Monday, March 13, 2017

William Kennedy (1799–1871) - from Antrim to the Alamo; defining an Independent Texas

"I could not understand how the settlers of Texas were enabled to repel the armies of Mexico and to found a Republic of their own"

Aint texas

If you ever meet someone from Texas you will quickly see that their allegiance is to Texas first, and America second. As the t-shirt above shows.

The quote above was written by the Dublin-born, Belfast raised and educated, son of Ayrshire called William Kennedy (1799–1871). His father was working as a ‘manufacturer’ in Dublin which is where William was born on 26 December 1799. William trained as a journalist at Belfast Inst which he completed in 1819, and then went to Selkirk in the Scottish Borders to study at ‘Dr Lawson’s seminary for dissenting students’ - Lawson was a Seceder and a man of some renown (biography here). Presumably Kennedy was training to become a Presbyterian minister, however he actually became a writer for the Paisley Magazine, and published a volume of poems entitled Fitful Fancies in 1827 (online here).

He later went to London and worked for the Earl of Durham, an opening which took Kennedy to Canada and the USA. He went to Texas in 1839 and after two years of researches in 1841 he published The Rise, Progress and Prospects of Texas (online here) - which has been described as “the most thorough, comprehensive account of Texas history up to that time, one that set a standard for years to come”. As a result, the year after, he became the Texas Consul in London, and shortly after that he swapped responsibilities and became British Consul to Texas at Galveston.

So enthused was Kennedy that he obtained a grant to settle a colony of 600 families in Texas, "along the Rio Grande and another west of San Antonio, of the Frio and Nueces Rivers”. Sam Houston, President of Texas, signed contracts with Kennedy to form the colony on 5 February 1842.

Kennedy argued that Texas should be independent – neither Mexican nor American. His motive may well have been the protection of British trade in the Caribbean. The Rise, Progress and Prospects of Texas was lauded – “a fuller and more satisfactory answer is given by Mr Kennedy, in the work whose title we have just cited, than in any one which has come to our knowledge.” It included an account of the Battle of the Alamo of 1836 and a poetic description of Davy Crockett, including Crockett’s refusal to swear the citizenship oath of Texas – 

Crockett was not a man to make a solemn declaration without scrutinizing its import. He refused to take the oath … as the ‘future’ government might be despotic (see here)

Some of Kennedy’s bureaucratic correspondences were also published. He protested that ships were being built in Liverpool shipyards for the Mexican government, and he clashed with Daniel O’Connell over the role Mexico should have regarding any future independent Texas state. Texas was of course annexed by the United States during Kennedy’s time, in 1845. He came back to England in 1847 where he lived until his death in 1871.


Back in his earlier life, Kennedy had written other books, including a fictional biography set in County Antrim. Written by Kennedy, My Early Days claims to be the story of a Walter Ferguson, the son of Allan Ferguson, “a Scottish clergyman, a dissenter from the established form of his country’s faith. Devoted, heart and soul, to the cause in which he had engaged, he bid adieu to his native land, for the purpose of aiding the faithful few, that, amidst danger and privation, caused the seeds of the Gospel to rise and ripen on the shore of Ireland”.

Initially settled as an assistant minister in Belfast, he married Mary Maxwell, the daughter of a rich merchant named Walter Maxwell. Some years later the family moved to Gleno in south Antrim where Allan Ferguson ministered to “about a hundred and twenty families” in a “plain patriarchal looking building”. Walter remembered an old local farmer who played the fiddle, for whom the family would dance. The local schoolmaster was also a Scot in Ulster.

Fortunately for Walter, aged 44, he inherited a huge sum of money - £60,000 – and travelled around Europe.

• My Early Days – was published a number of times – the Edinburgh first edition appeared in 1826 and by 1831 three American editions had appeared. The Boston 1831 edition is online here. It’s a bit of an oddity, but seems to have been popular in its day and does provide some insight into rural Ulster life in the early 1800s. It also suggests that, despite being Dublin-born, Kennedy must have spent his formative years in the country districts around Belfast.

Wikipedia entry here

• a very interesting modern-day account of Kennedy’s influence upon Texas can be found here.


PS: Update

• the Belfast Mercury of 29 April 1856 said that Kennedy’s father was a ‘dissenting minister’ and the family lived in Aughnacloy, and speculated that he had died.

• Poets of Ireland by DJ O’Donoghue (1912) also links Kennedy to Aughnacloy (see here).

• County Tyrone historian John J Marshall published a biography of Kennedy in 1920 (see here for reference).

• Kennedy’s friend William Bollaert collected biographical notes which he planned to publish, but which remain just as manuscripts