American history is filled with legendary characters. One of these larger-than-life heroes is Sam Houston. Virginia-born, Houston grew up in Tennessee. At age 16, he left home and went to live with a nearby group of Cherokees, who adopted him and gave him a Cherokee name. He stayed there for 2 years and learned to speak fluent Cherokee. When the war of 1812 broke out, he joined up, fighting under General Andrew Jackson and was wounded 3 times in one battle, almost dying. Jackson, noticing Houston's courage, became his mentor.
Sam's career took many turns, as a lawyer, Indian advocate, major general, Congressman, and governor of Tennessee. In 1829 he married 19-year-old Eliza Allen. That same year, he was reelected. His marriage, however, soon fell apart. Houston was so crushed that he fled the governorship and the state to live with Cherokees once again. He also married a Cherokee woman, Tiana Rodgers. For a while, he shut himself off from the outside world, trying to drown his sorrows in alcohol.
Houston started representing the Indians in the U.S. capital, only to find himself in hot water once again, this time on trial for beating up a Congressman who had insulted him. Houston found the man outside one day, and proceeded to thrash him with his cane. The Congressman drew his pistol, but his gun jammed, and Houston got in a few more whacks. At the trial, his lawyer was Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Houston was fined $500, but never ended up having to pay it.
Far from ending his career, this episode launched Sam Houston back into politics, this time in Texas, which at the time, was still part of Mexico. Many Americans had settled there, and they weren't thrilled about Mexican rule. Houston joined the fray, urging Texas to secede from Mexico. When the Mexican general Santa Anna started besieging a few hundred Americans holed up in an old Texan fortress called the Alamo, Sam Houston was elected commander of a raggedy band of Texans trying to rescue them. But they soon received tragic news: The cruel Santa Anna had not only slaughtered all of the men defending the Alamo, but also hundreds trying to surrender at the town of Goliad. Houston's men were eager for vengeance, but he knew they would all face the same fate unless he could buy time to train his men. Houston finally met Santa Anna at San Jacinto, and defeated him as his men shouted, “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” After this victory, Texas became its own country, headed by Sam Houston as president. When it finally became a state in 1845, Houston became its senator, and finally its governor.
In 1861, at the start of the Civil War, Texas voted to secede from the Union that it had joined just 16 years earlier. Sam Houston was the only Southern governor to oppose secession, stubbornly remaining in office until he was forcibly removed by the Texas legislature.
In later life, Houston finally settled down. He remarried, this time to Margaret Lea, who persuaded him to stop drinking. She was also determined to get Sam to join her church, which he did in 1854. When the preacher asked him if he believed his sins were washed away, he is reported to have replied, “I hope so, but if they are, I pity the fish down below.”