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Texas | Columns | "Wandering"

The making of a
Texas president

by Wanda Orton
Wanda Orton
As smoke cleared from the battle at San Jacinto 179 years ago, it was the best and worst of times for the new Republic of Texas.

Amid unruliness and confusion, the jubilant Texans had to learn how to handle their newly won independence, how to organize a structured society and replace disorder with order.

Tying up the loose and frayed ends of the infant government was complicated, and the man with the hardest job of all was a lawyer from Lynchburg.

David G. Burnet never asked for the job of president of the Republic of Texas.

When delegates gathered for the independence convention in early March 1836 at Washington-on-the-Brazos, Burnet showed up as a lawyer on a business trip. He figured he could make important contacts at the convention and persuade men with political clout to help him win pardons for two clients in a murder case at Smith Point.

Delegates, however, had other business at hand, such as declaring independence from Mexico and picking the top leaders for the new government. As names of nominees rolled out, Burnet felt the shoulder tap.

"What just happened?" he likely asked himself after delegates elected him president.

When the accused murderer and accomplice found out their lawyer had gone presidential, they must have wondered, "But what about us? What about our pardons?"

William Smith had been convicted of murder in a trial in Liberty while his father, John M. Smith, was nailed as the accomplice.

After Burnet was elected president, Smith & Smith probably wished they had another lawyer. Burnet would be preoccupied running the Republic of Texas - too busy to obtain their pardons.

Here's what actually happened: William went off to war to help Texas win its independence from Mexico, and after Sam Houston succeeded Burnet as president, he granted William a full pardon.

Meanwhile, John M. Smith slipped away to Louisiana, never to be seen in Texas again and never to be pardoned. Matter of fact, Texas authorities never went looking for him.

Now, for the back story:

On Oct. 7, 1835, William shot and killed his brother-in-law, Moses Carroll, during an argument about a slave. William claimed that Moses beat the slave.

But that wasn't his only excuse. William also was upset with Moses for trying to grab more than his share of the land that Big Daddy had set aside for his children.

I've yet to learn why John M. Smith was charged as an accomplice in the murder, but I've read the rumor that Texas rebels were getting back at him for remaining loyal to the Mexican government. He was one of those "Tories."

Anyway, the murder at Smith Point in October 1835 indirectly led to the election of Texas' first president in March 1836. However unintended and accidental his election may have been, the lawyer from Lynchburg took the responsibility seriously.

It wasn't easy, but the birth of a republic never is.



Author's Note:
Subject: President Burnet

This is a column that ran today (May 10, 2015) in The Baytown Sun. Lynchburg, by the way, is especially important to Sun readers. President Burnet's home place bumps up next to Baytown city limits, separated only by a gully that empties into Burnet Bay. Matter of fact, his wife Hannah is buried on the Baytown side of the gully in the Lakewood subdivision. Lynchburg should be part of municipal Baytown - but that's another story. (A long story.)

Smith Point - home of the father-son murder team in this story -- lies on the waterfront at the south end of Chambers County.


Wanda Orton Baytown Sun Columnist, May 10, 2015 column

See
More about Smith Point murder case by Wanda Orton
More "Wandering"
columns
Chambers County Texas 1907 map
Chambers County 1907 map showing Smith Point & Lynchburg (Harris County)
Courtesy Texas General Land Office
Chambers County Texas 1940s map
Chambers County 1940s map showing Smith Point, Lynchburg (Harris County) & Baytown (officially established in 1948.)
Courtesy Texas General Land Office

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