Jeff Carroll - Legendary Texas

Three Legs and Courage

Teachers' Corner

The semi-welfare state in which we live makes special allowances for many handicaps. This is a good thing because spirit and ability are not always dependent on one's physical aptitude for a particular job and we would lose a lot if we relegated these people to non-fulfilling roles. I think that the modern “politically correct” terminology that replaces “handicapped” is “differently abled”.




“Three-Legged Willie” is one of the better known characters of the period surrounding Texas independence and the ten years of our status as a republic. Many of my stories deal with less well known people but I include “Willie” here for a reason. This may offend some folks, but I think we may have lost sight of the fact that it is the spirit within a person, not the number of accommodations provided by a government, that most often determines the success or failure of an individual who is “challenged” in some way, be the challenge mental, physical, racial or based on gender. Choose any “challenge” you wish, and you can find as many people in our history as you wish who overcame that “challenge” and not only led full lives, but also made major contributions to society as a whole. I am NOT suggesting that society withhold “accommodations” from “challenged” people, but only that people not be taught to depend on those accommodations at the expense of the loss of individual initiative, responsibility and pride of attainment.

Robert McAlpin Williamson was born either in 1804 or 1806 over in Washington, Georgia, and, until age 15, apparently lived a very normal life for a boy of that time period. Then, apparently, he was struck by polio and, unlike many, survived with only one physical manifestation, a withered right leg which, at the knee, was twisted back and to the side at an almost ninety degree angle. Under similar circumstances, many doctors of the time simply amputated the lower leg and the individual made-do with a crutch and a “peg”. It was much simpler that way but, for reasons unknown, the family opted to keep the leg intact and only add the crutch and “peg”. This, of course, gave rise to the sobriquet of “Three-Legged Willie” and he adapted to both the extra leg and the name.

By age 19, “Willie” was admitted to the Georgia bar and began to practice law. In his early 20s, he left home and came to Stephen F. Austin’s colony to settle in San Felipe. There, he not only practiced law, but also became a surveyor and edited a series of newspapers including the COTTON PLANT, the TEXAS GAZETTE, and the MEXICAN CITIZEN. It was said that he could out drink and out dance (on a crowded dance floor you really had to watch out for that swinging extra leg) most men on the frontier and could “pat juba” (keep the rhythm by clapping hands and slapping various portions of the anatomy) as well as any.

In 1835, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, President of Mexico, reversed his political position and changed from being a Federalist president elected by the people to a Centralist military dictator, in the process, abolishing the Mexican Constitution of 1824. Texas was not the only Mexican state to rebel against this change. In early September, 1835, newly-released from prison Stephen F. Austin told delegates to the Consultation in San Felipe that, “We must ask the delegates to seek peace, IF it can be had on constitutional grounds, but, to seek the peace, we must prepare for war.” The Consultation proceeded NOT to vote for independence but, instead, to create a provisional state government within the Mexican confederation and established a provisional state militia.

On November 29, 1835, at about age 30, Three-Legged Willie received a commission as a major in the militia and was ordered to form a volunteer “ranging company” to protect the frontier. He and his men fought at San Jacinto and, in December, 1836, the First Congress of the Republic of Texas elected him as judge of the Third Judicial District. His first court session, held beneath an oak tree adjacent to the lot where the Colorado County courthouse was planned, is featured in the story. Subsequently, the Honorable R.M. Williamson served in both houses of the Texas Congress and again in the Legislature after Texas was admitted to the United States as the 28th state. Throughout all of this, he also found time to marry and father seven children. Rarely does one find an individual who served in more capacities. It was once said that, no matter where he went, his name and reputation went before him, and his third leg trailed behind to trip the unwary.


Find out more about Robert M. Williamson. The new Handbook of Texas – Online contains about 2,000 articles that mention Three-Legged Willie. He was, indeed, a VERY active person who had his fingers in almost every pie in the Republic. This kind of research is best done on-line from a computer. If you don’t have that option, you can find the six-volume “hard copy” of the Handbook in most Texas libraries.

Learn more about the Constitution of the Republic of Texas. The Constitution in the story was a bit different from what we expect today. For instance, there was no limit to the number of times one could serve as president, but no two terms could be served consecutively. Another factor was that no one ran for vice president. Everyone ran for president and the one who got the most votes became president, while the one with the next most votes became vice president. This was an almost iron-clad situation in which the president and vice president would be political rivals. You can look up the Constitution in the Handbook of Texas and/or find it in Texas Government textbooks.

Learn more about the laws made and enforced during the period of the Republic. To me, this is fascinating, because there are some that seem very strange to us today. There is really only one source for this, although there are now several ways to access it. There is really another story here, but I’ll shorten it for this section. All laws and documents pertaining to laws, passed in Texas (beginning with the Mexican period in 1822) were a part of the archives stored in the Capitol when it burned in 1881. Hans Peter Neilson Gammel, the proprietor of an Austin bookstore, salvaged as many of the fire, smoke and water damaged papers as he could, flattened and dried them by hanging them on a clothes line in his home and, subsequently, published them. It was an epic task, and took a lifetime. Today, copies of the multi-volume set are relatively rare, but give an un-rivaled look at our legislative history. Today, the Library of the University of North Texas has digitized the first ten volumes and made them available. Go to:

There is an internal search engine, or you can simply browse. You will be amazed at what you will find.


Atomic Web Katz