When Margaret Lea married Sam Houston in 1840 she no doubt knew he was a well-known Texas statesman, and also was 25 years older than she was. However, she was to be spouse he needed for the challenges yet to come in his public service.
Born in 1819 in Alabama, Margaret Moffette Lea was from a devoutly Baptist family, her father a local and state church official. Her mother Nancy managed the family’s cotton plantation that she had inherited.
After her father died in 1835 mother Nancy moved her unmarried children to Marion, Alabama where Margaret attended a Baptist academy. The school, according to one source, was designed to “instruct genteel young women …[in] proficiency in needlework, dancing, drawing, and penmanship.” When Margaret graduated at age 19 she was considered “accomplished, well-connected and deeply religious.”
In fact she had experienced her new faith while at school, when she was nineteen, and her faith “gave her a sense of purpose, and her religious endeavors pleased her family,” as her biographer described. It was a sense that guided her entire life.
Then in 1839 when Nancy lived in Mobile and hosted a reception one attendee was a Texan named Sam Houston, who was seeking investors for a project. Everyone no doubt knew Houston was the former president of the Texas Republic but once he met Margaret, also at the event, there was an instantaneous attraction.
However Margaret’s family objected to the match since he was known to be a hard drinker who used profanity, and there was also the age difference. They also knew he had been married twice before – to a Cherokee woman and a Tennessee belle. Yet Margaret was not dissuaded and after a correspondence where he proposed marriage, he also gave her a brooch with his cameo on it. The marriage seemed like a challenge since as Margaret’s biographer put it, Houston’s “…worldliness was a strange contrast to Margaret’s innocence.”
They were married in May, 1940 then returned to Texas to honeymoon in the Texas Coast island community of Galveston. Soon after Nancy Lea and other family members followed Margaret and came to live in Texas.
Then in 1841 Houston was re-elected to the presidency of the Texas Republic, introducing Margaret to political campaigning and a new life with a husband in public service. Yet Houston did disprove his reputation for excessive drinking when he agreed to abstain from alcohol and profanity while on the campaign trail, and assured Margaret he would continue to do so.
In 1842 Margaret and Houston’s first child Sam Jr.—one of an eventual eight—was born in their Texas home. Margaret found great happiness as the family also became active in a local church.
When Texas joined the U.S. in 1846 as the 28th state Houston was elected one of the Senators. And though Margaret did not accompany him to Washington she continued to write letters that she sent to him in the Senate. She wrote: “I feel deeply for you, when I think of the tiresome routine that awaits you day after day. How much happier you might be with your little band at home.” Still, he attended church in the capital, telling the minister that he was inspired to do so because of the influence of one of the “best Christians on earth.”
During his term in Washington Houston did return to Texas when Margaret needed surgery. While there among Houston’s many visitors were members of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe who had received a reservation in Texas after they assisted him during the Texas Revolution. He had previously worked with other tribes and had earned their respect and friendship.
Then in 1854 Houston made a public profession of his faith by being baptized, due to Margaret’s influence. Friends in Texas flocked to support him with their presence at the event and later as he joined Margaret’s church. After he was defeated for a second term as Texas Senator he was elected Texas governor in 1859.
Then as the Civil War loomed and many southern states were seceding, Texas joined them. However, Governor Houston was opposed. When the Texas ordinance of Secession took effect in February, 1861 the state joined the Confederacy and office holders were expected to take the oath of allegiance. Houston refused to do so and was removed from the governor’s position, succeeded by the lieutenant governor. At this point Houston’s health was declining as his family settled in the residence known as the Steamboat House in Huntsville.
He died on July 26, 1963 with Margaret at his bedside. When he stirred in bed she knelt by him to hear his last words – “Texas…..Margaret – Margaret.”
She was left a land rich, but cash poor estate and with seven children under 18 completely dependent on her she struggled for many months. She had many concerns trying to pay taxes, as well as coping with her oldest son in the Confederate army. However, the state legislature did award her an amount equivalent the salary that her husband would have received as governor. Still she continued to suffer financially for many months as she adjusted to her new life without her husband.
Margaret herself died in December, 1867, a victim of an area wide yellow fever epidemic, and a segment of Texas history was complete. It might be said that perhaps Margaret’s major contribution to her state history was how she was what one source called a “tempering influence on her much older husband” as she inspired him to maintain sobriety and focus on his work during their marriage.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.