Texas Tales: Where is the long-lost painting of Sam Houston?

Sam Houston was the first and third president of the Republic of Texas before statehood. He is credited with leading the Battle of San Jacinto where he and about 800 loyal Texans defeated Mexican General Santa Anna and his forces. NOTE: This photo is courtesy of the Portal to Texas History and is not the missing painting mentioned in the Texas Tales column.

A long-lost painting of Sam Houston may be gathering dust in someone’s attic. On the other hand, given that not everyone in Texas revered the Hero of San Jacinto, someone might have thrown it in the trash or burned it long ago.

Either way, evidence exists of a previously-unknown image of Old Sam.

Houston was Texas’ Lyndon Baines Johnson of the 19th century – big, powerful, controversial. About the only difference between the two men was that LBJ made it to the White House. But then LBJ was never President of the Republic of Texas.

The story of the missing painting centers on another old Texan named John D. Nash.

Kentuckian, Nash came to Texas in April 1835. He took title to a grant of land in Lorenzo de Zavalla’s colony on July 25, 1835. When Texas began its violent pull away from Mexico, Nash participated in the Siege of Bexar in December 1835.

he following spring, Nash fought under Houston when the Texas army defeated General Santa Anna at San Jacinto. When someone presented the Mexican dictator’s horse to Houston as a prize of war, Houston detailed Nash to ride it off the battlefield for safekeeping.

Though Nash was a solider and Houston a general, the two eventually became friends. It was Nash who presented Houston with the wooden cane seen in one of the better-known photographs of Houston.

With Texas an independent republic, Nash settled in San Augustine County. In the spring of 1841, he and Houston signed a short document in which Nash agreed to keep and feed a stallion belonging to Houston. In 1850, five years after Texas statehood, Nash won election as sheriff. After serving a single two-year term, he moved his family to Bastrop County. By 1854, he operated a ferry at a point on the Colorado River about six miles from Bastrop.

Houston, by this time, served in the U.S. Senate. But on his periodic visits from Washington, he spent time on the road meeting with his constituents. Anyone traveling from Huntsville to Austin would cross the Colorado on Nash’s ferry.

In addition to occasionally availing himself of Nash’s services, Houston would spend some time catching up with his old friend. On one of Houston’s visits with Nash, the senator sat for a painting by his friend’s daughter, Lucretia Nash. The only known written evidence of this is in a letter later written by her niece, Mrs. George Miller: “Aunt Lou Nash painted a picture of Sam Houston when he was in her home visiting. He had the walking [stick] in his hand, I can remember that very plainly.”

Lucretia apparently kept the painting, because Mrs. Miller recalled having seen it.

Nash had a daughter with an artistic bent, and he could play a mean fiddle, but he seems to have focused on making a living. He clearly understood the importance of transportation. When the Houston and Texas Central Railroad laid tracks through upper Bastrop County on its way to Austin in 1871, Nash moved to a new community adjacent to the tracks, McDade.

Four years later, he bought two wooden buildings on Lot 10 along the town’s principal thoroughfare, just across from the tracks. When those structures burned, he built a sturdy rock building that still stands, now the oldest structure in McDade. (Since 1963, the building has housed the McDade Museum, now directed by Audrey Rather.)

Nash operated a freight business, using the rock building as his warehouse and office. Old age finally catching up with him, he and Lucretia, who had never married, moved to Kaufman. He died there in 1888, but Lucretia lived well into the 20th century.

“I don’t know what ever became of the picture and the cane,” her niece later wrote. “I did not see it when we visited her [in Kaufman].

That suggests the Houston painting stayed in Bastrop County when Nash and his daughter relocated to East Texas, but no one seems to know the rest of the story. The McDade Museum has on display a poster-size version of a U.S. postage stamp image of Houston and his cane, but it’s not Lucretia’s painting.

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