Austin and Houston (conclusion)

Stephen Austin painted by William Howard

It’s a fool who wanders into Texas history unarmed

as I once saw scribbled on a bathroom stall in Terlingua. But wander I did, with my posts on Stephen Austin and Sam Houston. The goal: to recount the compelling tale of two frenemies with differing personalities who each ended up with a dynamic and glorious American city named after themselves. My stories were based on reading James L. Haley’s Passionate Nation: The Epic History of Texas. But soon I was lost in the mesquite thicket of Texas history. I ended up having to read a few more books to resolve questions like did Austin meet Santa Anna personally when he was in Mexico City? (Yes). Now I will attempt to conclude the story of Austin and Houston:

When we last left Stephen Austin, he’d gone down to Mexico City to appeal for relief of some grievances experienced by the mostly American-born settlers of Texas. One goal was to have Texas become its own Mexican state, instead of part of Coahuila. Austin still felt the best bet for Texas was to remain a loyal part of Mexico.

After the messes of 1832, the man left standing in power in Mexico City was a military man. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. When Stephen Austin made his pitch, Santa Anna was cool with some of the ideas, but not with Texas becoming his own state: it wasn’t big enough yet. Still, Austin felt like he’d made some progress.

On his way back to Texas in January, 1834, Austin was surprised to be arrested. Though most Mexican officials liked him, he’d apparently pissed off the vice-president, Gómez Faría. Or maybe Santa Anna had turned on him and decided he was too dangerous. Austin was taken to a prison in Mexico City: he could order wine and cheese brought in from outside, but he was horribly bored because he wasn’t allowed any reading materials. He tamed a prison mouse as his friend. Eventually he got a French language history of Spain’s Philip II to read. Perhaps he read it aloud to his mouse.

Finally, on Christmas Eve, 1834, Austin was let out of prison. Imagine our hero, walking the streets of Mexico City, a free man, pondering the future.

Santa Anna ended up as more or less dictator of Mexico and he led a brutal campaign suppressing a rebellion in Zacatecas: maybe two thousand civilians were killed. Austin probably heard about this in New Orleans, where he’d gone on a visit, and where the future of Texas was a hot top. Sailing from New Orleans to Brazoria, Texas, Austin witnessed a Mexican ship exchanging shots with an American ship and a Texas steamboat (the Laura). Put ashore at Velasco, Austin stayed at the house of friend, and took a long walk on the beach that night. At a welcome dinner for him back in Brazoria, Austin proposed a toast:

The constitutional rights and the security of peace of Texas – they ought to be maintained, and jeopardized as they now are, they demand a general consultation of the people.

Doesn’t really seem that rousing: Austin did tend toward caution. But soon he threw in with the War Party in Texas. A Mexican army was coming, reconciliation no longer seemed possible. In the town of Gonzales, the American settlers had a cannon. When a Mexican army colonel came down from San Antonio, the locals put up their “COME AND TAKE IT” flag.

Volunteers came down to Gonzales. Austin arrived on the scene and was elected commander in chief of the “Army of the People.”

All sorts of goons and roughnecks turned up to join the fight. Jim Bowie, already famous for his special knife and for killing a guy during the Sandbar Fight over in Louisiana, and Deaf Smith, and quite a few Tejanos, like Juan Seguin. And finally, Sam Houston.

This small Texan army moved towards San Antonio. Austin’s biggest problem was that everyone was drunk all the time.

In the name of Almighty God send no more ardent spirits to this camp – if any is on the road turn it back

Austin led the volunteers by democracy, which was not an effective method, but may have been the only one anyone would accept. Austin wanted to attack the Mexican troops at San Antonio while they had a good chance. But when he tried to order it, the volunteers basically responded with “nah.” That was the end of Austin as commander. The Texas Consultation that was providing a loose organization instead gave him the job of commissioner to the US. He’d go to give speeches, raise money and support for Texas. This was a much better fit for his talents. The head of the army job went to Sam Houston.

The state of affairs in Texas at this point was a mess. The Texas Consultation at this point still hadn’t declared independence. All sorts of violent and random maniacs were arriving, some of them getting themselves killed in ill-conceived attacks on Mexican outposts. Houston sent a few of these guys, including Bowie and William Travis, to San Antonio with the suggestion that they blow up the Alamo mission building and then retreat. Instead, as Haley puts it:

the nonmilitary yahoos, still enjoying the freedom of the city, preferred to spend their time in the cantinas listening to the legendary Bowie tell his stories.

Haley notes about Bowie:

weakened by long and superhuman alcohol consumption, he fell into a lethal delirium of pneumonia and probably diphtheria and was not a factor thereafter

(I really recommend Haley’s chapter on the Alamo, “Brilliant. Pointless. Pyhrric.”)

Travis did his best to get a defense organized, but Santa Anna and some six thousand troops and twenty cannons quickly got the place surrounded and killed everybody. Another branch of Houston’s army, four hundred or so guys under James Fannin, were surrounded at Goliad. Again the Mexicans killed everybody.

Houston, sensibly enough, decided to retreat. This retreat, the Runaway Scrape, was not easy or happy or well-organized. Houston struggled to keep things organized, he’d be fighting with guys who wouldn’t move until they’d had breakfast, stuff like that. The Texas Convention nearly took away Houston’s command. But Houston did manage to hold about a thousand guys together, retreating, retreating, retreating. Until suddenly they turned around and attacked.

Some of the Texian army had captured a Mexican soldier who revealed that Santa Anna’s force was not as large as they’d thought. Houston gave everybody a “remember the Alamo!” speech and they went for it, and won.

Whether Santa Anna was surprised at San Jacinto because he was busy at the time with Emily West/Emily Morgan, “the Yellow Rose of Texas,” born a free woman of color in Connecticut, recently kidnapped by Mexican soldiers, is beyond the scope of this post. Houston apparently did tell someone years later that Santa Anna was with a woman at the time of the attack. One way or another, Houston’s army caught the Mexicans literally napping. Most importantly, they captured Santa Anna personally.

Around the one hundredth anniversary, on the site of the battlefield, Texas built an insanely tall, almost Stalinist style monument.

While crazy, the scale and grandeur is kind of appropriate to how decisive the San Jacinto battle was. Imagine if Robert E. Lee had been captured at Gettysburg (or, more like, if Lee and Jefferson Davis were one guy, who then got captured at Gettysburg). If history followed the pattern of the previous year, it seems much more likely the Texian army would eventually be captured by the Mexicans, everybody massacred once again. Maybe the US would’ve gotten involved, but it’s possible Santa Anna would’ve pacified Texas and retaken it forever.

Instead, in a short engagement the war for Texas independence was won, though the participants didn’t realize it yet. It’s kind of surprising that the Texans didn’t execute Santa Anna, as many wanted to. Instead Houston used Santa Anna to order his army away. Eventually the Mexican dictator was sent back to Mexico by way of Washington.

Austin heard the news of San Jacinto in New Orleans. He quickly bought a bunch of food, which he knew the Texans would need, having abandoned their farms and ranches in the Runaway Scrape. Austin hurried home to expected glory.

I have been nominated by many persons whose opinions I am bound to respect, as a candidate for the office of President of Texas

Austin said in a statement, concluding that he would serve if he won. An election was held. When the votes came in Sam Houston got 5,119, and Austin got 586.

This really hurt Austin’s feelings. He hadn’t even come in second. Apparently Austin believed Houston had once promised him he’d never run for president of Texas, so he felt betrayed, in addition to being disappointed that his countrymen hadn’t recognized all he’d done for them.

A successful military chieftain is hailed with admiration and applause, but the bloodless pioneer of the wilderness, like the corn and cotton he causes to spring where it never grew before, attracts no notice…

Austin wrote in a self-pitying letter to his cousin.

Houston appointed Stephen Austin as secretary of state of the Texas Republic. Living in a back room in Columbia, Texas, the new capital, Austin caught a cold in December, 1836. It turned into pneumonia. on December 27th, he woke up, and declared “The independence of Texas is recognized! Don’t you see it in the papers? Doctor Archer told me so!” Then he fell back asleep, and thirty minutes later he died. He was forty-three.

When Sam Houston heard the news, he issued a proclamation:

The Father of Texas is no more! The first pioneer of the wilderness has departed.

They were both pretty dramatic guys.

Houston would live on for a long time. Once Texas became a state, he served as a US senator. He was serving as governor of Texas in 1861 when the state voted to join the Confederacy. Houston thought this was a bad idea, and refused to swear an oath to the Confederacy, so the legislature declared him no longer governor. He warned the Texas about the north:

They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.

Houston moved to this odd looking house, and died in 1863.

Around 1835, two real estate speculators, the Allen brothers, laid out an idea for a city not far from San Jacinto. They named it after the first president of the Republic of Texas. In 1837, Houston was incorporated. Houston was briefly the capital of Texas, but a few years later, a site for a new capital was selected. First called “Waterloo,” it was soon renamed in honor of Stephen Austin.

In his essay “A Handful Of Roses,” collected in In A Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas, Larry McMurty depicts Houston (this is 1966) as a city of beer bars and shootings, “lively, open and violent,” and Austin as a city whose most characteristic activity is “the attempt to acquire power through knowledge.” He says Austin is the one town in Texas where there’s “a real tolerance of the intellectual.” In some ways the two cities do seem to bear some of the color of their namesakes, but maybe that’s just coincidence, or the human desire to see connections everywhere.

Next time I’m in Brazoria County I’d like to see this statue of Austin:

Thus concludes the story of two guys.

(My sources for this, beyond Haley’s Passionate Nation, include T. H. Fehrenbach’s Lone Star: A History of Texas and The Texans, and Stephen F. Austin: Empresario of Texas by Gregg Cantrell)

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