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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Sam's Mother-in-Law

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
What would stand up comedians do without mother-in-law jokes?

Despite the 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.

She obtained 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.

Having 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, Sam."

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.

But having 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.

"My daughter 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.

The 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 of Independence."

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.

"She explained 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.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" >
March 30, 2007 column
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