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
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
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
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
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.