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"Three-legged Willie" in Texas History

Did you know that one of the soldiers that fought in the Battle of San Jacinto wore a coonskin cap with nine tails hanging off of it? It’s true! That man was Robert McAlpin Williamson, who was also known as “Three-legged Willie.” Did Robert really have three legs? Well, sort of.

Born in Georgia in 1806, Robert suffered a horrible disease at the age of fifteen. Some said he had polio, while others called it “white swelling,” or tuberculosis. Whatever it was, it left Robert with a paralyzed right leg that was bent backward at the knee at a 90-degree angle. To compensate, Robert built a crude wooden leg so he would not need a crutch. Soon he obtained the nickname “three-legged Willie,” and he often called himself by that name.

Amazingly, he became an excellent horseman and marksman, and loved to read. But one of his great joys was spending time with the African slaves in his community, and learning to sing and dance. With the brilliance that few people possessed, Robert passed the bar exam at the age of 19, and became an exceptional attorney. Once he arrived in Texas, Robert established a law practice, and even founded a newspaper. Robert became one of the leading advocates for Texas to revolt against Mexico. Not letting his disability hinder him, Robert fought in the Battle of Gonzales and the Battle of San Jacinto. For his heroic efforts, Robert was awarded 640 acres of land a few miles East of Lake Somerville. Soon, Robert married Mary Jane Edwards, daughter of Gustavus E. Edwards, a member of the Old Three Hundred.

Because people trusted him, Robert became a Judge, and served in the Texas Congress and other elective offices. Robert became a leading campaigner for Texas to be annexed into the United States. He was so passionate about this cause, that he even named one of his seven newborn children Annexus! Robert died in Wharton on December 22, 1859. But he left behind for us to enjoy some incredible stories and an amazing legacy of wit and wisdom.

Three-legged Willie had a rough lifestyle, similar to the other frontiersmen of his time. But God had made an impact upon him since his youth. Some say that the Christian slaves he grew up with, helped him to reverence God and understand Scripture. As an example, when his court session finished for the day, Three-legged Willie would often invite everyone to dance with him. He would take off his wooden leg, pick up a banjo, and begin to sing the old Spirituals. He also was known for pattin’ juba, an African-American percussion style of rhythmic thigh-patting, hand-clapping, and foot stomping that was widespread among slave populations.

When Judge Williamson conducted court proceedings, he always ran it with precision, seriousness, and respect. One day he was holding court under a big tree, when a thug pulled a Bowie knife on the dignified judge and said that “this is the law around here.” Without hesitation, Judge Williamson pulled out a large pistol from his coat. Three-legged Willy pointed it at the complainant and said, “This was the United States Constitution and it overrules your law!”

In 1848, a large group of people in what is now Georgetown, requested that the Texas Legislature form a new county. Lawmakers in Austin chose to honor their true friend and patriot by naming the new county Williamson County. In their decision recorded by historian Noah Smithwick, they said, “to Judge Williamson nature had indeed been lavish of her mental gifts, but as if repenting of her prodigality in that line, she later afflicted him with a grievous physical burden; his right leg being drawn up at a right angle at the knee, necessitating the substitution of a wooden leg, which circumstances gave rise to the name by which he was familiarly known, ‘Three-Legged-Willie.’ He could leave a court room over which he had just presided with all the grace and dignity of a lord chief justice, and within an hour be patting Juba for some nibble footed scapegrace to dance."

One last story, about a truly amazing man. Robert loved to attend worship in outdoor church camp-meetings. On one occasion during a severe drought, he was called upon to lead in prayer for a break in the weather. It is said that he prayed with these words: “Lord, we have met today to pray for rain. Lord thou knowest how much we need rain for man and beast. We need copious rains, real copious rains: root-soakers, gully-washers. Lord we ask thee not to send us little sun-showers that will make our corn produce nubbins that all hell couldn’t shuck.” Apparently this prayer produced hearty amen’s from the shocked congregation.

Have you heard the old saying, “It takes all kinds to make the world go around?” If God could use a burning bush (Exodus 3), or a stick (Numbers 17), or a donkey (Numbers 22), or a floating ax-head (2 Kings 6), or wet dirt (John 9) to bring about His purposes, Three-legged Willie was a prime candidate, too. That means that you and I can be used by God for great things!

2 Corinthians 12:9 NIV - "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.”

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