TEXAS HISTORY MINUTE: James Pinckney Henderson, one of the men behind Texas introduction to the Union

By Ken Bridges
Special to the Herald Democrat
The James Pickney Henderson Statue in San Augustine, Texas was commissioned for the 1936 Texas Centennial. Gaetano Cecere sculpted the statue.

James Pinckney Henderson may not have been one of the most famous of early Texas figures, but his actions were perhaps some of the most important.  As a lawyer, diplomat, and the state’s first governor, he helped build strong foundations for the future of Texas. 

Henderson was born in North Carolina in 1808.  By the age of 21, he had graduated from the University of North Carolina Law School and earned admission to the state bar.  He became known for his voracious study habits during his years in school, poring over law books up to eighteen hours per day.   

For Henderson, failure to give oneself entirely to a task was never acceptable.  His dedication won him great admiration among his peers.  Because of this, he rose quickly to the rank of colonel in the North Carolina militia.  In 1835, he moved to central Mississippi where he opened a law practice.  However, news of the events unfolding in Texas captured his attention.  The Texas Revolution had arrived, and Henderson was determined to be a part of it.  Inspired by the fight for Texas independence, he quickly raised money and volunteers for the effort, but the fighting was over by the time they arrived in June 1836.  Texas nevertheless promoted him to general and sent him back to the United States to try to raise more volunteers, fearing Mexican forces could return. 

Upon the election of Sam Houston as president of the Republic of Texas in September, the new president chose Henderson as a trusted part of his new cabinet.  He served briefly as attorney general before becoming secretary of state in 1837.  Houston wanted to bring Texas into the Union, but the American government was hesitant.  With the United States unwilling to provoke Mexico by bringing Texas into the Union, foreign support became vital.   

Houston thus named Henderson as the Texas Ambassador to both France and Great Britain, two of the most powerful nations in the world at the time.  Through his deliberate and persistent negotiations, Henderson persuaded the two reluctant powers to not only recognize Texas independence but also to agree to generous trade terms.   

He returned to Texas after Houston’s term ended in 1838.  Shortly afterward, he opened a private law practice in San Augustine and settled in with his new wife. 

His last duty for the Texas Republic was perhaps his most important.  In January 1844, the re-elected President Houston sent him to Washington, DC, with Isaac Van Zandt to negotiate an annexation treaty with the United States.  Threats of war with Mexico and protests by abolitionists over slavery in Texas hampered negotiations, but using fears of British domination over Texas and Henderson’s persistence won the day.  An annexation treaty was signed on April 12, 1844. 

U.S. Army Topographical Engineer Lieutenant William H. Emory (1811-1887) prepared this map of the Republic of Texas in preparation for the negotiations between the representatives of the U.S. government and the representatives of the Republic of Texas when they met in Washington, D.C., to discuss the issue of annexation. The map shows Texas and its position relative to the U.S. and Mexico, which at that time still included all of what became the U.S. Southwest. Emory had not yet visited Texas (although he would later accompany General Stephen F. Kearny's expedition to San Diego during the U.S. War with Mexico of 1846-1848 and also head the U.S.-Mexican boundary survey of the 1850s). Emory used the best sources available, including maps by Alexander von Humboldt, Zebulon Pike, Stephen Long, John C. Fremont, the U.S. Boundary Commission Survey of 1825, Stephen F. Austin, John Arrowsmith, William Kennedy, and S. Augustus Mitchell. This also meant that he placed "Passo del Norte" too far east (by one-and-a-half degrees of longitude), thus making the area of present far west Texas much too compressed. Emory acknowledged the dearth of information by delineating two sites for "Presidio de Rio Grande" and by noting that "of the two positions given … no information can be obtained to decide which is correct." The map shows routes of American military and civilian pathfinders in the west including Pike (1806), Long (1819-1821), Gregg (1839), and Fremont (1842). It also indicates topographical features and numerous early settlements in eastern and southeastern Texas.

 After approval by both governments and Texas voters, plans for a new state government emerged.  Henderson was nominated to be the state’s first governor in the December 1845 elections.  As it was still a new state with comparatively few settlers, less than 10,000 voters participated in the election on December 15.  But Henderson was the prohibitive favorite against Dr. James B. Miller, a physician and relative political unknown.  Henderson won easily, with 82% of the vote.  On December 29, Texas officially became the twenty-eighth state in the Union. 

Much of Henderson’s tenure as governor was dominated by organizing the new state government and the large debt that Texas had accumulated.  The new state legislature named Henderson County in East Texas for him in 1846.  The City of Henderson, also named for him, had been founded three years before in Rusk County, further east of his namesake county. 

Perhaps his greatest challenge was the long-threatened war between Mexico and the United States that finally erupted in 1846.  The border dispute that exploded on the Rio Grande galvanized the United States into action.  Mexican forces were pushed steadily from the border and ultimately vanquished altogether.  

 In 1847, with his two-year term coming to an end, Henderson announced he would not seek re-election.  He spent the next few years practicing law in San Augustine before he was once again called back into public service. 

One of the state’s first two US Senators, Sen. Thomas Jefferson Rusk, died suddenly in 1857.  In November, Gov. Elisha M. Pease appointed Henderson to fill the remainder of Sen. Rusk’s term.  However, Henderson himself died in June 1858, barely fifty years old.

Ken Bridges

Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.