He never set out to be a soldier, but he was respected for his exploits in uniform. Though not a teacher, his most long-lasting monument was the short-lived college he founded. When he was still a teenager, he was already a veteran, responsible for translating legal documents, and running the entire Texas postal system. Elijah Robertson had a life that took him in unusual directions, as life often does, making him one of the more noteworthy figures of early Texas.
Elijah Sterling Clack Robertson was born in deep in rural South-Central Tennessee in 1820. His parents were not married, which was considered scandalous at the time. His father, Sterling Robertson, a prosperous farmer and early Tennessee settler, nevertheless claimed his son as his own and made sure he was provided for.
From an early age, a move to Texas seemed almost inevitable. His father was invested in a Texas empresario grant. Robertson left for Texas with his father in the early 1830s as his father helped settle hundreds of families within the grant. Robertson’s Colony, as it was often called, stretched across the heart of Central Texas, from just south and west of Fort Worth to just north of what is now Austin and back toward the Brazos River, including the present Waco area.
The younger Robertson was sent to a Catholic boarding school in San Antonio in 1832 where he learned Spanish. Bored with school, however, he ran away several months later. His father brought him back to the colony where he worked translating land titles into Spanish.
Facing increasing clashes with local tribes, the colony formed a ranger force as a defensive measure in 1835. Now 15 years old, the young clerk and translator became a soldier as he joined the force and found himself riding furiously across the frontier in sometimes bloody fighting.
In 1837, when Robertson was not quite 17, he was sent back to Tennessee to attend Jackson College. He stayed for two years before returning to Texas.
He soon began working as a clerk for the Texas postal system. He briefly became the Postmaster General of Texas for three months in 1839 and 1840, still a teenager and responsible for organizing mail delivery across the Texas Republic. He decided to take his experiences and build a political career. He ran for sheriff of Washington County in 1840 but lost.
His father died in 1842. Robertson was appointed a captain in the militia for a time, engaging in battles with the tribes as well as raids against Mexican settlements on the border. He left the service as a colonel in 1844. He did not have many prospects available and worked at a small general store in Milam County.
Robertson decided to use his spare time and redirect his life. He taught himself law by reading law books as Texas had few lawyers from which aspiring lawyers would traditionally learn the trade, and Texas would not have a law school for decades more. Within a few months in 1845, he was admitted to the bar and set up a law firm. Between the law and his farm, he made a comfortable living and still found time to serve the public as he returned to translating Spanish land titles for the General Land Office in 1848.
One of Robertson’s most ambitious projects was his attempt to establish a college in Central Texas. Higher education was almost non-existent in Texas at the time. Though the University of Texas had been established on paper by the Republic of Texas and in the new state constitution, legislators had done little to make it a reality. Baylor University, established in 1845, was the first, and at that point, the only college in the state. Robertson was among those who realized that a prosperous future for Texas must be more than just working the soil.
He donated some of his land to create Salado College in 1860, based near the community of Salado Springs in Bell County, south of Waco. For the first session, students had to live with residents of the community as no dormitories existed, and professors lived in tents. Only a modest classroom building served the 75 students. The college was starting to grow as the Civil War erupted.
Robertson pushed for secession in 1861 and briefly served as an aide during the Civil War. He did not see any fighting and returned to his estate in Bell County in 1865.
He resumed his stewardship of the college. The college completed several small structures and added to the main building. Enrollment topped 250 by the late 1860s, but it struggled to pay the bills.
Robertson died at his home in Salado in 1879. The college did not outlive him by long, closing in 1885. The site itself continued as a high school until 1924, shuttered only after a series of mysterious fires repeatedly wrecked the main building. Only a low brick foundation and pieces of brick wall remain to show what had been. Today, the site is operated as a public park.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.