Shane Westfall's Reviews > Sam Houston and the American Southwest

Sam Houston and the American Southwest by Randolph B. Campbell
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Jan 25, 2009

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The history of the American West is often overshadowed by the romantic mythology surrounding the era. It would be hard to ignore the influence of Sam Houston on many aspects of American history from Tennessee to Washington and of course, his adopted home of Texas. Campbell seems to fall into the trap of many biographers and veer off the course of serious historian, presenting us instead with an easy to read novel presenting his hero as larger than life.
The life of Sam Houston does lend itself to glorification rather easily. Many of the events he was involved in do seem larger than life, yet Houston was by all accounts a complex and controversial man. Campbell seems content to gloss over his flaws. As he states in his hasty conclusion, “Sam Houston’s personal shortcomings, especially his years of heavy drinking, became legendary during his lifetime, but strengths of character and mind more than compensated for his weakness.” This leaves the reader with a very incomplete picture of Houston. Campbell presents Houston as the perennial comeback kid yet brushes over his responsibility for his constant falls, leaving an image of a man inexplicably persecuted.
The New Western History movement may have many flaws in its approach. It can at times strive so hard to focus of the overlooked aspects of existing historiography that is misses the big picture. Campbell’s volume, however illustrates the need for a more inclusive approach. The Mexicans in his story are presented as simplistic foes to be vanquished by our hero. His wives are similarly presented as cardboard Hollywood cutouts. Women have been ignored often in history due to a lack of primary resources. There is more than enough information regarding Margaret Lea to fill in the story a bit, yet despite listing William Seale’s biography of her in his source notes, he leaves her to play the role of the angel who descends to save Sam’s soul and sobriety.
Perhaps Campbell’s most significant contribution to Western historiography with this volume is regarding the debate of what to do with Texas. Texans cling do their place in Western history, despite the geographic realities of being a Southern state. As the author describes the early Anglo settlement of the state, one can certainly feel Turner’s frontier thesis at work. There was the classic Turnerian frontier line and our story revolves around the events that surround these men as they attempt to change the land while conquering the Spanish/Mexicans and controlling the restless natives. He later describes the struggle Texans and Houston face with later uprisings by Native Americans bringing to mind what Ty Cashion points out, “The very un-southern tradition of fighting Plains Indians was already established by the time the state’s Republic era ended.” ,
Campbell does a wonderful job of presenting the achievements of this pivotal figure in American history. He succeeds in making this story an easy to read page-turner, drawing the reader in to the events at hand. Where he fails is presenting only one side of a controversial man involved in complex events. One should expect more from a biography. It should inform the reader of multiple sides of the man and the issues. Despite being compelling to read, Campbell comes across as a modern Stuart N. Lake presenting us with a cross between a movie script and propaganda. He does however strengthen the case for the place Texas holds in Western History earning the volume some place in Western Historiography

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