Rockford, Illinois, USA
February 05
I'm a regular middle aged guy, living in a regular middle class neighborhood, in a regular middle-sized community in the middle of America. I am an expatriate Texan transplanted to the Midwest, and wondering how I got here, and where I'm headed.

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JUNE 10, 2010 6:48PM

The Political Divorce That Changed History

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Divorce and politics do not mix, a fact made abundantly clear during this political season.  Nevada’s governor, Jim Gibbons, was the state’s first incumbent governor to lose his party’s primary.  His tumultuous divorce might not have been the only reason for his loss, but it was certainly a major factor.  South Carolina’s governor, Mark Sanford, was prohibited from running for re-election due to term limits, but even without that prohibition there is little doubt that his political career is about as dead as Juan Peron’s.  Last week, Americans were hit with another divorce shock when Al and Tipper Gore announced their separation.

It’s not that Americans will not elect a divorced candidate.  They will.  Ronald Reagan is a case in point, the first (and only) divorcee to be elected president.  But Americans do not want politicians to get a divorce while they are still in office.  We want our First Families to be wholesome, happy, and respectable.

All this talk of divorce among our politicians made me think of another divorce, one that resembles those recent ones in South Carolina and Nevada in that it happened while the elected official was still in office.  The one I am thinking of happened a long time ago, however -- 181 years ago, to be exact.

In January, 1829, Tennessee Governor Sam Houston married the beautiful Eliza Allen.   Houston was a hard-living, often rowdy frontiersman who had nearly died from wounds received in combat against the Creek Indians.  He felt just as comfortable living in a military tent or frontier tavern as he did living in a plantation mansion, probably more so.  Houston had known many women – the white trash and mulatto whores of New Orleans, the lonely and unfaithful wives of frontiersmen, and several Cherokee women he met while living among that tribe as a young man.  Eventually, Houston settled down, a little bit, and entered politics.  He owed his political success to his experience in war, when he served under Andrew Jackson and became one of the famous general’s protégés.  It was Jackson’s patronage that enabled Houston to win the governorship of Tennessee, Jackson’s home state.

Eliza Allen, Houston’s new wife, was believed to be a prim and proper Southern Belle from a well established and wealthy family of Tennessee’s landed aristocracy.  Just 20 years old when they married, she was 16 years younger than Houston, but was very poised and intelligent, and she had much more formal education than her new husband.  She was far less experienced in life than her suitor, but not completely so.  In fact, Eliza had been in love before.  A man much closer in age to Eliza named Will Tyree had courted her, and the two had probably secretly agreed to marry one another.  That was a doomed affair, however.  Will Tyree suffered from tuberculosis, and he died at roughly the same time that Houston began to show interest in Eliza.

Houston most likely would have been perfectly happy to remain single, but Andrew Jackson warned him that his political future was at risk if he were to remain unmarried for much longer.  Houston needed a wife.  Eliza needed a husband of stature.  The die was cast.

The couple married on January 22, 1829.  It was one of the grandest social occasions ever to have taken place in Middle Tennessee.  There was a delightful formal dinner, and all of Nashville’s finest citizens offered toasts and tributes to what appeared to be a very happy couple.  Their happiness would not last through the wedding night.

No one knows what happened that night.  Perhaps Houston tried to introduce his new bride to some of the more exotic sexual practices he had learned while living among the Indians, or while visiting the bordellos of New Orleans.  One thing is almost certain, though.  Eliza was probably shocked and disgusted at the sight of Houston’s naked, or near naked body which still showed the ravages of Creek Indian arrows and rifle balls.  Houston’s shoulder was permanently discolored from the infection he suffered from lead shot.  His thigh was severely damaged by a Creek arrow, and that wound continued to discharge fluid his entire life.

Whatever the details of that first night, something went terribly wrong.  Eliza remained strangely quiet the next day as they travelled through the snow to stay overnight with friends outside of Nashville.  The second morning of their marriage, Sam Houston rose early and challenged the young daughters of their host to a snowball fight.  Eliza came downstairs late in the morning.  Their hostess suggested that Eliza should go outside and help her husband in the snowball fight.  The young girls, she said, seemed to be getting the best of him.

“I wish they would kill him.”  The hostess looked at the young bride with astonishment. 

“Oh, don’t be silly,” she said.

Eliza looked back her sternly, and then peered out the window.  “Yes, I wish from the bottom of my heart that they would kill him.” 

Sam and Eliza Houston had been married less than 48 hours.

The couple arrived at their new home a few days later.  There was no fancy governor’s mansion yet.  They moved into a small set of rooms in a Nashville inn.  The comfortable, but cramped quarters were a far cry from what Eliza had been accustomed to at Allenwood, her family’s plantation estate.

On March 18, not quite two months into their marriage, Eliza’s youngest brother Charles died.  The newlywed left her husband to stay with her parents and siblings for the funeral.  She returned to the Nashville inn a week or two later, a distraught and fragile young woman. 

By April 8, Houston had reached his wit’s end.  He confronted his wife, and accused her of loving someone else, perhaps even questioning her sexual innocence.  The next morning, Houston apologized for doubting her, but Eliza welcomed the confrontation.  She used the accusations against her as an excuse to leave her husband and return to her parents’ estate.  Houston wrote a letter to Eliza’s father, imploring him to send her back to Nashville.  In the letter, he stated that he firmly believed in his wife’s virtue, and would, in fact, kill anyone who made salacious claims about Eliza’s previous sexual experience.  Eliza’s father never answered the letter.

By the second week of April, rumors of a scandal involving the governor and his new wife were spreading throughout Tennessee.  Houston rode to Allenwood and fell to his knees, begging Eliza to come home with him.  She refused.  As he returned to his duties in Nashville, he heard stories that he was being burned in effigy throughout the state.  A demonstration was held near the capital denouncing the governor for his dishonorable behavior toward his virtuous and beautiful young wife.  Rumors spread that a drunken Houston was seen wandering the streets of Nashville dressed only in calf skins.

On April 16, Houston resigned as governor of Tennessee.  He closed himself up in his apartment and went on a week-long drinking binge.  All but a few of his friends abandoned him.  (One that remained true and did not abandon him was Davy Crockett.)  On April 23, three months and one day after his wedding, Sam Houston left his Nashville apartment and boarded a steamboat.  He left Tennessee to begin a new life out west.


Sam Houston’s divorce was a history-altering event.  At first, Houston went to live with the Cherokees along the border of present day Arkansas and Oklahoma.  He stayed there a few years and even married an Indian woman.  Little is known of that marriage, or even if there were any children from it.  After a few years, of course, Houston moved on and eventually took command of the fledgling army of the Republic of Texas.  Under Houston’s leadership, Texas achieved independence from Mexico.  That state’s annexation by the United States precipitated the Mexican War, an event that made our nation the unrivaled powerhouse of North America.

What would have happened if Houston’s marriage not ended as it did?  He likely would have remained in Tennessee, and may have ended up as Andrew Jackson’s successor as president rather than Martin van Buren.  Texas, most likely, would not have defeated Santa Ana’s army, and would have remained a province of Mexico.  Would the United States and Mexico still have come to blows without Texas’s independence?  Probably.  But the outcome of that conflict may have been far different, and the spark to ignite it would have come much later.

America’s Civil War may not have happened when it did, either.  One of the main factors leading up to that war was whether slavery would be allowed in the new territories that had been gained after the Mexican War.  In fact, it was that very question that proved the raison d’etre for the new Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln.  If there were no new territories won at the end of the 1840’s, then one of the main causes of the Civil War would not have existed in 1860.

Even if the Civil War still broke out at about the same time that it did, but without the issue of slavery in the new territories of the Southwest, Mexico may have been able to take advantage of the troubles in the United States to consolidate and strengthen its hold on California, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Texas.  When the two rival continental powers finally came to blows, their relative strengths and weaknesses might have been a lot different than they were in 1845.

I’m always a little bit sad when I hear of a couple getting divorced.  I’m glad, however, that Sam and Eliza Houston’s marriage ended.  If it hadn’t, this Texas-born history buff may not have ever been conceived.



*Most of the details of the months following Sam and Eliza Houston's marriage are taken from the biography Sword of San Jacinto:  A Life of Sam Houston, by Marshall De Bruhl.


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Wow. Fascinating story!
sweetfeet, thanks, glad you stopped by!
One of those "Worst Wedding Night" in history stories! This could be a series.
nola, it would be difficult to find a worse wedding night than that one!
Great stuff, as usual. I'm familiar with the war for Texas and the other territories, but didn't know about Mr. Houston's brief and unhappy marriage. As to your own heritage, but might have been conceived, but might just be a Mexican Citizen. I wonder how a strong nation on its border would have changed the direction of the United States.
That was something I knew nothing about. Thanks for the background on Houston and the interestesting what-if speculation.
Steve, I was totally unaware of this story, but it sure is an amazing and significant one! Had you not posted it here I most likely would never have read about it so I thank you for enlightening me once again!!
A very fun read!
Absolutely the best thing to have ever happened for Texas, that is for sure. The Indians had two different names for Houston: The Raven and The Big Drunk....depending on what kind of day he was having, I presume.
Goodness gracious! I think we need more people roaming the streets of Nashville dressed only in calf skins!
Wow! That's a compelling story, and I admit I didn't know much about this history at all. I was just reading about Houston's role in the Mexican-American conflict (through the Senate), so this was doubly interesting. Thanks for sharing!
jimmymac, perhaps my Spanish would be a little better at least.

Abrawang, those "what if's" of history are a fun game, aren't they?

John, glad to fill you in!

Gwool, thank you!

Torman, as you know, Houston remained a true friend to the Indians the rest of his life. He is one of the heroes of American history.

Jeanette, you can start a new fashion trend! FYI. Houston was known for his provocative fashion sense, and was even seen in later years wandering the halls of the US Capitol building dressed in Cherokee garb. His Senate peers were not amused.
Highly rated.

I think the perfect president would have a family that does not distract the president from affairs of state. The extremes are distracting, from messy divorces to family dinners taken at the expense of insulting important allies in the Middle East.

I think Eisenhower had it about right. Mamie was quietly drinking herself silly, while Ike took care of business, not interns, in the Oval Office.

For the sake of future presidential concentration, let's hope that neither Obama daughter decides to give a singing recital in Carnegie Hall.
Saturn, thank you...glad you stopped by!

Gordon, thank you as well. I guess a recital would be OK as long as the newspaper critics aren't invited.
An insightful piece of history. I feel sorry for both Sam and Eliza. But I'm glad you got born.
This is a fascinating account and a story of which I had been unaware. I really enjoy your historical pieces.
Oh, Sam Houston did have a very original fashion sense - he was talked out of wearing a green velvet suit for one of his inaugurations as President of Texas.
His third marriage to Margaret Lea, another southern belle about half of his age - BTW - was successful. Something about the third time being the charm, I guess. She made him stop drinking - no mean accomplishment. The biography that I read, suggested that if he had been a little younger, and interested in the office, of course - that he might have been nominated for the presidency in 1860.
I've been off the Internet a while but I'm glad I had this post to come back.

Being a Texan myself, I've studied Sam Houston quite a bit but I never thought of his divorce (or known the details!) in quite this way. You always have an interesting perspective on historical events. :-)
geezer, you're making me blush.

Bonnie, all that talk about another Catholic on the Court, and I didn't even catch the divorce disconnect.

Stacey,, thank you for your kind words. Glad you stopped by!

Sgt, yes, Margaret Lea must have been quite a lady to make ol' Sam settle down, and even convert him into a Baptist. Yes, he was obviously too old to run for president in 1860, but I could easily see him running as Jackson's successor in 1836 had the catastrophe of his governorship not occurred. He certainly would have sided with Jackson against his then-VP, Calhoun, and would have been a primary candidate to replace Calhoun as the heir apparent.
Kaysong, thank you! Houston was definitely a man whose life was full of drama! His story is much more than just San Jacinto.
Excellent story that I didn't know before. One wonders how many centuries G.W. Bush's actions will affect history.
lefty, I'm not sure GWB's legacy will be any more lasting than that of some other post-war two-termers like LBJ or Reagan in particular. Much depends on what happens during the remainder of Obama's term. Thanks for your comment!
'what-if's' are amusing, but the acquisition of mexican land had more to do with the land-lust, money and guns of the burgeoning american population than the wedding night of any particular leader.
al, my point is that the specific American leader's failed marriage is what enabled Texas independence to take place. I have no doubt that the fight to separate from Mexico in 1835-36 would have ended in utter failure if Houston had not been at the head of the struggle. If he had remained governor of Tennessee, he would not have been in Texas in 1836. His failed marriage was an event with huge consequences.
How interesting, Procopius. Histroy is after all people. What a mystery.
Thanks and love you on the cover!!
Thank you, o'steph!
This is a well-written, thorough report of a little known event in history. Thank you
well, you woulda been born, but you woulda been Mexican. Se habla Espanol?
Fay, thanks, glad you stopped by.

Gabby, I only speak enough Spanish to have a drink and go to the dentist.
Could it be that this was the one night in Big Sam's entire life that - lordy there could be a plethora of reasons, one supposes, including too much libation, a bride too much aglow with unfamiliar, intimidating gentility - that this was the ONE night that Big Sam, try as he might, try try try try try as HARRRRRRD as he might, that Big Sam - ooooooo, the horror the horror - gasp, that Big Sam simply could NOT get that damned, THAT BLOODY DAMNED little sam to rise to the occasion? It happens, I am told...
thanks Mimetalker.

Matt, now that's a possibility I never considered!
Thanks for a great read, will show my boys who are studying and totally facsinated by American history. This perspective on a personal disaster vs a country's growth and success is fascinating. I must google SH, the man behind the city
Wow! What a ripping yarn. I am usually immune to gossip journalism -- Al Gore's marriage does not interest me -- but this is a gothic story with weird details.
The description you give of Sam Houston's scarred and oozing body on his wedding night. Holy Fudd.
Cathy, I'm glad you enjoyed this tale. Sam Houston is a fascinating character on many levels, much more than just his experiences during Texas's fight with Mexico. Years after the event recalled in this post, he was an ardent opponent of the Confederate cause as the Civil War broke out, despite the fact he lived in a very pro-secessionist state. Abraham Lincoln even offered him a commission to be one of the highest ranking generals of the Union army, an offer Houston refused solely due to his advanced age. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was also a friend of the Indians. He is a fascinating subject for the student of American history.

Greg, I'm so glad you stopped by. "Gothic" is a great adjective for that wedding night. It is really a shame we don't know the details of what happened. well, maybe not -- it's fun to speculate on the possibilities. And yes, Houston's many wounds never really healed, and his appearance might have come as a disgusting shock to a protected young woman like Eliza. I also wonder if it is possible she was not so innocent in the ways of love as would have been expected of a woman of her age and rank. Might Houston have figured that out and reacted violently toward her? His letter to Eliza's father certainly dwells on the issue of chastity.
Fascinating. What could Houston have done? Probably nothing that isn't done all the time nowadays. So goes history, possibly for some naughty thing.
Great post. Most enjoyed. BTW, this story is yet another argument against "saving it for marriage". Silly to commit to sexual exclusivity without ascertaining sexual compatibility, no? Just sayin'. :-)
Wow, I was researching Eliza Allen and this popped up, first thing! A great read, and a concise and interesting historical piece.
Sheila, this is your week to find my old posts! Thanks for stopping by and commenting!