Samuel May Williams (1795-1858)
The Samuel May Williams house was built in the winter 1839 1840 on an outlot of the newly founded city of Galveston. Outlots were “suburban” homes on 20-acre lots, built by the elite of the city away from the bustle, smell and unsanitary conditions of town. The house is the second oldest residential building still standing on the island. The Williams house was purchased by Phillip Tucker, administer of the Williams estate, in 1859, and was occupied by the Tucker family until 1953. The house was purchased by the newly incorporated Galveston Historical Foundation in 1954 to save it from demolition. It has since been restored to illustrate family life in Galveston in the 1850s.
Samuel May Williams, although little known in Texas, played an important role in early Texas history. Williams was born on October 4, 1795, in Providence, Rhode Island. The son of a ship captain, he learned the trades of bookkeeping and international commerce while employed by his uncle in Baltimore. After working in Buenos Aires and New Orleans, Williams arrived in Mexican Texas in 1822, settling in San Felipe de Austin. Williams was hired as secretary of the land office in Austin. Gradually, Williams began to acquire large land holdings of his own. Other business ventures included a partnership with Thomas F. McKinney, resulting in a successful commission house and Texas’ first bank. Along with McKinney, Michel B. Menard, and other early Texas businessmen, Williams helped found the Galveston City Company. During the Texas Revolution, Williams was able to supply much-needed arms and a ship to the struggling Texans. Much of this was accomplished through Williams’ reputation and solid credit. During the early days of the Texas Republic, President Sam Houston appointed Williams as naval commissioner. In this role, Williams was able to secure other ships for the fledgling Republic.
Williams purchased the land the house sits on for himself on the outskirts of the new town on Avenue P between 35th and 37th streets. His business partner McKinney purchased property nearby. Many other elite families of early Galveston chose to live out from town in the healthy country air. Williams was away from home and entrusted the building of his house to McKinney. Sam's wife Sarah, whom he had married in 1828, and their children remained on the lower San Jacinto River with her widowed mother until the house was ready. The house was under way by December, 1839. Because the large timbers required to construct the house were not available on the island, the house was built using heavy timbers of northern white and yellow pine imported from the Atlantic Coast. There were plenty of carpenters available in Galveston to assemble the house on the site with mortise-and-tenon joints pinned with wooden dowels.
The house was built as a raised cottage, a Southern style prevalent from Louisiana to Alabama--anywhere humidity and flooding was a problem. It faced east with a gallery along the front and back. The south gallery was added a few years after the initial construction. The cupola, along with the floor-to-ceiling French doors, assisted in air circulation in the heat of summer. The windows were shuttered to darken the rooms and make it feel cooler. The house was built on 10-foot brick piers, which put the house above all but the most extreme hurricane and storm tide levels. The detached kitchen was in the back of the house with a storeroom below.
The house was built with a central hall plan, with two rooms on either side at the front, a longer room across the back, and smaller rooms on the north and south ends. All of these had fireplaces, into which stoves were installed in 1851. There are no photographs documenting the interiors of the house, but there are bills from merchants and information from a probate inventory. From these sources, we can interpret the kind of house Sam and Sarah Williams lived in. Williams ordered furnishings in the latest styles from Baltimore and New Orleans. The house was not ostentatious, but comfortable. Entertainment would have been among close friends and family, partly because Sarah suffered from cataracts and liked to stay at home and partly because Sam was away on business for a good part of their married life.
The Williams' had six children: Joe (b. 1827) from a previous alliance, Austin (b. 1830), William, known as Beaver (b. 1833), Mary Dorothea, called Molly (b. 1838), Caroline Lucy, known as Caddy (b. 1842), and Samuel May Williams, Jr. (b. 1845). The boys were educated at boarding schools. Austin and William attended the Western Military Academy in Lexington and William went on to Harvard Law School. Beginning in 1852, Molly and Caddy were taught by the nuns at the Ursuline Academy in Galveston. In 1854, Sarah went to Boston for her third eye surgery, and had her sight partially restored. Little Sam, after a brief illness, died in 1855 at the age of ten. His funeral was held in the front parlor. Joe died two years later at the age of 30. He had lost an arm in the Mexican war, tried to become a merchant, but succumbed to heavy drinking. William served as a county judge from 1874 to 1880. Molly married Thomas Jefferson League, a member of a prominent Galveston Family. She lived across the street and preserved her father's papers through the 1900 Storm.
What became of Samuel May Williams? He died on September 13, 1858, at the age of 63, without a will. His son William, and a fellow Mason Philip Tucker, worked to settle a very tangled estate. The property value was $95,000 with much land in litigation. Sarah died before things could be settled. The four surviving children divided the property and sold the house to Philip Tucker. Molly and William built houses on their share of the property. Molly's house is the large blue house across the street to the east of this house. The Tuckers lived in the house until 1953, when it was sold to the Galveston Historical Foundation.