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Footnotes in Texas History

Biography of a Word

The label derived from the life of Samuel Maverick has Texas origins

Illustration by Traci Daberko

This is a biography of a word that was essentially born in Texas, where it grew up to achieve worldwide fame, ultimately transforming itself from modest noun into grand metaphor.

The word is maverick, and it got its start in San Antonio more than 150 years ago. Today, a maverick blazes a trail, goes against the crowd and is an independent thinker. But originally, any unbranded cow was a maverick, and the first herd of unbranded cattle was owned by Samuel Maverick. Ironically, Maverick’s failure (some said refusal) to brand his cattle branded his name in perpetuity.

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Maverick was more interested in acquiring land than ranching it, and he ranked with Richard King and Charles Goodnight as a Texas land baron.

Maverick, born in South Carolina, first demonstrated his nonconformist nature shortly after he arrived in San Antonio in 1835. Even though most Texans were not buying land because they feared they would not be able to hold it during uncertain times, Maverick bought huge tracts around San Antonio and farther east, along the Brazos River.

He joined the Alamo militia and would have died at the Alamo had he not been selected to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence. He was a maverick on March 2, 1836, when he risked his life, along with 59 others, by signing what Antonio López de Santa Anna declared a treasonous document. Maverick later served as mayor of San Antonio, gaining further notoriety as a leading citizen of a rebellious city.

Six years after Texas won its independence, Santa Anna dispatched Gen. Adrián Woll to retake control of San Antonio and to imprison all those who took up arms against Mexico. Maverick organized 53 men on the roof of a building he owned, to resist the invasion. After they killed 14 and wounded 27, they were surrounded by 900 Mexican troops and forced to surrender.

Woll did not carry out orders to execute the prisoners—instead marching them 1,000 brutal miles to Perote Prison, near Puebla, Mexico. The men were chained together in dark cells and subjected to forced labor. As the group representative, Maverick asked for better conditions and was put into solitary confinement just for asking.

After a few months, Santa Anna offered Maverick his freedom in exchange for signing a document saying that Texas had been illegally seized and should be returned to Mexico. Instead of signing, Maverick wrote, “I cannot bring myself to think that it would be to the interest of Texas to reunite with Mexico. This being my settled opinion I cannot sacrifice the interest of my country even to obtain my liberty, for I regard it as a lie and a crime which I cannot commit. I must, therefore, make up my mind to wear my chains, galling as they are.”

While Maverick was in the dungeon, San Antonians elected him to the Republic of Texas House of Representatives. When he was released, Maverick refused to leave without as many of his friends from San Antonio as possible. He waited a few days for most of them to be freed, and they all traveled to San Antonio together.

When Maverick left prison, he took the chains that had bound him as a reminder of the incalculable value of freedom.