The republic’s second president was no Houston man.
“Texas to the Pacific!” was the rallying cry in 1838 when nationalist Mirabeau Lamar succeeded Sam Houston as president of the young republic. Houston men wanted to annex Texas to the Union; Lamar men wanted Texas to seek her own destiny.
Lamar himself was an oddity. A former Georgia newspaperman who dabbled in politics, he followed friend James Fannin to Texas after his wife died and his brother committed suicide. At the Battle of San Jacinto, he displayed reckless courage leading his cavalry against Mexican forces. The gentleman of the Old South was also well-read, a poet, an oil painter and a fencer.
Vice president under Houston, Lamar handily won election as second president of the Republic of Texas. One of his first acts was to adopt the red, white and blue Lone Star Flag as the national flag of the republic. Next, he began carving a new capital deep in the interior, transforming the village of Waterloo on the Colorado into the city of Austin and moving the government out of Houston.
It was Lamar’s intent that Austin would be one of a string of fortifications serving as a western bulwark against the Comanche nation. He also quickly withdrew the annexation treaty with the United States. Dreams of empire were in the air, but the first order of business was to make Texas master of her own house. “The white man and the red man cannot dwell in harmony together,” Lamar told the Texas Congress. “Nature forbids it.” Houston had always sought compromise with the Texas Cherokees, but Lamar unleashed a force of 500 men that in a series of battles in mid-July 1839 seized Cherokee land around today’s Tyler, Texas. Lamar feared the Cherokees might side with Mexico in a future conflict with Texas, but he also wanted their lands for his supporters.
Texas units also engaged the southernmost Comanches, the Penatekas, in the San Antonio region. The Penatekas sent out envoys saying they wished to talk, and Texas authorities granted their request, provided the Indians returned white captives. On March 19, 1840, thirty-three Penateka chiefs, under Muk-wahruh, met with Texas officials at San Antonio’s Council House. But the only white captive returned was a 16-year-old girl who reportedly had been “utterly degraded.” When Colonel William Fisher declared, under orders, that the chiefs would be held hostage until the Comanches returned other captives, a fight broke out. The militia killed all the chiefs, along with 18 warriors, three women and two children. Three soldiers fell.
The Penatekas released seven captives in the aftermath but burned 13 others alive and then went on a rampage that became known as the Great Raid. Led by Chief Buffalo Hump, some 500 warriors burned and plundered their way through the republic to the Gulf of Mexico, capturing some 1,500 horses. As the raiders returned north, they ran into Texas Rangers and militia at Plum Creek on August 12. Although more than 100 warriors fell in battle, the Texians failed to stop the Comanche march. The Council House Fight and Lamar’s harsh policies fueled continuous warfare between the Comanches and Texians for more than three decades.
Lamar also had his eye to the south, on Mexico. In 1839 he sent Secretary of State Barnard Bee to Mexico City on a French warship with an offer of $5 million to extend the Texas border south (and west) to the Rio Grande. Texas was already close to bankruptcy, but Lamar planned to get the money by way of a French loan.
When Santa Anna rejected the offer, Lamar turned his ear to insurgents in the Rio Grande Valley, rebels who opposed the Mexican dictator and in early 1840 formed the Republic of the Rio Grande, comprising the Rio Grande Valley, the Nueces Strip and the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Coahuila. To Lamar the river nation would be a buffer between Texas and Mexico, one Lamar could annex once the rebels had established their independence. At first, he sent only military supplies and advisers. Later, as commander in chief Antonio Canales Rosillo and the republic’s army under daring vaquero Antonio Zapata began winning battles against Santa Anna, Lamar committed a force of Texian “volunteers” under Colonel Samuel Jordan.
Zapata and Jordan cleared the Mexican army from the Rio Grande Valley, but by April 1840, Santa Anna had regained most of the new republic. Sensing his cause lost and not trusting Lamar, Canales agreed to send the Texians into an ambush. On October 25, 1840, Rio Grande Colonel Juan Molano led Jordan and his volunteers to Saltillo, Mexico, where the Mexican Federal Army waited. Jordan saw the trap at the last moment and, supported by loyal Zapata vaqueros, won the Battle of Saltillo.
Lamar also eyed New Mexico and the rich Santa Fe Trail. Unable to win approval in Congress for an army of conquest, he put together an armed trading expedition. Private Texian investors put up $200,000 in trade goods that filled 21 oxen-drawn wagons. If things did not go well once they reached Santa Fe, the troops were to effect the “consolidation” of New Mexico with Texas. On June 19, 1841, the 321-man expedition marched west in a mood of empire building, but New Mexico Governor Manuel Armijo had the Mexican army arrest the expedition in sections. The Texians were sent to prison in Mexico City.
Lamar persisted. In 1843 he sent a unit of Texian “freebooters” under Jacob Snively north through Comanche territory to disrupt Mexican trade routes. Snively’s unit successfully engaged a Mexican army patrol some 40 miles southwest of present-day Garden City, Kan. But within a few weeks, U.S. Army Captain Philip St. George Cooke, tasked with protecting trade along the Santa Fe Trail, surrounded the Texians along the Arkansas River and forced Snively and company to return to Texas (even if Snively believed, based on territorial claims made by the republic, that he already was on Texas soil). Needing the United States as a counterweight against the ever-present threat of a Mexican invasion, Lamar had no choice but to remain silent over the incident.
Lamar then turned his attention to the Yucatán revolt. Dissatisfied with the central government under Santa Anna, the Yucatecans declared an independent republic in early 1941. As swampland buffered the Yucatán from central Mexico, Santa Anna would have to rely on his navy to retake the region. The Yucatecans paid $8,000 a month to have Commander Edwin Moore and the Texas Navy engage the Mexican navy, preventing Santa Anna from retaking the Yucatán and controlling the Gulf of Mexico.
At the height of his popularity, Lamar was able to pass the Homestead Act of 1839, giving citizens protection from debt never before found in English common law. The law encouraged further emigration from the United States, since a family’s home could not be seized due to debt. Lamar also saw to it that land was used to finance public education. Each county was required to set aside and sell land to fund elementary schools, while 50 leagues were earmarked to raise funds for two universities. Fine-tuned over the years, Lamar’s system remains in place today in Texas.
But Lamar’s nationalist policies eventually came crashing down, and the costs were crippling. The Indians wars alone cost $2.5 million. The French loan of $5 million fell through, after the French minister went home, finding Texians uncouth. Texas was $7 million in the red. Lamar’s dreams of an empire to the Pacific ended when Texians reelected Sam Houston president in 1841. Lamar later became U.S. minister to Nicaragua and Costa Rica, trying to secure additional slave territories for the South. He died of a heart attack in 1859.
Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.