Harber’s History: Honor, integrity key for Yoakum

Susan Harber, The Daily News Journal, January 7, 2017

Murfreesboro Mayor Henderson King Yoakum

Henderson King Yoakum lived the fullest life in 46 years of any individual in Rutherford County history. He was a Murfreesboro mayor for six years and also shaped the Republic of Texas into the free, existing state of today. Dr. Homer Pittard, Rutherford County historian, once traveled to Texas to gain knowledge and provenance of this extraordinary man.

Yoakum was born Sept. 6, 1810, at Yoakum’s Station in Powell’s Valley in Claiborne County, Tenn., to George II and Mary Ann Yoakum. His ancestry was of Welsh origin; and his descendants migrated to New Amsterdam with early Dutch settlers. His great-grandfather Valentine Yoakum built a Virginia fort, Yoakum’s Station, in 1771. At this destination, Valentine, along with his wife and children were massacred by Shawnee Indians raiding the fort. Henderson descended as a grandson from Valentine’s lone surviving child George Yoakum. This young son used an iron skillet in the raid to kill three Indians before escaping the fort.

At age 17, Yoakum entered West Point and graduated in 1832. He was a brevetted lieutenant and served in the Black Hawk expedition the same year. In 1833, at 23 years old, he married Evaline Cannon of Roane County, Tenn., and moved with his bride to Murfreesboro, living on the current site of Vine Street. Yoakum was admitted to the bar and practiced in the law office of Judge James Mitchell. Records indicate he delved into deeds, real estate and mortgages and purchased land in sheriff’s sales while an attorney. He soon sought military service and became captain of a mounted militia and was stationed on the Sabine River in Texas for a year.

Following an early war for Texas independence, he returned to Murfreesboro, where he practiced law from 1835 to 1845. In 1837, Yoakum was elected mayor of Murfreesboro and served six years in an effective manner. During his mayoral time frame, he re-entered the Tennessee Infantry as colonel in 1838 and fought in the Cherokee War. He was also a member of the Tennessee Senate from 1839 to 1845 and urged the annexation of Texas. Yoakum was the chairman of the Democratic convention in Tennessee (1843) and was now a sensation as a politician. He also had five growing daughters and was excited with new opportunities to support his family.

Yoakum was a loyal supporter of both Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk. By 1843, his honeymoon with the public was disillusionment, as he viewed the Whigs as the new dominant party. By October 1845, Yoakum departed for Huntsville, Texas, and practiced law there for the next 10 years. He developed a deep friendship with Sam Houston and became his legal adviser. Yoakum had nine children and named his son Houston for his dear friend.

Yoakum was soon pursuing military duty in the Mexican War under James Gillaspie in Monterrey as lieutenant of the Texas Mounted Rifle Volunteers. He returned to his Huntsville law practice in 1846 and was active in the Texas Democratic Party. He owned over 10,000 acres in five East Texas counties and prospered as a wealthy man. His original home was an estate in Shepherd’s Valley.

In 1849, Yoakum served as state historian, penning a first history of Texas, a large two-volume study. Published in 1855, the historical account continues today as a primary source on early Texas (1685-1846). Sam Houston gave him much of the information for this book.

In 1849, Yoakum also wrote the charter for Austin College and served as trustee and first librarian. He established the Andrew Female College in Huntsville in the same year and was also the director of the state penitentiary. In 1850, he was promoted to colonel of Texas militia and served from 1850 to 1856.

Yoakum was a trustee in the Methodist church. His diary indicates he strongly opposed liquor and profanity, describing these vices as “the faults of great men.” Ironically, he bespoke his own terms of honor, as his close friend Sam Houston, who once lived in Lebanon, was a hard drinker.

As a master mason of the Huntsville Lodge, he was invited by Houston in 1856 to address his comrades. He became ill during this endeavor and died Nov. 30, 1856. Sam Houston died in July 1863 and requested on his last breath to be buried near his “good friend Henderson Yoakum” at Oakwood Cemetery in Huntsville.

Yoakum County, Texas, was established in 1876 for Henderson Yoakum’s legacy. This unique man accomplished unspeakable missions in his short lifetime and sought strong tenets of integrity to define his life. His relationship to Murfreesboro is a successful chapter in a life of service and duty. Pleasant William Kittrell best described Yoakum, stating “If all men were as honorable as Henderson Yoakum, the world would roll smoothly around its axis without any discord and strife.”

Contact Susan Harber at susanharber@hotmail.com.

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