Sam Houston left diplomats in the dark

Fearing for their safety and wondering what next to do, two Texas diplomats sent an urgent request for instructions to the president of the Lone Star Republic on Jan. 8, 1844. 

Sam Houston started his second term as independent Texas’ chief executive four days before Christmas 1841, The next month, he learned along with everybody else that the 321 members of the Santa Fe Expedition, his predecessor’s ill-conceived gamble to stake a claim to New Mexico, were languishing in Santa Anna’s dungeons.

The self-styled “Napoleon of the West,” back in power after his disgrace at the Battle of San Jacinto, launched two raids on San Antonio to show the uppity Texans that he was just as big and bad as ever. The first in March 1842 was strictly symbolic with the invaders leaving empty-handed after only two days, but in the encore that September the raiders held the town for a week and took several dozen prisoners with them.

The so-called Mier “expedition” was the understandable but reckless response of President Houston’s critics, who felt the attacks ought to be answered in kind. The unauthorized adventure in December 1842 merely succeeded in increasing the number of Texans under lock and key in Mexico by 250.

In early 1843, Santa Anna released James W. Robinson, one of the San Antonio captives, with a private message for Houston. In her 1976 biography of Samuel May Williams, Margaret Swett Henson described the contents of the communication as “an offer of amnesty … if Texas would return to the Mexican republic.” The old adversary went a step further and “personally guaranteed no troops would be stationed within its borders” and Texas would have a degree of autonomy no other department or state enjoyed.

This offer, quoting Henson again, “was unacceptable to most Texans,” the recipient included, “but in order to gain time, Houston proceeded as if he were willing to consider the plan. In June the president announced a one-year armistice with Mexico, during which time commissioners would meet to draw up a permanent proposal.”

Houston hoped to accomplish two important objectives by stringing along Santa Anna:  first, freedom for the hundreds of imprisoned Texans and, second, annexation of the Republic by the United States.

For his two commissioners or negotiators, Houston selected George W. Hockley and Samuel M. Williams. Hockley was a close friend, or at least believed himself to be, who followed Sam from Tennessee to Texas. After Houston’s election as commander-in-chief of the rebel army, Hockley became his chief of staff and took charge of the artillery at San Jacinto. He went on to serve as secretary of war in the first Houston administration.

Williams, on the other hand, was a pragmatic businessman who supported Houston when their interests coincided, which happened to be most of the time. The politician once presented the ally with an engraved silver spectacles case as a token of his appreciation.

Something else that made both men perfect for the delicate diplomatic mission was the fact that neither favored annexation. The Mexicans, who always did their homework, would know this and therefore be more willing to bargain in good faith with emissaries they did not see as American flunkies.

It was for that same reason that the president did not reveal his entire game plan to Hockley and Williams prior to their departure in October 1842. Had they known Houston was resuming talks with Washington, they may not have accepted the assignment.

Williams in particular was over-optimistic regarding the pace the negotiations would take, confiding in a letter to his wife that he might be home for Christmas. But the Texans wound up spending the holidays in the remote village of Sabinas, the Mexicans’ choice for the sessions not theirs, and began the New Year with no end in sight. Regardless of the century, nothing stays secret for very long in Washington, D.C. When the Mexican ambassador got wind of Secretary of State Abel Upshur’s clandestine campaign to push the annexation treaty through the U.S. Senate, it was only a matter of days before the news reached Santa Anna.

The incensed tyrant felt Houston had stabbed him in the back. He reacted by warning President John Tyler that annexation would mean war and by changing the terms of the talks with the Texas negotiators. There would be no concessions and no armistice.

In his reply to their Jan. 8 appeal for guidance, Houston instructed Hockley and Williams to sign whatever piece of paper the Mexicans put before them if it meant their safe return. They did precisely that knowing full well the damage it would do to their reputations.

Sam Houston could have spared Hockley and Williams the angry public backlash that followed the publication of the document in which they agreed to Texas’ meek return to the pre-revolutionary status quo. He praised them for their efforts under difficult circumstances but stopped far short of telling the whole story.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Upshur was killed in the explosion of a naval vessel on the Potomac and with him went any chance of annexation anytime soon.

Authors George Sessions Perry, Katherine Anne Porter, Alan Drury and Fred Gipson are in Bartee’s book “Texas Entertainers: Lone Stars in Profile.” Order your signed copy by mailing a check for $26.30 to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

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