What Prompted Murfreesboro Mayor to head to Texas?

As published by the Murfreesboro Post, Sunday, December 13, 2009

By Mike West, Managing Editor

What prompted Murfreesboro Mayor Henderson Yoakum to pack up and head to Texas in 1844?

“Politics” is the basic answer.

Murfreesboro Mayor Henderson Yoakum

Murfreesboro Mayor Henderson Yoakum

But there’s more to the story.

Back in the 1840s, Texas was the land of opportunity that appealed to many people and Tennesseans in particular.

Sam Houston, David Crockett and countless other Tennesseans moved to the new frontier in those early days. Some of them earned a spot as Texas heroes, while Yoakum grabbed fame as their biographer.

Born in Claiborne County, Tenn. in 1810, Yoakum attended the U.S. Military Academy where he graduated 21st in a class of 45 in 1832. After graduating from West Point, he returned to Tennessee and married Evaline Cannon of Roane County. Soon after the wedding, Yoakum and his bride moved to Murfreesboro where he began his legal training with Judge James Mitchell.

He became captain of a company of mounted militia in 1836 and served near the Sabine River in Texas under Edmund P. Gaines. In 1837 Yoakum was mayor of Murfreesboro, but in 1838 he reentered the army as a colonel in the Tennessee infantry and served in the Cherokee War.

He was a member of the Tennessee Senate from 1839 to 1845 and as senator urged the annexation of Texas.

Yoakum sided with Rep. James K. Polk in his fight for speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Polk, whose wife was from Murfreesboro, was battling another Tennessean, Rep. John Bell, for the speakership. Bell was a former Murfreesboro resident as well.

Despite his defeat two years later, Yoakum continued to pursue the Democratic Party ideal, serving as chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Convention in 1843.

However, Yoakum grew frustrated by the Whig party’s increasing domination of Middle Tennessee politics. In 1844, he decided to leave Tennessee after Polk failed to carry the state in the 1844 presidential campaign.

Yoakum moved to Huntsville, Texas, where he opened a law practice and struck a quick, strong friendship with Sam Houston, the preeminent Texas military and political leader.

At the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, he volunteered as a private under famed Texas Ranger John Coffee (Jack) Hays (another former Tennessean) and served at Monterrey as a lieutenant under James Gillaspie, another famed fighter. With the expiration of his enlistment on Oct. 2, 1846, he returned to his law practice at Huntsville.

With his fighting days over, Yoakum helped start two Texas colleges, Austin College and Andrew Female College. In 1849, he was appointed director of the state penitentiary in Huntsville.

A wealthy man, he owned more than 10,000 acres in five east Texas counties and became a prominent Masonic leader in Huntsville. He began writing his two-volume “History of Texas” in 1849. It is said much of the information came from his friend Houston. The book was published in 1855.

In the fall of 1856 Yoakum went to Houston to deliver a Masonic address, attend to some courtroom duties and visit his friend, Judge Peter W. Gray, whose support helped make his Texas writings possible. Yoakum’s “History of Texas” is dedicated to Gray, a founder of the Houston Lyceum, which became the Houston Public Library.

While attending court, he suffered a severe heart attack and was treated after being taken to Judge Gray’s home, but weakened and died there on Nov. 30, 1856.

Yoakum was buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Huntsville, Texas. His friend, Houston, was buried nearby in 1863. Yoakum County, Texas, is named in his honor.

Mike West can be reached at 615-869-0803 or [email protected].

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