Thomas Jefferson Rusk


(Image credit: Findagrave)

Thomas Jefferson Rusk is considered to be one of the fathers of Texas.  He was born in South Carolina on December 5, 1803 to Irish immigrant John Rusk and his wife Mary Sterritt Rusk, and was one of seven children.  He had a modest upbringing as his father was a stone mason.  The family lived on the estate of John C. Calhoun who was his mentor.  Rusk studied the law and was admitted to the South Carolina bar.

As a young man, he moved to Georgia where he practiced law and at age twenty-nine was called one of the outstanding lawyers in the state.  He also made investments, one of which was a gold mine.  He suffered a financial loss from the gold mine after an embezzlement by some of the mine’s managers.  Rusk came to the Nacogdoches area of Texas in 1834 in an unsuccessful attempt to follow the suspected individuals and recover his lost money.  There he became acquainted with Sam Houston and brought his family to join him the following year.

He joined Houston in the Texas Army and took part in engagements, including the Battle of San Jacinto.  Rusk is said to have taken command of the Army and led the battle after Sam Houston was wounded in the ankle by a musket ball.  Rusk later rose to the rank of brigadier general and was appointed to serve as the first Secretary of War of the Republic of Texas in 1836.  He was a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence and was also a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1836. He exhibited leadership and was known as being colorful and charismatic.  A newspaper account related an incident during the dark days of the Texas Revolution.  Interim President David Burnet had called a council during which he polled the members for an opinion.  As each member was polled, no two replies were the same.  Rusk was thought to have been sleeping and when he was nudged for his reply, he is said to have raised his head and declared “Gentlemen, my opinion is that we are in a hell of a fix.  We’re all worked down.  Let’s go to the saloon; get a drink; then get on our horses and go fight like the devil to get out of this mess.”  And so, they went.

Rusk was later elected to serve in the First and Second Congresses of the Republic of Texas in 1837 and 1838.  The following year, Rusk was elected to serve as the third chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, though he was the first chief justice to actually perform duties of the office.  He was preceded by John Birdsall and succeeded by John Hemphill.  He first began hearing cases in 1840 and served until the summer of that year.

Rusk continued to serve Texas and was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of the State of Texas in 1845.  After Texas became a state of the United States, Rusk was elected as a one of its first senators, serving with Sam Houston.  He was active as a senator, being elected president pro tempre of that body.  Rusk was known to be a supporter of the transcontinental railroad through Texas.  He also supported the Gadsden Purchase that extended the United States border in Arizona and New Mexico to its current boundary there.  President James Buchanan offered him the post of United States Postmaster, but Rusk declined the appointment.  He was reelected twice as a senator and served in that capacity from 1846 until his death in 1857.  He was succeeded by J. Pinkney Henderson.

He married the former Mary Frances Cleveland in 1827 and they had seven children.  The couple made their home in Nacogdoches.  His wife Mary died of tuberculosis in 1856 and Rusk himself had begun to suffer from a tumor in his neck.  Rusk took his own life while at his home in Nacogdoches on July 29, 1857.  He was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery there in Nacogdoches County, Texas.  A beautiful obelisk was placed there in his honor by the State of Texas in 1894.

Rusk County, Texas was established in 1843 and was named for him.  In addition, Rusk, Texas was established in 1846 and was also named for him. Numerous Texas schools have been named for him.  Over one hundred years after his death, Secretary of State David Dean Rusk (appointed by President John F. Kennedy) acknowledged that T. J. Rusk was his great uncle when responding to the inquiry of El Paso elementary school student Jean Foret, who had written him to ask if the Secretary might be related to the great Texan for whom her school was named.  Secretary Rusk wrote her back, saying “It was very nice to have your friendly letter of Jan. 19, [1961] and to know that you attend the Rusk School in El Paso.  Yes, Thomas Jefferson Rusk was my great uncle, and one of the more prominent members of our family tree.  Sincerely yours, Dean Rusk.”

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