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Robert McAlpin Williamson (c. 1804-1859)

Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the Republic of Texas, 1836-1839

Robert McAlpin Williamson, known as "Three-Legged Willie," was born in Clark County, Georgia around the year 1804. His mother died shortly after his birth, and his father left him and his two older siblings to be raised by their paternal grandmother in Milledgeville, the new capital of Georgia. He grew up as a member of a prominent family, and counted numerous lawyers, the state's governor, and a future justice of the United States Supreme Court among his extended family members. During his childhood he attended the best schools in the area.

At the age of fifteen, Williamson became ill with "white swelling," later known as tubercular arthritis, a tubercular infection of the bone that usually affected children, caused a painful swelling of weight-bearing joints, and resulted in deformities of the lower extremities. He was confined to his bed for months. His right leg became paralyzed below the knee, and when he recovered he would rely for the rest of his life on a wooden leg fastened to his knee.

During his illness and recovery, Williamson studied mathematics, Latin, and literature, as well as law, and he was admitted to the bar in 1824 or 1825 at the approximate age of nineteen. Following his admittance to the bar, he is believed to have practiced law for about a year in his the office of his uncle, Judge Duncan Campbell.

Williamson left Georgia around the end of 1825, spent some time in Alabama and New Orleans, and arrived in San Felipe de Austin, Texas, the rough-and-tumble capital of Stephen F. Austin's colony, in June 1827. Why he came to Texas is unknown, but stories persist that he may have fled after wounding an adversary in a duel over the affections of a woman. Whatever his motive, Texas suited his independent spirit and sense of adventure. In San Felipe Williamson became friends with Stephen F. Austin and William B. Travis. He practiced law and co-founded a newspaper, the Cotton Plant, in 1829. By 1830 he had been appointed the first prosecuting attorney for the San Felipe district. He served as editor of the Texas Gazette and then the Mexican Citizen until 1831. Williamson became known widely as "Three-Legged Willie."

Williamson moved to Mina (now Bastrop) in the summer of 1835 and was a delegate to the Consultation in November 1835 that set up the provisional government prior to the Texas Revolution. There he was made major of the Texas Rangers. Despite his disability, he was a capable horseman and a skilled marksman. He fought Comanches on the frontier and Mexicans in the battle of San Jacinto, reportedly wearing a coonskin cap with nine tails attached.

In December 1836 the First Congress of the Republic elected Williamson judge of the Third Judicial District, which automatically made him a member of the supreme court. He is said to have held the district's first court session under the shade of a large oak tree next to the site of the Colorado County courthouse in Columbus.

Williamson was a colorful character, and numerous legends about him persist. The most famous of these, though it varies according to its source, involves the first court session held in Shelby County. The region was known for its lawlessness during the violent years of the Regulator-Moderator War, in which two rival vigilante groups battled for control. As court was about to convene, a man stood before the court and made a motion that the local citizens had declared court should not be held. When Williamson asked the grounds for his request, the man reportedly plunged a Bowie knife into the table that served as the judge's dais, and stated in effect, "This is the law that governs here." Judge Williamson rose to his feet, drew his pistol, laid it on the table next to the knife, and replied, "If this is your law, this is the constitution that overrules it." The trial proceeded without further interruption, and this moment in Texas legal history provided subject matter for a painting that has hung for many years in the Texas State Bar building in Austin.

The life of a circuit judge was harsh and difficult, but it seems to have suited Williamson. The Third District included six counties, and the circuit was ridden on horseback during all kinds of weather, with lodgings taken wherever available; if no lodgings were available, the judge and circuit lawyers camped out. Following court sessions, Williamson often entertained at evening gatherings, playing banjo and singing. He was said to have had a preference for Negro spirituals learned in his childhood in Georgia. He also was known for pattin' juba, an African-American percussion style of rhythmic thigh-patting, hand-clapping, and foot stomping prevalent among slave populations; it was another skill he likely brought with him from Georgia.

At the close of his first circuit in 1837, Williamson was married, and the couple settled in Washington County and started a family that eventually included seven children. Williamson resigned his position on the court in January 1839. The following year he was elected to represent Washington County in Congress. He served in the House in the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Congress, in the Senate in the Eighth Congress, and in the House again in the Ninth Congress. (His Senate seat in the Eighth Congress was contested, and he eventually lost the seat.) He ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1851.

In 1857 Williamson suffered an illness that left him mentally impaired. He died in Wharton on December 22, 1859. He is buried in the Texas State Cemetery; Williamson County is named for him.

Sources

Ericson, Joe E. Judges of the Republic of Texas (1836-1846) 301-302 (Dallas, Texas: Taylor Publishing Co., 1980).

Lynch, James Daniel. The Bench and Bar of Texas 194-197 (St. Louis, Missouri: Nixon-Jones Printing Co., 1885).

Robinson, Duncan W. Judge Robert McAlpin Williamson: Texas' Three-Legged Willie (Austin, Texas: Texas State Historical Association, 1948).

Williamson, Robert McAlpin, Handbook of Texas Online (last updated June 6, 2001). http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/WW/fwi42.html

Extended bibliography

Baker, DeWitt Clinton. A Texas Scrap Book Made up of the History, Biography and Miscellany of Texas and Its People 274 (Austin, Texas: The Steck Co., 1935).

Biographical Encyclopedia of Texas 266 (New York, New York: Southern Publishing Co., 1880).

Brown, John Henry. Indian Wars and Pioneers of Texas 404 (Austin, Texas: L. E. Daniell, 189-?).

Dixon, Samuel Houston and Louis Wiltz Kemp. The Heroes of San Jacinto 333 (Houston, Texas: The Anson Jones Press, 1932).

Kittrell, Norman Goree. Governors Who Have Been, and Other Public Men of Texas 143 (Houston, Texas: Dealy-Adey-Elgin Co., 1921).

Lotto, Frank. Fayette County, Her History and Her People 202 (Schulenburg, Texas: the author, 1902).

Lynch, James Daniel. The Bench and Bar of Texas 13, 64, 194, 533, 608 (St. Louis, Missouri: Nixon-Jones Printing Co., 1885).

Richardson, Thomas Clarence. 3 East Texas, Its History and Its Makers 1329 (New York, New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1940).

Robinson, Duncan W. Judge Robert McAlpin Williamson, Texas Three-legged Willie. (Austin, Texas: Texas State Historical Association, 1948).

Smithwick, Noah. The Evolution of a State 208 (Austin, Texas: Gammel Book Co., 1900).

Thrall, Homer S. A Pictorial History of Texas 631 (St. Louis, Missouri: N. D. Thompson & Co., 1879).

Weyand, Leonie and Houston Wade. An Early History of Fayette County (La Grange, Texas: La Grange Journal, 1936).

Wharton, Clarence Ray. History of Fort Bend County 45 (San Antonio, Texas: The Naylor Co., 1939).

Additional information available in Southwestern Historical Quarterly as follow:
Volume 2, page 171, 176, 228
Volume 4, page 100, 156, 198, 209, 313
Volume 6, page 282, 283
Volume 7, page 81
Volume 9, page 233, 285
Volume 10, page 77, 90, 146
Volume 15, page 178, 180
Volume 20, page 141
Volume 21, page 135
Volume 22, page 88, 193
Volume 23, page 150, 214, 222
Volume 33, page 8
Volume 34, page 184
Volume 36, page 203, 204, 205, 215
Volume 37, page 82
Volume 38, page 178
Volume 40, page 239
Volume 41, page 335, 336
Volume 43, page 512, 513
Volume 45, page 194, 257
Volume 47, page 110
Volume 49, page 659, 660
Volume 50, page 396
Volume 51, page 65
Volume 52, page 116, 128
Volume 54, page 318n
Volume 56, page 242, 253
Volume 58, page 124
Volume 60, page 3
Volume 64, page 216
Volume 65, page 104, 324, 397, 579
Volume 70, page 40
Volume 73, page 184

Additional information available in Texas Bar Journal as follow:
Volume 14, page 15
Volume 27, page 15
Volume 37, page 927

Shuffler, R. Henderson. Three-Legged Willie's Legacy, Houston Chronicle Texas Magazine, July 12, 1964.

Henderson, Nat. 3-legged Willie Ran, Too, Austin American-Statesman, Mar. 7, 1981.

Brown, Frank. Annals of Travis County and of the City of Austin 19:45, 12:4. Archives Division, Texas State Library (Austin, Texas).

Robert McAlpin Williamson Papers. Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas (Austin, Texas).