Sam Houston’s Tennessee Roots

Like some other famous Texans, Sam Houston was first a famous Tennessean.

This essay first appeared in the Daily Times on January 6, 2023 (here).

Sam Houston is a revered statesman in Texas, where I lived before moving to Tennessee a few years ago. He is the namesake of the largest city in the Lone Star State—and the fourth most populous city in the entire country. Texas is so proud of Sam Houston that his name also adorns a state university, a state office building, a state museum, one of the state’s counties, and numerous parks, bridges, streets, highways, and schools.

Houston is one of only two Texans whose statue is displayed in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall (the other is Stephen F. Austin).  The same two figures are the only statues displayed in the Texas state capitol. His gravesite in Huntsville, Texas is marked by an enormous monument sculpted by the famed Italian-born sculptor Pompeo Coppini. The federal government named a military base, a national forest, and a now-deactivated nuclear submarine after Houston. A postage stamp was issued in his honor.

Sam Houston deserves this extraordinary recognition because he is arguably one of the most consequential figures in American history. During the Texas Revolution, while serving as commander of the rebel forces, Houston defeated the Mexican army, fighting under General Santa Anna, at the battle of San Jacinto in 1836. Houston’s stunning victory led to the recognition of the Republic of Texas as an independent nation. 

A decade later, the annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845 triggered the Mexican-American War, as a result of which a defeated Mexico ceded to the U.S. a vast area now comprising the states of California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, and portions of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. Thus, Houston’s victory at San Jacinto ultimately transformed the boundaries—and destiny–of our country. Houston subsequently served with distinction as President of the Republic of Texas, U.S. Senator for Texas, and Governor of Texas.  No wonder Texans regard Houston as the state’s founding father.

But prior to moving to Texas in 1832, Houston was a distinguished Tennessean—and a resident of Blount County. In fact, Houston joined the U.S. Army in 1813 while living in Maryville, serving under General Andrew Jackson and fighting valiantly at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend during the Creek War, in which he was seriously—and nearly mortally–wounded. A protégé of Jackson’s, Houston’s career in Tennessee was nearly as impressive as his later exploits in Texas. Houston practiced law, was elected to Congress, and in 1827 became Governor of Tennessee, making him the only person in American history to be elected governor of two different states.   

I knew nothing about Houston’s Tennessee roots until 2019, when—still living in Texas—my wife and I were exploring East Tennessee by car and happened to stop at the Maryville City Hall to look at the imposing statue on the corner of West Broadway and Route 321. I was astonished to learn that Sam Houston grew up in Blount County and is still regarded as a local hero. In addition to the magnificent memorial in front of the Maryville City Hall, erected in 2016, a marker in Houston’s honor was installed in front of the Blount County Courthouse in 1928 by the Mary Blount Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Plaques commemorating Houston’s activities appear at various places in Maryville, including the corner of Broadway and Cusick.

The largest—and possibly most overlooked—local tribute to Houston is the Sam Houston Historic Schoolhouse in Maryville, a restoration of the structure where Houston taught school in 1812. It’s off the beaten path, but worth the effort to visit.

Born in Virginia, Houston moved to Maryville with his family after his father died in 1807. Although he received little formal education, Houston was a voracious reader of classical literature, and in particular the Iliad, which he reputedly could quote from memory.As a youth, he rebelled at farm work or clerking at the general storeand ran away to live with the Cherokees. It was Houston’s love of books and dislike of conventional work, combined with a need to earn money to satisfy his debts, that prompted Houston to commence instruction-by-subscription in a one-room schoolhouse in Maryville. He taught for only one year, before he joined the army, but the museum adjacent to the historic schoolhouse focuses on the entirety of Houston’s enormous legacy, not just his brief tenure teaching multiple grades simultaneously in the remote, log cabin-like schoolhouse.

Every Blount County resident, especially children, should visit the historic schoolhouse and museum to better understand the character and background of Sam Houston, truly one of the greatest Americans ever.

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