History’s Mysteries : General Houston

Part One 

On February 22, 1876 one of the first truly disastrous fires in Davenport began when fourteen buildings, including what was known as Hill’s Block, went up in flames. In less than two hours, a half block of Brady Street businesses and nearly that much on Third Street were consumed by fire. According to an article in the Davenport Democrat newspaper of February 24, 1876:

Probably Gen. Houston, the barber, is a more severe sufferer for his means, than any other one party, by the fire. He lost all his furniture, bedding, gloves, carpets, and his wife’s clothing, etc. and a great deal of his shop stock. His loss will be over $800 with no insurance and no money. With what he saved from his shop, he has located in a room on Fifth between Brady and Perry streets, where he would like to see all his old customers again.

A quick check of the Davenport City Directory for 1876 confirmed Houston’s business location and noted that he was a person of color. Since February is Black History Month, it seemed the perfect serendipity for further investigation of General Houston.

Dr. Craig Klein of Scott Community College has researched African-Americans of the area and offered some helpful newspaper citations providing clues to Houston’s life. One of the articles, from November of 1909, included General Houston’s photograph and more snippets of information about the “Brady Street Tonsor”.

General Houston, although now engaged solely in the practice of chiropody, was at one time owner and proprietor of one of the leading tonsorial parlors in the city…. at that time General Houston was known far and near as one of the best masters of the art then engaged in the profession. …. Later he was called out of town and upon returning did not think that a resumption of his former profession would be consistent with the later years of his life. He accordingly adopted the profession of which he is now an adept exponent and which is now his pet hobby and means of sustenance.

Hmmm. First a barber, then a foot doctor. Called out of town? And what about that name – General? Did he serve in the military? Details – we need details. An obituary often has some good ones.

Dr. Klein’s information had listed Houston’s year of death as 1910, and a quick check in Abstracted Names from the Davenport Democrat and Leader revealed an article pertaining to his death. Success! The obit said he had been born a slave, ran away to Illinois, enlisted in the 29th United States Colored infantry and earned his nickname “General” by reason of his bravery there. His slavery name was Houston Smith but after gaining his freedom he dropped the name of his master and retained that of Houston.

Excellent! The name issue has been cleared up. He did serve in the military. Verification of his enlistment and information about his service was easy to obtain by utilizing the library’s subscription database AncestryLibrary. Houston enlisted as a Private on February 13, 1864 and received a disability discharge from the U. S. Colored Troops on March 15, 1865.

There might be interesting information if he filed for an invalid pension from the federal government. Again, using AncestryLibrary the pension file index revealed an application for both an invalid pension and a widow’s pension. It would sure be fun to order copies of those from the National Archives some day!

Sarah Houston had filed for the widow’s pension. Finally – a name for his wife. A second look at his obituary in the Democrat confirmed he was survived by a wife and one granddaughter, but no son or daughter was mentioned. Thinking it might be an accidental omission, a check of the other newspaper seemed appropriate. The Daily Times obituary indicated that more was omitted from the General’s story than just the name of his child!

Houston had married a woman in Illinois shortly after the war. The Times obit went on to say he married a second time and thereafter shot … wait! He did what? Was charged with what? In little West Liberty, Iowa? I’ll say he got called out of town! This really IS a history mystery! Too long for one blog entry…. tune in next week for the rest of the story!!

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