Robert McAlpin Williamson was born September 9, 1804 in Georgia to Judge William Peter Ballantine and Rebecca Ann McAlpin Williamson. His mother Rebecca died when he was a baby. He was well educated. His legal career began in Georgia and he was admitted to the Georgia bar. A family legend says that he left Georgia after a duel over the virtue of a woman. His opponent was killed, but the woman did not want to have a relationship with him. Williamson then moved to Texas in the mid 1820s and he settled in San Felipe de Austin where he is said to have become acquainted with William B. Travis. After moving to Texas and settling in San Felipe, he served as city attorney and also as mayor.
Williamson was a co-publisher of a newspaper called The Cotton Plant, in 1826 and 1827. He is later known to have been an editor of the Texas Gazette and the Mexican Citizen and became known as an outspoken critic of Mexican rule. By then, he was living in the Mina area, the present day location of Bastrop.
His strong editorials and speeches in favor of Texas independence led to him being referred to as “the Patrick Henry of Texas,” in honor of the famous patriot of the American Revolution. Patrick Henry (1736-1799) had been a Virginia attorney and farmer whose actions and oratory including his famous speech “Give me liberty, or give me death!” greatly influenced the Revolution. Williamson’s role in the Texas Revolution was thought to be similar to that of Henry. His reputation was well known to Santa Anna and the Mexican government, as they issued a warrant for his arrest because of his bold statements and actions.
While in Mina, he was commissioned as a major in the Texas Rangers in late 1835 primarily defending the area against attacks from the native tribes. The Ranger force was eventually mobilized into the Texas Army as the revolutionary fervor increased. He served continuously in the Texas Army under Sam Houston up to and including the battle of San Jacinto. Williamson is also said to be a cousin of Mirabeau B. Lamar and the Williamson served under Lamar in the Texas Army. Their ancestors were apparently related back in Georgia.
(Image credit: georgetown-texas.org)
Williamson was not physically imposing and was known for having walked on his one good left leg and one wooden leg with his right leg tied behind him. A childhood illness thought to have been either polio or arthritis confined him to a bed for a couple of years. It also left his right leg bent at the knee, leading him to be referred to by his more familiar nickname, “Three Legged Willie.” However, it did not prevent him from leading an active life. He could ride a horse, walk and even dance and he did all of them rather well.
He was a member of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Texas from 1837 to 1840, resigning to serve in the Congress of the Republic of Texas from 1840 to 1845. He then served in the Legislature of the State of Texas representing Milam and Washington counties. He was a proponent of annexation. After Texas was annexed in to the United States, Williamson served two terms as a state senator.
Williamson was respected in legal circles for his service as an early Texas judge. There are numerous anecdotes about his strong and colorful demeanor in whatever location may have served as his courtroom. One such location was an oak tree that since died, but the place is marked with a Texas Historical Marker. In Columbus, Colorado County, the marker’s inscription reads, “District Court Tree. In 1837 this oak sheltered Texas jurors. Courthouse was unfinished because logs coming down-river for building had swept past in strong current. R. M. Williamson, presiding, was called ‘Three Legged Willie’ due to appearance: he had a good leg, crippled leg and wooden leg.”
Williamson married the former Mary Jane Edwards in 1837 and together the couple had seven children. He believed so strongly in the annexation of Texas that they named one of their sons William Annexus Williamson. Williamson County was created in 1848 and was named for him in honor of his service to the State of Texas. A statue of Williamson was dedicated in 2013 across the street from the Williamson County courthouse.
The judge lived out his retirement years in Washington County. His wife Mary Jane died in 1858 and soon after, Williamson died of an undisclosed illness in November, 1859 in Wharton, Texas. Williamson is interred in the State Cemetery in Austin. A friend of his by the name of Dr. Galen described Williamson in a letter to the editor in August 28, 1860 issue of the Galveston Weekly News, “His name stands, as it should, among those of the fathers of the Republic of Texas, one of her early and great men.”
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