by BARTEE HAILE
A 97-year-old ex-slave told a newspaper reporter on Mar. 13, 1938 that his “proudest possession” was the memory of his famous former master, Sam Houston.
Jeff Hamilton was born into bondage in 1840 on a plantation in Kentucky. Three years later, his owner moved lock, stock and chattel, which included the little boy, his mother and older siblings, to the Republic of Texas. When Jeff’s original master met an untimely end, his widow replaced him with a real-life Simon Legree.
James McKell drank and gambled away most of his wife’s wealth while making life miserable for the slaves. “We were worked long hours, whipped, cursed and half-starved by our new master,” Jeff wrote in his autobiography published in 1940.
Whenever McKell needed money in a hurry, he sold a slave. Behind in the payments on two barrels of whiskey, he came for Jeff early one morning in October 1853.
The confused child did not understand what was happening, but his mother’s reaction caused him to fear the worst. “I turned my head for one last look at my mother. She was standing in the cabin door, holding her apron to her face and sobbing in a kind of hopeless way.”
McKell took Jeff by wagon to Huntsville, the nearest town of any size, and auctioned him off on the courthouse square. He found a buyer for the terrified boy and waited for the customer, whose reputation was as bad as his own, to return with the cash.
In the meantime, “a large and important looking man drove up in a buckboard buggy drawn by a fine black horse.” It was none other than Sam Houston, U.S. Senator and hero of San Jacinto, and he made the fate of the frightened youngster his business.
Rather than allow the 13 year old to be separated from his mother, brother and two sisters, the two-term president of the Lone Star Republic offered top dollar for the entire family. McKell readily released Jeff but later reneged on the package deal and sold his relatives one by one.
Life at Raven Hill, Houston’s home outside Huntsville, was a far cry from the wretched existence the newest addition had known. “The General and the Missus saw to it that the cabins were kept neat and clean, and that we had plenty of bed covering…good shoes and other clothing. The General did not permit his slaves to be whipped, and if we got sick we had the best care.”
Jeff was Houston’s designated driver during his gubernatorial campaigns of 1857 and 1859. The first was the only election the consummate politician ever lost and the second was his amazing comeback that gave Texas a pro-Union governor on the eve of secession.
In Austin Jeff held down three jobs: office boy, driver and personal servant. He had the run of the mansion and ran important errands for the busy chief executive.
On a dark night a few weeks before the national election of 1860, Jeff spotted two members of the Knights of the Golden Circle peeking in the window of the governor’s office. One of the fanatics pointed a pistol at Houston but held his fire because an aide stood between the assassin and his target. The slave saved the master’s life by sounding the alarm and causing the killers to scatter.
Jeff sneaked into the balcony of the House chamber on Feb. 1, 1861 to hear the prophetic words of heartsick Houston to the convention dead-set on pulling Texas out of the Union. “If you go to war with the United States, you will never conquer her as she has the money and the men. If she does not whip you by guns, powder and steel, she will starve you to death.”
Jeff was present six weeks later for the private reading of a secret letter from the president-elect to the soon-to-be ex-governor. Lincoln promised Houston 50,000 troops to keep him in office and Texas in the Union. After polling four trusted friends, who voted three to one against the proposal, the old war horse remarked, “I have asked your advice and I will take it, but if I were ten years younger I wouldn’t.”
Houston freed his slaves the day in late 1862 that he read a newspaper with the text of the Emancipation Proclamation. “I know I am your friend, and I know you are my friends,” he said. “If you want to stay here and work for me, I will pay you good wages as long as I can.”
Jeff remained and rarely left Houston’s side during his final illness the following July. “I slept on my pallet in his sick room but was up and down nearly all night giving him his medicine.” He watched “the best friend I had ever had or would ever have on this earth” slip away and heard his last words — “Margaret! Margaret! Texas! Texas!”
Jeff stayed on until Houston’s widow died four and a half years later. He settled in Belton in 1889, and the Central Texas community was his home for the next half century.
Jeff Hamilton kept in touch with the Houstons, who always invited him to reunions and other family affairs. He made many public appearances, including the Texas Centennial, before passing away in 1941 two weeks shy of his 101st birthday.
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