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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,608

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This is the grave of Samuel Lanham.

Born in 1846 in South Carolina, Lanham grew up in the world of owning humans, which as a young man he was happy to defend and commit treason for. His family was alright economically, but not super duper wealthy. He just went to the common schools, for instance. Not sure how many slaves they owned, probably “just” a couple. He volunteered for the Confederate Army immediately upon secession, even though he was only 15 years old. They took him too. He spent much of the war in Virginia and somehow did not die. He was wounded at Spotsylvania Court House, though I am not sure as to what severity.

After the war, Lanham married and he and his wife decided to make their living out in Texas. They moved to the town of Weatherford and Lanham read for the law out there. He taught school while he prepared for the law. He was admitted to the bar in 1869 and was almost immediately appointed district attorney. Guess it wasn’t hard to move up in the legal world of small-town Texas at that time. In 1871, the Kiowa launched what whites called the Warren Wagon Train Massacre, which was basically a raid on a wagon train that killed seven whites. It was a pure raiding action, led by people already forced onto the Fort Sill Indian Reservation, but who could easily escape it, raid in Texas, and then flee back to Indian Territory and be out of any legal jurisdiction. But their leaders, including Satanta and Big Tree, were prosecuted by Lanham. Interestingly, they did not get the death penalty and were released a few years later on good behavior. The reason Lanham was the prosecuting attorney is that William Tecumseh Sherman wanted to see state courts prosecute Indians on their own terms and so he delivered the Kiowa raiders to Texas. Lanham of course wanted them dead and they were given the death penalty, but this was the Grant administration and he was more lenient on indigenous issues than Sherman wanted, that’s for sure. So there was a lot of pressure to commute the sentences, the Texas governor agreed, sent them to Huntsville, and then they only spent two years there. A more interesting tidbit of history than I figured I’d get to write today.

In 1882, the locally prominent Lanham ran for Congress and won. He served five terms, then ran for governor. He lost that race in the primary. In 1896, he ran for Congress again and did three more terms. He was pretty nondescript in Congress. His main constituency was the cattle industry so he represented their interests. For example, when other members of Congress introduced a bill that would crack down on cattle disease and empower the government to investigate such things, Lanham said it was a conspiracy agains the great cattle industry of Texas. His district was the entirety of west Texas (98 counties!) and so he fought for things like getting a federal courthouse in El Paso. He also responded with outrage when Republicans tried to introduce new legislation to regulate southern elections, using purple language to discuss the horrors of Reconstruction, etc. Then in 1902, he ran for governor again.

This time he won, with the assistance of Edward House, then a big-time Texas insider and much later Woodrow Wilson’s right-hand man. Privately, House thought Lanham was very whatever and felt he and his buddies could completely control this very boring congressman. Didn’t quite turn out that way, as Lanham was better at the job than House thought he would be. But Lanham didn’t even bother campaigning. House controlled the party enough for Lanham to win the primary and in 1902, there was no way a Republican was going to win the general. So House just had his local guys handle all the campaigning.

It’s hard today to imagine a Texas governor to be anything but a monster. It’s been a long time. I’m 50 years old and I barely remember Ann Richards. Anyone younger than me? Forget about it. And in important ways Lanham was terrible. He was a white supremacist to the core, though that’s almost a given in the politics of the South or really the nation at that time. And he was big on playing up to the Confederate nostalgia exploding across the nation at the time, often giving speeches to Confederate veterans’ groups. He also empowered the Texas Rangers to kill Mexicans and Black Texans with impunity. This would extend well past Lanham’s tenure, but he definitely his share of responsibility for empowering a racially murderous law enforcement arm of the state government. And the occasional lynching? Sure, whatever.

But on other issues, he really was a good progressive reformer. For example, unlike the current spate of Republican southern legislators, he led a fight against child labor in his state. He signed laws limiting the hours railroad workers could labor in a day. He pushed for a constitutional amendment to allow the state to charter its own banking system, which voters approved. He pushed for new taxes on railroads and other corporations. He also pushed for election reform. Texas politics were, shockingly I know, incredibly corrupt and bribery was a real problem in nominating processes. So borrowing from states like Oregon, he signed laws for such things as creating open primaries and forcing candidates to file expense statements. In fact, one of the reasons that Lanham was acceptable to House and his buddies is that previous governors were so corrupt it was undermining the voter support for Democrats, despite the white supremacy that bonded that party together.

So Lanham was a pretty good governor outside of his horrible racial policies. He also loathed the job. He really hated the constant job-seekers who got in the way of him governing and also the general sleaze of Texas politics. He said, “office seekers, pardon seekers, and concession seekers overwhelmed me. They broke my health” So he happily did not run for a second term in 1906. His health was in decline anyway. He was diabetic and this eventually took him in 1908. Not sure that the diabetes was caused by the concession seekers, but whatever, I’m sure they were annoying as all hell. He was 62 years old. His son Fritz would continue the family political tradition into the 1940s.

Samuel Lanham is buried in City Greenwood Cemetery, Weatherford, Texas.

If you would like this series to visit other early 20th century governors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William Jelks is in Eufaula, Alabama and John G. McCullough is in Bennington, Vermont. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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