Sam Houston

The Gift of the Tidelands

Texas Standard commentator W.F. Strong has a little holiday tradition. Every December he likes to count our collective blessings as Texans by highlighting a great gift to Texas.

He says the tidelands were special because the giver didn’t realize how much goodness would continue to flow from them.

The Texas Standard’s favorite stories of the year

After a year covering miles and miles of Texas, what did our producers pick as standout stories? With a new year dawning, we asked our team of producers and reporters to hand pick some of the standout stories we’ve shared over the past 12 months. From amateur astronomers making celestial discoveries to a reconsideration of labor leader Cesar Chavez, and a mysterious tradition involving a certain Sam Houston. We offer a collection of unforgettable voices and tales from 2022 today on the Texas Standard:

Where have Austin’s Indigenous people gone?

We spend a lot of time in Austin talking about how many new people move here. But most of us don’t talk much about the people who came before us — way before us. 

If you’ve ever taken a walk along Shoal Creek or gone to Barton Springs on a hot summer day, you’re doing something that people have done here for thousands of years. Because all of this was actually once — and in some ways still is — Indigenous land.

Texas Standard: March 7, 2022

The first big test of new changes to voting rules and restrictions in Texas. What did the primaries tell us about SB1? We’ll take a closer look. Other stories we’re tracking: a Texas challenge to a federal law designed to keep indigenous kids removed from parental custody with their families and tribes. We’ll hear the story behind the story. And the war in Ukraine already hitting the home front with Texans paying more for gasoline, and pump prices could reach record levels within days. We’ll have the latest. Also the search for the anonymous person paying tribute to Sam Houston with an annual offering at his gravesite. Those stories and more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: October 30, 2019

It’s not pay for play, but college athletes won’t have to turn away endorsement dollars. A shakeup in the big buck business of college sports? We’ll have the story. Also a shortage of water at an ice detention center. What we know about conditions and what we don’t…and why. And the latest numbers on Texas kids and health insurance add up to a grim situation, we’ll take a look. And hell yes, or no? Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke says he’s not for weapons confiscation. We’ll have a Politifact check and more today on the Texas Standard:

Sam Houston And Me

By W. F. Strong

A couple of weeks ago I got into an argument with my stairs and I lost. The stairs insisted there were 12 steps and I thought 10 would do. I broke my tibia and fibula. The good news is that I ended up at the bottom of the stairs, conveniently located for the EMS to pick me up and rush me into emergency surgery. I’ll be 97 percent good as new in four months.

As I was lying in recovery at the hospital, I realized that my injury was similar to that which Sam Houston suffered at San Jacinto. Same shattered tibia, inches above the ankle. Of course his was penetrated by a musket ball in battle and mine was penetrated by the hubris of thinking I had the agility of a teenager. Still, the result was much the same, and I thought immediately of my advantages over Sam. I had only to lie there wrapped in the loving arms of morphine and watch the Houston Astros (ironically Sam’s namesake team) play the Nationals. That was all I had to worry about. Sam had to push through the pain of his broken leg and open wound because he had a new Republic to create and protect, an undisciplined army to command, a dictator to keep alive at all costs, and political foes to keep an eye on.

Here are three things of interest to know about Sam’s wound:

First, he ignored it. After the battle was over, though he was suffering great pain and his boot was filled with blood, he met with his commanders to make sure they understood that two Mexican armies were still in the neighborhood within striking distance. Vigilance was essential to securing this newly-won independence. Once confident that all was well for the time being, he said, “Gentlemen, I have been shot. I must go tend to this wound.”

The second interesting thing is that there is a famous painting showing Sam Houston talking to Santa Anna, under a tree while reclined on a rug. His lower right leg is bandaged. The painting was titled, “The Surrender of Santa Anna” by William Henry Huddle. It hangs in the Texas State Capitol in Austin. Beautiful work. Many a fine biographer, influenced by that painting, wrote that Sam’s right leg was broken. But his wound was actually to his left leg. That painting had the power of a photograph, I suppose. It’s a trivial difference, but interesting that the perception lasted so long. It was only in 2002 that Richard Rice discovered an 1853 letter that Sam wrote to his wife in which he said that his left leg still troubled him from the “old San Jacinto wound.”

The third interesting thing is that Sam’s wound at San Jacinto got worse, probably infected – though they didn’t yet know about germs. Sam developed a fever and his doctor wanted to send him to New Orleans for expert treatment. David G. Burnet, then Interim President of Texas, didn’t want to grant him leave. He wanted him to stay with the army, but Sam’s doctor and friends convinced Burnet that he was in danger of dying if he didn’t go. So Burnet relented.

Sam was met in New Orleans like an American hero. He fainted on the docks from his fever. They carried him to the hospital on a stretcher. According to biographer James Haley, when his stretcher passed by a beautiful, violet-eyed 17-year-old there on the docks, she reported that she felt the “eerie sensation of destiny sweep through her.” I guess you have to say young Margaret Lea’s intuition was good. Three years later, when she was twenty and Sam was 48, they were married and eventually had eight children. They had their happily ever after, which may have never happened had he not been wounded at San Jacinto. Cupid works in mysterious ways.

I’m sure Sam thought his wound was a stroke of bad luck that came at the worst time. But the Greek idea of the fates makes sense here. Not all bad luck is truly bad. Sometimes bad luck is just a means of moving you to a better road.

Hopefully that is true for me, too. I would not likely have thought to write this if I hadn’t taken an unfortunate tumble down the stairs in my rush to eat golden brown pancakes one perfect Sunday morning. A convalescence is a terrible thing to waste.

Defenders Of The Alamo

They other day I was looking over a list of those who died at the Alamo. The one thing that struck me about the list was that the men who gave their lives there were, collectively, incredibly young.

I saw John Wayne’s film, “The Alamo,” when I was a kid and for years I had in my mind that the men who fought there were mostly in their 40s and 50s. Legends like Crockett and Bowie who dominated the film, and dominated the actual siege, too, were rightfully played by actors who were about their age. Crockett was 50 in his last days at the Alamo and John Wayne was 52 when he played him. Bowie was 39 and Richard Widmark was 46. And many of the other actors who surrounded them on screen were also over 40.

But the reality was something quite different. Well over half of the defenders of the Alamo were under 30. Fourteen were teenagers. 14! Two 16-year-olds died for Texas’ liberty there. The typical Alamo fighter was 26 years old, which was the age of their commander. That’s right, William Barret Travis was just 26 years old and the sole commander of the Alamo, at least in the last days. Bowie was originally a co-commander but he was so very sick – bedridden from typhoid or pneumonia – and that left Travis fully in charge.

Eighty percent of the men at the Alamo were 34 and under. Today we would consider folks their age millennials. And the gift they gave was all the more precious because they knew in the last days, when Santa Anna raised the pirate flag, that no surrender would be accepted. They had to win or die. And as they looked across the prairie at a force ten times their size, they knew these were likely their last days. They could have left. There were chances to get out under the cover of darkness. But they stayed, knowing that they were giving up not just their lives, but all the long years that generally awaited young men. There were even men from Gonzales who actually fought through the Mexican lines to join their brothers in arms in the Alamo. Astonishing.

And the Alamo men came from all over. Numbers can be tricky with this history, but here’s what we know based on the Alamo’s official website, 32 were from Tennessee, 15 each came from Pennsylvania and Virginia, and 14 were from Kentucky. Eight were Hispanic -– born in Mexican Texas. And Europe was involved, too: ten came from England, ten from Ireland, four from Scotland, two from Germany.

Santa Anna was enraged that the Texans were rebelling. His plan was to launch a massive military campaign to crush the rebellion and make the Texans pay for it. I’m not making this up. The great historian T. R. Fehrenbach pointed out that Santa Anna planned to make the Texans pay for the military operation they caused by taking all of their lands and giving it to his soldiers and other Santanistas.

Meanwhile, William Barret Travis, though very young, wrote the most famous letters of the revolution. One letter, addressed ‘To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World,” asked for immediate reinforcements. He specified that his situation was dire. If they were not victorious, they would all be “put to the sword.” But he vowed he would “never surrender or retreat.” The letter was signed, “Victory or Death.”

Another that Travis wrote to the Texas government, which was more significant for what it prophesied, said this: “the victory will cost the enemy so dear, that it will be worse for him than a defeat.” And indeed, Santa Anna lost a third of his troops, about 600, which greatly demoralized the rest. This was followed by a forced march of 300 miles to San Jacinto, which so exhausted Mexican soldiers that they were actually caught napping when General Sam Houston attacked.

The Texans’ victory over Santa Anna after the fall of the Alamo and Goliad was so unlikely that it was similar to the odds of a baseball game in which the home team is down 29 runs to nothing. It’s the bottom of the 9th. Two outs. It’s a full count. Houston at bat.

Against those kinds of odds, the Texans rallied and crushed Santa Anna’s forces so decisively that it was all over in 18 minutes. Some say ten.

Without the men at the Alamo softening up, demoralizing and exhausting Santa Anna’s forces, it is unlikely that Houston’s army would have enjoyed such a resounding victory at San Jacinto. That is why we should always “Remember the Alamo,” and the mostly very young men who gave their lives for Texas’ freedom.