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'Sam Houston' Biography Author Haley
While I don't have the encyclopedic knowledge of Sam Houston as some, I have lived in this area long enough to be considered a "local." That is the category of reader that author James Haley seems to fear and will face Saturday at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum.
Haley has produced a new Sam Houston biography, after 15 years of research and writing, that is entitled simply "Sam Houston."
Haley is the featured speaker for the 2 p.m. dedication of Phase I of the Museum's renovation. He will stay afterward to sign books and either glow in the wisdom of his introspection, or defend his comments, as the case may be.
Both activities will take place in the Rotunda. The book signing had originally been scheduled for the Walker Education Building, but was changed to avoid losing the crowd.
While this is not intended as a literary review, here are a few interesting points, but not all of them, that I found in this book that Haley calls "...the largest and most complete biography ever written about that legendary American icon..."
He got my support early by starting off in the preface calling Native Americans Native Americans. This is not a modern day politically correct term. Sam Houston's mentor, Oo-loo-te-ka, used those words, in print, to describe his people in 1828.
Haley's look at Houston genealogy goes way back. Sir John Houston built a family estate in Scotland, but before that a Norman knight named Sir Hugh of Padivan was rewarded for service to William the Conqueror with a gift of land. That area became known as Hugh's Town. Thus the family name, Houstoun, Houston, and Huston.
Sir Hugh also received a coat of arms that included three ravens. Perhaps that influenced the selection of "The Raven" as Sam Houston's Native American name.
When Houston lived with the Cherokees, he often said later, he spent much time making love and reading the "Iliad." Haley says that to "make love" back then usually meant "innocent courting," not what we might think today.
Haley mentions often Houston's failed first marriage, which resulted in his resignation as governor of Tennessee and loss of a chance to use Andrew Jackson's influence to become president of the United States. Various perspectives are given, from friends, enemies, and Eliza Allen family supporters.
I came away with a "preponderance of evidence" conclusion that Eliza was pressured by her family to marry Sam, when she was really in love with another. But the mystery of what really happened remains, and probably always will.
The question of Houston's opinion of slavery, although he owned slaves, is considered in several segments. Evidence of his belief in the equality of all humans comes from a point Haley makes that Houston agreed with Cherokee chiefs who wanted their traditions to be taught in native tongues.
Haley writes: "It was a stunningly modern view (but one that gains him little credit with revisionists who are interested in depicting him as a racist)."
Haley defends Houston's conduct in the events leading to and including the battle of San Jacinto, which gained Texas independence from Mexico in 1836. Haley's conclusions will also not sit well with revisionists who persist in finding bits and pieces of old letters and memoirs of Houston detractors, prompting some modern "historians" to argue that Houston was a coward.
Houston was criticized for retreating before Santa Anna's army, but Haley shows the lack of support he had from the general Texas population, many of whom would not fight, deserted, and would not follow orders.
Houston estimated that the population of Texas at that time should have produced an army of about 4,000. Instead, he had only 700. Just days before the San Jacinto battle, one of the men who later criticized him most loudly marched off with 400 men who would have been a big help.
The "Texians" of the time would not even allow him to use their animals, with one frontier woman demanding the return of her oxen, which were being used to transport artillery, just days before the decisive battle.
Haley also points out that Houston may have had an ace up his sleeve as he led Santa Anna toward the Texas/Louisiana border. His men didn't know it, but he knew there were volunteer forces there who were ready to join the fight in what would have been, in Haley's words, a "surprise...on the Sabine."
That was not necessary, however, as the battle happened at San Jacinto. Houston saw the opportunity there, and his men were more than ready to fight. And the result, as they say, is history--of gigantic proportions.
"The fact is that if any other figure in Texas had commanded the army," Haley writes, "the revolution would have ended in disaster."
"Sam Houston" has much more--Houston's two terms as president of the Republic of Texas, his campaigns for governor, one successful and the other not, and his struggle to avoid the events that he so accurately predicted as the result of Southern secession from the Union.
There is much in the book about Huntsville and Houston's Woodland home, still at its original location and now in the Sam Houston Memorial Museum historical site on the campus of Sam Houston State University.
This is the community in which Houston is so highly respected that some say its citizens think he still walks the streets--the part of Texas in which his memory is most alive.
"If this book earns the approval of the locals," Haley writes in the preface, "anything else will be window dressing."
From this one local--thumbs up.
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