Washington Irving’s Brush with Sam Houston


Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Though Washington Irving never made it down to Texas, his encounter–or brush if you will–with Sam Houston on October 9, 1832, gives the writer an interesting connection with the Lone Star State.

Irving met Sam Houston, then former governor of Tennessee, now living in Indian territory, the future president of the soon-to-be Republic of Texas. Irving had already published A History of New York (1809), and had spent many years on his sketchbook trilogy, The Sketch Book (1819-1820), Bracebridge Hall (1822), and Tales of a Traveller (1824). Irving’s three western narratives were still to be written. Biographies of the prophet Muhammad and George Washington were also in the future.

In the little time they spent together, the grand figure of Sam Houston could have easily inspired Irving’s depictions of other bigger-than-life characters such as George Washington, a persona who would fill five lengthy volumes. And who knows? Maybe Washington Irving inspired Sam Houston in some way as well. As I sometimes jokingly say, Texas seemed to straighten out Sam Houston. Maybe Washington Irving played a part in that, too.

What precipitated the meeting was Irving’s decision to travel westward and then to embark on a buffalo hunt. He had recently returned from seventeen years in Europe. Because Irving was a celebrity at this point, a famous writer, Houston would have been familiar with him. Certainly, Irving was aware of Houston as well.

Historians and literary scholars believe that Washington Irving and Sam Houston spent an evening telling stories around the campfire, though it was probably at “casa de Houston,” or Wigwam Neosho as it was called, swapping stories with lots of people the night before Irving headed out on his buffalo hunt and before Houston left for Texas.

Irving evidently shared a tortoise story that Houston loved, but I have yet to find this story. Fort Gibson was called “a hell hole,” with nightly poker games and heavy drinking. Certainly, Irving and Houston could have easily been involved in such business that night, too. But I’ve never encountered any such evidence about this particular evening.

Famous for “sketching” the scenery of European landmarks and the countryside, as well as scenes from New York, Irving gives us scant words to describe Sam Houston. He records the following in his journal: “Gov. Houston, tall, large, well formed, fascinating man—low-crowned large brimmed white beaver—boots with brass eagle spurs—given to grandiloquence. A large and military mode of expressing himself. Old General Nix used to say God made him two drinks scant” (Day and Ullom 76-77).

I could make some comments here about Houston’s drinking, but I’ll segway into the state bar instead. Sam Houston passed the bar after six months of study (Day and Ullom 20). I’m guessing Irving passed the bar after a similar study period. Perhaps many other connections exists for these two.

Washington Irving died on November 28, 1859, and Sam Houston died on July 26, 1863. So far as I know, we don’t have any letters between them, and I’m not aware of any further meetings. However, Irving did spend time as ambassador to Spain when the Texas Question was at play. He would have kept an eye on what was happening in Texas and what happened to Sam Houston in subsequent years.

Published in: on September 4, 2018 at 5:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

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