“A leopard cannot change its spots,” was a statement Gen. Sam Houston often made that defined who he was. Throughout history, many people remember him as a military hero, a leader of the Texas Independence and the president of the republic. However, people often forget that Houston was a deeply involved in the community of Huntsville.
While Houston was known by many titles in the places he traveled during his lifetime, he was known by the citizens of Huntsville as someone who stood up for what he believed in even when it was not the popular choice and had a great admiration for education and the town he lived in for the latter part of his life.
Sam Houston in Huntsville
Houston and his family moved to Huntsville in 1847 and built The Woodland Home in 1848. The first thing that Houston did when he was settled in Huntsville was build a law office which was used primarily as a meeting place. He kept all of his law books and materials there, and people would often come and visit with him in that building.
The Houston farm was a busy place whether Houston was there or off traveling in Washington, D.C. while working for the Senate. While Houston was away, his slave, Joshua, was the trusted head of the farm and home. He was well respected by the Houston’s and the community.
When Houston was at home, he spent a great deal of his time integrating himself into the community. He and his wife, Margaret, were staunch supporters of the Baptist church in Independence and would often invite fellow churchgoers to their spring in Huntsville to be baptized.
Huntsville Mayor and Sam Houston Historical Museum director Mac Woodward described Houston as a friendly man, whom always had a good story to tell.
“There have been stories recorded about how Sam would spend time on the corner across the street from the Walker County Court House and whittle little hearts for girls and swords for boys and tell them stories,” Woodward said. “When he came back to Huntsville after he left the governor’s office, there were union soldiers that had been caught in Galveston during the Civil War and were held in prison for a period of time. Sam would visit them and pay his respects. His son had been a prisoner of war in the confederate army so I think that he had a lot of sympathy for those soldiers no matter what side they were on.”
Sam Houston’s stand on secession
The family remained in Huntsville until 1858, selling The Woodland Home to pay off his campaign debts and move to Independence, Texas. The following year, Houston became the governor of Texas and moved to Austin. It was the start of the Civil War and Houston did not favor the widely spreading idea of secession. He wanted to preserve the unity of the United States but his opinions were not popular among his fellow Texans. When Texas seceded from the union in 1861, Houston refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Confederate States of America and was removed from office.
The steamboat house and Bear Bend cabin
Houston and his family returned to Huntsville hoping to buy back their woodland home in 1862. However, the home was too expensive and after a time of searching, Houston found the Steamboat House. The house was built by Rufus Bailey in 1858 near the Oakwood Cemetery where Houston was later buried. It was a wedding gift for his son and daughter-in-law but they refused to live in it because of its unusual architecture. Bailey could not rent or sell the house to anyone and it remained vacant and unused until Houston discovered it.
Michael Sproat is the Sam Houston Memorial Museum curator of collections and one of the caretakers of the steamboat house and the artifacts that belonged to the Houstons that are stored inside of it.
“Something unique about the steamboat house is that unlike many of our artifacts, it does not sit behind glass so we showcase it,” said Sproat. “When the museum opened in 1936, Robert Josey, the publisher of ‘The Houston Post’ and Huntsville citizen, came up with the idea to relocate the steamboat house to the museum grounds to join the Woodland Home and the law office because it was such a crucial part of Sam’s life and a significant artifact for the museum. The same was done for the Bear Bend cabin in 2010 because it was said to be frequented by Sam throughout the 1850’s when he wasn’t in Huntsville or serving in D.C. for the Senate.”
Sam Houston on Education
Houston served on the first board of trustees for Austin College when it was first founded in 1849. He supported the establishment of the college because he and Margaret had always been strong supporters of education, particularly for their children and their slaves. Early in his life, Houston had taught at a school in Tennessee to pay off his debts and, according to Woodward, believed that being a teacher was the most rewarding profession that he had ever held among all of his professions and all of the honors that he received.
“I think that students that come to this university should be very much aware of why the name Sam Houston is its namesake,” said Woodward. “We need to know the truth about the characteristics of Sam as a person. It is well known that he was a statesman and a leader, but what is often overlooked is the courage that he had to stand up for his beliefs even when they weren’t popular. Our motto at Sam Houston State University is ‘a measure of a life is its service,’ and although that came years after Sam Houston, it really defines his life and his 50 years of public service to our country, state and town.”