By Mike Cox, Texas Tales
Naming the capital city in tribute to Texas colonizer Stephen F. Austin was certainly fitting, but Austin could just as well been named Lamar in honor of a Georgia-born newspaperman with a penchant for poetry and grandiose thinking.
Mirabeau B. Lamar came to Texas in 1835 intending to write its history, a saga that even then trailed pretty far back. He never got around to doing his book (though he did gather a lot of material that is still useful to scholars today), but he certainly had a hand in making some of Texas’ history.
Lamar joined the Texian Army as a private but soon rose to colonel. He distinguished himself in the Battle of San Jacinto and that caught Sam Houston’s eye. When Houston ran for president, Lamar was elected vice president.
The two men, each with strong personalities but very different philosophies, soon fell out politically. Because the new Republic of Texas’s Constitution forbade a president from serving two consecutive terms, Lamar ran for office when Houston’s term expired. Houston campaigned against him, but Lamar got elected.
The main reason Lamar is important to Austin is that it probably would not have been chosen as capital had it not been for him. As often told, Lamar came on a buffalo hunt to what would become Austin. Not only did he knock down one of the big, shaggy animals, while sitting astride his horse on high ground overlooking the Colorado he opined, in so many words, that the landscape before him would be the future seat of empire.
One of Lamar’s first acts as president was appointing a commission that soon, after a careful and of course impartial review of potential sites, agreed with the president that the area between where Shoal and Waller Creeks flow into the Colorado would indeed make a fine seat of empire.
As president, Lamar did everything he could think of to transform the young republic into a nation that could have rivaled the United States for North American dominance. Problem was, two of his bigger ideas toward that end did not work.
He tried to solve the republic’s financial woes by printing what amounted to worthless money. And hoping to bring in real money through commerce, he sent an armed expedition toward Santa Fe to establish a trade route between Austin and the old town. In reality, the move was as much about taking military control of Santa Fe and what is now eastern New Mexico as it was improved trade. The attempt failed spectacularly, the term “Santa Fe expedition” forever doomed to have the descriptive “ill-fated” in front of it.
While Lamar was far from perfect (his Indian policy was particularly brutal), he’s underrated in Texas history and all but forgotten, even in Austin. True, one of the capital city’s busiest north-south thoroughfares is named after him. But where is the Mirabeau B. Lamar Library or even a statue erected in his honor? (There is a statue in Fort Bend County at Richmond, but not Austin.) There are state office buildings named for Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, Lorenzo de Zavala, William B. Travis, John H. Reagan, Price Daniel, Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Clements and others. But where is the Mirabeau B. Lamar State Building? Lamar isn’t even buried in the State Cemetery-his remains lie in the old city cemetery in Richmond.
Back in the early 1960s, despite the suggestion of a prominent Austinite well familiar with Texas history, the citizens of Austin couldn’t even bring themselves to name their city lake in Lamar’s honor. It would be hard to come up with a name any more pedestrian than they did: Town Lake. That name didn’t go away until the lake was renamed for Lady Bird Johnson.
Statewide, there is a county in Northeast Texas and a semi-ghost town in Aransas County named in Lamar’s honor. A Liberty Ship constructed during World War II slid down the ways as the Mirabeau B. Lamar. Dallas and Houston each have a Lamar Street downtown and there’s a golf course with its 10th hole named in Lamar’s honor. But that’s about it except for public schools.
Arlington, Houston and Rosenberg each has a Lamar High School; Austin, Dallas, Flower Mound, Irving, Laredo and Temple have Lamar Middle Schools and Amarillo, Corpus Christi, El Paso, San Antonio and The Woodlands have elementary schools named after the one-time Republic of Texas president. Finally, there is Lamar University in Beaumont.
Lamar’s name graces a lot of schools because he was an early champion of education for Texas. It was his idea to set aside public land to provide for school funding, a concept that helped build the University of Texas and Texas A & M University into what they are today. For years, in fact, Texas students in many schools (including this former student) were required to memorize this Lamar quote: “The cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy and, while guided and controlled by virtue, the noblest attribute of man. It is the only dictator that free men acknowledge and the only security that free men desire.” Maybe that practice ought to be re-instituted.