Samuel May Williams, 1795-1858, Texas entrepreneur

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1974

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Abstract

Samuel May Williams arrived in Texas in 1822 and soon became associated with the empresario, Stephen F. Austin, as secretary, administrative assistant, and close friend. Williams' previous experience in his uncle's Baltimore commission house, a journey to Buenos Aires as supercargo, and residence in New Orleans provided him with a useful background for his activities in Texas. His fluent Spanish and fine handwriting made him indispensable to the success of Austin's colonies. Williams also served Mexico, his adopted country, as postmaster, revenue collector, and translator-secretary for the town council of San Felipe in its correspondence with the authorities. For these services, he received eleven leagues of land, about forty-nine thousand acres. During Austin's extensive absences from Texas in the early 1830's, his lieutenant endeavored to complete the remaining contracts to settle immigrants and mediated between the aggressive Anglo-Texans and the Mexican officials who were trying to tighten their authority in the frontier state. At the same time, Williams determined to enter into speculation on his own and acquired empresario rights to an area north of the successful Austin venture. He also joined Thomas F. McKinney in the cotton commission business and the pair dominated the Brazos River-New Orleans trade for a number of years. They owned coasting vessels, river steamers, and superior facilities at the mouth of the Brazos and also on Galveston Island. McKinney and Williams continued to be the leading merchants during the period of the Republic, and in fact, made a large contribution to the success of the rebellion against Mexico in 1835-1836, by supplying credit for buying the necessities of war. A supporter of President Sam Houston, Williams accepted a commission in 1838, to negotiate a five million dollar loan in the United States and also to supervise the construction of six naval vessels to repel an expected attack from Mexico. Recalled at the end of Houston's first term, the Galvestonian won a one year term in the lower house of the Texas Congress in 1839, and served his constituents with distinction. When Houston resumed the executive office in 1841, he sent Williams on an ill-fated diplomatic mission to the Rio Grande to negotiate an armistice with Mexico to end border raids. Coinciding with the resumption of annexation talks in the United States, the effort was doomed, and Williams returned to Texas with a less than satisfactory proposal for Texas to rejoin Mexico. The stigma of this transaction prevented his election to the United States House of Representatives in 1846, when Texas joined the union. Forsaking politics, Williams devoted his remaining years to business. McKinney and Williams sold their interest in the commission house in 1842, and thereafter, Williams concentrated on banking. As a relief measure to alleviate the firm's financial difficulties stemming from their contribution during the Texas Revolution, the Texas Congress allowed the company to issue paper notes of small denomination to be used as an aid to commerce. In spite of strong antibanking sentiment, Williams expanded this "little bank" in 1848, by opening the Commercial and Agricultural Bank in Galveston, using a 1835 charter authorized by the state of Coahuila-Texas just prior to independence. Already a prominent citizen of Galveston and a founder of the Galveston City Company that originally developed the island city, Williams became a controversial figure statewide with his bank of issue. The antibanking faction fought the C & A bank in the legislature and in the courts, but until his death in September, 1858, Williams successfully defended his institution. Six months later, the Texas Supreme Court, largely for political reasons, ruled against his bank and ordered its dissolution. Williams still owned over thirty-eight thousand acres of land scattered in twelve counties when he died and his estate was valued at ninety-five thousand dollars. In many ways he exemplified the early Texas entrepreneur—a member of the original "Old Three Hundred," a planter who raised cotton, corn, and sugar, and a canny businessman whose enterprises ranged from a steam saw mill, a large commission house, to banking. He also expended time and energy in civic pursuits beyond his service during the colonial period and as a legislator; in the 1850's, he used his influence to insure Galveston's commercial supremacy by promoting a canal to the Brazos and a railroad to the interior. While Austin had received accolades as the "father" of Texas, Williams performed as a developer of the Lone Star State.

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Keywords

History, Texas, Nineteenth century, Williams, Samuel May, 1795-1858

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