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Lone Wolf of the Canadian
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. An Old West original who died young, Temple Lea Houston was quick on the draw and even faster to wield his oratorical skills in defense of his clients.
Photo courtesy TEXAS STATE LIBRARY & ARCHIVES
Son of a famous father, one of the fastest draws in Oklahoma Territory, master of oratory, and devoted family man, Temple Lea Houston was one of the least known and most notorious of Oklahoma's settlers.
By JIM LOGAN
Published November 28, 2011
When former President George W. Bush addressed an outdoor throng of nine thousand people gathered for Woodward’s 2009 Fourth of July celebration, he spoke of one of that community’s early citizens who had inspired him. The two men shared much in common: Both were Texas-raised, both had famous fathers and ties to the Governor’s Mansion in Austin, both struggled with alcohol, and both loved and married women named Laura.
The life that ended in August 1905, two years before Oklahoma achieved statehood, was among the most remarkable to emerge from the American West. The man spoke Spanish, French, Latin, and seven Indian dialects. He quoted the Bible, Greek scholars, and Shakespeare in the course of his work and was, upon his death at forty-five, recognized as one of the finest trial lawyers in the country.
Statuesque, articulate, temperamental, fast with a gun, and overly fond of whiskey, he inspired two biographies and a 1960s television western series bearing his name. A central character in one of Edna Ferber’s epic novels was based on his life, as were two Hollywood movies, one of which would win the 1931 Academy Award for best picture.
Temple Lea Houston, the youngest child of Texas governor Sam Houston, was born in 1860, when the latter was sixty-seven. His father died three years later, and yellow fever took his mother when he was seven. Described by biographers Glenn Shirley and Bernice Tune as an assured, strong-willed youngster with his father’s build and temperament, he was raised by an older sister.
At thirteen, skilled with horse, rope, and gun, he signed on with a cattle drive, drawing a grown man’s wages. From Great Bend, Kansas, he headed for Dakota Territory—night-clerking aboard a Mississippi River steamboat—then back down to New Orleans, where a family friend helped him become a Senate page in Washington. For three years, he observed the country’s finest orator-statesmen, honing his skills in debate before returning home to Texas to attend A&M and later Baylor University. There, he completed four years of study in nine months, graduated with honors, and became the state’s youngest attorney at age nineteen.
From a beginning law practice in Brazoria, Texas, his trial work achieved wide acclaim. Within two years, he was appointed by the governor as attorney for the thirty-fifth judicial district, a sprawling, twenty-six-county swath of the Texas panhandle. Formerly home to Kiowa, Comanche, and the Goodnight cattle empire, the area was home to an assortment of buffalo hunters, cowboys, rustlers, and horse thieves. In a letter Houston wrote to his wife, he described his Mobeetie, Texas, headquarters as “a bald-headed whiskey town with few virtuous women.”
Six-foot-two, auburn-haired, and with piercing gray eyes, young Houston was an imposing figure. A friend once described him as “handsome, brilliant, and charming…a perfect model of physical manhood.” He also was fearless, with a flair for the dramatic. Conspicuous attire—a day’s dress might include a buckskin shirt, caballero pants, a wide-brimmed sombrero with a silver eagle in its crown, his father’s miniature gold saber pin, and a pearl-handled revolver—made him hard to miss.
He won numerous public shooting contests and was considered one of the most formidable gunmen in the West. A contemporary once wrote, “Temple Houston stays alive because he’s very fast on the draw. He has winged several bad men and killed two or three, and now he is a man to be feared.” Rumors flew that he’d beaten Bat Masterson and Billy the Kid in a shooting match. Outlaws gave him a wide berth.
He gained wide notice at twenty-one with a speech at the unveiling of the San Jacinto Monument to heroes of the 1836 Texas victory over Santa Anna. His closing words visibly moved the crowd: “They will be here but a little while longer…Cling tenderly to these old men, for when they are gone, nothing like them is left.”
Before taking the panhandle post, he’d met Laura Cross, the pretty young stepdaughter of a Texas cotton grower. She would later recall in a 1936 Houston Post article, “I saw him across the room, and he saw me. I guess it was love at first sight, all right, for we were both goners.” They were married on Valentine’s Day in 1883.
Houston served two terms in the Texas legislature. At twenty-eight, he was chosen to deliver the dedication speech for the new State Capitol building in Austin. After leaving the senate and losing a bid for the Texas Attorney General’s office, he became legal counsel for the Santa Fe Railway and moved his family to the town of Canadian, in the northeastern part of the Texas panhandle.
Temple Houston was drawn to Oklahoma for the same reasons his father had left Tennessee for Texas—it was a young country full of opportunity and looking for law, order, and statehood. After watching the Cherokee Strip Land Run from a Santa Fe boxcar, he opened a law office on Main Street in the new settlement of Woodward, Oklahoma Territory, in fall 1893. Almost a year later, his family joined him to make it their home.
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The Plains Indians & Pioneers Museum in Woodward has a gallery containing a number of Temple Lea Houston’s personal possessions and dioramas of his parlor and office. 2009 Williams Avenue, (580) 256-6136 or pipm1.org. Houston’s grave is in the central part of Woodward’s Elmwood Cemetery at 2755 Downs Avenue.