July 26, 2022, Jessica Cuevas
July 26th marks the death anniversary of General Sam Houston, and each year on this date, the Sam Houston Memorial Museum opens the Steamboat House to the public.
As an SHSU student, I want to learn more about Sam Houston, and this desire was reinforced even more by the fact that I am the recipient of a generous scholarship provided by SHMM. So, I attended the Museum’s opening of the Steamboat House as part of their reenactment of Sam Houston’s death and the Victorian customs associated with mourning.
Dr. Rufus Bailey had commissioned this home as a wedding gift for his son and daughter-in-law. Its original name was “Buena Vista,” and while it might have offered a “good view,” Bailey’s son and daughter-in-law, according to oral history, weren’t keen on living in it, and they opted, instead, to look for other views. The home, then, was vacant, enabling General Sam Houston make it his home when he returned to Huntsville, following his removal as Governor of Texas.
As the group of visitors approached the home, we were given black ribbons to commemorate the anniversary of Houston’s death. We entered Sam Houston’s room, a mix of a study and a bedroom. Most of the items were period pieces, but we did see Houston’s bed and boots. Seeing these original artifacts, as well as the fact that the clock on the mantel was stopped to the time of his death: 6:15.
We were then gestured into the next room where “Margaret Lea Houston” would tell us about the three phases of mourning she went through after General Sam Houston’s death. During the first phase: Deep Mourning, women would dress in black, from head to toe, including gloves and veils (and, of course, no adornments such as jewelry). During this time, widows were given space, allowed to mourn alone. Once they were ready to talk, they entered the second phase of mourning: Full Mourning. The transition to this phase was marked by moving from the wearing of all black to wearing black with a white collar, along with cuffs and jewelry. During this period, the widow might receive visitors, discuss her sadness with others, and correspond by mail with others.
In the third phase, Half Mourning, women wore lively colors such as lilac, lavender, and light gray, and more elaborate patterns. This is the briefest stage, and it indicated that the widow was ready to rejoin societal interaction.
Men, on the other hand, were not expected to mourn for as long or as elaborately. The black ribbon I received is similar to what men wore during their mourning period.
We were then guided into the next room, the kitchen, where we could see one way that the kitchen could have been designed and what they would have eaten. Soon after, we walked up the stairs into the parlor where the funeral of General Sam Houston was held, and we heard from his “mother-in-law,” Nancy M. Lea, who discussed her feelings about Texas’s greatest hero and her son-in-law. While she initially opposed the marriage, Ms. Lea overcame her doubts, and she came to embrace her son-in-law.
Now, if you are wondering why one of Texas’ heroes had a small funeral, that would be because (1) mail was slow and (2) General Houston was very unpopular at the time, a function of him refusing to pledge an oath of loyalty to the Confederate States of America.
For these reasons, only a select few attended his funeral on July 27th at 4:00 pm. The funeral was indeed held less than 24 hours from his death because back then, their only way to store bodies was to ice them, and in Texas heat, it made it challenging to keep the body in a presentable condition.
Despite him not being as popular and not many people attending his funeral, on August 5, 1863, the Dallas Herald printed an obituary mentioning the great man General Sam Houston was, and encouraging people to put aside their objections to his “failure” to support the confederacy: “Let us not shed tears to his memory due to one who has filled so much of our affections. Let the whole people bury with him whatever of unkindness they had for him.”
With those positive vibes, I allowed myself a very unVictorian-like smile and reflected what a good choice I made attending SHSU.
Postscript: The Steamboat House was originally located a block or so from the Oakwood Cemetery–where Sam Houston is buried! Following Sam Houston’s death, the home deteriorated, and it wasn’t until 1937 that the Museum was moved to its present location and refurbished. If you have not had the opportunity to visit the Steamboat Home on the Sam Houston Memorial Museum Grounds, make plans to do so on July 26th, 2023!