Eighteen Minutes that Changed History

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It was 179 years ago today. Sam Houston, a general with almost no military experience, set a trap for the opposing forces of Antonio López de Santa Anna. Santa Anna, who had previously deposed the government of Mexico, envisioned himself as “The Napoleon of the West,” and he proceeded to antagonize the citizenry, especially the Anglo immigrants who had been encouraged to settle in Texas.

After the slaughter of Anglo and Mexican defenders at the Alamo, Santa Anna engaged in a weeks long pursuit of Sam Houston’s ragtag army. On 20 April 1836 the two sides settled into position along the San Jacinto River in what is now southeast Harris County, Texas. The time had come for a fight.

While Santa Anna established himself in a relatively indefensible lowland, Sam Houston took advantage of available concealment and the Mexican army’s preference for a nap in mid-afternoon. About 3:30 p.m. on 21 April the rebel forces charged yelling and killing into the Mexican camp. Mexican forces were unable to form up for a coherent defense, and it was all over in 18 minutes.

630 Mexican troops and nine of Houston’s men were killed. Santa Anna attempted to escape, but he was hunted down and captured. Houston forced him to cede the war to the Texans and to relinquish all territorial claims. Lost to Mexico was an area that stretches from the Sabine River to the Pacific Ocean and from the Rio Grande to well into what is now Wyoming.

Santa Anna’s fortunes declined in Mexico after his capitulation, as he lost additional territory to the United States. His exile from Mexico followed, and we can credit him with helping to initiate the chewing gum industry:

From 1848 to 1874, Santa Anna lived in exile in Cuba, the United States, Colombia, and Saint Thomas. In 1869, the 74-year-old Santa Anna was living in exile in Staten Island, New York and was trying to raise money for an army to return and take over Mexico City. During his time living in New York City, he is credited with bringing in the first shipments of chicle, the base of chewing gum. He failed to profit from this, since his plan was to use the chicle to replace rubber in carriage tires, which was tried without success.

Thomas Adams, the American assigned to aid Santa Anna while he was in the U.S., experimented with chicle in an attempt to use it as a substitute for rubber. He bought one ton of the substance from Santa Anna, but his experiments proved unsuccessful. Instead, Adams helped to found the chewing gum industry with a product that he called “chiclets.”

Sam Houston became first president of the new republic of Texas and later the first governor of the State of Texas. The city of Houston is named after him, and his name was the first word spoken by a man on the moon.