williams and McKinney had doubtless agreed on the general style of the one and one-half story house based on tastes shaped by the popular Southern "raised cottage," prevalent along waterways from Louisiana to Alabama. The house, Classic Revival in style, faced east with a wide gallery stretching across both front and back. The south gallery was added a few years later. The wooden columns separated by wooden railings were in the Tuscan order and supported the wide overhanging roof that shaded the porches. Lapped, white-painted weatherboard siding sheathed the house.
The wood-shingled hipped roof with a flat deck boasted an enclosed cupola, a unique feature among the houses on the outlots. Single double-hung dormer windows ventilated the upper floor while standard sized double-hung windows with six-over-six lights served the first floor except on the front gallery. The four openings on the front porch facing east were French doors with panels below and eight glass lights above. Full-length dark gray louvered shutters protected all of the windows and allowed air to circulate even during rain storms. The front and back doors were centered and allowed a direct flow of air when opened.
The house rested on ten-foot-high brick piers. The hurricane in 1837 and living near the beach at Quintana convinced McKinney to build well above the storm tides. The ground floor was enclosed by wooden latticework and provided a place for a brick cistern to catch and store rain water and ample space to hang laundry in bad weather. A steep flight of thirteen steps from the ground to both the front and back galleries had simple wooden banisters and solid newel posts. A two-story detached brick building with the kitchen above and a storeroom below was on the northwest corner, and an elevated covered walkway connected the kitchen with the back gallery. A visitor noted in 1840 that a "white wooden fence" enclosed the "neat white" Williams house.
Excerpted from The Samuel May Williams Home by Margaret Swett Henson. Copyright © 1992 Texas State Historical Association. Excerpted by permission of Texas State Historical Association.
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Table of Contents
1. A MAN "PROUD IN SPIRIT AND CHARACTER",
2. THE HOUSE AND THE WILLIAMS FAMILY,
3. 1841–1858: From Merchant to Banker and the Death of a Founding Father,
4. SAM WILLIAMS'S NEIGHBORHOOD,