A Brief History of Houston


In 1541, a lieutenant of Spanish conquistador Vasquez de Coronado contacted a party of Caddoan Indians near what is now the border between Texas and Louisiana. The Caddoans called the explorers Teychas, meaning “allies” or “friends.” Finding nothing in Texas to be exploited, the Spanish virtually ignored the southeastern corner of their empire until the late 1600s. But they did give Texas its motto: “Texas means Friend.”

The Karankawa were the largest tribe of native Americans that roamed the Houston-Galveston area. They were also the only inhabitants of what is now east Texas who had learned how to ward off the clouds of deadly mosquitoes that swarmed about the area: they smeared themselves with alligator grease and mud.

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Landing of La Salle, Matagorda Bay, 1685

In 1682, French explorer Sieur René Robert de La Salle navigated the Mississippi River from the Ohio Valley to its mouth on the Gulf of Mexico. In the process he claimed ownership not only of the river but of all the lands and territories within the river’s and its tributaries’ watershed, comprising two-thirds of the present continental United States and some of Texas. Three years later, he sailed west through the Gulf of Mexico looking for the Mississippi again. Overshooting the river by 400 miles, La Salle landed his three ships on the Texas coast at Matagorda Bay in the heart of Karankawa country. Hoisting the French flag over a settlement he named Fort St. Louis for French king, Louis XIV, La Salle claimed the land for France and, thus, the French flag was the first to fly over southeastern Texas.

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Spanish Domination, 1770

The Spanish Viceroy of New Spain, aware of La Salle’s invasion even before the Frenchman reached Matagorda Bay, sent Don Alonso de León, Governor of Coahuila, up the Gulf Coast with 100 soldiers to drive the French from Texas. Finding Fort St. Louis deserted, De León destroyed it so thoroughly that its exact location remained in dispute until the late twentieth century, when the site was rediscovered by archaeologists. Concerned over the danger of possible French intrusion, the Spanish began settling Texas and establishing missions. De León returned to east Texas with a larger party and, avoiding the unhealthy Karankawa coast, erected a mission in the friendlier Caddo country along the Trinity River, but the mission soon failed.

Since no further French threats arose, the Spanish withdrew from eastern Texas again until 1755, when they built the Presidio de San Augustin de Ahumada on the Trinity River as a gathering point for the Orcoquisacs, an Indian tribe identified with the Houston area. Two years later, the Spanish governor rejected any settlement plans of the San Jacinto area and, in 1764, the Presidio was burned. Perhpas these settlements failed because air-conditioning hadn’t been invented yet.

It wasn’t until 1779 that Spain established a permanent settlement in eastern Texas, at Nacogdoches, near the border with the French settlement of Louisiana. Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, however, Spain had a new neighbor in Louisiana: the United States. In 1817, pirate Jean Lafitte established a “republic” on Galveston Island.  With 40 to 100 subjects, Lafitte had complete control of the island.

Two years later, in the wake of an economic panic in the United States, Dr. James Long, a filibusterer (freebooter) who had gained a reputation fighting at New Orleans during the War of 1812, led an expedition into Texas with the intention of establishing an independent Republic of Texas. He established a camp at Bolivar Point. Long’s pregnant wife Jane accompanied him on the expedition, which failed. Long was captured and sent to Mexico City, where he was shot. Jane survived the winter of 1820 and gave birth to the first Anglo child in Texas before returning home to Mississippi. Years later, she returned and settled at Richmond, where she died in 1880. She is honored today as the “Mother of Texas.”

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Mexican Ascendancy, 1821

In 1821, Mexico overthrew the Spanish governor and declared its independence, putting Texas under Mexican control. Meanwhile, Jean Lafitte was driven off the island of Galveston by the United States Navy and U. S. citizen Moses Austin received permission to establish a colony of 300 families in central and eastern Texas. Before Moses could bring the families from the United States, however, he died. The “Old Three Hundred” were brought to Texas in 1824 by his son, Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas.” Some families established settlements in the Houston area at Lynchburg and Harrisburg.

All went well for the new Mexican citizens, who called themselves Texians, until 1830, when, following a series of revolutions in Mexico, the government forbade further American colonization of Texas and prohibited the importation of slaves into the area.

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The Fall of the Alamo, 1836

In June 1835, the disagreements between the Texians and the Mexicans erupted into revolution. On March 2, 1836, a Texas Declaration of Independence was signed at Washington-on-the-Brazos, where David G. Burnet was chosen as provisional president and Sam Houston as army commander, even as Santa Anna’s Mexican troops swept into Texas and put the Alamo in San Antonio under siege.

In what is now called the Runaway Scrape, Texians set out in a desperate rush for the United States border at Louisiana, barely keeping ahead of the Mexican Amy. The settlement at Harrisburg was burned by Santa Anna as the Texas government sought refuge in Lynchburg and Galveston. By April 21, 1836, General Sam Houston was confident that he had assembled enough trained soldiers to mount an attack on Santa Anna’s encampment at what is now called the San Jacinto battlefield. Houston’s small force virtually annihilated Santa Anna’s professional army in 18 minutes. The Mexican state of Texas became the Republic of Texas, an independent nation.

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Capture of Santa Anna, 1836

Santa Anna was not only the Commander in Chief of the Mexican army, he was the President of Mexico. Without his capture, the revolution would not be successful. As Houston’s forces invaded the Mexican encampment at San Jacinto, Santa Anna sped away from the battlefield on Allen Vince’s black stallion, dressed in the plain clothes of a common soldier. Houston sent out search parties for Santa Anna on the morning of April 22. A Mr. Cole discovered Santa Anna hiding in the grass. He was dirty and wet. The search party did not recognize him until he was addressed as “el presidente” by other Mexican prisoners. After Santa Anna agreed that Texas was now an independent nation, Houston sent him to Washington, D.C., to promote the new nation. Santa Anna returned to Mexico and died in obscurity on June 21, 1876.

You’ll notice Sam Houston sitting under a large tree with a wounded leg. During the battle, Houston’s horse, Saracen, was shot beneath him, and Houston was wounded severely just above the right ankle.

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Houston, Capital of the Republic of Texas, 1837

Houston, Capital of the Republic of Texas (1837). On August 26, 1836, two developers from New York state, Augustus Chapman Allen and John Kirby Allen paid $5,000 for 6,642 acres near the headwaters of Buffalo Bayou and at the juncture with White Oak Bayou, and named their new town “Houston” after the Republic’s victorious general, who was soon elected President. Two months later, the first Texas Congress chose the Town of Houston as the capital of the Republic of Texas. In 1837, the first Capitol building of the Republic of Texas opened on the corner of Main and Texas avenues, the site of today’s Post Rice Lofts.

The Allen Brothers hired surveyor and newspaper publisher Gail Borden (who later created condensed milk) to lay out a town of 62 blocks. The southernmost street was appropriately named “Prairie.”

At the confluence of Buffalo and White Oak bayous, the Allen brothers built Allens Landing, the forerunner of the Port of Houston. Because Buffalo Bayou was the only stream in eastern Texas which flowed from west to east and not north to south, it was protected from hurricanes and became known as the Highway of the Republic of Texas. By 1840, Houston was shipping mules, cattle, cotton, and sugar cane from the plantations of the Brazos River valley and sending to these same plantation owners the supplies and materials they needed to survive. Because of this waterway, Houston was then and is today a great interior commercial emporium. Despite repeated yellow fever epidemics, the city thrived on cotton, lumber, and trade, even after the Texas government left for the cooler climes of Austin in the Hill Country of central Texas.

As early as the victory at San Jacinto, many Texans intended their Republic to become a part of the United States. On January 25, 1845, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to annex the Republic of Texas in a Joint Resolution, and on December 29, Texas became the 28th state of the union. She had to pay her own debts, but retained the right to become four states. Texas has not been divided; perhaps that’s why people say, “Texas is a whole other country.”

In 1847, Nathaniel Kellum built a house on the banks of Buffalo Bayou with bricks made from clay along the bayou. In that same year, a local census set the city’s population at 4,737, with 607 qualified voters and 622 slaves. The population of Texas was 212,592. There were three classes: farmers, plantation owners (20 or more slaves) and towns people. Today, the Kellum-Noble House is the oldest residence in Houston still standing on its original site. It is located within Sam Houston Park, Houston’s first city park, established in 1899.

Soon after attaining statehood, Houston became a growing rail center with five lines and over 350 miles of track. In 1856, the Texas legislature passed a railroad bill which made Houston, rather than Galveston, the center of the state’s rail system. Galveston, however, successfully prevented Houston from expanding its ocean trade, establishing a rivalry between the two cities that continues today.

The Confederate States of America are not represented in the Chase Building. Jesse Jones’s uncle, M. T. Jones, fought for the North, while Jesse’s father, William, fought for the South. After the war ended, it was never discussed. Nor is it reflected in any of Jesse Jones’s buildings.

By 1861, the Civil War came to Texas as the state seceded from the United States of America and joined the Confederate States of America.  Houston became the military headquarters for the Confederate District of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, but was never invaded. The Battle of Galveston began on December 31, 1862, and ended the next day, with Confederate General John Magruder mounting a force from Houston and retaking Galveston. On September 8, 1863, at the Battle of Sabine Pass, six-foot-tall Confederate Lt. Dick Dowling (1838-1867), with two small gunboats and a garrison of 47 men, disabled and captured two enemy craft and took 350 Union prisoners, turning back the Yankee invasion.

On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and proclaimed the authority of the United States over all Texas and declared slaves free. The anniversary of this event is known today as Juneteenth.

During the war, Houston financier William Marsh Rice ran cotton from Texas to Mexico and Europe, establishing himself after the war as one of the wealthiest men in the state. In fact, Houston emerged from Reconstruction in the 1870s in relatively good financial shape because, as always, Houstonians continued to do business.

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Modern Houston

Modern Houston (1929) illustrates the changing nature of the word “modern.”

On September 8, 1900, a hurricane, the worst natural disaster ever to strike North America, hit Galveston Island, leaving 6,000 people dead and the infrastructure of the island city destroyed.

Four months later, at Beaumont, east of Houston, the Spindletop gusher erupted with such force that it took weeks before the flow of oil could be controlled. Three years later, the Humble Field near today’s Bush Intercontinental Airport came in on 12,000 acres, the largest field in Texas. By 1906, there were more than 30 oil companies headquartered in Houston, along with seven banks and 25 newspapers.

In 1914, the 51-mile Houston Ship Channel was inaugurated, just in time to profit from World War I. When Sinclair Oil built the first oil refinery in the area, the city became home to both the “upstream” and the “downstream” ends of the petroleum industry. Realizing that oil was a product that could be refined into other, more lucrative products, Houston businessmen created what is now known as the Chemical Coast.

During the period of rapid economic growth between 1915 and 1929, the city of Houston also expanded by annexing what had been the country. Wooden frame houses in downtown Houston were torn down and replaced by palaces of business: banks, hotels, office buildings. Wealthy homeowners moved north, south, east and west, constructing grand estates and substantial bungalows along Main Street, Montrose Boulevard, in River Oaks, the Westmoreland Addition, the Heights, Woodland Heights, and the East End. This began a pattern that continues to this day: no home can stand in the path of Houston’s economic expansion and preservation continues to take a back seat to development.

By the time the Great Depression hit the United States, 40 oil companies were operating in Houston, largely protecting the city’s economy from the devastation felt by the rest of the nation. In fact, Jesse Jones put together a coalition of healthy banks which pledged that they would not let any Houston bank fail. This remarkable feat brought Jones to the attention of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who made him chairman of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and U. S. Secretary of Commerce.

At the outbreak of World War II, the Port of Houston was one of the busiest in the nation. During the war, it became even busier, and after the war, many servicemen from other parts of the country brought their families to Houston to live. The city and its population grew with the port and industry. Wool, grain, lumber, cattle, and cotton joined oil to make Houston a place that the nation and the world associated with wild Texas excess. The city did nothing to discourage the idea. On August 3, 1954, Houston threw itself a monster party to celebrate “M-Day,” the day the population of the metro area finally went over one million. Now, 61 years later, Houston is home to more than two million people.

Houston’s captains of industry envisioned a great city and made their dream come true by investing their new wealth in the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston, the Texas Medical Center, the Astrodome, and NASA. By the end of the 1960s, Houston encompassed 450 square miles and was still growing. By the end of the 1970s, people were moving to Houston at the rate of 1,000 a week. In Houston, it seemed, anybody could get rich quick.

In the mid-1980s, instead of rising to $50 a barrel, the price of oil collapsed, and the Houston economy collapsed with it. And, unlike during the Great Depression, banks were not immune. Savings and loan banks in Houston and the nation went bankrupt after deregulation went into effect, and the bottom fell out of the Houston economy. People packed their clothes and drove away, abandoning their homes and furniture. The largest city in Texas, the fourth largest in the nation, was in shock.

Houston emerged slowly and steadily from the bust, older and wiser, and with a more diverse economy. As one author wrote, “It’ll never be that much fun again, but it will never be that desperate again either. The tidal wave of people attracted by the boom has receded, leaving those who really want to be here.”

Today, Houston is a vibrant, successful, diverse, international city with a bright future. As David Baird writes in Frommer’s Texas, “If you had to characterize Houston in a single word or phrase, it would be ‘wide open.’ Economically and socially, Houston is fluid without a rigidly structured society or a controlling business elite. This inclusiveness has brought a steady flow of newcomers to the city from other parts of the nation and from abroad, for whom the city represents the land of opportunity. Many of these immigrants have a certain laissez-faire attitude toward government that is perfectly in keeping with native beliefs. Houstonians have always displayed an inherent dislike for being told what to do. Among urban planners, Houston is famous (or infamous) as the only major U.S. city that doesn’t have zoning, allowing the market to determine land use instead.”

An international citizenry has resulted in cultural diversity; more than ninety languages are spoken here. Our large downtown Theater District is supplemented by community organizations citywide. And there is never a dearth of eating or shopping opportunities. Houston has over 10,000 restaurants in its 10,062-mile Statistical Metropolitan Area and at least six “downtowns” offering unique items from all over the world.

In the fresco, the Port of Houston is represented by a large ocean-going freighter which is a far cry from the behemoths that ply the 51-mile Houston Ship Channel today, and the men loading bags of cotton have been replaced by enormous cranes operated by robots. The Chase Building still dominates the downtown skyline, even though it is no longer the tallest building in Houston. Transatlantic jets have replaced the dirigible and biplane, but Houston still boasts two major airports. And the wooden oil derricks remind us of the beginnings of the “Chemical Coast,” a $15 billion petrochemical complex, second in the world only to the one in Rotterdam.


Walk through Chase Bank’s banking hall into another room, formerly home to walls of teller windows. Today, this large space features a permanent display of Texas Legends lining the outer walls. Following is a description of JPMorgan Chase’s unique collection of portraits of twelve men whose lives are synonymous with the history of Texas.

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James Fannin

Although he had studied at West Point for two years, the military career of James Fannin, Jr., was ill fated. Placed in charge of 500 soldiers at Goliad, he delayed his retreat from the garrison until the Mexican army was closing in. Fannin and virtually his entire force were captured and executed. Coming just two weeks after the fall of the Alamo, the disaster at Goliad cast a dark cloud over Texas’ prospects for independence.

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Sidney Sherman

A successful businessman in Kentucky, Sidney Sherman used his own money to equip a campaign of 52 volunteers who traveled by steamer from Kentucky to Texas, arriving on March 19, 1835. Sherman and his men fought in the Battle of San Jacinto, where they carried the only flag Texans had that day. That flag now hangs behind the speaker’s desk in House of Representatives at the state capitol in Austin. It is Sherman who is credited with the rallying cry, “Remember the Alamo.” He later served as a member of the Texas Congress and as a major general of the Republic’s militia.

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Lorenzo de Zavala

Born near the Mexican city of Merida, Lorenzo de Zavala was the first vice president of the Republic of Texas. Before coming to Texas, he founded several newspapers and practiced medicine. After Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, he served the Mexican Republic as a congressman, governor, and minister to France. When Santa Anna declared himself dictator in April 1834, Zavala denounced the general and moved to Texas. With his vast legislative and diplomatic experience, Zavala helped draft the constitution of the Republic of Texas. His fellow delegates elected him Vice President. He died in November 1836 on his estate, Zavala Point, near today’s Houston Ship Channel and the San Jacinto Battleground.


James Bowie

As a teenager, Jim Bowie participated in the War of 1812. As a knife fighter with a lethal reputation, Bowie carried a large blade that became known as the Bowie knife. During the Texas Revolution, Bowie was assigned the rank of colonel. He arrived in San Antonio with orders from Texas army commander Sam Houston to demolish the Alamo and abandon the city. Bowie decided the fortress must be defended. He was bedridden with pneumonia during the siege and died in the battle that followed.

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Stephen F. Austin

One of the Anglo colonizers of Texas, Stephen F. Austin established a settlement of 300 families at San Felipe de Austin in 1821. Within a few years, his colonies had more than 8,000 residents. His tireless work on the settlers’ behalf earned him recognition as the “Father of Texas.” Austin often sought to reconcile strained relations with Mexican authorities. While petitioning for government reform, he was jailed in Mexico City in 1834. By the time he returned to Texas, his health was shattered and Texas had veered irreversibly toward revolt. He ran unsuccess-fully for the presidency of the new Republic of Texas in 1836 and died in December of that year. He is buried in Austin.


Thomas Rusk

Thomas Rusk came to Texas in 1835 in pursuit of business partners who had embezzled funds from a mining venture. He did not recover his money, but stayed in Texas anyway. He joined the Texas army and later became Secretary of War. He signed the Texas Declaration of Independ-ence, fought alongside Houston at San Jacinto, served as a congressman in the republic, and became chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. After annexation into the United States, which Rusk helped bring about, he was a prime architect of the state constitution. He and Houston were the state’s first U.S. senators.

Benjamin Rush Milam

Benjamin Rush Milam

Benjamin Rush Milam was an empresario like Austin during Texas’ colonial period. He worked to secure Mexico’s independence from Spain and was awarded the rank of colonel in the Mexican army. He experimented with several entrepreneurial ventures, including silver mining and shipping. When General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna established his dictatorship in 1834, Milam was promptly jailed. Upon his escape, he joined the Texas army. In late 1835, Milam was killed as he led an assault on San Antonio. After several days of fighting, the Texans captured the city and set up quarters in a abandoned mission known as the Alamo.

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Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar

A newspaper publisher from Georgia, Mirabeau Lamar moved to Texas in 1835 and enjoyed a dizzying rise to prominence. He joined the Texas army as a private and was commissioned a colonel just before the Battle of San Jacinto. Ten days later, he was appointed Secretary of War. Within two years he was the republic’s second president. Lamar wanted Texas to remain independent and expand its empire to the shores of the Pacific. He preferred using force when dealing with Native American tribes. At his suggestion, the Texas capital was established at Austin. A painter and poet, he set aside public lands to fund schools and universities, earning him recognition as the “Father of Texas Education.”

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Chief Bowles

Principal chief of the Cherokee in Texas, Chief Bowles was born in North Carolina, the son of a Scotch-Irish father and a Cherokee mother. Facing pressure from Anglo settlers, he moved his tribe first to Missouri and then to Texas. As the “peace chief” of several Cherokee villages, he negotiated a treaty with Sam Houston. The treaty was later invalidated by the Texas Senate, and the Cherokee were ordered by President Mirabeau Lamar to leave the state. Bowles led his people in their fight to resist expulsion and was killed at the Battle of Neches in July 1839.


Sam Houston

As a major general of the Texas army, Sam Houston led a rag-tag force to an unlikely but decisive victory at San Jacinto, paving the way for Texas independence. His fame made him the first popularly elected president of the Republic of Texas in 1836. That same year, the city of Houston was founded and named in his honor. Having lived among the Cherokees as a young man, Houston fostered a climate of peaceful relations with Native American tribes. He was a powerful advocate of Texas’ admission into the United States and adamantly opposed secession from the Union. By the time he died in 1863 at age 70, he had served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Tennessee, Governor of Tennessee, President of the Texas Republic (twice), U.S. Senator, and Governor of Texas.

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David Crockett

David Crockett was a folk hero before he ever set foot in Texas. A famous sharpshooter, hunter, storyteller, and U.S. congressman from the hills of Tennessee, his life was the subject of books, comics, almanacs, and a stage play. After losing reelection, he left Tennessee in 1835 and decided to resettle in the West. Upon his arrival in Texas, he declared the place to be “the garden spot of the world.” He was in Texas only a few months before joining Travis at the Alamo, where he was a camp celebrity. He volunteered to defend one of the Alamo’s most vulnerable points and died there on March 6, 1836.

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William Barret Travis

William Barret Travis practiced law in Alabama before abruptly leaving for Texas in 1831. He had several run ins with the commander of the Mexican garrison at Anahuac and was briefly jailed in 1832. This event helped spark armed skirmishes, a prelude to revolution. A firebrand for revolt, Travis became commander of Texas forces at the Alamo on February 23, 1836, when commander Jim Bowie became ill with pneumonia. When Travis died at the Alamo on March 6, 1836, he was only 26 years old.

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