Tidbits of Shelby County History
This week’s article is about Robert McAlpin Williamson known as Three-Legged Willie. The information is taken from a newspaper article published in the Heritage Edition, Spotlights East Texas Light in July 1982.Why he came to Texas in 1827 is unknown, but stories persist that he may have fled after wounding an adversary in a duel over the affections of a woman. Whatever his motive, Texas suited his independent spirit and sense of adventure.In San Felipe Williamson became friends with Stephen F. Austin and William B. Travis. He practiced law and co-founded a newspaper, the Cotton Plant, in 1829.(Note: Found on the San Jacinto-Museum website - On January 23, 1830, R. M. Williamson became associated with Godwin B. Cotton in the publication of "The Texas Gazette", which was the first American newspaper published in Austin's colony. “The Texas Gazette” has been erroneously referred to as "The Cotton Plant" by several writers.)
In 1836, the congress of the fledging republic elected Robert McAlpin Williamson as one of the first district judges in Texas.
Specially, he was assigned to establish law and order in the lawless East Texas counties along the Louisiana border.
About a year later Judge Williamson came to Shelbyville to conduct the first court session ever held near the “Neutral Ground”, that wild and lawless corner of Texas officially called Shelby County.The region was known for its lawlessness during the violent years of the Regulator-Moderator War, in which two rival vigilante groups battled for control.
Before court convened, the citizens held a mass meeting at which they passed a resolution that no court should be held.
Accordingly, when the judge seated himself behind the dry goods box serving him as a rostrum, a lawyer arose, made a few opening remarks, read the resolution and sat down.
Armed and angry men, determined to carry out the resolution, crowded the courtroom. Judge Williamson quietly asked the lawyer to cite any law allowing such a proceeding, since it appeared novel to him. The lawyer pulled out a bowie knife, laid it on the bench and stated, according to legend, “This is the statue which governs in such cases.”
Judge Williamson just as quickly and calmly, drew a long-barreled pistol, laid it down on top of the knife. “If that’s the law of Shelby County,” he said to have remarked, “this is the constitution that overrules it.” The trial proceeded without further interruption, and this moment in Texas legal history provided subject matter for a painting that has hung for many years in the Texas State Bar building in Austin.
The incident is but one of many stories told of Judge Williamson, a remarkable man commonly known as “Three-Legged Willie” and sometimes termed the “Patrick Henry of Texas.”
His nickname stemmed from the fact that at age 15 Williamson was left crippled by an attack of a disease he called “white swelling”. (Note: later known as tubercular arthritis, a tubercular infection of the bone that usually affected children, caused a painful swelling of weight-bearing joints, and resulted in deformities of the lower extremities.) The disease permanently bent his right leg at the knee. He wore a wooden leg to walk. It wasn’t actually a leg, but rather a shortened crutch-style device that he strapped to his knee. He had his tailor sew an extra piece of cloth to the knee of his trousers to cover the crutch; hence the nickname “Three-Legged Willie”. He did not let his malady slow him down.
He was born in Georgia to Peter B. and Rebecca McAlpin Williamson. Because his mother died when he was very small, he and a brother were reared by a grandfather, Micajah Williamson.
Joining the empresario, Stephen F. Austin, Williamson was caught up in virtually all the significant events leading to Texas independence from Mexico. He managed to learn Spanish in only a year, acquiring a thorough knowledge of Spanish land laws at the same time, which enabled him to practice law in Texas.
An unnumbered Headright Certificate issued to Judge Williamson in 1838 by the Board of Land Commissioners for Bastrop County stated that he came to Texas in 1826. On the assumption that he had received one-fourth of a league of land, the amount usually granted to single male under the Mexican law, the headright was for three-fourths of one league and labor of land, married men being entitled to receive a total of one league of land and labor of land under the laws of the Republic, including that previously secured from the Mexican Government. Major Williamson, however, although single at that time he received title to a league of land situated in what is now Austin County, April 23, 1831, it being a special grant.
Williamson was one of the signers of the first roll call for a convention to protest Mexican abuses of colonial rule. As a result, a price was placed on his head by the Mexican government, along with other men famous to Texas history including Lorenzo de Zavala and W.B. Travis. He became a moving spirit in bringing about the Texas Revolution, fighting at Gonzales and at San Jacinto. At the battle of San Jacinto, Williamson was listed in William H. Smith's cavalry company, his name appearing on the original muster roll.
A skilled horseman, Three-Legged Willie wore the proverbial coon-skin ca at San Jacinto. Only instead of one, his cap had nine tails attached to it.
At the time the lame jurist came to East Texas Piney Woods, the entire region was the roost of gunslingers from all over the American South. During the remarkable court term that followed, Three-Legged Willie gained a reputation for quick wit and courage that make him stand out even today amongst a long list of colorful frontier judges.
After the death of his wife, Mary Edwards, he went into a prolonged depression doctors diagnosed as mental illness. Friends would not hear of his being committed to the primitive insane asylums of the day, but instead placed him in the home of his father-in-law, Gustavus Edwards.
Three-Legged Willie, one of the founding fathers of Texas, died in Wharton at age 55 on December 22, 1859.He is buried in the Texas State Cemetery(reinterred March 13, 1930); Williamson County is named for him.