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Texas | Columns | Lone Star Diary

Sam Houston's
trusted friend
was born a slave

by Murray Montgomery
Murray Montgomery

Before he passed away, my uncle, Carl Montgomery, left me a collection of old photographs that had been taken before 1900 by various photographers in and around Austin, Texas. Uncle Carl had been a wedding, portrait, and commercial photographer in Austin for some 40 years, and at some point he was allowed access to old images that were located in the state library. He copied the originals, enlarged them up to 16x20 inches, and sold them to various financial institutions in Austin.

One of the photographs is supposedly an image of a private stagecoach belonging to Gov. Sam Houston. There are several people in the image and a man wearing a large hat can be seen through the shadows inside the coach. One of the interesting things about the photo is that all the people in the image are white Ė all accept one. On top of the coach is a black man and it is mere speculation as to his identity.

Austin TX - Sam Houston Coach
Sam Houston Coach
Courtesy Murray Montgomery Photo Collection

History tells us that Houston did have a black man working for him during the time that he was governor of Texas; but I have no way of knowing if the black man in the photo is the one who worked for Houston, and I donít even know if the individual inside the coach is the man who led the Texas army to victory at the Battle of San Jacinto.

However, the mystery man in the coach greatly resembles Houston and it stands to reason that if Houston is in the coach, then the black man on top could very well be Jeff Hamilton.

Sam Houston Coach
Photo close-up showing man in the coach and black man on top

According to the Handbook of Texas Online, Hamilton was born a slave on a Kentucky plantation owned by Singleton Gibson in 1840. Gibson moved his family to Ft. Bend County, Texas, in 1843. During this time, Gibson was killed and his widow married James McKell, a man known to be a heavy drinker and gambler who had a reputation of mistreating slaves. After his marriage to the Gibson widow, McKell moved his family and slaves to Trinity County.

In October 1853, the drunkard McKell needed money to pay a whiskey bill and decided to sell Jeff Hamilton. The young boy was taken from his mother and sent to an auction in Huntsville to be sold. But as fate would have it, U.S. Sen. Sam Houston was in town that day and when he saw the crying child, he decided to acquire the youngster from the slave trader.

Houston took Hamilton into his home and the child was treated as a member of the family. He played with the Houston children and, when he grew older, became Houstonís personal valet and driver. It has been written that he had a loving and personal relationship with the Houston family. During this time young Hamilton was taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and was given lessons in religion.

When Houston was elected governor of Texas in 1859, he appointed Hamilton as office assistant. During this time the young man met many historical figures and attended many important events.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Sam Houston refused to take an oath to join the Confederacy and Jeff Hamilton was there. When Houston freed his slaves in October 1862, Hamilton stayed with the family. When Houston died, Hamilton was by his side along with the family.

After Houstonís death, Hamilton moved with the family to Independence where he remained until Mrs. Houston passed away.

It has been written that throughout his life Hamilton was an honorary member of the Houston family and attended all their reunions and special family events. He worked for a while as a janitor at Baylor University and when the female college (Mary Hardin-Baylor) moved to Belton, he moved there as well.

What I found especially interesting was how Hamilton was reunited with his mother after the Civil War. The story goes that she recognized him by an old burn scar on his left leg and she showed him an aged Bible that had been given her by the woman who had been her former owner in Kentucky. The Bible contained notes revealing when Hamilton was born and his fatherís name.

Jeff Hamilton eventually married Sarah Maxey and that union produced 11 children. In later years Hamilton was honored on numerous occasions for his association with leading historical figures during his lifetime. He spoke at many historical events and was interviewed often by reporters wanting to know about his life as a slave.

The man who was born into slavery and went on to become a trusted friend of Sam Houston died in Belton on April 3, 1941. He was buried in the East Belton Cemetery. He is honored by two Texas historical markers; one at his grave site and one on the campus of the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor in Belton.

© Murray Montgomery
Lone Star Diary
August 27 , 2013 column

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