The Three Legs of the Law: Robert McAlpin Williamson
March 15, 2013 § 1 Comment
The Texas legislature may resemble a Daffy Duck “Loony Tunes” epic at times, but the thrill, drama and sheer physical danger of the olden times is long gone. Our politicos still shoot nasty words at each other all the time, but the knives have long since been sheathed, and though many are packing concealed heat, they carry their pea-shooters mostly to protect themselves from their angry constituents, not from each other.
Political cat-and-dog fights in Texas just aren’t what they used to be.
On this day, the Ides of March, in 1846, Gen. James S. Mayfield of La Grange, Bartlett Sims of Bastrop, and Judge Robert M. “Three-Legged Willie” Williamson of Washington on the Brazos, were together in a room at Swisher’s hotel in Austin, engaged in conversation, when Mayfield took offence at a remark made by Sims. Mayfield promptly drew a pistol and was about to shoot him. Sims was a powerful man and Williamson was rather below the medium size, and slim. In order to avoid being shot, Sims grabbed Judge Williamson in his arms and held him between himself and Mayfield, exclaiming: “Shoot, damn you, shoot!” Judge Williamson did not like his position between Sims and the irate Mayfield, who was trying to get a shot at Sims without harming the Judge. Williamson was unable to help himself, so he vented his feelings in alternate expressions of eloquent imprecation and denunciation.
Williamson first earnestly appealed to the belligerents, saying: “Gentlemen, this matter can be settled amicably; there is no necessity for bloodshed. For God’s sake, Mayfield, don’t shoot!” Then as Mayfield pointed the pistol at Sims, Williamson said: “Mayfield, make a center shot; for, damn you, I will kill you, sure, if my life is spared!”
“Bart, damn your soul, let me down!” From this appeal, or threat, or for some other reason, Gen. Mayfield cooled down, and desisted. Mayfield afterwards swore that “Three-legged Willie” saved Sim’s life on the occasion.
Although “Three-legged Willie” Williamson is the central character in this story, it is not complete without a look at the other two players.
James S. Mayfield was born in Tennessee in 1809 and moved to Texas in 1837. In January 1839 he was practicing law in Nacogdoches and later that year was chosen to go with Albert Sidney Johnston to propose to the Cherokee Indians that they leave Texas. Mayfield represented Nacogdoches County in the Fifth and Sixth congresses (1840–42) and served very briefly as secretary of state in 1841 under Mirabeau B. Lamar.
In September 1842, Mayfield assembled a company of volunteers from La Grange in an attempt to drive Gen. Adrián Woll’s Mexican army from San Antonio. His group, joined by others, arrived at the scene of the Dawson massacre on Salado Creek while it was occurring. Mayfield, as the commanding officer, determined that his group was too far outnumbered and remained in the distance until the following day, when he joined the command of Mathew Caldwell. In 1842 Mayfield was a member of the Somervell expedition but did not join the subsequent Mier expedition. In 1843 he presented himself as a candidate for major general of the Texas army but removed himself from consideration because, he said, of ill health. But accusations of cowardice stemming from his refusal to come to the aid of his comrades in the Dawson Massacre leveled by Mathew Caldwell and Edward Burleson had just as much to do with his decision. In 1845 Mayfield challenged Burleson to a duel but did not go through with the engagement.
In April 1846 Mayfield helped organize the Democratic party in Texas. He was living in La Grange in 1849, the year he killed Absolom Bostwick in a political argument. It is not known when or how he died.
Bartlett Sims, surveyor, Indian fighter, and member of Stephen F. Austin’s Old Three Hundred colonists, was born in Tennessee, about 1792. He visited Texas as early as 1822. In August 1824 he received title to one sitio of land in present-day Wharton County. Sims became a surveyor for Austin’s colony in October 1824 and continued to make surveys in Texas until 1858. In 1825, Sims married. Sally Curtis. The couple had nine children.
Sims was captain of a company sent on an expedition against the Waco and Tawakoni Indians in June 1826. But in the years leading up to the Texas revolution he advocated peace with Mexico. He served in Robert M. Coleman’s company in various 1835 campaigns and with Thomas S. McFarland at San Antonio. From 1836 until 1840 Sims was Bastrop County treasurer, surveyor, and tax collector. In August 1839 Sims commanded a company as a captain under Col. Henry Wax Karnes. In 1840 Sims moved to Travis County and participated in the battles of Brushy Creek and Plum Creek and several other area battles. In 1842 he was captain of a company under Alexander Somervell. According to some sources, Sims was one of two men that founded the Texas Rangers.
In 1846 he started on a surveying expedition to the Pedernales River, but was attacked by Indians. His nephew and the other two men of his team were killed. By 1850 he was farming and ranching in Williamson County on the south side of Brushy Creek. Sims died at Rice’s Crossing, Texas, in 1864.
Robert McAlpin Williamson was born in Georgia in 1804 or 1806. When he was 15 years old an illness confined him to his home for two years and left him a cripple for life. His right leg was drawn back at the knee; the wooden leg which he wore from the knee to the ground gave him the nickname “Three Legged Willie.” He subsequently had all his pants tailored accordingly. Williamson read much during his illness, and was admitted to the bar around the age of nineteen.
In the late 1820s he migrated to Texas and settled at San Felipe de Austin. In 1829 he established a newspaper called the Cotton Plant, which he edited from 1829 to 1831. He made an early appeal for the Texas colonists to resist Mexican tyranny. He was sent as a delegate from Mina (Bastrop) to the Consultation, and the provisional government established there commissioned him major on November 29, 1835, and ordered him to organize a corps of rangers. He participated in the battle of San Jacinto in William H. Smith’s cavalry company, for which he received 640 acres.
In December 1836, the First Congress of the republic elected Williamson judge of the Third Judicial District, automatically making him a member of the Supreme Court. The town of Columbus had been burned during the Runaway Scrape, and as there was no suitable structure to hold court proceedings, the first term of District Court, Republic of Texas, was convened by the Honorable R. M. Williamson, under a large oak tree next to the lot where the Colorado County Courthouse was later built in April 1837. In 1840 he was elected to represent Washington County in Congress. He served in the republic’s subsequent congresses.
After annexation, which he had advocated so strongly that he even named one of his sons Annexus, he served in the Senate of the first two legislatures, retiring in March 1850. As judge and lawmaker Williamson became the subject of numerous legends inspired by his personal characteristics, his unique decisions, his adroitness as a campaigner, his amusing legislative manipulations, and the succinctness of his oratory. Williamson married Mary Jane Edwards in 1837. They were parents of seven children.
After his defeat in the race for Congress in 1850, he retired to his farm near Independence and devoted himself to the education of his children and writing a history of Texas leading up to the Texas Revolution. He was an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in 1851. In 1857, illness affected his mental brilliance, which was further impaired by the death of his wife in 1858. His mind never entirely recovered. He died at the home of his father-in-law in Wharton on December 22, 1859. Williamson County, established in 1848, was named for him.
In the early months of 1848, settlers in the western section of Milam County petitioned the Texas legislature asking for the creation of a new county, suggesting San Gabriel and Clear Water as possible names. The legislators created their county but named it after their esteemed colleague, Robert McAlpin “Three-legged Willie” Williamson. Legend has it that when the bill to create the “County of San Gabriel” came before the Texas Senate, Three-legged Willie arose and excitedly protested having any more saints in Texas. Willie never resided in the county named for him, but he traveled through it often.
A popular old-timer’s story says that legislators voted to name the county for Williamson after he told the following tale on himself: A few years earlier, Colonel Frank W. Johnson had headed a surveying party that charted a ten-league land grant inside what would become Williamson County. Williamson was part of the surveying party. There were still great herds of buffalo on the scene, and on this particular day, Williamson determined to chase down one or more of the massive beasts. Colonel Johnson advised against the chase, for the ground was exceedingly wet, uneven, and full of holes. But Williamson was not to be denied and galloped off astride his horse. They were approaching full speed when his horse suddenly turned a somersault, throwing rider, gun, and crutch off into an inglorious heap. Once the horse was upright, it continued on after the buffalo. Williamson attempted to regain his equilibrium, but each time he stood up, his peg leg and crutch sank deep into the black waxy mud. After “swearing like an army mired in Flanders,” he gave up and lay still in the mud until his horse was brought back to him some hours later.
Another version of the story says that every time he tried to stand up, a charging buffalo calf would knock him back down. He finally retaliated by shooting the calf from a prone position.
When Willie was judge of the Third Judicial District for the Republic of Texas, Gonzales County was part of his circuit. Court met under a spreading live oak tree, and the bar of justice was a rough-sawn plank laid across a couple of whiskey kegs. The judge sat on a nail keg. Williamson sat down and leaned his rifle and walking stick against the oak tree. He laid out his law book and gavel on the plank and pronounced court in session. The spectators got rowdy and the more and louder the judge called for order in the court, the rowdier they got. But Willie wasn’t intimidated. He reached for his long rifle, laid it on the table, cocked the hammer and put his finger to the trigger. There was suddenly a deafening silence.
“This court is coming to order,” Willie pronounced, “and if it doesn’t come to order right now I am going to by God kill somebody and I’m not particular who I kill.”
Court quickly came to order and did so every session thereafter when Williamson presided.
There are quite a few more ‘Three-Legged Willie” Williamson stories, and one of the best concerns an incident in Rutersville. A camp meeting was going on, and Williamson—being mistaken for a preacher—was asked to pray. As a drought was then gripping the countryside, the day had been set aside for rain prayers. Willie acquiesced to the worshippers’ request and began praying: “Lord, we have met today to pray for rain. Lord thou knowest how much we need rain for man and beast. We need copious rains, real copious rains: rootsoakers, gullywashers. Lord we ask thee not to send us little sunshowers that will make our corn produce nubbins that all hell couldn’t shuck.” At this point his prayer was drowned out by a deafening sea of amens from the horrified congregation.
So, Happy Ides of March, y’all, and remember, that just as Brutus was “an honorable man,” so are all our legislators and other elected state officials, “honorable men.” Always have been, always will be.