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
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
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.