Texas Entrepreneur Ben Milam
Ben Milam is primarily known for his role in the Texas Revolution, particularly his leadership and death in the capture of San Antonio in December 1835. His earlier adventures in Texas are even more interesting.
A frontier youth
Benjamin Rush Milam was born in Frankfort, Kentucky, on October 20, 1788. He was the fifth of Moses and Elizabeth Pattie (Boyd) Milam’s six children. Growing up on the frontier, Milam received little or no formal schooling. When war broke out between the United States and England in 1812, he enlisted and served for four months in an infantry regiment of the Kentucky militia.
After the war, Ben Milam wound up in New Orleans. Hoping to sell a cargo of flour, he and some friends sailed from New Orleans to Maracaibo, on the coast of Venezuela. Yellow fever broke out, afflicting Milam and killing the captain and many crew. The vessel was also severely damaged in a storm. Milam wrote:
The waves were as high as the hills around Frankfort, and surged clear over our decks. (1)
By 1818, Ben Milam had made his first foray into Texas, which was then part of Mexico. He traded with Comanche Indians at the head of the Colorado River. The following year, in New Orleans, Milam met José Félix Trespalacios (a Mexican revolutionary) and James Long (an American doctor). They were planning an expedition to help the Mexican revolutionaries gain independence from Spain. Long had just returned from an earlier filibustering expedition to Texas. When they left for Texas in 1820, Milam joined them.
Long’s party went to Bolivar Point, across from Galveston Island. It is claimed they saw pirate Jean Lafitte’s ships leaving Galveston for the final time (see my post about Laffite). When news of the revolutionary Plan of Iguala reached them in July 1821, Milam and Trespalacios sailed down the Mexican coast, hoping to contact rebel leaders Agustín de Iturbide and Vicente Guerrero. Their plan was to join the republican forces, raise funds, and move back up the coast to unite with Long’s forces.
While they were gone, Long marched with 52 men to La Bahía (present-day Goliad, Texas). On October 4, 1821, they seized the town. The commanding officer of the presidio (Francisco García) had failed to post sentries. A royalist force was promptly dispatched from San Antonio to retake La Bahía. On October 8, Long and his party surrendered. After being taken to San Antonio as prisoners, they were transferred to Monterrey.
Milam and Trespalacios fared little better. Upon landing at Veracruz, they were imprisoned by royalists on suspicion of conspiring to proclaim a republican form of government. They were eventually freed and went to Mexico City. Agustín de Iturbide had become president of the provisional governing junta of newly-independent Mexico. Milam was opposed to Iturbide, while Trespalacios supported him.
With the collapse of the Spanish colonial government, Long was freed and he, too, went to Mexico City. Iturbide offered to retain Long in the Mexican army, but Long refused. He favoured a republican Mexico and opposed Iturbide’s plans to become emperor. Long had been in Mexico City only a short while when, on April 8, 1822, he was shot and killed. An American who was in the city at the time wrote:
I found General Long in this city, with a few of his officers, engaged in settling their claims. The General had brought them, with great perseverance, nearly to a close, and a favorable issue – when, yesterday morning about 8, he proceeded to the quarters of Col. O Riley (which are in the inquisition) to consult with him on the subject. The General was alone, and as he entered the gate, the Cadet on sentry there, shot him through the lungs, and he expired immediately. A vail of mistry hangs this black transaction which time alone can unmask. (2)
Another contemporary account provides the following details:
[Long] rose early on the 8th to take chocolate with Col. O Riley according to appointment. … He had a passport granted by the Govt. to the full freedom of passing & repassing by all centinels & guards. On his arrival at the gate of the Inquisition guarded by 40 soldiers they demanded his passport; he attempted to take it from his pocket and was fired upon by the guard; the ball passed thro’ his body & he expired directly.
From the evidence collected immediately after the melancholy occurrence, it appears that General Long, by virtue of his rank, as well as by special permission, had the privilege of free access to the quarters of his friend, and had exercised the right hitherto without…molestation; but that on the morning of his death, he was for the first time challenged by the centinel, (a young cadet who had been posted at the gate that very morning) to whom he replied in English that he was an officer, entitled to the privilege of passing; and apprehending no further difficulty, was about to advance when he was suddenly repulsed with indignity and blows, and presently shot down by the centinel under the pretext that the General was about to draw his weapons with a view of effecting an entry by force & violence. The body was searched immediately after the act, and no weapons of any description, except a small pen-knife, was found upon it. In a few days Major Milam collected the leading facts in the case and addressed Iturbede upon the subject, inclosing the testimony in a document of singular boldness, in which he denounces the conduct of the cadet as deliberate assassination, and calls upon his ‘Most Serene Highness’ (a title which we suppose he used in derision) to order an investigation of the foul transaction. (3)
Milam suspected that Long’s murder had been plotted by Trespalacios. He believed this suspicion was confirmed when Iturbide appointed Trespalacios as Governor of Texas.
The fidelity of Trespalacios to his Chief was rewarded by the office of Governor General of Texas; a station which Milam accused him of obtaining by some intrigue with the Regency against General Long; a charge which Trespalacios repelled, and in turn, accusing Milam of having aspired to the office himself, ascribed his hostility to disappointed ambition. There is no evidence that either was right. That Milam neither sought nor desired the office, is evident from his whole course of conduct towards Iturbide, which was marked by decided hostility and disrespect. Nor, is there any just grounds to believe that Trespalacios resorted to unjustifiable or improper means to secure the situation, or that he had entertained any feelings of rivalry or jealousy toward General Long. The truth seems to be, that he and Milam had become excited by party animosities and mutually indulged in suspicion and recrimination. (4)
Ben Milam vowed to avenge Long’s death. He and other Long sympathizers left for Monterrey, planning to intercept and kill Trespalacios on his way to Texas. Two of the men warned Trespalacios of the plot. As a result, Milam and his associates were arrested and escorted back to Mexico City. They remained in prison until November 1822, when they were released thanks to the intervention of President James Monroe’s special envoy to Mexico, Joel R. Poinsett (after whom the poinsettia is named). Milam and co. were transported to Norfolk, Virginia on the US warship John Adams.
Return to Mexico
In 1824 Ben Milam returned to Mexico City. Iturbide had been deposed, and Trespalacios was no longer Texas governor. He and Milam patched up their differences. Trespalacios even helped Milam obtain Mexican citizenship. In his application, Milam referred to the sacrifices he had made for the cause of Mexican emancipation.
In fact after having suffered privations and inexplicable miseries in those lonely deserts, I went in 1821 for the purpose of again offering my services and I remained in it until the ex-Emperor Iturbide, having been declared absolute, had me arrested without my knowing why, and I had to stay for six months in prison, afterwards making me go out of the country without even furnishing me a peso for expenditure on the way, compensating me in this way for the services I had alleged. But having come to the time when this country has established a just and free government, I ask that your Highness will have the kindness to admit me into the multitude of citizens of the Republic, granting me letters of citizenship in compensation for the services and sacrifices I made in favor of the cause of independence. (5)
Ben Milam wanted Mexican citizenship so he could obtain land in Texas. He became a Mexican citizen on June 24, 1824. On January 12, 1826, Milam received permission to establish a colony between the Guadalupe and Colorado Rivers. According to Milam’s empresario contract, within the next six years he was obliged to bring 300 families “of industrious habit” to Texas. (6) Milam also became the agent for an Englishman, Arthur G. Wavell, who had a contract to settle 500 families on the Red River. A letter from Milam to Poinsett dated August 28, 1825 gives some indication of the conditions in Texas at the time:
At present the country is in rather a unpleasant situation on account of the Comanche Indians who has again commenst their Savaige wars on the frontier inhabitants of this Stait. They have murderd severil families laterly & stole maney horses etc. I have been in the frontiers of Texas for some time and have observd that the Stait of Louisianna have lost a grait maney slaives that have taken refuge in this Republick of Mexico. The evill arising from this to the oaners [owners] and such citizens as may hereafter be in the saim situation is obvious, and as Texas forms a protection at all times as well as the territory of new Leone and Tamilepas and in short all frontier bordering on the U.S. are apt and posibly inosently to admit not only slaves but every class of depridators and refugees. It farther appears that maney parts of this country rather encourage and harbour such delinquents or refugees and outlaws as abscond from our country to this, not being able to live under one of the best governments existing. I am sorry to trouble you with those remarks on the subject but being well aware of your capasity to forsee the evil that will arise, not only to this country but also to those colonies that are forming from the U.S. (7)
In Texas, Ben Milam met Annie McKinney, to whom he became engaged sometime after 1826. Just before they were to be married, Milam was compelled to travel south to meet Wavell in Mexico; and then, in 1828, to travel to England to deal with problems arising from some silver mines that he and Wavell owned. When Annie didn’t hear from Milam, she thought he had died or changed his mind. Thus when Milam returned to Texas in 1829, toting a mahogany table and silverware for his bride-to-be, he learned that she had married somebody else. He gave the gifts to her younger sister, Eliza, who had married Milam’s nephew. He reportedly told her:
I haven’t any time for women anyway; my country needs me. (8)
In April 1830 the Mexican Congress passed a law prohibiting further immigration of United States citizens into Texas. Milam was thus not able to introduce the required number of settlers specified in his empresario contract before it expired in 1832. None of Milam’s other ventures, including the mines in Mexico and an attempt to develop timber tracts on the Trinity River, fared any better. He did, in 1831, succeed in improving navigation on the Red River by removing enough of the Great Raft (a gigantic log jam) to run a steamboat up the river. Until then the upper part of the river had been navigable only by canoes and small, flat-bottomed boats.
Ben Milam and the Siege of Bexar
In 1835, Ben Milam joined the Texan revolt against Mexico. After successfully taking Goliad in October, the goal of the small volunteer army was to occupy San Antonio. On December 4, 1835, Milam learned that a majority of the Texas force had decided not to attack San Antonio as planned, but to retire to winter quarters. Milam thought this would be a disaster for the independence cause. He “drew a line and in stentorian voice appealed to his countrymen then present to follow him in storming and taking the town, and exclaimed: ‘Who will follow Old Ben Milam?’” (9) Some 300 volunteers pledged to follow him to victory or death. The Siege of Bexar (San Antonio) began the next day. On December 7, 1835, Ben Milam was killed by a Mexican sniper’s bullet to his forehead. He was 47 years old. Milam was buried where he was shot, in the courtyard of the Veramendi house. In 1848 his remains were moved to a cemetery on the site of what is today known as Milam Park in San Antonio.
You might also enjoy:
- Lois Garver, “Benjamin Rush Milam,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Oct. 1934), p. 81.
- Charles Adams Gulick, Jr., ed., The Papers of Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, Vol. II (Austin, 1922), p. 120.
- Ibid., pp. 121-122. The guard who shot Long was put on trial and condemned to a few months in prison. He was promoted shortly after his release.
- Ibid., p. 119.
- “Benjamin Rush Milam,” p. 98.
- Ibid., p. 102.
- George R. Nielsen, “Ben Milam and United States and Mexican Relations,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 3 (Jan. 1970), p. 394.
- “Benjamin Rush Milam,” p. 107.
- John Henry Brown, History of Texas, Vol. I (Austin, 1895), p. 416.
Having suffered privations and inexplicable miseries in those lonely deserts, I went in 1821 for the purpose of again offering my services and I remained in it until the ex-Emperor Iturbide, having been declared absolute, had me arrested without my knowing why.