Monday, January 21, 2013

Robert Potter, 1800-1842, Colorful Texan

From an article in the San Angelo Standard-Times, Sunday, 5 January 1986.... a spotlight on the Texas Revolution from 5 January 1836.... article by Boy Boyd:

"Colorful was one word for Robert Potter."  The life of Robert Potter, one of the founding fathers of the Texas Republic, can best be described as somewhere between colorful and bizarre. Many of his contemporaries said he had the hottest temper, used the most profane language, had the most damning past, was the most dangerous ladies' man and subscribed to the most radical politics of his era. Of all the heavyweights who make up the pantheon of Texas heroes, he is the only one who carries a supernatural legend with him.

He is more famous in his native North Carolina than in Texas, where he lived for only seven years before being murdered in an episode that spawned an East Texas folks song still heard in the Caddo Lake area. North Carolinians recognize him as the man responsible for a peculiar Carolinian word: potterizing.  Potter was the only sitting representative of the U.S. Congress to ever be convicted of castrating a man.

Potter was born in 1800 into a prosperous farming family near Oxford, NC. At the age of 15, he joined the Navy and served five years as a midshipman. Like most details of Potter's life, his departure from the Navy is shrouded in rumor and mystery. He used his time aboard ship to further his education and physical prowess. He became an excellent fencer and reportedly was asked to resign after killing a fellow officer in a duel. Potter returned to North Carolina and completed law study, taking a bar exam in 1823.

Nothing in Potter's life came easy and practically nothing came without a fight. In 1824, he decided to enter politics and became one of the wildest careers in North Caroline elective office history. A series of insults and counter-insults between Potter and the conservation incumbent (too blurry to read the newsprint). Potter won the seat in the legislature in 1826 and was reelected in 1826. In 1829, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Potter's politics, considered radical for the times, terrified many of the established powers in North Carolina. Among other things, he advocated free education, a much-feared issue in the South, and was a strong advocate of the rights of free blacks. A rumor campaign alleged that he had purchased the votes of about 300 free blacks in Halifax County. He was a Jacksonian Democrat who moved far to the left of the president. He urged the sale of public lands to provide money for river and harbor improvement. His liberal economic views of how to get a stagnant economy moving again were, in many respects, a century ahead of his time.

As an early populist, with solid backing from the working class people of North Carolina, Potter appeared headed for a more powerful political position when his temper struck. For some time, Potter had feared that his wife, Isabella, had been having affairs with two different men, one a 55-year-old minister and the other a 17-year-old youth. Upon seeing the minister in a buggy riding away from his house at an unusual time, Potter hailed him and engaged him in conversation until he was able to loop a rope around the man's neck. In seconds, the minister was hogtied and expertly castrated with a Bowie knife. Potter rode on to the home of the youth, who was similarly surprised and maimed.  The father of the maimed youth took a shot at Potter and missed. Others threatened retribution but Potter's constituency rallied around him.

From the window of his jail cell, he whipped up such emotion among hundreds of onlookers that he was moved out of the county. Potter conducted his own defense in his trial and claimed innocence. He cited the sanctity of the marriage bed as his defense. The working class stayed by his side during the trial. He was finally sentence to six months in jail and fined $1000 for maiming the youth. The other offense was never brought to trial.

Potter had resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives when arrested. Far from feeling at a disadvantage, he won his old seat back in the state legislature in the next election. Unable to beat him at the polls, historians are in agreement that his enemies trumped up charges of cheating at cards. Because of that charge, he was expelled from the state legislature in 1835. Potter then became a GTT man....Gone to Texas.

He arrived in Nacogdoches in July 1835 as war clouds blew in from the west. He enrolled in a militia unit under the command of Thomas Jefferson Rusk and threw himself into the financing of the Texas Revolution, raising funds and supplies for the successful siege and storming of San Antonio. Drawn to the turbulent politics of the time, Potter was nominated to represent Nacogdoches in the General Convention. He was one of the signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence and helped to write the Republic's Constitution.

A close ally of Interim President David G. Burnet, Potter was given the awesome task of stopping any Mexican invasion by sea. He was made secretary of the Navy and commander of the defenses of the planned last bastion of the government at Galveston Island. Potter proved to be an excellent choice for Navy Secretary. While much of the initial work of bringing together a fleet of fighting ships had already been accomplished, Potter made sure the Texas Navy was supplied and directed.  Under his leadership, the Navy seized control of the Texas Gulf, captured a number of Mexican ships and kept open the supply lines to New Orleans.

During the mad flight of refuges to escape Santa Anna's army, Potter came upon a group of civilians bogged down in a quagmire of a road. Included in the group was Mrs. Harriet Page. She had picked up her two children and started running when she heard a false alarm that the Mexicans were near her farm outside Velasco. When Potter saw her she had on her best clothes, a mud-splattered black soaked dress, white crepe shawl and velvet trimmed black hat with white satin ribbons. She looked vulnerable and confused.

Potter, always the gallant knight, dismounted and offered to let the woman ride with him. Their lives were forever linked after that ride to a boat destined for Galveston Island. Mrs. Page, it turned out, had a husband in Sam Houston's army, but had vowed never to live with him again because of his loathsome and drunken ways. Instead, she took up residence with Potter. Whether of not she ever got a divorce is uncertain, but Harriet and Robert considered themselves married from that day forward and did not go through a legal ceremony until some years later.

After his tour of duty as Navy Secretary, Potter became one of the most powerful members of the Republic's legislature. He moved to Potter's Point, on Caddo Lake near the San Jacinto River. Potter was a moderator in the regulator-moderator conflicts in East Texas. The moderators were opposed to the vigilante tactics the regulators used in attempting to impose their will in no-man's land of far East Texas, including Potter's Point.

One morning in March 1842, a group of regulators surrounded Potter's house. Harriet tried to get him to stay in the house and shoot it out, but Potter thought his chances were better if he made for the lake and swam out of harm's way. He raced through a hail of gunfire to the lake, while Harriet searched in vain for matches to light the small canon Potter kept for home defense. He dives in ans swam as far as he could. When he broke surface, he was immediately shot through the head. A regulator turned to Harriet and said, "How do you like your pretty Bobby now?" Harriet and friends searched for two days on the lake before finding the body. She found the matches in Potter's pocket.

It is said that Harriet returns to Caddo Lake every year, usually in March, and her ghostly form can be seen searching the lake for the body of her lost love.

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