Most Texans are familiar with Sam Houston, and know him as a Tennessee Congressman who became Tennessee’s Governor, then resigned his office and moved to Texas just in time to join the Texas Revolution. Houston became the hero of the Battle of San Jacinto (the final battle in the war which freed Texas from Mexico.) He was twice president of the Republic of Texas, a Senator for Texas when it joined the Union, and two-time governor of Texas.
While this part of Houston’s history is reasonably well known, many Texans don’t know about Sam Houston’s earlier life or about his three wives, one of whom was a beautiful Cherokee.
Here’s some of what you might not know about Sam Houston. . .
Houston was born (one of nine children) on his family’s plantation near Lexington, Kentucky in 1793. When his father died in 1807, Sam’s widowed mother moved the family to Baker Creek, Tennessee, where she farmed and bought an interest in a general store. Two years later, at age 16, young Sam ran away from home to live with Chief Oolooteka’s large Cherokee tribe on Hiwassee Island, at the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers.
Oolooteka, known to white men as Chief Jolly, took a liking to the young man who had arrived on the island with his rifle and a copy of Homer’s Iliad. The chief adopted Houston as his own son and named him Colleneh—the Raven. Houston was accepted by the tribe as a Cherokee and befriended by two tribal brothers. John and Joseph Rogers who were of half-European and half-Cherokee descent—sons of a prominent Scots trader. The two Rogers brothers went on to become rich and powerful forces in the Cherokee nation.
Houston stayed with the tribe until he left to fight in the War of 1812. During the war, Houston quickly moved up the ranks and became a protege of General Andrew Jackson. He was wounded in the war and following his recovery, was appointed as an Indian agent to the Cherokee. Houston left the army in 1818 and went on to study and then practice law.
Getting into politics, he served in the U.S. Congress from Tennessee between 1823 and 1827, after which he decided to run for governor, was elected, and then resigned the following year after an unfortunate and somewhat scandalous arranged marriage with a young Tennessee woman from a prominent family, Eliza Allen. Houston’s Biographer, Marquis James, wrote that Eliza had wept while donning her wedding gown, that she felt that she loved another and her affections had been pledged to someone else. Eliza left Houston. He followed and ask her to return to Nashville with him. She refused. He and his bride of less than three months parted. The reasons for the break up were never fully explained. This mystery continues to lead to speculation among historians today.
Heart broken, Houston returned to the Cherokees. Tiana Rogers Gentry, the half sister of Houston’s friends, the Rogers Brothers, had been only ten years old when Houston had first arrived on Hiwassee Island. Now Tiana was a young widow. Others described her as tall, slender, and beautiful. Her first husband, David Gentry, had been a prosperous, half-Cherokee blacksmith, who was killed during a border skirmish with Osage Indians.
Tiania’s Rogers family Cherokee lineage was prestigious and it was appropriate that the young widow marry a tribal chief’s son. And so she did. Tiana and The Raven were married in a Cherokee ceremony, despite the fact that Houston’s brief first marriage had not yet ended in divorce.
The two established a large log cabin and trading post named Wigwam Neosho near Fort Gibson, Oklahoma in Indian Territory. In 1832, Houston made a business trip to New York and Washington, D.C. While there, anti-Jackson Congressman, William Stanbery made a speech on the floor of Congress accusing Houston of misdeeds around the bidding for a supply contract for Indian removal. Irate, Houston wrote to Stanbery, who refuse to answer Houston’s letters. Houston confronted Stanbery on Pennsylvania Avenue and a fight ensued. Houston beat Stanbery with a hickory cane and Stanbery tried to shoot Houston, but the gun (pressed against Houston’s chest) misfired. Congress arrested Houston and charged him with contempt. Houston engaged Francis Scott Key as his lawyer. The trial in the Capitol building was high profile, lasted for weeks, and the galleries were packed with curious citizens. Houston was articulate in his own defense, quoting Shakespeare, Blackstone and the Apostle Paul. Although he was found guilty, his reprimand was a mere slap on the wrist. More than one rose was tossed at his feet by swooning ladies in the crowd.
Newspaper coverage and word of mouth sent his visibility and reputation soaring and he soon left for Texas—after asking Tiana to come with him. She demurred, saying she wanted to stay at Wigwam Neosho, their home and trading post. Some speculate that Houston left for Texas on a mission directed by his mentor, President Jackson, to encourage Texas to join the Union.
Years after Houston’s departure to Texas, Tiana married Sam McGrady, a whiskey runner between Ft. Smith, Arkansas and Ft. Gibson, Oklahoma.
Tiana Rogers Gentry Houston McGrady died of pneumonia in 1838, and was buried in Wilson Rock Cemetery, Indian Territory. In 1904, her grave was exhumed and her remains were laid to rest at Ft. Gibson National Cemetery (Oklahoma) in the circle around the flag among the graves of army officers and their wives. The formal funeral ceremony was attended by hundreds. In an error, the tombstone read “Talahina, Indian wife of General Sam Houston.”Her name was later corrected and a new stone erected.
Sam Houston, The Raven, married again, but not until his Cherokee bride, Tiana, had died.
In the summer of 1839, Houston made a horse-buying trip to Alabama where he was introduced to Margaret Moffette Lea at a strawberry festival. Following a year of courtship, the two were married on May 8,1840, despite the advice of Houston’s friends who believed the 19-year-old Margaret was too young for the 47-year-old Houston.
During their twenty-three year marriage, Margaret bore him eight children, caused him to moderate his drinking, and convinced him to join the Baptist Church. Margaret was at his side when he died in 1863. “Texas, Texas, Margaret,” were the final words of three-time husband and Texas hero—Sam Houston.