Sam Houston, the Father of Texas Independence, casts a long shadow over the Lone Star State, but nowhere does his legacy loom larger than in Huntsville, Texas (pop. 35,078), where the military leader and frontier statesman is honored as a towering hero.
Huntsville is home to a 67-foot-tall statue of the tall Texan; the Sam Houston Memorial Museum, located on the homestead where his family lived from 1848 to 1859; the Sam Houston Grave and Monument, where he was buried in 1863; Sam Houston State University, which its namesake helped found as Austin College in 1849; and the General Sam Houston Folk Festival. The town also borders the 163,000-acre Sam Houston National Forest.
“Houston loved Huntsville. It was a place where he didn’t feel ‘up to his knees in alligators,’ as he sometimes did in Austin [the state capital],” says Sam Houston IV, 79, Houston’s great-grandson, who lives in Katy, Texas.
Born in 1793 in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Sam Houston arrived in Texas in 1832 after living among the Cherokee Indians and serving in the U.S. Army and the U.S Congress and as governor of Tennessee. He became a legend in 1836 when his Texas troops defeated the army of Mexican President Santa Anna in the Battle of San Jacinto and won independence for the Republic of Texas. Houston served as the republic’s first president before Texas statehood in 1845.
Three years later, Houston and his wife, Margaret Lea, bought land in Huntsville, a trading post settlement, and built a modest wooden house. Occupied during the years that Houston served in the U.S. Senate, the simple dogtrot house, known as Woodland Home, was the birthplace of four of the couple’s eight children and today is one of two former residences on the Sam Houston Memorial Museum grounds.
The other residence is the Steamboat House, with balconied tiers like a steamboat, where the Houstons lived in 1862 when they returned to Huntsville after Gov. Houston refused to sign an oath of allegiance to the Confederate States of America and was removed from office. Seven months later, he died of pneumonia and was buried in Huntsville’s Oakwood Cemetery.
Museum exhibits include some of Houston’s personal belongings, including his walking stick, swords and sheath, a flintlock pistol and desk kit; the bed he slept in and other household furnishings; a silver tea service made from melted silver coins that he received as a bonus when he was wounded in the War of 1812; and some of his garish clothing, including a green velvet hat with an ostrich plume.
“My favorite is a vest made from the skin of a jaguar,” says museum director Patrick Nolan, 69. “Houston called it his ‘leopard skin vest’ and wore it on ceremonial occasions as a symbol that a leopard never changes its spots.”
Huntsville pays tribute to its most famous resident and Texas frontier history each spring during the General Sam Houston Folk Festival, a celebration that features historical re-enactors, period attire, live entertainment, and pioneer craft and skill demonstrations.
“This is so much more meaningful than reading a chapter in a history book,” says Caroline Crimm, 64, a history professor at Sam Houston State University, whose students demonstrated outdoor, cast-iron cooking, crocheting and beer-making during last year’s event. “The students really understand how hard it was to do simple chores 150 years ago.”
The frontier life and legends of Sam Houston permeate Huntsville, where the iconic Texan’s name is extolled and emblazoned on businesses including Sam Houston Antiques Mall, Sam Houston Plumbing, Sam Houston Optical and Sam Houston Memorial Funeral Home.
“Houston was a somewhat flamboyant character who led a colorful life,” Nolan says. “His pioneer spirit lives on in Huntsville.”