Sam Houston stands among the towering figures of American history. He governed two states, made his mark on the national stage and yet his name is forever tied to Texas, the state he helped to create. This year, historians are recalling his connection to two anniversaries: Texas's independence, 175 years ago, and the U.S. Civil War, which began in 186.
Big Sam still towers over the land he loved; more than 20 meters tall, a concrete and fiberglass depiction of Houston in Huntsville is considered the largest statue of any American hero.
A few kilometers away, the Sam Houston Memorial Museum holds many of his belongings and promotes his legacy.
Director Patrick Nolan says Houston's accomplishments were impressive.
“He is really the only man in our history who was president of an independent country, also governor of two states, the only man to have that distinction, Tennessee and Texas, United States senator from Texas, commanding general in a very successful war,” explains Nolan.
Houston had suffered personal and political setbacks by 1832 when he joined American settlers in what was then the northeast Mexican territory of Texas.
Nolan says this gave him a new start.
“The idea of re-making yourself, of re-constituting your career if you will, was there and Texas was an opportunity to do that,” he notes.
Houston led Texas rebels to victory over a larger Mexican army at the battle of San Jacinto in April 1836.
At a recent re-enactment of the battle, just east of the city that bears his name, Houston was again the hero of the day.
Forced to resign
Yet, in 1861, Houston was forced to leave the governor's mansion in Austin and retire to his farm in Huntsville.
The man who fought to bring Texas into the United States refused to sign an oath to the Confederacy of rebellious southern states, says Nolan.
“He would not take that oath to support the Confederacy. He would resign -- no he did not resign, he would be dismissed, he would be fired before he would do it,” states Nolan.
The Civil War was still raging when Houston died at his home in Huntsville in July 1863.
In the city of Conroe, down the road, Houston biographer James Haley visited a new park featuring 13 flags associated with Texas history.
Compassionate slave owner
Haley says Houston annoyed many southerners because, even though he and his wife owned slaves, he paid them for extra work and he opposed the expansion of slavery.
“Every year he had a speaking tour up the Ohio valley, through Pennsylvania, New York and up into New England. That was really the center of his political strength, because he was unpopular in the South because of his stance against slavery," Haley explains.
Houston saw the Civil War coming as early as 1854 and made accurate predictions.
“The South will go down, I think he said, in a sea of smoke and ruin and that will be the end of the South as we know it and then the North will think it has won this big victory, but he said the North will have its own price to pay. They will reap a harvest of assassination,” says Haley.
Source of inspiration
A week after the surrender of the main Confederate army, on April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
Haley says Houston freed all his slaves before he died and the money he gave them helped some become educated and establish successful businesses. He also defended the rights of Hispanics and American Indians, with whom he lived for a time.
Sam Houston continues to inspire people and his legacy in Texas remains strong.