Chronicles of Oklahoma

Skip Navigation

Electronic Publishing Center
Oklahoma Historical Society
Chronicles Homepage
Search all Volumes
Copyright 2001
Purchase an Issue

Table of Contents Index Volume List Search All Volumes Home

Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 16, No. 2
June, 1938

Herbert P. Gambrell

Page 197

One need not be a regular attendant on the annual meetings of historical bodies to appreciate the futility of a stranger's undertaking to lecture any group of historically-minded people on the history of their own region. My observation is that when a visitor tries to tell Texans about the history of Texas, he not infrequently gets his facts twisted, his interpretations wrong, and—unless he be a skillful broken-field runner—he manages to step squarely upon the toes of someone's grandfather. Profiting by vicarious experience, I admit without argument that I know nothing of Oklahoma history and I respectfully decline to demonstrate my ignorance. Discretion being the better part of valor, I aim to discuss a matter that few Texans and probably no Oklahomans know anything about. It may put you to sleep, but it will deprive you of the pleasure of catching me red-handed in error.

This is the simple story of a noble dream of some of the founders of the Republic of Texas. It was one of the many lights that failed. Its significance, if it has any, is to be found in speculation upon what might have happened if... The story relates to the founding of the Philosophical Society of Texas.

Its general setting is the infant Republic of Texas, with its 40,000 people and its huge area—of all present-day Texas, plus half of New Mexico, parts of Colorado and Wyoming, and Greer County. If we except San Antonio, which in 1837 and for many years afterwards was a center of Mexican, rather than Anglo-American, civilization, there were two centers of population: East Texas and the lower Brazos and Colorado river valleys. Brazoria, Columbia and San Felipe were typical of the river settlements; Nacogdoches and San Augustine of East Texas. At best these towns were frontier villages containing many "floaters." The typ-

Page 198

ical Texian of the period was not a town-dweller; he was, perforce, a farmer. Roads were bad and communication difficult; isolation was a universal characteristic. There were no schools in the sense that we use the term, and in many communities religious services had never been held. The Republic of Texas was a frontier whose oddly-assorted and unassimilated population differed from that of other frontiers—in so far as it did differ—by reason of the large proportion of men who had been attracted by the abnormal political and military situation.

The Republic of Texas was not yet two years old when the Society was founded. Fifty-nine Texians, sitting in an unfinished gun-shop, had declared independence on March 2 of the preceding year, and a volunteer army had established it on April 21. During the summer of 1836 the first national election had been held, and on the first Monday in October the First Congress had assembled at Columbia. Three weeks later David G. Burnet, ad interim president, gave place to Sam Houston and Mirabeau B. Lamar, constitutional president and vice-president.

Accommodations for the government at Columbia were inadequate, and, on November 30, the Congress selected a new temporary capitol. Fifteen existing towns1 and one projected town contended for the honor. On the fourth ballot, and by a narrow margin, the choice fell on a town that did not then exist—perhaps because it had no enemies. A proposal from the promoters,2 "replete with the most cogent reasons for the selection of the town of Houston"3, won 21 of the 40 votes. President Houston grumbled privately, but officially he approved the bill. Anson Jones thought that it "constituted a perfect 'selling out' of Texas to a few individuals."4

Page 199

The new town, the promoters announced5 three months before the Congress declared it the capital:

Situated at the head of navigation on the west bank of Buffalo Bayou...must ever command the trade of the largest and richest portions of Texas...and when the rich lands of this country shall be settled a trade will flow to it, making it, beyond all doubt, the great commercial emporium of Texas.

They added, for the convenience of travelers:

Houston is distant 15 miles from the Brazos River, 30 miles a little north of east from San Felipe, 60 miles from Washington, 40 miles from Lake Creek, 30 miles southwest from New Kentucky and 15 miles by water and 8 miles by land above Harrisburg...Vessels from New York and New Orleans can sail without obstacle to this place, and steamboats of the largest class can run down to Galveston in eight or ten hours in all seasons of the year...There is no place in Texas more healthy.6

The promoters of the town were the Allen brothers, enterprising New Yorkers. They had reached Texas in 1832 and were counted as old settlers in 1837. Augustus C. Allen wrote the prospectus; J. K. Allen represented Nacogdoches in the First Congress of the Republic. Having failed to purchase the site of Harrisburg, they made virtue of necessity and discovered in the new site, eight miles away, superior advantages.

Augustus C. Allen mapped out on the crown of his stovepipe hat (and later upon paper) streets, squares, etc., and then with a knife that he wore in his girdle, blazed out the pathway of Main street.7

The first lot was sold on January 19, 1837,8 a month and a half after Houston had been designated as the capital.

On April 16 the government, confident that "the offices intended for the reception of the several departments of govern-

Page 200

ment, will soon be completed," boarded the steamer Yellowstone and arrived at the new capital eleven days later, after "groping (if a steamboat can grope) at the rapid rate of one or two miles per hour to the very crown of the 'head of navigation' on the Buffalo Bayou at the city of Houston."9 The buildings were, of course, not ready.

Let us look at the new capital through the eyes of Francis R. Lubbock, recently arrived from New Orleans. The Allens had induced him to locate at Houston and grow rich with the metropolis. Aboard the steamer Laura, he reached Harrisburg without difficulty; but, he says,

No boat had ever been above this place, and we were three days making the distance to Houston, only six miles by dirt road, but twelve by the bayou... We had to rig what were called Spanish windlasses on the shore to heave the logs and snags out of our way... Capitalist, dignified judge, military heroes, young merchant in fine clothes from the dressiest city in the United States, all lent a helping hand. It being necessary to lie by at night, in the evenings we had a good time dancing and frolicking with the settlers on the shore, who were delighted to see newcomers from the States.'

Just before reaching our destination a party of us, becoming weary of the steamer, took a yawl and concluded to hunt for the city. So little evidence could we see of a landing that we passed by the site and ran into White Oak Bayou, only realizing that we must have passed the city when we stuck in the brush. We then backed down the bayou, and by close observation discovered a road or street laid off from the water's edge. Upon landing we found stakes and footprints, indicating that we were in the town tract.

This was about the first of January, 1837, when I discovered Houston...the Laura being the first steamer that ever reached her landing. Wharves were not in Texas.

A few tents were located not far away; one large one was used as a saloon. Several small houses were in the course of

Page 201

erection. Logs were being hauled in from the forest for a hotel...10

That was Houston at the beginning of the year 1837. Among the settlers, speculators and adventurers, representatives of many nationalities and men of the most diversified tastes, interests and pursuits... John K. Allen moved... with the ease and grace of a born leader and diplomat... a man of youthful appearance, slight build, dressed with the most scrupulous care, of cordial but confident air, wending his way from place to place about the town, ever ready to dilate on the rising glories of the 'great commercial emporium' and producing from the green bag which he always carried well filled with titles, papers, deeds to lots, which he would present to any actual settler on condition that he make the necessary improvements.11

At the end of March, 1837, a tourist reached "Houston, more properly called the city of Houston [he added] as no place of a less denomination exists in all Texas," after wading through mud and water ankle deep from Harrisburg. The city consisted of a one-story frame, two hundred feet or more in length, which had just been raised, intended by the enterprising proprietors for stores and public offices; several rough log cabins, two of which were occupied by taverns; a few linen tents which were used for groceries [grog shops]; together with three or four shanties made of poles set in the ground, and covered and weather-boarded with rough splint shingles. All, however, was bustle and animation. —I might say that there was concentrated all the energy and enterprise of Texas; for there were but few improvements making in any other portion of the republic... Persons came pouring in until, in a short time, a floating population had collected of some four or five hundred people... which gave the city the appearance [but surely not the air!] of a Methodist campground...

Flour was selling at $15 to $30 a barrel; chickens at $1 apiece; eggs at $1 a dozen; butter could be had at fifty to seventy-five cents a pound; but excellent beef was available at from two to

Page 202

four cents a pound. Cloth, worth $5 or $6 a yard in the United States, sold for $15 or $20, and $5 boots brought $18 in Houston.

The grocers, who were quite numerous, appeared to do the principal business in Houston... It appeared to be the business of the great mass of people, to collect around these centers of vice, and hold their drunken orgies, without seeming to know that the sabbath was made for more serious purposes, and the night for rest. Drinking was reduced to a system, and had its own laws and regulations... the Texians being entirely a military people, not only fought, but drank, in platoons. Gambling too, was carried on to such a disgusting extent at all times...

In a new country among a population of six or seven hundred persons, where but one-half were engaged in any regular business (and there was not more than this proportion in Houston, unless drinking and gambling may be considered such), riots of all kinds were to be expected...

I do not think I would be authorized to state that there were those in Houston, who made dueling an occupation; but I feel at liberty to say that there were some who seemed to think that there was no better way to employ their time than to lecture upon the principles of honor, to lay down the laws of the pistol, and to let no occasion pass to encourage others to fight.

After observing the deliberations of the Texian Congress, the tourist opined:

If there was anything like statesmanship or business faculties among the members of Congress at the session of which I speak, it surely escaped the observation of myself as well as all others... I have heard more expressions of regret from the really patriotic part of the community that there should be so little talent of any kind among the various officers of government, as well as in the country generally, than upon all other subjects of complaint put together.12

Page 203

Our informant wrote anonymously and perhaps with prejudice. His comments upon the capital and upon the government are of interest chiefly because he reports personal observations.

With the crowd of visitors in the spring of 1837 came one G. L. Lyons, an actor from New Orleans seeking a new field for his thespians. He announced, on April 4, that, convinced that the Houstonians shared his belief that any community would be benefited by a well-conducted theater, he proposed to open here within a month "the first temple dedicated to the dramatic muse in Texas." He returned to the United States, engaged a company, and embarked for Texas. The vessel was wrecked en route, and all but two of the actors were drowned. Houston was not to have a "temple dedicated to the dramatic muse" until June, 1838.13

Protestant preachers were early on the ground. Z. N. Morrell, who described himself as a backwoods Baptist preacher from the cane-brakes of Tennessee, drove his eight-ox team one hundred and sixty miles from his home near the site of Kosse to Houston late in March, 1837, to lay in supplies for his family and neighbors. Late Saturday evening, after swimming his team across the bayou, he reached the "city of tents" where he found "plenty of 'John Barley Corn' and cigars" and some of the supplies he sought. The next morning, he says,

after changing the garb of the wagoner for one similar to that worn in the city, I went out in search of a place to preach. Upon inquiry I was informed that there never had been a sermon preached in the place. It was quite a novel thing then to hear preaching, and some, to enjoy the novelty, and some no doubt with the purest motives, went to work, and very soon seats were prepared in a cool shade on that beautiful spring morning. The sermon was preached to an attentive, intelligent audience.14

By May, Houston had three resident clergymen—all, apparently, practitioners of medicine as well. They, with three visiting

Page 204

ministers, organized the Ecclesiastical Committee of Vigilance for Texas, because they feared that "not only the Christian profession, but the office of the holy ministry, is extremely liable to be brought into great disrepute, and the name of Christ be evil spoken of." These gentlemen proposed to make the life of the renegade, or quack, clergyman a difficult one in Texas.

The Telegraph approved editorially of the purposes of the Ecclesiastical Committee of Vigilance, but protested that "the citizens of Texas, being mostly settlers from the United States and Canada, are neither heathens, infidels, renegades, anthropaphagi, but simply what the Yankee term Americans, and what the Americans and Europeans term Yankees; similar in language, manners, and customs to the citizens of all the new states of the union, and, if differing in any respect, solely in this, that from the peculiar circumstances in which they have been placed, they embrace more of the enterprising and adventurous... We feel confident that no people of the present day are more characterized for a regard for all the social virtues."15

John J. Audubon, the naturalist, visited Houston on Monday, May 15, 1537. He recorded his impressions of the town in his journal:

Houses half-finished, and most of them without roofs, tents, and a liberty pole, with the capitol, were all exhibited to our view at once. We approached the President's mansion, however, wading through water above our ankles... we found ourselves ushered into... the antechamber... muddy and filthy, a large fire... a small table covered with papers and writing materials... camp-beds, trunks, and different materials were strewn about the room. We were at once presented to several members of the cabinet, some of whom bore the stamp of men of intellectual ability, simple, though bold, in their general appearance...

While waiting for the President we amused ourselves by walking to the capitol, which was yet without a roof, and the floors, benches, and tables of both houses of Congress were as

Page 205

well saturated with water as our clothes had been in the morning. Being invited by one of the great men of the place to enter a booth and take a drink of grog with him, we did so; but I was rather surprised that he offered his name, instead of cash to the bar-keeper.

We first caught sight of President Houston as he walked from one of the grog-shops, where he had been to prevent further sale of ardent spirits to the Indians.16

During the summer conditions were considerably improved, but the government was still inadequately housed when fall began. The Hon. Henry Smith, secretary of the treasury, complained on October 1, 1837, that he had been compelled to occupy a temporary shed, as entirely unfit for an office, as it was unsafe for the security of books and papers... Months have elapsed, and instead of being furnished with the anticipated office I am now deprived of the temporary shed.17

He begged, humbly, that the Congress allow his department to use a committee room. Not until October 25, 1837, was a sufficient quantity of chairs for the members of the House of Representatives ordered: a stove had been provided the previous day.18

Houston residents were complaining of "the muddy condition of the streets on the level, about the capitol, and the president's house"19 and rumors regarding the insalubrity of the capital were spreading throughout the Republic.

Persons recently from Houston state that the city represents rather a gloomy appearance and worse in prospect... much sickness, principally fevers... Every place was said to be crowded, and little or nothing to eat,

the Matagorda Bulletin recorded on October 25, 1837. Two years later a Houstonian recalled that during 1837

Page 206

instances have been known when three or four dead bodies have been picked up of a morning in the street, and that sickness and death visited almost every family. This [he concluded] was more owing to the exposed situation of the inhabitants than the unhealthiness of the climate.20

Surely conditions had improved before December 5, 1837, when twenty-six gentlemen from various parts of the Republic met in the capitol to organize the Philosophical Society of Texas. Let us see. The Rev. Littleton Fowler recorded that he rode into Houston on "Sunday morning, November 19th, and preached in the afternoon to a very large assembly." This passage from the Methodist missionary's diary begins hopefully: the Houstonians were perhaps more saintly than they had been in March. But Mr. Fowler continues,

Here I find much vice, gambling, drunkenness, and profanity the commonest. The town is ten months old, and has 800 inhabitants, also many stores, and any number of doggeries.

November 21st. Today the Senate of the Texas Congress elected me Chaplain, to serve the rest of the session...

November 24th. Today I have been listening to the [impeachment] trial of S. Rhodes Fisher, Secretary of the Texas Navy, in the Senate Chamber... [William Fairfax] Gray and [David S.] Kaufman are the counsel for the prosecution. Ex-President Burnet and General Rusk for the defense. Gray opened the trial... He was followed by Burnet at some length and with much bitterness towards the Chief Executive; his speech disclosed a burning hatred for the President. Rusk spoke in a manly style, that was clear, forcible, and full of common sense...

November 25th. The trial of Mr. Fisher was continued today by Mr. John Wharton, in a most furious tirade against President Houston; it was the bitterest invective I ever heard uttered by man. He was followed by Mr. Kaufman... his whole speech was fair and well taken.

November 26th. I preached morning and night in the capitol...

Page 207

November 27th. Steamboat arrived today with 103 passengers from the United States.21

Unfortunately, Mr. Fowler was taken ill the next day, and made no further entries in his diary until December 12. One wishes that we might have had his account of the organization of the Philosophical Society. The two diarists among the founders—Fowler and Gray—appear not to have recorded the meeting on the evening of December 5, 1837. We must depend, therefore, upon the prosaic account of it published in the Telegraph and Texas Register for January 13, 1838.

The Memorial adopted at this meeting is worth reading, not alone for its statement of the aims and purposes of the Society, but because it reflects, as no words of a modern could, the grandoise idealogy of the period:

We the undersigned form ourselves into a society for the collection and diffusion of knowledge—subscribing fully to the opinion of Lord Chancellor Bacon, that "knowledge is power"; we need not here dilate on its importance. The field of our researches is as boundless in its extent and as various in its character as the subjects of knowledge are numberless and diversified. But our object more especially at the present time is to concentrate the efforts of the enlightened and patriotic citizens of Texas, of our distinguished military commanders and travelers—of our scholars and men of science, of our learned members of the different professions, in the collection and diffusion of correct information regarding the moral and social condition of our country; its finances, statistics and political and military history; its climate, soil and productions; the animals that roam over our broad prairies or swim in our noble streams; the customs, language and history of the aboriginal tribes that hunt or plunder on our borders; the natural curiosities of the country; our mines of untold wealth, and the thousand other topics of interest which our new and rising re-

Page 208

public unfolds to the philosopher, the scholar, and the man of the world.

Texas having fought the battles of liberty, and triumphantly achieved a separate political existence, now thrown upon her internal resources for the permanence of her institutions, moral and political, calls upon all persons to use all their efforts for the increase and diffusion of useful knowledge and sound information; to take measures that will be rightly appreciated abroad, and acquire promptly and fully sustain the high standing to which she is destined among the civilized nations of the world. She calls on her intelligent and patriotic citizens to furnish to the rising generation the means of instruction within our own borders, where our children—to whose charge after all the vestal flame of Texian liberty must be committed—may be indoctrinated in sound principles and imbibe with their education respect for their country's laws, love of her soil and veneration for her institutions. We have endeavored to respond to this call by the formation of this Society, with the hope that if not to us, to our sons and successors it may be given to make the star, the single star of the West, as resplendent for all the acts that adorn civilized life as it is now glorious in military renown. Texas has her captains, let her have her wise men.

* * *

Who were the "gentlemen from different parts of the republic" who met amid surroundings which were certainly not conducive to philosophical calm to organize this "society for the collection and diffusion of knowledge"? There were twenty-six22 of them:

MIRABEAU B. LAMAR, vice-president of the Republic,
ASHBE SMITH, surgeon general of the army,
THOMAS J. RUSK, congressman from Nacogdoches,
WILLIAM H. WHARTON, senator from Brazoria,
JOSEPH ROWE, congressman from San Augustine; speaker of the House of Representatives,

Page 209

AUGUSTUS C. ALLEN, founder of the city of Houston,
GEORGE W. BONELL, soldier and surveyor,
JOSEPH BAKER, chief justice of Bexar; a founder of the Telegraph and Texas Register,
PATRICK C. JACK, congressman from Bexar,
W. FAIRFAX GRAY, clerk of the Supreme Court,
JOHN A. WHARTON., of the law firm of Wharton, Pease & Harris, Brazoria,
DAVID S. KAUFMAN, lawyer, of Nacogdoches,
JAMES COLLINSWORTH, chief justice of the Supreme Court, Brazoria,
ANSON JONES, congressman from Brazoria,
LITTLETON FOWLER, Methodist missionary,
A. C. HORTON, of Matagorda,
JOHN W. BUNTON, of Bastrop,
EDWARD T. BRANCH, congressman from Liberty,
HENRY SMITH, secretary of the treasury,
HUGH MCLEOD, adjutant general of Texas,
THOMAS JEFFERSON CHAMBERS, major general of the reserves, Texas Army,
SAM HOUSTON, president of the Republic,
R. A. IRION, secretary of state,
DAVID G. BURNET, former ad interim president of the Republic,
JOHN BIRDSALL, of the law firm of Birdsall & Gazley, Houston.

Like the founders of other institutions of the Republic of Texas—like the founders of the Republic itself—they were young men. Of twenty-two whose ages have been ascertained, only seven were more than thirty-five years of age. Henry Smith, the oldest, was fifty-three; Hugh McLeod, the youngest, was twenty-three. The average age was about thirty-five.23

Page 210

Few of them had been many years in Texas. Only six had arrived before 1832, the year in which began the chain of events which led to revolution.24 Between 1832 and the date of the battle of San Jacinto eleven more—including several distinguished participants in that battle—came. Seven arrived after San Jacinto.25

Although most of the founders were natives of southern states, a majority of the officers elected at the initial meeting were northerners. Five of the members were natives of Virginia; five of Tennessee; three, of New York; three, of Georgia. New Jersey, Maine, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Connecticut, and Kentucky furnished one man each. The birthplace of three I do not know.26

The learned professions—law, medicine, and the clergy—were all represented, and in about the proportion that one might guess: fourteen lawyers,27 four physicians, one clergyman.28 Four of the founders may be classed as farmers;29 two were primarily soldiers;30 and only one was a man of business.31 Him they made treasurer!

As a group they represented a large portion of the political talent of the Republic of Texas. One of our Texas historians, after reading their names, exclaimed: "Why those men were the Republic of Texas!" There were, of course, other men of distinction

Page 211

in Texas in 1837,32 but we can hardly imagine what the history of the Republic might have been without these twenty-six.

The head of every government of Texas from November, 1835, (when the provisional government was created) until February, 1846, (when the first governor was inaugurated) was a member of the Society,33 as were two of the four vice-presidents34 and the first three commanding officers of the Army.35

Ten cabinet positions were occupied by the founders.36 Collinsworth, Irion, Jones, and Ashbel Smith were secretaries of state; Rusk, Lamar, and John A. Wharton, secretaries of war; Henry Smith, secretary of the treasury; Collinsworth and Birdsall,37 attorneys-general.

Five of them—Collinsworth, Jones, William H. Wharton, Ashbel Smith, and Kaufman—served the Republic abroad as diplomatists. Collinsworth, Birdsall, and Rusk were successive chief justices of the Supreme Court of the Republic. Burnet and Chambers had been judicial officers of the State of Coahuila and Texas; Baker and Jack were to be district judges of the Republic, and Jack and Gray district attorneys.

Five (including one president pro tem)38 sat in the Senate: Collinsworth, Irion, Kaufman, Jones, William H. Wharton. Eleven (including two speakers)39 were members of the House of Representatives: Baker, Branch, Bunton, Horton, Houston, Jack,

Page 212

Kaufman, Jones, Rowe, Rusk, and John A. Wharton. Colonel Gray was successively clerk of the House, secretary of the Senate, and clerk of the Supreme Court.

In 1845, Thomas J. Rusk presided over the convention that ratified annexation and drafted the constitution of the State. The next year Anson Jones gave way to Governor Henderson and his lieutenant governor, Albert C. Horton, a founder of the Society. The legislature sent Rusk and Houston to the Senate of the United States. The eastern district of Texas was represented in the House of Representatives by David S. Kaufman as long as he lived. Two of the founders, McLeod and Ashbel Smith, lived to become colonels in the Confederate army. Smith was a founder of the State Medical Association and is sometimes called the father of the University of Texas.

But statistical essays, as President Hoover demonstrated, have a tendancy to tire the American mind. Without delving further into the record, may we not conclude that the founders of the Philosophical Society of Texas did their share toward laying the foundations of the Texas that we know, and that they left their marks on the institutions of the State? One wonders if any other twenty-six Texians of 1837 could have done more than they did. Certainly any small group that included the successive heads of government during a twelve-year period, ten cabinet officers, five diplomatists, five senators, eleven congressmen, as well as the first three chief justices and the first three commanding generals, was no ordinary company.

In his old age, Governor Francis R. Lubbock recalled twenty-seven of the great men of early Texas whom he met when the first session of the First Congress assembled at Columbia in October, 1836. Eleven of them were among the twenty-six founders of the Philosophical Society of Texas.

A portfolio of twelve "Immortal Texans" was compiled in connection with the celebration of the Centennial. It does not appear how the individuals were chosen, but it is interesting to note that of the dozen, six had died before December 5, 1837;

Page 213

one was then absent abroad on public business; the other five were founders of the Society.

But this is enough.

The only moral one can draw from this presentation is that you in Oklahoma have undertaken to do for your State much of the work which the philosophical Society proposed to do for Texas, and you have been wise enough to start the work, as they did, before the pioneers who made the early Anglo-American history of the region had passed from the scene. The Texian dream envisioned by the founders of the Society was not fulfilled. Not until 1897, sixty-one years after San Jacinto, did the Texas State Historical Association come into existence—a volunteer, unofficial body which, despite serious limitations, had done a noble and important work. It is my privilege to bring you greetings from that organization and to wish you godspeed in your work.40

Return to top

Electronic Publishing Center | OSU Home | Search this Site