Margaret Lea Houston
Margaret Lea Houston circa 1839
|First Lady of Texas|
|Preceded by||Lucadia Christiana Niles Pease|
|Succeeded by||Martha Melissa Evans Clark|
|First Lady of the Republic of Texas|
|Preceded by||Hannah Este Burnet|
|Succeeded by||Mary Smith Jones|
Margaret Moffette Lea
April 11, 1819
Marion, Alabama, U.S.
|Died||December 3, 1867 (aged 48)|
Independence, Texas, U.S.
|Resting place||Houston-Lea Family Cemetery|
(m. 1840; died 1863)
|Children||8, including Andrew Jackson and Temple Lea|
|Education||Judson Female Institute|
Margaret Lea Houston (April 11, 1819 – December 3, 1867) was First Lady of the Republic of Texas during her husband Sam Houston's second term as President of the Republic of Texas. They met following the first of his two non-consecutive terms as the Republic's president, and married when he was a representative in the Congress of the Republic of Texas. She was his third wife, remaining with him until his death.
She came from a close-knit family in Alabama, many of whom also moved to Texas when she married the man who was an accomplished politician in both Tennessee and Texas, and who had won the Battle of San Jacinto during the Texas Revolution. The couple had eight children, and she gave birth to most of them while he was away attending to politics. Her mother Nancy Lea was a constant in their lives, helping with the children, managing the household help, and always providing either financial assistance or temporary housing. With the help of her extended family in Texas, Margaret convinced her husband to give up both alcohol and profane language. He believed his wife to be an exemplary woman of faith and, under her influence, converted to the Baptist denomination, after he had many years earlier been baptized a Catholic in Nacogdoches, Texas.
Following the Annexation of Texas to the United States, Sam Houston shuttled back and forth to Washington, D.C. as the state's U.S. senator for 13 years, while Margaret remained in Texas raising their children. When he was elected the state's governor, Margaret became First Lady of the state of Texas and was pregnant with their last child. Her brief tenure came on the cusp of the Civil War, at a time when the state was torn apart over the debate of whether or not to secede from the United States, while her husband worked in vain to defeat the Texas Ordinance of Secession. There had been an attempt on his life, and angry mobs gathered in the streets near the governor's mansion. With children to protect, and no government security forces in place, she lived in fear for her family's safety.
Her husband was removed from office by the Texas Secession Convention for refusing to swear loyalty to the Confederacy. Margaret became a war-time mother, whose eldest son joined the Confederate Army and was taken prisoner at the Battle of Shiloh. Her husband died before the end of the war. In her few remaining years, she became the keeper of the Sam Houston legacy and opened his records to a trusted biographer. When she died of yellow fever four and a half years later, Margaret could not be buried with her husband in a public cemetery in Huntsville for fear of contamination, and was instead interred next to her mother on private property.
Margaret Moffette Lea was born April 11, 1819, into a family of devout Baptists in Perry County, Alabama. Her father Temple Lea was a church deacon and the state treasurer of the Alabama Baptist Convention, and her mother Nancy Moffette Lea was the only woman delegate at the convention's formation. Margaret was the fifth of six children that included older siblings Martin, Varilla, Henry Clinton and Vernal, as well as younger sister Antoinette. The Lea cotton plantation had been acquired with money from a Moffette family inheritance, and was operated by Nancy.
When her father died in 1834, she inherited four slaves, including Joshua and Eliza, her favorite. The older Lea children had married prior to Temple's death, but Vernal, Margaret and Antoinette accompanied the widowed Nancy when she moved into her son Henry's home at Marion. He was an accomplished attorney who sat on the boards of educational institutions, and would be elected to the Alabama State Senate in 1836. Margaret was enrolled at Professor McLean's School, and also attended Judson Female Institute. The latter was founded by Baptists to instruct genteel young women in what were considered acceptable goals of their time and place, "proficiency in needlework, dancing, drawing, and penmanship". Heavy emphasis was put on Baptist theology and missionary work. She wrote poetry and read romantic novels, while also becoming accomplished on guitar, harp and piano. Reverend Peter Crawford baptized her in the Siloam Baptist Church of Marion when she was 19, by which time the eligible young lady was considered "accomplished, well-connected and deeply religious".
Sam Houston was an attorney by profession and politically accomplished even before he moved to Texas. In Tennessee, he had been both a member of the United States House of Representatives and Governor. His military victory at the Battle of San Jacinto elevated him to hero status in Texas. After completing his first term as President of the Republic of Texas in early December 1838, he continued to practice law from his office in Liberty. He arrived in Mobile, Alabama, in the early months of 1839 as a partner of the Sabine City Company, seeking investors to develop a community that is today known as Sabine Pass. Through Martin Lea, he made the acquaintance of Antoinette's husband William Bledsoe, a wealthy businessman who in turn suggested Nancy Lea as a possible investor. Invited to a garden party at Martin's home, it was there Houston first became acquainted with Margaret. The mutual attraction was instantaneous.
Nancy was favorably impressed with Houston's land sales pitch, but not so impressed with his interest in her daughter. She and others in the family were concerned about his reputation as a hard-drinking carouser with a proclivity for profanity, who was 26 years older than Margaret and twice married. Several weeks of love letters had been exchanged between Margaret and Houston by the time he proposed marriage that summer of 1839, presenting her with his image carved on a brooch. In an effort to assuage the family's opposition to the union, Houston spent several weeks in the Lea home in Alabama.
In September during his absence from Texas, his supporters in San Augustine County elected him to serve in the Republic of Texas House of Representatives. When the couple's engagement was announced in newspapers, the Leas were not the only ones who were skeptical. Acquaintances in Texas were well versed with his personal history and aware that he had not divorced his first wife when he married again, only recently obtaining that divorce with hopes of marrying a Texas woman who, as it played out, rejected him for another suitor. Political crony Barnard E. Bee Sr. tried to discourage him from making a third attempt at marriage, believing him to be "totally disqualified for domestic happiness".
As the day of their May 9, 1840, wedding approached, some family members still looked upon Houston with uncertainty and were determined to stop what they believed would be a disastrous union for Margaret. She would not be deterred, however, and the Reverend Peter Crawford officiated over the wedding of Margaret and the man with whom she had fallen in love. The newlyweds spent their honeymoon week at the Lafayette Hotel before sailing to Galveston, where Nancy and the Bledsoes had already established residences. Houston retained a house he owned in the city named for him, but Margaret had no taste for the hustle and bustle and preferred the lesser-populated Galveston. She and her personal slaves, who had accompanied the newlyweds from Alabama, shared her mother's house while Houston traveled.
The year before he met Margaret, Houston had purchased property at Cedar Point on Galveston Bay in Chambers County, which he named Raven Moor, and planned to expand with income from his law practice. The existing two-room log dogtrot house with its detached slaves' quarters overlooked Galveston Bay and became the newlyweds' first home, filled with both Margaret's personal furnishings from Alabama, as well as newer pieces. She renamed it Ben Lomond as a tip of the hat to the romantic Walter Scott works she had read, and delegated management of the household to her mother Nancy.
--Dr. John W. Lockhart, author and Houston family friend
During his second term as representative from San Augustine, Houston was elected in 1841 to once again serve as the Republic's president. Margaret disliked campaign events and, giving up her privacy, frequently stayed home while her husband traveled about the Republic canvassing for votes. Yet, when she rose to the occasion, such as the extended post-election tour of San Augustine County and victory celebrations in Washington County and Houston City, the public adored her, and she became an impressive political asset. She rode in a local presidential parade, but stayed home rather than travel to the inauguration in Austin. When the couple appeared at several events in Nacogdoches, his old friends took notice of his total avoidance of alcohol, and he continued to assure her that he was giving it up completely. He also began to clean up his language to please his new wife, and would eventually claim to have eliminated his profanity altogether.
Approximately 26 miles (42 km) north of Ben Lomond, the Bledsoes operated a sugar cane plantation at Grand Cane in Liberty County. Financially supplemented by Nancy, the plantation became a family gathering place. About a year after Vernal and Mary Lea also moved there, Mary suffered a pregnancy miscarriage. Not long after that, the couple accepted trusteeship of a 7-year-old Galveston orphan named Virginia Thorne, who was then placed in the care of Nancy. It was a problematic relationship from the beginning, and would grow to have legal ramifications for Margaret.
Events leading up to the 1842 Battle of Salado Creek caused Houston to believe that Mexico was planning a full-scale invasion to re-take Texas. In response, he moved the Republic's capital farther east to Washington-on-the-Brazos, and sent Margaret back to her relatives in Alabama. Upon her later return, they temporarily lived with the Lockhart family at Washington-on-the-Brazos until they were able to acquire a small home there. The couple's first child Sam Houston Jr. was born in the new house on May 25, 1843. Upon learning of her son Martin's death in a duel, Nancy moved in with the Houstons, helping Margaret with the new baby, and over Houston's objections, pitching in with some financial assistance for food and household necessities.
When his presidential term ended on December 9, 1844, Houston turned his attention to the Raven Hill plantation he had acquired that year northwest of Grand Cane and east of Huntsville. Margaret's slave Joshua was put in charge of the carpentry to build her a new house. Nancy, Margaret and sister Antoinette devoted their time to activities in Grand Cane's Concord Baptist Church, of which they were founding members. She continued to be a wife who was happiest when she and her husband stayed close to home. Although she accompanied him to President Andrew Jackson's Tennessee funeral in the summer of 1845, she did not attend fetes held in her husband's honor by his old friends and supporters. During the latter part of the year, Antoinette's husband William died, followed a few months later by the death of Vernal's wife Mary. Prior to her death, she had elicited a promise from Margaret to assume the trusteeship of Virginia Thorne.
Texas officially relinquished its sovereignty on February 19, 1846, to become the 28th state in the union, and Houston was elected by the Texas State Legislature to serve in the United States Senate.[Note 1] Margaret's pregnancy prevented her from accompanying him, so when time and duty permitted he traveled back and forth between Texas and a temporary hotel residence in the nation's capital. When Reverend George W. Samson first met Houston at the E-Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., the senator told him that his attendance had been influenced by "one of the best Christians on earth", his wife Margaret. For the duration of his senatorial service, Houston regularly attended the E-Street church, sharing his wife's letters with Samson and delving into theological discussions pertaining to Margaret's interpretation of scriptures.
Margaret's sister Antoinette eloped with wealthy Galveston businessman Charles Power in April and began a new life on his sugar plantation. Houston was home during a Congressional recess when their second child Nancy (Nannie) Elizabeth Houston was born at Raven Hill on September 6. About this time, in a letter to Houston that gave insight into Nancy's forceful constant presence in their lives, Margaret conceded, "She is high spirited and a little overbearing, I admit ..." but advised her husband to just give in to the insignificant issues. Houston replied, "I love the old Lady as a Mother, and have resolved to defer to her age and her disposition. Her blood is much like my own."
During the early part of 1847, Houston's letters to Margaret were filled with his weariness of being away from home, and his concern that he had no letters from her for weeks. He promised that at the end of the current legislative session, he would "... fly with all speed to meet and greet my Love and embrace our little ones." When she finally answered, she initially only told him of a serious illness that Sam Jr. had since recovered from, even though he was aware of previous problems she had with a breast lump. She had been advised to see a specialist in Memphis, Tennessee, if there was a recurrence. When complications appeared, family friend Dr. Ashbel Smith recommended surgery in Texas; only then, did she inform her husband of the situation. Upon receipt of her letter, Houston immediately departed Washington, D.C.
After his return home, Houston negotiated a labor-swap arrangement with Raven Hill's overseer Captain Frank Hatch. In lieu of a cash payment for his services, the bulk of Houston's slave labor force was engaged to work on Hatch's property at Bermuda Spring. The remaining slaves were retained as house labor for Margaret. Eventually, Houston became the owner of Bermuda Spring when he and Hatch swapped properties, and he set about to build the Woodland home for his wife. The first child to be born in the house was Margaret (Maggie) Lea Houston, arriving on April 13, 1848, while Congress was in session and Houston was in Washington.
The widowed Vernal remarried to Catherine Davis Goodall in 1849, but trusteeship of Virginia Thorne, by now a teenager, remained with Margaret. With most of his time spent in the nation's capital, Houston's perception of Thorne was primarily second-hand gleanings from Margaret's letters; yet, he disliked and distrusted the orphaned girl to the point where he feared for the health and safety of his children with her in the house. Exacerbating the situation was Margaret's disapproval of the relationship that the teenage girl developed with overseer Thomas Gott. Push literally came to shove during an incident in which Margaret disciplined her for what she believed was rough handling of one of the children. Thorne alleged that during the ensuing dispute over the situation, Margaret had used threats and physical violence against her. After Thorne eloped with Gott a month later, the couple filed assault and battery charges against Margaret. When a grand jury investigation resulted in a deadlock, the matter was referred to the local Baptist church that Margaret helped found, and she was acquitted of the charges. Houston came to believe that the filing of legal charges against his wife had been encouraged by his political enemies.
Daughter Mary William (Mary Willie) Houston was born on April 9, 1850, in the Woodland house, during another Congressional session when Houston was in Washington. Their fourth child Antoinette (Nettie) Power Houston arrived on January 20, 1852, while he was again away on a business trip.
Many friends and acquaintances came to visit the Houstons at Woodland, including members of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe who had allied with Houston during the Texas Revolution; he in return had assisted them in their being granted a reservation in east Texas. Throughout the last years of his presidency, Houston had made numerous efforts for the Republic to find common ground with the various tribes, asserting their right to own land. Many tribes had come to respect him as their friend.
Nancy moved southwest of Huntsville to Independence in 1852, and much of the remaining Lea family began to form its nucleus in the Washington County community. Antoinette and Charles Power were also living in Independence after their Galveston sugar plantation was decimated by a hurricane. Brothers Vernal and Henry both died that year. The following year, Varilla's husband Robertus Royston also died and she joined the rest of the family in Independence. That August, the Houstons bought a house near the original Baylor University campus in Independence. While Houston was attending to business in Washington, their sixth child Andrew Jackson Houston was born on June 21, 1854.
As required by Mexican federal law for property ownership in Coahuila y Tejas, Houston had been baptized into the Catholic faith in the Adolphus Sterne House in Nacogdoches prior to Texas independence. By 1854, when Houston told Reverend Samson he felt compelled to make a public profession of faith, perhaps on the floor of the United States Senate, Margaret and her family had spent 14 years influencing her husband's faith. Ultimately, he decided to make the profession among those who knew him best in Texas.
Word quickly spread about Houston's upcoming public baptism, and spectators traveled from neighboring communities to witness the event. Reverend Rufus Columbus Burleson, the president of Baylor University and local church pastor, performed the rite in Little Rocky Creek, 2 miles (3.2 km) southeast of town. Houston afterwards still felt unworthy of taking the Eucharist and becoming a member of Margaret's church. At her request, Reverend George Washington Baines of Brenham counseled with him to eliminate his self-doubts. In gratitude and celebration, Nancy sold her silverware to purchase a bell for the Rocky Creek Baptist Church.
The state legislature decided during Houston's third senatorial term not to re-elect him, so he ran for the office of Governor of Texas, losing to Hardin Richard Runnels. He was still in Washington when William (Willie) Rogers Houston was born on May 25, 1858, their last child born in the Woodland home. In order to satisfy creditors of his gubernatorial campaign debts, Houston was forced to sell the house to his political supporter J. Carroll Smith. He subsequently defeated incumbent Runnels with a second bid for the office during a period when the populace was bitterly divided over the issue of secession from the United States, and was sworn in December 31, 1859.
--Margaret Lea Houston letter to Nancy Lea, January 21, 1861
Construction on the Texas Governor's Mansion in Austin had been completed three years earlier and first occupied by Governor Elisha M. Pease, whose wife played hostess to anyone who stopped by for a visit. The Houston family and their retinue of slaves moved into the mansion during a political climate that grew increasingly hostile over the secession debate. The family furniture had been moved from Independence by Joshua, since the state government had no budget for staffing, furnishing or maintaining the governor's residence. That financial burden fell on the shoulders of the incumbent, and the state partially defaulted on Houston's salary. Margaret feared for the family's safety, as her husband worked towards defeating passage of the state's Ordinance of Secession. There had been a botched assassination attempt on Houston, and she saw throngs of angry malcontents gathering in the city. Margaret closed the mansion doors to all but those with an invitation from the Houstons.
The family and household slaves resided on the second floor of the mansion, while others lived in the stable. As with everywhere else had they lived, she cared nothing about public life, and instead worked with Eliza and the other servants to create a home that welcomed extended family members and personal friends of the Houstons. Houston would occasionally hire out some of his labor force. The first child born in the Texas governor's mansion was also the last of the Houston children; Temple Lea Houston was delivered on August 12, 1860. This last birth left the 41-year-old Margaret debilitated for almost two weeks, with a watchful Houston constantly by her side.
The Texas Secession Convention passed the Texas Ordinance of Secession on February 1, 1861, effectively becoming part of the Confederate States of America on March 1. Houston, like all other office holders in the state, was expected to take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy. He refused and was removed from office by the Secession Convention on March 16, succeeded by Lieutenant Governor Edward Clark.
Their home in Independence having been leased out to the Baptists, retreating there was not an option. Houston was in poor health, as well as spiritually and financially broken. After a brief sojourn in Nancy's home, and over her objections, the family returned to Ben Lomond in early April.
Sometime during August 1861, Sam Houston, Jr., enlisted in the Confederate States Army 2nd Texas Infantry Regiment, Company C Bayland Guards, sending Margaret into melancholia. She dreaded that her first-born child would never be home again. "My heart seems almost broken ... what shall I do? How shall I bear it? When I first heard the news, I thought I would lie down and die", she wrote to her mother. Houston tried to help out by assuming care of their other children in between his extended visits to Galveston. Her fears seemed well-founded when her son was critically wounded and left for dead at the April 1862 Battle of Shiloh. A second bullet was stopped by his Bible, bearing an inside inscription from Margaret. He was found languishing in a field by a Union Army clergyman who picked up the Bible and also found a letter from Margaret in his pocket. Taken prisoner and sent to Camp Douglas in Illinois, he was later released in a prisoner exchange and received a medical discharge in October.
Lacking the financial means to buy back their Woodland home, they rented the Steamboat House in Huntsville. The 69-year-old Houston was in his final days and physically feeble, requiring the use of a cane to get around. Until daughter Maggie took over as his personal assistant, his wife shouldered the duties. Even so, during this period, he managed to get the Confederate War Department to discharge all draftees from the Alabama-Coushatta tribe, which had distanced itself completely from the conflict.
On July 26, 1863, with Margaret at his bedside reading the 23rd Psalm to him, Houston died. His will named her as his executrix, and named his cousin Thomas Caruthers, as well as family friends Thomas Gibbs, J. Carroll Smith and Anthony Martin Branch, as executors. He had died land rich, but cash poor. The inventory compiled of his estate after his death listed several thousand acres in real estate, $250 cash, slaves (one of whom was Joshua Houston), a handful of livestock and his personal possessions.[Note 2]
Margaret was now a widow with seven of her eight children under the age of 18 and financially dependent on her. She returned to live near her mother in Independence, Texas, swapping land for a nearby property that became known as the Mrs. Sam Houston House. The Texas legislature eventually gave Margaret an amount equivalent to her husband's unpaid gubernatorial salary; nevertheless, in order to afford Sam Jr.'s enrollment at medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, she rented out the Ben Lomond plantation.
Nancy Lea died of an undiagnosed set of flu-like ailments on February 7, 1864, and was entombed on the grounds of her home. Margaret died on December 3, 1867, having contracted yellow fever during an epidemic. Walter Reed would not make his discovery of the cause of yellow fever through mosquito bite until 1900; contamination through contact was the pervading fear in 1867, and prevented Margaret's remains from being interred in a public cemetery with her husband's. She was buried in the ground beside Nancy's tomb at 11 p.m. by her servant Bingley, family friend Major Eber Cave, and her two daughters Nettie and Mary Willie. No funeral service was performed.
Two years after Sam Houston's death, Baylor University president William Carey Crane was commissioned by Margaret to write her husband's biography, allowing complete access to all correspondence and records. Crane was a Lea family friend from Alabama who had little more than a passing acquaintance with "the hero of San Jacinto". His perception of Margaret, however, was that of an extraordinary woman, in many aspects equal to the man she married. He stated that Houston's "guardian angel", as he called her, had set out from the time she met Houston to refine his rough edges and provide a solid foundation for his personal life. That assessment of Margaret's relationship with her husband was echoed over a century later by author James L. Haley, "... Houston trusted the care of his soul to Margaret, that he had no more war to fight within himself, left him with more energy to wage political battle." Ultimately, several of Houston's associates were cooperative with the Crane endeavor, but not everyone was inspired to join the effort. According to daughter Maggie, the author had told her that many valuable documents were destroyed by Margaret in a fit of anger when someone she considered a friend expressed disinterest. Life and Select Literary Remains of Sam Houston of Texas was rejected by the initial publisher, but was eventually published by J. B. Lippincott in 1884.
devotion to their families and church.
Each in her own way greatly influenced
the career of Sam Houston and
--Memorial slab at burial site of
Margaret Lea Houston and Nancy Moffette Lea
After emancipation and Margaret's death, "Aunt Eliza", as the children called her, alternated her time between Nannie's and Maggie's households. When Eliza died in 1898, at her request, she was buried next to Margaret. Nancy's tomb fell to decay over the years, after which she was re-interred in the ground with Margaret and Eliza. There was much discussion during the Texas 1936 centennial about moving Margaret's remains next to her husband's in Huntsville, but the family and various authorities never came to an agreement over it. Not until May 15, 1965, was an historical marker erected in Independence to denote her contributions to Texas history.
"First Lady and the matriarch of one of the most significant families in Texas history." – Texas Historical Commission
The actress Nancy Rennick (1932-2006), who had a leading role in the syndicated adventure television series Rescue 8, played Mrs. Houston in the 1958 episode "The Girl Who Walked with a Giant" of the syndicated anthology series, Death Valley Days, hosted by Stanley Andrews. The story focuses on Margaret's role as a confidant of her husband from his days as president of the Republic of Texas to his time as governor, a post that he resigned in 1861 because he could not in good conscience support the Confederate States of America, of which Texas was a partner.
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