Thursday, February 19, 2015

Margaret Houston

"Lone Star Historian 2" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas during his second year. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College ( in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published over 40 books, almost half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine. In 2013 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by his alma mater, Texas A&M University - Commerce. 

A few of the UDC ladies
On Thursday afternoon, February 19, I drove to Henderson to meet with Centennial Chapter 2321 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Texas Division. I shared a program with the UDC ladies about Margaret Lea Houston, wife of Sam Houston. It was the second program on Margaret that I had given in five days. My wife was out of town during the weekend, and I filled in as substitute teacher for her Sunday School class of senior ladies at Central Baptist Church in Carthage.

Margaret as a newlywed
The Sunday School Quarterly prescribed a lesson entitled, “Ready When Homosexuality Devastates.” I felt less than comfortable with presenting such a lesson to a devout group of Baptist ladies, one of whom is my mother-in-law. Instead I offered the story of Margaret Houston, whose father, Rev. Temple Lea, was a pioneer Baptist circuit rider in Alabama. Margaret’s mother, Nancy Moffette Lea, was just as devoted to the Baptist church as her husband, who died in 1834. Margaret was deeply religious, and in 1854 she persuaded her famous husband to be baptized. A large crowd assembled at Rocky Creek, near the Houston home in Independence, to watch Rev. Rufus Burleson – President of Baylor University in Independence – baptize “Old Sam Jacinto.” (After Burleson announced that Houston’s sins were washed away, Sam famously remarked, “God help the fishes!”). The ladies enjoyed learning about a fellow Baptist woman, and about the romance between Margaret and Sam.

The Lea home in Marion
But for the ladies of the UDC, I shifted the focus from Margaret’s religion to her life as a Southern belle, as a wife and mother in the fastest-growing slave state in the nation, as the first lady of Texas during the secession crisis, and as the mother of a teenaged Confederate soldier – Sam Houston, Jr. – who was severely wounded at Shiloh and thereafter became a prisoner of war.

Houston's boarding house across the street
Margaret was born in 1819 near Marion, Alabama. Her mother’s family was prosperous, owning land and slaves, and Nancy Moffette Lea had a good head for business. Indeed, Nancy sometimes lived with Margaret and Sam in Texas, and ran the Houston household, since her daughter preferred other activities. Margaret was educated at two academies for young ladies, and after her father’s death she and her mother lived with her brother in Marion. In his handsome Greek revival home Margaret was married to Sam Houston in 1840. The couple owned slaves throughout their 23-year marriage, including Aunt Eliza, Margaret’s devoted and lifelong companion/servant. Margaret bore eight children, four boys and four girls, and she created a warm family home for her prominent husband.  (Their last child, Temple Lea Houston, was the first baby born in the Texas Governor’s Mansion.) During the troubled years preceding the Civil War, Houston was an outspoken Unionist, an unpopular position which resulted in his ouster as Texas governor in 1861. He died in 1863, and Margaret lost her mother the next year. Sadly, Margaret died of yellow fever at the age of 48 in 1867. But the UDC ladies agreed with me that Margaret Lea Houston was a remarkable woman of the Old South.

Margaret in her forties
A couple of hours after returning to Carthage, I went with my wife to the annual Panola County Chamber of Commerce Banquet, which was held in the large community room of the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. I was asked to stand to be acknowledged as State Historian, a Panola County citizen with a statewide office, and the applause was most gratifying.  In 1988 I was presented the Panola County Citizen of the Year Award, which was established in 1953. I’ve always been enormously proud of that handsome and meaningful award. Little did I know that Karon had nominated me again, pointing out that as State Historian I have represented Panola College and Carthage all over Texas. At the banquet tonight I was utterly astonished to become the first person ever to receive this award twice. Without question the 2014 honor was granted because of my service as State Historian of Texas, another of many, many wonderful reasons that I treasure this position.
Receiving the Citizen of the Year Award from
Bill Holder, last year's recipient
Holding the 2014 and 1988 Awards

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