Wednesday, October 21, 2009

This Day in Western History (Sam Houston Becomes Cherokee Citizen)

October 21, 1829—Sam Houston—former Indian fighter, ex-governor of Tennessee, Presidential hopeful turned object of controversy and scandal—began the wilderness years of his public life by choosing to become a member of the Cherokee Nation.

Houston’s decision came at the age of 36, only one year older than Dante was when the poet described, in The Inferno, finding himself “within a forest dark,/For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” It followed the mysterious breakup of the soldier-politician's first marriage, and, in many ways, is the least documented period of his life.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to say that Houston joined the Cherokee only because he had hit a personal nadir. That would deny the bonds of respect and affection—not to mention the deep affinity—he felt for the Native-American nation since his teens. After all, the tribe had already taken him in—welcomed him—once before, when he felt most lost.

In 1809, Houston’s family was making a success of their move from Virginia to eastern Tennessee, but 15-year-old Sam—not unlike another towering figure on the national scene, Abraham Lincoln—was bored by chores. Unlike the future railsplitter, Houston lit out for Cherokee territory.

Taken in by Chief Oo-loo-te-ka ("He-Puts-the-Drum-Away"), the lanky teen was given the name Co-lon-neh, i.e. "Raven." He stayed with the Cherokee for another year and a half before returning to white civilization as a schoolteacher.

Andrew Jackson, Houston’s commander during the War of 1812, sensed possibilities in his protégé, and especially found useful his knowledge of Cherokee ways, enough so that “Old Hickory” helped land him a position as agent for the tribe. Houston’s rise through Tennessee politics followed, climaxing in becoming elected governor in 1827. If Jackson could make the White House, there seemed no reason why that path didn’t lay open to Houston, too.

In January 1829, Houston married 18-year-old Eliza Allen, a daughter in a prominent Tennessee family. By the spring, however, the couple had separated. Neither husband nor wife ever commented specifically on what drove them apart. Plenty of rumors swirled, however, including the following:

* Eliza was repulsed by Houston’s drunkenness;

* Eliza was in love with another man;

* Eliza was involuntarily repulsed by a seeping wound in Houston’s upper thigh, incurred 15 years before from an arrow at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. (This last rumor, the most interesting—and tragic—of the group, might, alas, be only an urban legend. A physician who examined Houston later claimed that the thigh wound had long since healed. What hadn’t healed was a shoulder wound, which had to be dressed nearly daily.)

The resulting hullabaloo led to Houston resigning from his office and heading out to Arkansas, where his old friend Chief Oo-loo-te-ka had relocated to be beyond the reach of white men. While visiting, Houston fell ill from malaria, then was treated with Indian medicine. In a real sense, then, he felt he was being healed physically as well as mentally.

It has been said that during this period, Houston’s alcoholism was so rampant that he was known among his adopted people as “big drunk” (he stood, according to various accounts, anywhere from six-foot-two to six-foot-six). Again, however, some perspective is in order.

The ex-politician was not doing nothing this whole time. Instead, he served as an ambassador for the Cherokee to whites. This might have been more important than ever to the tribe, since Jackson was now in the White House and making momentous decisions about members of the tribe still east of the Mississippi.

Those who didn’t know Houston in his teen years were now astonished to find him in Washington in Indian dress (such as the miniature accompanying this post), advocating for the Cherokee and denouncing corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “I am aware that in presenting myself as the advocate of the Indians and their rights, I shall stand very much alone,” he observed.

Moreover, he took as a wife Tiana Rogers, whose half-brother, Captain John, eventually succeeded Oo-loo-te-ka as chief. (Will Rogers, the beloved humorist, was Tiana’s nephew, three generations removed.)

What brought Houston back irrevocably to white civilization was what drove him away in the first place: controversy. In 1832, enraged by allegations of fraud by Congressman William Stanberry of Ohio, Houston got into a fight with him on Pennsylvania Avenue. Actually, it became more like a DC rumble, with Houston beating Stanbery with his hickory walking cane and the congressman retaliating by pointing his pistol at the chest of his big adversary. Luckily for Houston, Stanbery misfired.

Houston was arrested and tried before Congress for the attack. His defense lawyer, Francis Scott Key (yes, the “Star-Spangled Banner” composer), pleaded eloquently, as did Houston himself, but it was no use. The House voted him guilty and ordered him to pay a $500 fine.

Houston refused and, not wanting to have to deal with this issue anymore, decided to light out for another territory: Texas. There, a new life, San Jacinto—and his eventual destiny—awaited.

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