Houston is hosting Super Bowl LI, but the real Houston a long way from home

A few blocks from the Super Bowl fan plaza and about a half-hour from the stadium where the Atlanta Falcons meet the New England Patriots on Sunday, a portrait of Sam Houston peers out into the lobby of the Sam Houston Hotel.

The Sam Houston Monument located in Hermann Park in the city’s museum district is another half-hour from Sam Houston Parkway (not to be confused with Sam Houston Tollway). If driving’s not your thing, the Port of Houston Authority operates a Sam Houston boat tour.

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 The man himself is nowhere near the town named for him. Instead, Houston is buried about 70 miles from Houston, in Oakwood Cemetery in Huntsville. It's a fitting contradiction for one of Texas' most celebrated personages, described as a "sometimes volatile and often contradictory man" in PBS' eight-part series "The West."

This week seemed like a good time to do a little research.

Houston was born March 2, 1793, near Lexington, Va., the fifth of nine children. His father, Maj. Samuel Houston, fought in the Revolutionary War and later died when Sam was a teenager. Elizabeth Houston moved her children to Tennessee.

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Farming and shopkeeping did not appeal to Sam Houston, and for a time, he lived with Cherokee Indians on Hiwassee Island in the Tennessee River. He embraced Cherokee culture, learning the language and customs. Chief Oo-Loo-Te-Ka informally adopted him and gave Houston an Indian name, “The Raven.”

Houston wrote a newspaper column in support of Indians in the Arkansas Gazette under the name Tah-lohn-tusky and married his second wife, Tiana Rogers in a Cherokee Indian ceremony. Yet his lifelong friend and mentor would become Gen. Andrew Jackson, later the country’s seventh president, whose signature of the Indian Removal Act in 1830 forced Cherokee Indians west. About 4,000 died on the march known to history as the Trail of Tears.

Houston and Jackson connected decades beforehand. By 1813 Houston had returned to his family and enlisted in the army. He fought under Jackson and was badly wounded at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend during the War of 1812. The two men would become politically and personally linked from then on. One of Houston’s sons was Andrew Jackson Houston; a quote from Jackson adorns Houston’s grave.

Houston served as a Tennessee congressman and in 1827 was elected governor of Tennessee, serving for about two years. He resigned amid rumors of alcoholism and unfaithfulness to his first wife, Eliza, before heading back to Washington to represent the Cherokee Nation. His time in the nation's capital was rocky. In 1832, he thrashed Ohio Rep. William Stanbery cq with a cane on Pennsylvania Avenue after the congressman disparaged him from the House floor. Houston was fined $500 after his trial (Francis Scott Key was his defense lawyer) and headed to Texas.

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Texas worked out. Houston commanded the Texas Army during the Texas War of Independence from Mexico in 1836. He served as the first president of the Republic of Texas and, after Texas was admitted to the United States in 1845, served as a U.S. senator and then governor. He’s the only person to serve as governor and a congressional representative from two states.

Houston was a slaveholder during his lifetime but voted against the expansion of slavery, opposed Texas’ secession and refused to swear an oath to the Confederacy. Deposed by the Texas legislature in 1861 and replaced with a pro-Confederacy leader, Houston retired to his farm in Huntsville, where he died of pneumonia two years later.

His third wife was at his side when he uttered his final words: “Texas, Margaret, Texas.”

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