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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Texas History

Houston Ring

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Sam Houston's marriage had a lot going against it.

For one thing, he was almost as well known as a big drunk as he was the hero of San Jacinto and the Republic of Texas' first president. For another, the woman he asked to marry him was 26 years his junior. For yet another reason, the bride's family did not approve of the union.

But no one counted on the personality of Margaret Lea, who succeeded first in getting the rough-hewn general to permanently put the plug in the jug and second, in getting him baptized. She also maintained a household that Houston always found easy to come home to and hard to leave.

Their surviving letters, as biographers have pointed out, reflect that they truly loved each other.

At some point early in their relationship, perhaps for their anniversary, or for the birth of their first child, or as a birthday present or just because, Houston gave his wife a gold ring with a burnt orange topaz mounted on it. He had the words "Sam Houston to Margaret Lea" engraved inside the band.

The Houstons stayed married for 23 years, separated only by his death of heart disease at Huntsville in 1863. Margaret made it another four years, dying of yellow fever on Dec. 3, 1867 at Independence. The ring was not buried with her, as often occurred.

Rather, it must have stayed in the Houston family, with son Andrew Jackson Houston being the last survivor. Following his death in 1941, many Houston items hit the market or went to archival holdings. That may have included the ring, though no one knows for sure.

In 1946, Texana collector Bill Morrow went to a sale of Houston memorabilia at Turk's Gift and Antique Shop at 417 Main St. in the city named after Sam. There, the topaz ring caught the Snyder native's eye.

Morrow bought the ring and gave it to his wife, Dora, as a birthday present. When Mrs. Morrow tried it on, she discovered that Margaret must have had larger hands, because the gold band proved too large for any of Dora's fingers.

Not being able to wear it did not detract from its historical value, of course. The ring stayed in Mrs. Morrow's possession, kept in a nice box, until 1977. Then, following the birth of their first grandchild, she gave the Houston ring to their only daughter, Dana.

Dana and husband Denwood Butler of Mason decided to offer the ring at a fund-raising gala for the Texas State Historical Association touted as the organization's auction of the century. Held at the Austin Convention Center on March 4, the Texana sale brought in about $1 million.

Though the auction catalog estimated the Houston ring as worth somewhere between $15,000 and $35,000, the historic piece of jewelry went for $45,000 at the black tie event.

The highest price realized for any of the 188 items on the block that night was $260,000 for the right to pick a temporary home for a collection of Republic of Texas era documents related to the republic's legation in Washington, D.C. After five years, the more than 250 documents, never before examined by historians because they have been privately held, will revert to the Texas State Archives.

Second-highest price realized was $105,000 for a document signed by Alamo defender Jim Bowie on Jan. 5, 1836, two months and a day before his violent demise when the Mexican Army overran the old Spanish mission in the predawn of March 6.

One of only eight known life paintings of Texas colonizer Stephen F. Austin fetched $100,000. An early Texas map by Jacob de Cordova brought $75,000 and a collection of papers connected to Civil War fighter and former Texas Ranger William Carroll Adams went for $65,000.

Proceeds from the auction will go toward an expansion of the association's 4-million-plus-hits-a-month Handbook of Texas Online, a project that even someone as visionary as Sam Houston could not have foreseen - even after a few drinks.
Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" >
March 9, 2006 column
 
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