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February 21st, 2012
Bartee Haile: First governor takes time off for Mexican war

This Week in Texas History: A column

James Pinckney Henderson rode into Austin on Feb. 16, 1846 three days ahead of the ceremony that swapped sovereignty for statehood and certified the ex-diplomat as the first governor of Texas.

Born in the Tar Heel State in 1808, Henderson studied law at the University of North Carolina and became a licensed attorney at 21. Chronic health problems that he never could shake mandated his migration to Mississippi, where in late 1835 he heard about the revolt in Texas.

Although Henderson arrived six weeks too late to fight, he must have made a heck of an impression on the Hero of San Jacinto. President Sam Houston invited the sickly young lawyer to join his cabinet as attorney general, a post he held for barely a month before switching to secretary of state after the premature passing of Stephen F. Austin.

Henderson was sent abroad in 1837 to secure European recognition of the new kid on the North American block and to establish the commercial ties so essential to the survival of the struggling Republic. Basically winging it with little guidance from Houston or his successor, Mirabeau Lamar, the one-man foreign service successfully negotiated trade agreements with England and France and persuaded both powers to acknowledge Lone Star independence.

While in Paris, Henderson met a Philadelphia socialite with an extraordinary head on her shoulders. Frances Cox was fluent in as many as two dozen languages, played the piano and harp and was sufficiently versed in the law to run her future husband’s office during his frequent absences. They married in London in October 1839, and the following year set up housekeeping in Texas.

Kenneth Anderson, last vice-president of the Republic and Henderson’s law partner, was considered a cinch for governor in the summer of 1845. But after the sudden death of the front-runner on Jul. 3, his backers settled on Henderson, whose name had never appeared on a ballot, as a suitable substitute. Two months of begging and pleading wore down his resistance, and he reluctantly announced his candidacy in early September.

The Dec. 15 election was just seven weeks away, when Henderson finally drew an opponent. Dr. James B. Miller of Fort Bend County was a serious contender having served in Houston’s second cabinet, the Republic Congress and the recent annexation convention. Political prognosticators predicted a tight race, and more than a few gave the physician the inside track.

No one was more surprised by Henderson’s landslide victory than the first-time office seeker himself. Unbelievably lopsided returns from eastern counties like Rusk (271-1), Harrison (747-1) and Nacogdoches (711-0) gave him a four-to-one advantage in the final count.

Two months after Texas officially entered the Union and Henderson was sworn in as the first governor, the inevitable war with Mexico broke out. Gen. Zachary Taylor called for volunteers, and Texans answered with three regiments — two on horseback and one on foot.

In spite of the fact that he was, as usual, ill, Gov. Henderson insisted upon leading his constituents into battle with their mortal enemy. On May 9, obliging legislators granted his request for a fighting furlough, and ten days later he left for the front leaving the lieutenant governor temporarily in charge.

As it turned out, Albert C. Horton could only twiddle his thumbs until Henderson’s triumphant return in November or December — historians disagree on the exact date — because the state legislature adjourned the same week the warrior governor buckled on his sword.

A second term was his for the asking, but Henderson flatly refused and this time stood his ground. He privately endorsed Isaac Van Zandt, a friend and fellow diplomat from the days of the defunct Republic. However, his death from yellow fever ensured the election of Col. George T. Wood, Indian fighter and Mexican War hero.

Henderson moved from San Augustine to Marshall in 1856, and the next year stumped for Hardin Runnels in his gubernatorial upset of Sam Houston. Consistent with the custom of the times, the former governor followed the former president from town to town presenting the opposing viewpoint after each and every speech.

During the campaign, Henderson lost a second law partner and Texas a U.S. Senator with the shocking suicide of Thomas Rusk. On Nov. 9, 1857, state lawmakers passed over a host of ambitious applicants in favor of a respected figure living on borrowed time.

Henderson undoubtedly knew he could not complete Rusk’s term, which had two years to go, but surely figured he would last longer than three short months. Exhausted by the long trip to Washington the following March, he rapidly weakened and died on Jun. 4, 1858 at the age of 50.

Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or

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