site logo

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 financial dilapidation.

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


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 translation.

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

ancient Rome.

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 poet.

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


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


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


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 to him:

"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 horror.

"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 soon."

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 everybody's business.

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 love me.

And again he said to an old and valued friend at about the same time:

"I can make no explanation. I exonerate the lady fully and do not

justify myself."

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


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


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 life.

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 hundred men.

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 baby girl.

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


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.