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  • Writer's pictureDonna Hechler Porter

A Mighty Avalanche Cometh: The Whitehead Home and Sam Houston

A continuing series drawn largely from Laura Powers Marbut and Sarah Powers Thielbar's book David M. Chaney, 1809-1859, Allied Families and Descendants. The book has long been out of print, having been published in 1971 by Heritage Papers of Danielsville, Georgia.


This old home was the scene of many activities, as John S. Whitehead was very influential in early Texas politics. He was a friend of General Sam Houston, then governor of the state, as was his brother, Dr. William Walter Whitehead, one of the earliest licensed medical doctors in southeast Texas.

(Marbut & Thielbar, pg 11, excerpt from Emily Chaney and John S. Whitehead's Home, by their granddaughter Mattie Jeane Crow)


But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.

Sam Houston, April of 1860

As men are want to do, discussions must take place about national matters, especially matters that can so drastically change the course of a still relatively young nation. The Whitehead Home was the scene of at least one of these importat discussions when Sam Houston, and no doubt others, came for a visit thar fateful year of 1860.

Even as early as 1856, not long after the more substantial Whitehead home was built, a fever of war had begun to embed itself in the country. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States in 1860, public excitement all throughout the South, including Texas, rose to critical levels. Governor Houston was quoted as saying at the time, "Mr. Lincoln has been elected President, and as much as I deprecate his success, I must yield to the Constitution."

Sam Houston, of course, is a Texas legend. A friend of Andew Jackson, he fled Tennessee and his governorship there after his marriage to Eliza Allen ended in divorce. The nature of their breakup is still not known to this day, but Houston, who always drank hard and lived hard, drank harder and lived harder than ever before after the breakup of his marriage. After several years living with the Cherokees, he resurfaced in Texas. He led Texians in the Battle of San Jacinto and helped win that state's independence from Mexico. He was Texas' first president and later, after that state joined the Union, he served as Governor.

Mrs. Crow goes on to write that by 1860:

There were two political parties in the state at the time, the Conservatives and the Radicals. Governor Houston knew that Texas would secede and that he would resign. He began to ask his personal friends to use their influence against secession. It was then that he and his aides went from Nacadoches [sic] to the John S. Whitehead home and met with a committee which included, among others, Mr. Whitehead, his brother Dr. Whitehead, and John McKee. The governor tried to persuade these friends to keep Texas in the Union.

Dinner was cooked that day in the old kitchen which, in typical Texas style, was separated from the main house. The menu included roasted Sam Houston, 1861

venison, wild turkey, oysters which had come from Galveston, fruit cake, and egg custard served with champagne. Mrs. Crow, at the time she wrote her article, still had a bottle from which the champagne was poured.

Despite Houston's eloquence and leadership, Mrs. Crow goes on to state that, according to family letters, John Swepson Whitehead could not be budged to push against the secessionists. Instead, he finally stated, "Sam, we have been friends for a long time, and I still value you as a great leader. But I cannot agree on this matter, I go with the Confederacy."

And East Texas, of course, went with the Confederacy.

As Sam Houston was leaving the Whitehead home that day, he supposedly bowed to Emily and said, "Thank you, to the most beautiful hostess, I shall always say, in Texas."

Exactly when the meeting at the Whitehead home took place is not known, but on 1 February 1861, Texas voted at a political convention to secede from the Union. Houston declared Texas once again an independent republic, but he refused to recognize the convention's authority to join the Confederacy. When asked to swear an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, Houston declined and the legislature declared the governorship vacant. The federal government offered aid to prevent his removal, but he refused. His successor, Edward Clark, was sworn in on 18 March.

A month later, on 19 April before a large crowd, Houston issued a dire warning to his fellow Texans:

Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states' rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.

Houston has been remembered by historians as doing everything possible to prevent secession and war, but it is well recognized his first loyalty was to Texas and the south. On 10 May 1861, he announced publicly he would stand with the Confederacy in the war effort.

Four years later, the brutality and truth of his words about what he feared for his beloved Texas and South came to pass as the North did indeed seem to steamroll right through the South and the Confederacy was lost.

John S. Whitehead, early in the war, joined the Mt. Hope Home Guard. While away, Emily managed the plantation, their home, and their children. But, in the end, the mighty avalanche from the North came just as Houston said it would, and the life John and Emily had hoped to build in the Whitehead home was not the one that met them on the other side of the war.


Donna Hechler Porter is a teacher by day, realtor by afternoon, and a writer at all other times. She has been climbing and digging up her family tree her whole life, and she not only writes genealogy books, but she puts her ancestors into her award-winning novels. She lives outside Houston with embarrassingly way too many animals even as she longs for a log cabin the woods. Donna stops at yard sales on a whim, picks up treasures off the side of the road, and has never met a thrift store she didn't like. Feel free to find Donna's books at her website, and be sure to join her author blog Books, Chocolate, & Men in Tricorns and her newsletter for all things writing, A Petticoat & A Pen.


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