Remembering (the Hardly Trivial) Sam Houston: Rare Texana at the Library
This week—April 21, to be exact—marks the 179th anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto. During this fight, a motley band of soldiers, settlers, and patriots defeated the army of General Antonio López de Santa Anna, ruler of Mexico, thereby securing Texas independence.
As any grade school student in the Lone Star State will proudly tell you, the leader of the Texan forces was Samuel “Sam” Houston (1793 – 1836). While a biographical treatment of Houston lies beyond the scope of this writing, it is worth noting that he holds a distinct place in American political history, being the only person to have served as the governor of two states (Tennessee and Texas), a U.S. senator, a U.S. congressman, and the president of a foreign nation—in this case, the Republic of Texas.
Now, at this point you are probably thinking to yourself that the foregoing bit of trivia will suitably regale the guests at your next dinner party. And, likely, it will. However, should it fail to do so, you can always further mention that Houston’s name, in the guise of his name-sake city, was one of the first words communicated from the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” At this juncture, your guests may still be unimpressed, but imagine how Houston himself would have reacted if he had foreknown this event. Without a doubt, this latter historical footnote would have boggled his nineteenth-century, earthbound mind.
Continuing with the minutiae theme, Sam Houston occupies a place in the annals of Texas literature, as well. How so, you ask? The first English-language novel set in present-day Texas was Anthony Ganilh’s Mexico Versus Texas, a Descriptive Novel, Most of the Characters of Which Consist of Living Persons. By a Texian. This book, initially published in 1838, was reissued in 1842 under a new title, Ambrosio de Letinez, or the First Texian Novel. Textually, both editions are quite similar.
Over the course of nearly 400 pages, Ganilh utilizes the events of the Texas Revolution as a backdrop for a rather florid romantic plot and a somewhat heavy-handed critique of Spanish-Mexican society. While hardly a classic—Tolstoy, it is not—the book is noteworthy not only because of its early use of a Texas-based story but also because of its dedication. Yes, you guessed correctly: Ganilh dedicated his novel to “His Excellency, Samuel Houston, President of the Republic of Texas.”
Copies of both versions of Ganilh’s work are part of The New York Public Library’s overall collection of materials related to the history of Texas, covering the earliest European exploration of the region, colonization and eventual statehood, and the present day. One notable subset of these Texana holdings would include items printed in the short-lived Republic of Texas (1836–1845) such as General Regulations for the Government of the Army of the Republic of Texas (1839) and Journal of the proceedings of the General Council of the Republic of Texas (1839).
Also, the collections contain indigenously printed materials from the pre-revolutionary era: for example, Translation of the Laws, Orders, and Contracts, on Colonization, from January, 1821, Up to This Time, in Virtue of Which Col. Stephen F. Austin, Has Introduced and Settled Foreign Emigrants in Texas (1829), printed by Godwin B. Cotten, the second person to establish a permanent printing press in what is today the state of Texas. (One final bit of trivia: the first printing in Texas was issued from a transient press that was set up on Galveston Island in 1817 by Samuel Bangs, an itinerant printer and publisher.)
Of course, the above-mentioned items form only a slight fraction of NYPL’s overall Texana collection, which numbers in the tens of thousands of books, manuscripts, photographs, prints, maps, and other materials. Indeed, the study of Texas history is an undertaking as expansive as the state itself. So this week, kick off your boots, enjoy some barbecue or Tex-Mex, and consider visiting The New York Public Library to read a book or two about America’s 28th state. No doubt , Mr. Houston—soldier, statesman, source of trivia—would heartily approve.