Senator Sam Houston (photo circa 1861 by Mathew Brady).
Note: From time to time I’ll be introducing you to a particular historical letter or letters that I’ve used as source materials for our old penmanship fonts. Up first, the inspiration for Houston Pen.
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If you got together in a room a group of historic Americans who might described as “larger than life,” Sam Houston would stand tall. Citizen of the Cherokee Nation, veteran of the War of 1812. political protégé of Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of San Jacinto, twice President of Texas, U.S. Senator, opponent of Confederate secession—he happens also to have been the only person elected governor of two U.S. states (Tennessee and Texas).
Houston was a skillful politician and statesman—and he wrote a lot of letters.
It’s a little-known fact* that many of those letters were to Native Americans. Unlike some of his contemporaries (ahem, Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar), he sought peace, friendship, and cooperation with the native tribes of Texas. He called these letters “talks,” since they usually had to be read to their recipients. But in them he used language as flowery as the flourish of his penmanship, which no doubt helped him get his point across.
First page of an 1843 letter by Texas President Sam Houston to the Chiefs o the Border Tribes.
I have before me a copy of a draft of a letter Houston sent to the Chiefs of the Border Tribes on 13 February 1843, during his second term as President of the Republic of Texas—a letter urging peace after a time of conflict and suffering during the intervening term of President Lamar.
From the evenness of his script, to his careful choice of words, to several corrections on the pages, you can tell Houston was eager to get the message just right. He changed the first few lines, in fact, from these…
Brothers, The great rains have passed by, and the earth is not now hin [sic] from us by the waters. The sun is again sun [sic], and…
Brothers, The great rains like your sorrows, I hope have passed off, and the sun is again shining upon us. When we all make peace it will be to the heart like the sun-shine is to our eyes. We will feel joy and gladness. Sorrow will no longer fill our hearts. The noise of an enemy will not be near us, and there will be none to make us affraid [sic]. The voices of our women and children will see gladness. They will be heard cheerful as the song of Birds which sing in the green woods of summer.
An 1838 “Talk” by Texas President Sam Houston to the Cherokee Chief John Linney.
Here’s the text of an earlier letter, written to Shawnee Chief John Linney on 28 September 1838 (toward the close of Houston’s first term as President), in its entirety:
I send you the Agent who will read to you my Talk and you may Know that it is true. My words shall not sink in the earth but must stand. If you know of trouble or any that is at any time coming, you must as my brother let me hear of it by a Talk.
The words are writ large and seem mildly condescending, but such was the nature of the times. Then again, Houston’s own script was large and legible, with occasional showy flourishes, much as the man himself came across in dress and actions.
You need look no further than the famous Matthew Brady photo of him—or his famous signature.
Sam Houston’s famous signature
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*A few other little-known facts about Sam Houston:
• He ran away from home as a teenager and joined a Cherokee settlement, where he was adopted by the tribe and given the name “The Raven.” He didn’t return home to his family for a few years.
• In 1827, he became the seventh governor of the Tennessee, a position he resigned a couple years later when his new wife (of two months) left him and made embarrassing public statements about his manhood.
• As a U.S. Senator in the years leading up to the Civil War, Houston opposed division of the Union, a stance whose unpopularity back in Texas likely ruined his consideration as a candidate for President of the United States. In an 1850 address, he paraphrased the Bible with the words “A nation divided against itself cannot stand”—eight years before Abraham Lincoln’s House Divided speech.
For more information about Sam Houston (or any other famous Texan), consult The Handbook of Texas—or consider reading his definitive biography, The Raven.