In November 1835, as war with Mexico appeared inevitable, the Texas Consultation appointed Houston major general of the Texas army. One of Houston's first acts was to visit the Cherokees in East Texas and negotiate a peace treaty, thus ensuring that the Texans would not be subject to attack from the Cherokees while fighting the Mexicans. Back at Washington-on-the-Brazos, Houston was present for the signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence on March 2, 1836. It was his 43rd birthday.
Houston took over a fighting force that was an army in name only. Historians still debate Houston's strategy in taking the army on a retreat eastward towards Louisiana rather than engaging immediately with Santa Anna's troops after the Battle of the Alamo. Some observers would never forgive what they considered cowardice, but Houston was determined not to fight the enemy unless he thought he could win.
On April 21, 1836, Houston turned his army south and took on the hated forces of General Santa Anna. The result was a total rout of the Mexican army. (See Texas Treasures for more about the battle and the capture of Santa Anna, including Houston's first-hand account.)
Five months later, the hero of San Jacinto won election to the presidency by a huge margin over Stephen F. Austin and Henry Smith. Bankrupt and lawless, Texas was teetering on the edge of disintegration. President Burnet resigned so that Houston could take office early on October 22.
At his inauguration in Columbia Houston dramatically flourished, then gave up the sword he had used at the Battle of San Jacinto. It was a symbolic gesture by which Houston hoped to signal to the people that it was time to turn away from war and to the business of building a new Texas.
Moving on: Houston's first order of business was to rid the country of the divisive presence of Santa Anna, still being held as a prisoner of war. In secret session, Houston convinced the Texas Senate to allow Santa Anna to depart for the United States to meet with President Andrew Jackson and announce his support for Texas independence. Under cover of darkness, the Mexican general finally left Texas on November 20, 1836.
Diplomatic Recognition: With Santa Anna out of the way, Houston turned his attention to the issue nearest his heart: the annexation of Texas by the United States. Texas was broke and weak; Houston knew the Republic could not withstand another attack from Mexico. Houston's old mentor, President Jackson, was an ardent expansionist and would have liked nothing more than to annex Texas. But internationally, no nation recognized Texas as anything but a Mexican province in rebellion. For the United States to make a grab for Texas would cause an international incident, not only with Mexico, but with England and France as well. In addition, the northern states were opposed to the addition of another slave state. Although annexation was not yet to be, Houston and his commissioners to the United States achieved partial success when they gained official recognition by the United States for Texas as an independent nation.
With annexation on hold, Houston proceeded with the work of building an independent nation. He sent representatives to Europe who negotiated a trade agreement with England, an important step in building an economy for the impoverished Republic.
Peace with the Indians: As he had throughout his life, Houston continued to concern himself with keeping the peace between Indians and whites. He believed that the two races could peacefully coexist, a view that put him painfully out of step with the majority of white Texans. Houston was unable to win much support for the policy of negotiation; the Texas Senate even refused to ratify the peace treaty he had negotiated with the Cherokees in 1836.
Furloughing the army: During David Burnet's presidency, the army had come close to lynching the president. As Houston took over, both officers and men were still out of control. Citizens complained that army officers were seizing horses and slaughtering cattle to feed hungry troops without compensating the owners. High-ranking officers, when not dueling one another, were agitating for an invasion of Mexico. While he worried about the ongoing Mexican threat, Houston decided that the army was more trouble than it was worth to the bankrupt Republic. He dealt with the problem decisively, furloughing the entire army except for 600 men. The decision was not popular. Houston was faced with mutinies at Galveston and Velasco, and there was talk of an attempt on the president's life.
The Bachelor Republic: In April 1837, the government relocated to the new town of Houston, not far from the San Jacinto battlefield. Though Houston had to be gratified by having the capital named for him, there is evidence that this was not a happy time in his life. The muddy collection of tents and log buildings was known as the "Bachelor Republic," and Houston joined right in with the drinking, brawling, and carousing. During this time in his life, he was drinking very heavily and probably using opium as well.
The Córdova Rebellion: In the summer of 1838, a crisis erupted at Nacogdoches that epitomized the pressures on a growing and changing Texas. Like most places in Texas, Nacogdoches had a large population of Mexican descent, many of whom resented the takeover of the government by Anglo Americans. To add to the mix, the Cherokee Indians lived nearby. A local Hispanic leader, Vicente Córdova, formed an alliance between local malcontents, agents of the Mexican government, and Indians, for a combined force of about 400 men.
Houston traveled to Nacogdoches to try to calm the situation. The rebels were put down rather easily by Texas troops, but Houston worried that angry whites would take reprisals against the Indians. His fears were well-grounded.
Houston's term was almost up, and he was forbidden by Texas law from succeeding himself. Events now set in motion would play themselves out during the term of the next president of Texas. For Houston's old friends the Cherokees, disaster awaited.