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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Three-Legged Willie Stood Tall

by Clay Coppedge
In front of the Williamson Museum in Georgetown is a statue of the county's namesake, Robert McAlpin Williamson. Dapper in a long-tailed coat, double-breasted vest and cane, he projects all the strength and wisdom we'd expect to see in a namesake. But wait a minute. What's the deal with that leg? Or legs?

The left leg is normal looking enough, but the right one, well, there's two of them. One is pinned back behind his knee, but another one extends to the ground without benefit of a foot. That's an accurate representation of how people of his day saw Williamson, and it's why they called him "Three-Legged Willie."

The odd moniker comes from an illness Williamson suffered as a teenager, when he came down with what he called "white swelling" but was most likely polio. Since the illness left his right leg drawn back at the knee he took to wearing a peg leg that extended from his knee to the ground. A tailor sewed an extra piece of cloth to the knee of his trousers to cover the wooden leg, leaving him with one good leg, one bad leg and one wooden leg. His friends took to calling him Three-Legged Willie.
Robert McAlpin Williamson
Robert McAlpin Williamson
Born in Georgia in either 1804 or 1806, Willie came to Texas in the 1820s under circumstances as hazy as his birthdate, but he left a legacy as durable as his statue. He organized the first three companies of Texas Rangers for the Republic of Texas, served as a judge on an otherwise lawless frontier and as a senator for both the Republic of Texas and the state. He also found time to serve on the Republic's Supreme Court. Three-Legged Willie was no slacker.

Early day settler Noah Smithwick knew and appreciated Williamson, and wrote of him in Evolution of a State: "To Judge Williamson, nature had been indeed lavish of her mental gifts, but as if repenting of her prodigality in that line, she later afflicted him with a grievous physical burden. He would leave a court room over which he had just presided with all the grace and dignity of lord chief and justice, and within the hour be patting Juba for some nimble footed scape-grace to dance."

One time Willie danced so hard he broke his wooden leg and woke up Smithwick in the middle of the night, calling "O Smithwick; come here; here's a man with a broken leg."

Smithwick, a blacksmith, took the fractured limb to his shop and braced it up so that it was as good as new. The Judge, Smithwick wrote, "went on his way rejoicing."

The best-known story concerning Williamson as a frontier judge - and there are many - took place in Shelbyville when he was appointed to judge a mob of men not eager to be judged by Three-Legged Willie or anybody else. The mob's lawyer penned a resolution stating that court simply would not be held that day, and basically dared Williamson to do something about it.

Williamson read the resolution aloud, then asked the defense attorney to cite a law allowing such a proposal. The lawyer produced a Bowie knife and laid it on the bench.

"This is the law that governs here," he said

Willie produced a long-barreled pistol and slammed it down on top of the knife, declaring "This is the constitution that overrules it" and court proceeded without further delay.

Willie told a story on himself concerning a time when he was part of a survey team in present-day Williamson County that encountered a large herd of buffalo. Willie decided he just had to chase one of the big woolies down. Despite warnings from his more prudent companions, Williamson channeled his inner Comanche and galloped his horse in full pursuit of the buffalo.

The chase ended when his horse hit a patch of mud and performed a feat of acrobatics that separated Three-Legged Willie from the four-legged horse. The horse recovered and continued on its way without Willie, who remained stuck in the mud, his leg and crutch hopelessly mired in the muck. His companions eventually got around to rescuing him.

Some accounts point to that story as the inspiration for naming Williamson County in Three-Legged Willie's honor. A more accepted version places the naming in 1848 when citizens in the western end of a sprawling Milam County petitioned the legislature for a new county with offices closer to their settlements than Nashville-on-the Brazos. The legislators agreed to create a new county but weren't sure what to call it.

When one senator suggested "County of San Gabriel" Williamson reportedly stood up and protested against having any more saints in Texas.

The majority then voted to name the county for Williamson. The bronze statue of him was unveiled in front of the Williamson Museum in 2013, giving his likeness a permanent residence in a county where the real Three-Legged Willie never lived.
Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" August 4, 2018 column

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