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The Samuel May Williams Home

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Built in the winter of 1839-1840, this house, and the Texas pioneer who inhabited it, are the central focus of this thoroughly researched and well-written study of Galveston's merchant elite—Gail Borden, Michel Menard, Thomas McKinney, and others—a generation of leaders who did much to shape their city and Texas itself.

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1. A Man “Proud in Spirit and Character”

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1.

A MAN “PROUD IN SPIRIT AND CHARACTER”

SAMUEL MAY WILLIAMS used that phrase describing himself in a letter to his wife in 1838, while he was in the United States on business for the new Republic of Texas.1 He was a successful merchant and land speculator and a partner in the Galveston City Company, which had just held its first sale of lots in the island city. The new town attracted numerous immigrants from the United States who flocked to Texas after it had achieved its independence from Mexico in 1836.

Williams was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on October 4, 1795, the eldest son of a ship captain. In his early teens he joined his uncle’s Baltimore commission house as an apprentice to learn bookkeeping and other aspects of international commerce. Sent as super-cargo to Buenos Aires at the close of the War of 1812, the young man remained in the cosmopolitan capital, where he mastered Spanish and French, for several years.2

By 1819 Williams was working in a New Orleans commission house, but in May 1822 he boarded a schooner for Mexican Texas, where his linguistic and clerical abilities were immediately useful. Williams was among the first Anglo Americans to leave the United States for Texas and a fresh start after the 1819 banking panic. The Mexican government offered both large grants of land and sanctuary for the unfortunate victims of foreclosures. Empresario Stephen F. Austin returned from Mexico City in 1823 with his colonization contract and employed Williams as his assistant, an arrangement that continued for more than a decade. In his elegant hand, Sam wrote all of the deeds in Spanish for the “Old Three Hundred,” the name given those pioneers who filled Austin’s first contract. During the empresario’s many absences, the loyal lieutenant supervised Austin’s land business for the subsequent four colonization contracts.3

 

2. The House and the Williams Family

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2.

THE HOUSE AND THE WILLIAMS FAMILY

SAM WILLIAMS RETURNED TO GALVESTON from the United States in June 1839 on board the schooner San Jacinto, one of the six war ships he had acquired for Texas. The citizens honored him with a public dinner and soon after elected him to represent them in the Fourth Congress of the Republic of Texas, the first to meet in the new capital at Austin.1

When Sam left for Austin in October 1839, he entrusted the building of his house to McKinney, who planned an identical structure for himself southwest of the Williams site. Nancy McKinney had moved from Quintana to one of the company-built houses in Galveston in mid-1838, but while Sam was in the United States Sarah stayed with her widowed mother on the lower San Jacinto River to await the birth of a fourth child. Mary Dorothea (Molly) was born in November 1838, before Sam returned. Sarah and the children briefly came to the island by steamboat when Sam came home, but returned to the comfort of her mother’s home when he left to take his seat in Congress.2

 

3. 1841–1858: From Merchant to Banker and the Death of a Founding Father

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3.

1841–1858

From Merchant to Banker and the Death of a Founding Father

“WE REGARD ALL BANKS AS EVIL”—

Houston Telegraph and Texas Register, January 10, 1848

THE ECONOMIC HARD TIMES following the Panic of 1837 continued into the early 1840s. The flow of gold and silver to international bankers forced Texas merchants to accept suspect paper notes, personal IOUs, and the greatly depreciated notes of the Republic of Texas, which sometimes sank to ten cents on the dollar.

To alleviate the shortage of coins in the Republic in 1841, Sam Williams successfully petitioned the Texas Congress for the privilege of issuing small-denomination paper money through the firm. The “Little Bank” circulated 25 and 50 cent notes, and one, two, and three dollar bills redeemable at par. That same year, the firm, the hotel, and even the race track had to be mortgaged to Henry Ho well Williams of Baltimore to cover long-standing indebtedness, and Williams’s brother sent his son to supervise the Galveston commission house. McKinney, a true Jacksonian, did not like banking and sold his interest in the firm in order to concentrate on his land holdings in Travis County and elsewhere. In 1850, the McKinneys moved permanently to their horse ranch on Onion Creek south of Austin, now preserved as McKinney Falls State Park.1

 

4. Sam Williams’s Neighborhood

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4.

SAM WILLIAMS’S NEIGHBORHOOD

IN 1840 A USUALLY CYNICAL BRITISH VISITOR praised the island’s leaders as men of “talent, worth & respectability.” Francis C. Sheridan found some of the local customs strange, however. He met McKinney on board a steamer from Velasco to Galveston and was intrigued by his frock coat, made from scarlet blanket material edged in black, and was astounded to find another man in an identical coat of green. Sheridan called the firm of McKinney and Williams the “Barings (a major British banking house) of Texas,” but was appalled when McKinney used his Bowie knife to pick his teeth.1 Knowing what a European expected of Texans, McKinney obligingly provided colorful copy for Sheridan’s book!

Seven of the business elite, land speculators and merchants, built homes near Williams, as shown on the 1845 William H. Sandusky map. Some, like McKinney, Menard, and the Bordens, were old friends of the Williamses while the others—John H. Sydnor, Samuel Slater, and James Love—scattered on outlots south of Broadway and west of Twenty-fifth Street were newcomers to Texas. In 1839 the Galveston City Company employed Sandusky to remap the city with slight adjustments to Groesbeck’s plat of the previous year.2 The exact date of his placing the tiny houses on the map cannot be determined, and Galveston deed records fail to be helpful because not all lots were recorded immediately. It is important to note that until May 1838 Galveston Island was part of Harris County, while the mainland belonged to Brazoria County. Thus the first deeds to property on the island were recorded in Harris County and later rerecorded in Galveston.

 

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