Detail from Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto

Governor Houston’s Life Among the Indians

The year following his failure to secure the contract, Houston spent writing letters defending his acts and denouncing the officials who had been discharged. In addition to the Indian officials, he poured his wrath and denunciation on Colonel Hugh Love, a trader on the Verdigris whom Houston accused of being in league with the Indian Agent to rob the Creeks; Love replied 1 to Houston with some spirited charges against the latter. Stung by the contents of an article appearing in a Nashville paper, in a burst of passion Houston gave to the press of Nashville a most intemperate letter, July 13, 1831, beginning:

“A proclamation! That all scoundrels whomsoever that they are authorized to accuse, defame, calumniate, traduce, slander, vilify, and libel me to any extent in personal or private abuse, and that I will in no wise hold them responsible, in law or honor,” and much more to the same effect. 2

Writing letters, offensive and defensive, through the years 1830 and 1831, did not interfere with Houston’s further activity as the Nemesis of Indian officials who came under his disapproval, and he even attacked General Clark. On June 2, 1831 , a complaint concerning their agent was forwarded to the Secretary of War by John Jolly and a number of other Cherokee. It was witnessed and probably prepared by Houston. December 1, 1831, Jolly addressed President Jackson on the subject of a delegation he had appointed to visit Washington to present certain grievances and other matters of concern to the western Cherokee. The subjects they were authorized to discuss included their shares of the annuities of the whole tribe, and reparation for property destroyed by white people in Arkansas on their removal. One of the matters submitted has particular interest in connection with General Houston:

“Fourth. The delegation are directed to solicit a literal fulfillment of the treaty of 1828; and one point in said treaty is for the Cherokee Nation to be possessed of all lands and improvements within their marked limits (Cantonment Gibson, only, excepted). By treaty with the Osages in 1825, seven reservations were made to certain half-blood Osages and laid off for them on the east side of Neosho River. These lie within the limits of the Cherokee Nation, and so long as they remain the property of individuals it will subject the Cherokees to many troubles and may lead to unhappiness.”

Jolly’s letter was by Jolly and Houston submitted to Captain George Vashon, Cherokee Agent, for transmission to the President. Vashon forwarded it to the Secretary of War with a letter 3 in which he said: “The instructions of the Chief to the delegation are in the handwriting of General Samuel Houston who purchased two of the Osage reserves from Colonel A. P. Chouteau…” Vashon had written the President from Fort Gibson: 4 “I am informed from a source entitled to confidence, that Col. Augs P. Chouteau a trader, & brother to the present Agent for the Osages, has purchased up the Reserves on the Neosho, granted by treaty 2 June 1825, to half breed Osage Children & others and that two of said reserves containing a valuable saline has just been sold by said Chouteau to Gen S. Houston & a Mr. Drenen a Mercht of Nashville, who appears to be connected in trade with Gen H. in the Cherokee country & within 3 miles of this post, and I have good reason to believe they have purchased these reserves from Col. Chouteau with the view & expectation of prevailing on the Governt. to purchase them out at an exorbitant price by availing themselves of an undue influence over the Cherokees to induce them to demand of the Governt. the removal of persons unacceptable to them, under the 3 Article of the treaty of 6 May 1828″ – Vashon added that he believed Houston planned also to have a request made for the removal of Union Mission which he deprecated for “I consider Union Mission most judiciously located as affording the superior advantage of conferring moral instruction to the children of the Cherokees, Creeks and Osages.”

In his letter forwarding to the Secretary of War Houston’s proposition that he be permitted to trade with the Indians as a member of the tribe without conforming to the intercourse laws, Colonel Arbuckle said 5 that Houston was impatient of restraint and had made exceptional remarks concerning what he proposed to do if the Government did not gratify his wishes, which Arbuckle attributed to momentary excitement connected with the newspaper controversy in which Houston was then engaged.

Nathaniel Pryor

Nathaniel Pryor
Nathaniel Pryor

While Houston was undoubtedly a man of passion and intolerant prejudices, that he was also capable of the warmest sympathy and indignation where injustice was done was shown by him during his stay at Fort Gibson, in other ways than with the Indians. Two letters written in behalf of Nathaniel Pryor sufficiently illustrate that fact.

It is incomprehensible that the Administration should have persistently ignored the ability of Pryor as an employe in the Indian Service. Nothing but sheer incompetence and indifference can account for passing him by and appointing the many poorly equipped men who were sent to the West; for no other man probably up to that time had such convincing endorsements as to character and ability by men who knew him and were acquainted with the country and the Indians, and work for which his experience and temperament had peculiarly fitted him. However, on May 7, 1830, Pryor was, by the Secretary of War, appointed sub-agent to the Osage, 6 under P. L. Chouteau, at the munificent salary of five hundred dollars annually. At the time of his appointment he was a sick man trying to perform the duties of sub-agent under a temporary appointment by Governor Clark. Within a month of his appointment, Pryor died at his home at the Osage sub-agency, southeast of where Pryor, Oklahoma, is located and near the creek bearing his name.

Quarrel between Houston & Stanbery

William Stanbery
William Stanbery

Washington was not yet through with Houston and his contract. On March 31, 1832 William Stanbery, a representative in Congress from Ohio was speaking in the House on the subject of discharging the judiciary committee to which had been referred the matter of the removal of a collector in the service of the Government, at Wiscasset. Criticizing the attitude of the Administration for not recognizing the turpitude of the collector and removing him, Stanbery said:

“Was the late Secretary of War [General Eaton] removed because of his attempt fraudulently to give Governor Houston the contract for Indian rations?”

On April 4, Houston, who was in Washington, addressed a letter to Stanbery demanding to know whether he meant to impute fraud to him. At the request of Houston, Cave Johnson another member of the House, conveyed the letter to Stanbery, who answered that he did not recognize the right of Houston to question him concerning the matter. This made Houston furious, according to witnesses, and arming himself with a heavy hickory walking-stick, he waited his opportunity to obtain satisfaction. Stanbery fearing trouble armed himself with a pistol. On the night of April 14, Houston met Stanbery on the street, knocked him down with his cudgel and beat him severely, giving Stanbery no opportunity to use his pistol. The next day Stanbery, who was confined to his bed by his injuries, sent a note to the Speaker of the House reporting the assault “for words spoken in my place in the House of Representatives.”

The House was then obliged to determine what, if any, action should be taken to maintain its dignity and the rights of the members. After a debate, by a vote of one hundred forty-five to one hundred twenty-five, the House decided to issue a warrant for Houston’s arrest, and on April 16 he was brought before the Bar of the House. There then ensued another debate concerning the procedure for the unprecedented situation. That being settled, the trial started on April 19, and lasted nearly a month. Houston was defended by Francis Scott Key. 7 In mitigation of the fierceness of the assault by a man of Houston’s great stature, it was testified that since the year 1815 Houston had suffered from an injury to his right arm received in battle. Affairs on the Verdigris and Houston’s attempt to secure the Indian rations contract figured prominently in the trial, and on May 11, the House found Houston guilty; and as a penalty, by a vote of one hundred eighty-six to eighty-nine, adjudged him guilty of a contempt and violation of the privileges of the House.

Samuel Houston & Fraud

Sam Houston in 1850
Sam Houston in 1850

But affairs at the Mouth of the Verdigris were to receive further notice in Congress. The day the House voted on Houston’s guilt, a resolution was adopted calling for an investigation as to whether the Secretary of War, John H. Eaton, had fraudulently attempted to give to Samuel Houston or to any other person or persons concerned with him, a contract to furnish rations to the Indians emigrating to the Indian country; whether Houston had made a fraudulent attempt to secure such a contract, whether President Jackson had knowledge of such attempted fraud, and whether he had approved or disapproved of it.

The investigating committee began its labors on May 18, and made its report July 5, by a divided vote acquitting the Secretary and Houston of the charge, but without mentioning the President. 8 The testimony was conflicting. It developed from Houston’s letters that were introduced, and he admitted, that he was endeavoring to obtain the contract for subsisting the Indians, which he had previously denied. His principal accuser was Luther Blake, agent at the Creek Agency on the Verdigris, and himself the low bidder for the contract. He testified that Houston had solicited him to withdraw his bid and join Houston and his friends on a higher bid, so they could all make money out of the contract. In his defense, Houston offered Colonel A. P. Chouteau and others as witnesses, to prove that near the Creek Agency on the Verdigris at the time under Blake’s charge, cattle were killed in a dirty pen on the bank of the river, without allowing the carcasses to bleed, and the meat was issued to the Indians in a dirty and unwholesome condition; and other evidence was offered attacking Blake, only slightly relevant to the inquiry.

Though having no official connection with the Government, and declaring that he would accept no appointment, Houston was most persistent in offering suggestions in connection with the Indian Service. While he was in Washington in 1830, in connection with the contract for subsisting Indians, he made a written proposition that he, Colonel Arbuckle and Colonel Chouteau be commissioned to go among the Pawnee and undertake to make peace between them, the Osage and Comanche, so that peace would rest on the prairies and the Santa Fe caravans could travel in safety. Houston stipulated, however, that he did not expect any pay for his services. Two years later, when he was in Washington, attending the Congressional investigation of the attempted letting of the contract for subsisting emigrant Indians, Houston informed the Secretary of War of his intention to go west among the Pawnee and Comanche Indians, and offered to secure for the Government information concerning those tribes. July 16, 1832, the Secretary of War wrote Houston, 9 expressing his confidence in the ability of the latter to secure information along certain lines which the Secretary at some length detailed, and concerning which he requested Houston to report; he also informed Houston that he would be allowed a reasonable compensation for the services he should perform, to be determined upon his return.

On the sixth day of August, a passport was issued to Houston, reading as follows: 10

“I, the undersigned, Acting Secretary of War, do hereby request all the Tribes of Indians, whether in amity with the United States, or as yet not allied to them by Treaties, to permit safely and freely to pass through their respective territories, General Samuel Houston, a Citizen of the United States, Thirty-eight years of age, Six feet, two inches in stature, brown hair, and light complexion; and in case of need, to give him all lawful aid and protection. Given under my hand and the impression of the Seal of the Department of War, at the City of Washington, this 6th day of August, in the year of our Lord, one thousand, eight hundred & thirty two, & of the Independence of the United States the fifty seventh.

John Robb, Acts. Sec. of War.”

Reports from Houston

On December 1, Houston reported from Fort Towson to Mr. Ellsworth at Fort Gibson; again February 13, 1833, he sent from Natchitoches, Texas, another report to Mr. Ellsworth, and at the same time he wrote a letter to President Jackson. To the latter he gave his reasons 11 for believing the time to be ripe for the United States to acquire Texas, which he strongly favored. He also told the President that he expected to make Texas his home.

To the Commissioners at Fort Gibson Houston reported that he had met some of the Comanche near San Antonio de Bexar, 12 and had secured their promise to visit Fort Gibson in May for the purpose of entering into a treaty of peace; they would not be able to travel sooner than that for lack of pasture for their horses. However, nothing seems to have come of this engagement; the Comanche were said to have been influenced by the Mexicans not to go to Fort Gibson.

Houston wrote to the Secretary of War 13 of the difficulties he had encountered due to the extraordinary floods; he submitted an account of thirty-five hundred fifty-two dollars for services and expenses for the period from July 25, 1832, to May 28, 1833. On October 4, the Assistant Secretary of War replied, 14 denying the implication that Houston had been appointed to any office in the Government, and calling his attention to the fact that he had planned to make the trip to the western country on his personal business, and had consented to give only part of his time to securing information desired by the Government. The letter said my knowledge of Spanish which many of the Comanche speak, will enable me to act as such.”

Houston had been charged with designs on Texas soon after his arrival at Fort Gibson in 1829; and President Jackson had been impelled to write him, June 21 of that year:

“It has been communicated to me that you had the illegal enterprise in view of conquering Texas; that you declared that you would, in less than two years, be emperor of that country, by conquest. I must have really thought you deranged to have believed you had such a wild scheme in contemplation; and particularly, when it was communicated that the physical force to be employed was the Cherokee Indians.” 15

Houston evidently counted on his friendship with the Indians in his plans and schemes of conquest in Texas. With the Cherokee he was on terms of warmest friendship which he improved on his arrival at the mouth of the Illinois in 1829 by seeking and accepting membership in their tribe, and by interesting himself in their affairs. He immediately began sedulously to cultivate the Creeks near Fort Gibson, the little store which he maintained near the post lending itself well to this undertaking. The poorly organized Indian service in the west and instances of dereliction of duty on the part of some of the officials, gave great opportunity for Houston to demonstrate his fervent devotion to the Indians; counseling with them on the subject of their wrongs, writing complaints for them, and in his own name making wholesale charges against officials, several of whom were removed, he stood before the Indians as their great friend to whom they were bound by ties of profound obligation.

While the watchful eye of the Government kept the Creeks and Cherokee from participating in the affairs of Texas on anything like an extensive scale, there was frequent evidence that Houston sought in a guarded way to interest them in the state south of Red River.

“It was during the year 1834 that an attempt was made by the Creek Indians to obtain a settlement in Texas. 16 Through some influence, the chiefs, Apothtayoha and Ben Hawkins came to Nacogdoches, and entered into an agreement to procure the lands lying north of that town, which were then under the control of a New York company. A part of the purchase-money was advanced by the Indians, and further steps were taken to complete the title. In the meantime, the report of this project having gone abroad, and been made public by the newspapers, aroused the American settlers, and also the Cherokees. Colonel Bean, the Indian Agent, was consulted; and in a short time the public mind became so exasperated, that the matter was abandoned. Hawkins was killed by the Cherokees.” 17

Benjamin Hawkins was a Creek living in the Cherokee Nation with his wife, a half-breed member of the latter tribe. He was engaged in trading, and in 1832 landed sixty barrels of whiskey on the east side of the Verdigris; he was a friend and business associate of Houston. January 4, 1834, Hawkins executed to Houston a power of attorney to collect from the Government money owing him for the loss of his improvements east of the Mississippi. The collection of this claim was the subject of some correspondence between Houston and the Secretary of War, as late as 1835, after Houston had taken up his residence in Texas. The other Creek chief, “Apothtayoha” mentioned by Yoakum is easily recognized as the venerable Opoethleyahola, to whom Houston was writing in 1837 when one of his letters 18 was intercepted by Government officials, disclosing plans for locating the Creek Indians in Texas. So that the influence spoken of by Yoakum that brought these Indians to Texas was obviously that of Houston.

Foreman, Grant. Pioneer Days in the Early Southwest. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Co. 1926.

Search Military Records - Fold3
  1. Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock), Oct. 30, 1830, p. 3, col. 1.[]
  2. Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock), Aug. 3, 1831, p. 3, col. 2.[]
  3. Vashon to Secretary of War, Jan. 4, 1832. Indian Office, Retired Classified Files; 1832 Cherokee West.[]
  4. Vashon to President Jackson, Sept. 12, 1830. Indian Office, Retired Classified Files; 1830, Cherokee West, Agency.[]
  5. Arbuckle to Secretary of War, July 23, 1830, Indian Office, Retired Classified Files; 1830 Cherokee West.[]
  6. Indian Office, Letter Book 9, p. 5.[]
  7. Francis Scott Key who was born in Frederick County, Maryland, August 9, 1780, was a lawyer and poet and in 1814 wrote the Star Spangled Banner. In 1833 he was in the Indian service engaged under the Secretary of War in investigating the oppression of the Creek Indians in Alabama and made a number of reports on the conditions he found there. [U.S. Senate. Documents, 23d congress, first session, no. 512, vol. iv, 655 ff.][]
  8. U.S. House, Documents, 22d congress, first session, no. 502.[]
  9. Indian Office, Letter Book 9, p. 54.[]
  10. Indian Office, Letter Book 9, p. 122.[]
  11. Yoakum, H. History of Texas, vol. i, 465.[]
  12. Yoakum, H., op. cit., vol. i, 467.[]
  13. Houston to Cass, July 31, 1833, Indian Office, Retired Classified Files; 1834. Creeks West.[]
  14. Indian Office, Letter Book no. 11, p. 219.[]
  15. Yoakum, H. op cit., vol. ii, 307.[]
  16. Yoakum, H. op. cit., vol. ii, 328.[]
  17. “September 15, 1835: F. Thorn, president; T. J. Rush, Secretary. Resolved, that General Houston be appointed to take such steps as he may deem necessary in attempting to arrest the progress of one Benjamin Hawkins, who, we have every reason to believe, is attempting to introduce a large body of Indians from the United States into Texas. Proceedings of Vigilance Committee, Nacogdoches.” – H.Y.[]
  18. Indian Office, Western Superintendency 1837, File A 174.[]

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