Sam's Mother-in-Law by
would stand up comedians do without mother-in-law jokes? |
rocky beginning of their relationship, Sam Houston treated Mrs. Nancy Lea, his
mother-in-law, with all due respect. He must have learned to accept her eccentricities
as well, like the lard incident.
Learning that food in Austin stood in
short supply and because of that, came at a high cost, Mrs. Lea did what she could
to help her daughter Margaret and her older husband get by.
all the canned lard she could find in her part of the state and dispatched it
via stagecoach to the Capital City, where her daughter and son-in-law lived in
the Governor's Mansion across from the limestone statehouse. Freight charges back
then ranged upwards of six cents a pound, significant money in antebellum Texas.
shipped the lard cans C.O.D., Mrs. Lea apparently had not considered how much
it would cost to get that much lard delivered to Austin. (Nor, surely, did she
stop to think of the tongue-in-cheek humor in the concept of sending a supply
of fat to the seat of Texas state government.)
After collecting himself,
Gov. Houston dutifully paid the exorbitant freight bill. As soon as he could,
he sat down to write Mrs. Lea a short note -- one not noticeably full of appreciation.
"Dear Mother-in-Law: Send no more lard for the Lord's sake. Your dutiful son,
It had been some 20 years since by law he had become her "dutiful
son," but Houston and Mrs. Lea had not gotten off to a good start. When Houston
met the pretty, and the much younger, Margaret Lea on a business trip to Mobile,
Ala., he set his cap for her. Barely a month later he proposed marriage. But Mrs.
Lea, already five years a widow, would hear nothing of matrimony for her daughter
at that point in her life. Her lovely 20-year-old Southern belle would not be
marrying an older man from Texas, even if he was its President.
routed the Mexican Army a few years before, Houston seems to have had a hard time
taking no for an answer. After an exchange of love letters, Margaret agreed to
meet Houston the man in Galveston the city. When Houston arrived to join the young
woman he intended as his wife, he instead found Mrs. Lea.
is in Alabama," Mrs. Lea told the hero of San Jacinto. "She goes forth in the
world to marry no man."
Nevertheless, Houston continued to press his suite,
finally marrying Margaret on May 9, 1840 in Marion, Ala. In the bargain, he got
Mrs. Lea, who had stayed in Texas.
story about Mrs. Lea's lard shipment has not been told in print for more than
a century. It came from Mrs. S.L. Shipe, who in the summer of 1905 mailed a reflective
article to the Dallas Morning News. The piece covered her recollections of early
Texas and included the lard anecdote.
Mrs. Shipe and her two sisters had
grown up in Independence,
where Mrs. Lea had settled. As a young girl, she got to meet Houston, his wife
Margaret, and Margaret's mother, the eccentric Nancy.
In her story, Mrs.
Shipe politely labeled Mrs. Lea "picturesque."
"The most lively imagination
could not portray the early pioneer or the first settler more satisfactorily to
the mind's eye than was presented in the person of this original old lady," Mrs.
Shipe wrote of Houston's mother-in-law.
The strong-willed Alabama woman,
Mrs. Shipe continued, "always wore a large handkerchief tied on her head and allowed
her long, heavy suit of black hair, entirely devoid of a gray strand, [to] hang
loosely down her back. Her dress was quaint and remarkably plain; she rarely donned
a bonnet, save when attending church."
In addition to her distinctive
appearance, "this good lady" was known for having a distinctive attitude. "Her
remarks and her ways formed the comedy part of our life at the sleepy little village
Mrs. Shipe particularly remembered something that happened
not long after Texas' secession and the outbreak of the Civil War. She and her
cousin were visiting Mrs. Lea, who escorted them through the back part of her
house toward her garden. Suddenly, she wrote, "what should we encounter in this
room but a coffin…It was very handsome and expensive, but it was a coffin nevertheless
and the sight of it gave us quite a shock."
Noticing the affect it had
on the two girls, Mrs. Lea reached down and opened the lid. Expecting to see a
dead person, the girls recoiled in horror before they realized the ornate casket
held only a supply of coffee, sugar, flour and other staples.
that she bought the coffin at the beginning of the war, lest such an article could
not be procured later and she felt assured she would need it before the war was
over," Mrs. Shipe recalled.
Mrs. Lea, well aware of the fleeting nature
of life, also had a mausoleum built for herself near Independence's Baptist church.
Indeed, before the end of the war, Mrs. Lea got to use her coffin and the mausoleum.
She died on Feb. 7, 1864, having outlived her famous son-in-law by six months.
30, 2007 column
by Mike Cox|
Texas Ranger Tales