Houston was born in Virginia. Between 1809 and 1813 he spent three years living with the Cherokee people, learning their language and customs and developing a deep sympathy for them.
Later, in 1829, after his first wife divorced him, he resigned as governor of Tennessee and returned to live with the Cherokee again for several years; during this period he married a Cherokee woman and was formally adopted by Chief John Jolly, who named him The Raven. This was probably both a mark of his cultural acceptance and a way of securing his position as a trader with the Cherokee at a store he established near Fort Gibson.
After this period he moved to Texas, where he became a leader in the independence movement. In 1836 he commanded the rebel troops which defeated the Mexican general Santa Ana's forces and secured Texan independence.
He became the first president of the new republic the same year, and continued to hold various offices until his death.
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