Robert McAlpin Williamson (1804/1805–1859) was the son of Peter B. and Ann (McAlpin) Williamson, who was born in Clark County Georgia. While a teenager, he encountered an illness that confined him to his home for two years and left him disabled for life. His right leg was drawn back at the knee; the wooden leg, which he wore from the knee to the ground, resulted in his widely known nickname, “Three-Legged Willie.”
During his illness and recovery, Williamson occupied his time by studying mathematics, Latin, literature, and law. Far better educated than most others, Williamson was admitted to the bar in 1824 or 1825 at the approximate age of nineteen. He is believed to have practiced law for about one year in the office of his uncle, Judge Duncan Campbell.
Williamson left Georgia around the end of 1825, spent some time in Alabama and New Orleans, finally arriving in San Felipe de Austin, Texas (the capital of Stephen F. Austin’s colony and, not inconsequentially, the site of a prevalent disregard of law and public safety), in June 1827. We do not know why Williamson migrated to Texas, but there were rumors to the effect that he may have fled after wounding an adversary in a duel over the affections of a woman. Whatever his motive, Texas suited Williamson’s independent spirit and his 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. By 1830 he had been appointed the first prosecuting attorney for the San Felipe district. He also edited The Texas Gazetteand then The Mexican Citizenuntil 1831.
Williamson moved to Mina, Texas (now Bastrop) in the summer of 1835. From Bastrop, Williamson served as a delegate to the Consultation in November 1835—the body that eventually established a provisional government just prior to the Texas Revolution. At the Consultation, Williamson accepted a commission as a major of the Texas Army and placed in command of the Texas Rangers. Despite his disability, Williamson was a capable horseman and a skilled marksman. He fought Comanche on the frontier, Mexicans in the battle of San Jacinto, and he served as an able member of William H. Smith’s cavalry squadron.
In December 1836 the First Congress of the Republic elected Williamson judge of the Third Judicial District, which automatically made him a member of the Texas Supreme Court. Popular lore tells us that Williamson held the district’s first court session under the shade of a large oak tree next to the site of the one-day Colorado County courthouse in Columbus.
Williamson was known as a colorful character, even for the Texas of his own time. Numerous legends about him persist in the folklore of Texas. Between 1837 and 1844 there erupted a feud in Texas that became known as the Regulator-Moderator War. The principal leaders of the Regulators were Charles W. Jackson and Charles W. Moorman. The primary leaders of the Moderators were Edward Merchant, John M. Bradley, and Deputy Sheriff James J. Cravens. The roots of this conflict lay in the fraud and land swindling that had been rife in the so-called neutral ground between the American and Mexican borders. In one dispute, Jackson (a fugitive from Louisiana) shot Joseph Goodbread at Shelbyville. Jackson then organized the Regulators to prevent cattle rustling, and Merchant organized the Moderators to keep an eye on the Regulators. It was during this time that both Regulators and Moderators intimidated judges to the point where trials could not proceed.
In Williamson’s first court session in Shelby County, a man stood before the court and made a motion that this particular trial should not proceed. Williamson asked, “What is the grounds for your request?” The man plunged a Bowie knife into the judge’s dais and replied, “This is the law that governs here.”
Williamson rose to his feet, drew out his pistol and laid it on the table next to the knife and said, “If this is your law, this pistol is the constitution that overrules it.” The trial proceeded without further interruption.
Judge Williamson served as judge for four years. In this capacity, he helped make East Texas a safer place for new settlers. The outlaws he didn’t hang or put in jail, he ran out of Texas after giving them notice that they would be shot on sight if they ever returned. Still, Williamson was a fair man, saving the life of a young Indian man who had been falsely accused and was about to be lynched. In another case, he was about to sentence a convicted murderer when the main fainted. Judge Williamson instructed the sheriff, “Hang that poor fellow before he comes to.”
The core concept of circuit courts requires judges to travel to different locales to ensure wide visibility and understanding of cases in a region. More generally, some modern circuit courts may also refer to a court that merely holds trials for cases of multiple locations in rotationally.
The life of a circuit judge was harsh and difficult, but the job suited Judge Williamson. In 1836, the Third Judicial District included six counties; the circuit was ridden on horseback during all kinds of weather, with lodgings taken wherever available; if no lodgings were available, the judge and circuit lawyers camped out.
Following court sessions, Williamson often entertained at evening gatherings, playing banjo and singing. We are informed that Williamson preferred performing Negro spirituals learned in his childhood in Georgia. He also was known for pattin’ juba, an African-American percussion style thigh-patting, hand-clapping, and foot stomping widespread among slave populations.
Despite Williamson’s adventurous spirit, he suffered from an illness that might have been epilepsy. Episodes occasionally left him partially or completely paralyzed for periods of time where he was unable to either move or speak, but nevertheless remained aware of everything going on around him. At one point so afflicted, and while staying on the second floor of an Austin hotel, Williamson’s nurse mistook him for dead. She called the carpenters, who measured him for a coffin. All the while this was going on, Williamson lay still on his bed. A few hours later the carpenters returned with the coffin but discovered that they had failed to consider his deformed leg. The carpenters took the coffin away to make the sides higher. When they returned, Willie called upon all of his faculties to protest as they lowered him into the coffee. He suddenly began kicking with all three of his legs, which scared the carpenters and nurse so badly that the carpenters dropped the coffin and ran for the door, and the nurse leaped from the second story window onto the street.
At the close of his first circuit in 1837, Williamson married Miss Mary Jane Edwards, a daughter of Gustavus E. Edwards who was a member of the “Old Three Hundred” settlers that migrated to Texas in 1822. The couple settled in Washington County and started a family that eventually included seven children. Williamson resigned his position on the court in January 1839. The following year he was elected to represent Washington County in the Congress of the Republic of Texas. He served in the Texas House during its fifth, sixth, and seventh sessions, in the Texas Senate during the Eighth Congress, and in the Texas House again during the Ninth Congress. Williamson ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1851.
In 1857 Williamson suffered the onset of an illness that left him mentally impaired. Mary Jane’s death in 1858 guaranteed that Judge Williamson would never recover from his debilitations and he died in Wharton on 22 December 1859. Williamson County, Texas is named in his honor.
- Hunter, J. Marvin, Frontier Times, 1928
- Lynch, James D. The Bench and Bar of Texas, 1885
- Robinson, Duncan W. Judge Robert McAlpin Williamson: Texas’ Three-Legged Willie, 1948
- Williamson, Robert McAlpin, Handbook of Texas
Texas lawmakers created the Texas Rangers on 24 November 1835. The organization consisted of fifty-six men in three companies, each officered by a captain and two lieutenants whose immediate superior was a major subject to the orders of the commander-in-chief of the regular (Texas) army.
I have not been able to establish the specific jurisdiction of the Third District Court in 1836-1839; I think this information would be interesting and worthwhile.
The first sovereign to institute circuit courts was King Henry II of England, the beginning of the custom of having judges ride the circuit each year to hear cases rather than requiring citizens to bring their complaints to a central court-house location. This was particularly useful in the expansive countryside of the United States, where judges often traveled on horseback with a group of lawyers.
Williamson was, indeed, a colorful character. Enjoy these tales, Mustang. Keep ‘em coming.
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Thank you, Andy … I shall endeavor to persevere.
Great story on naming of Williamson county!
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Good stuff as usual. Thanks!
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