The Texan Origins of the Word Maverick

The word has gone well beyond its modest roots as a simple noun and transformed itself into impressive, symbolic fame as a metaphor.

By W.F. StrongAugust 24, 2016 10:01 am

This is a biography of a word. It is about a word that was essentially born in Texas, grew up to achieve success here, and eventually became famous the world over.  It has now gone well beyond its modest roots as a simple noun and transformed itself into impressive, symbolic fame as a metaphor. 

The word is maverick. Maverick got its start in San Antonio, Texas, more than 150 years ago. In the world of words, it is a star: James Garner played Maverick in the TV western of the same name in the ’50s and ’60s, Tom Cruise was Maverick in Top Gun, Senator John McCain’s nickname is Maverick, and in Texas have the world champion Dallas Mavericks basketball team. The word means one who shuns custom, the lone wolf, one who blazes their own trail and is willing to go against the crowd, an independent thinker.

Those are the more symbolic meanings of maverick, but most people know that the word’s original meaning referred to unbranded cattle. Any cow that was unbranded was a maverick. But what fewer people know is that the original herd of unbranded cattle that launched the expression was owned by a man named Samuel Maverick. Those unbranded cows were Maverick’s cows. That is how the term came about. Ironic that his failure to brand his cattle branded his name in perpetuity. 

Some say that this was his clever means of claiming all unbranded cattle as his own. 

“There’s another unbranded calf. That’s mine.” Not true.

The fact of the matter is that Sam was not all that interested in ranching. He was a land baron, a real estate investor. He was more interested in acquiring land than actively farming or ranching it. He at one time owned so much land in Texas that he ranked up there with Richard King and Charles Goodnight. There is even a county named for him – Maverick County. Eagle Pass is the county seat.

I think it is a shame that Samuel Maverick became famous for his unbranded cattle because there are dozens of far more impressive ways that he demonstrated his maverick nature. He was a rare and unsung hero of the Texas revolution. In so being, he often lived up, quite impressively, to what his name would come to mean. 

As a rich lawyer in South Carolina (with a degree from Yale), everybody in the Maverick clan expected young Samuel would take over one of his father’s many businesses. But he didn’t. He shocked them all when he chose a different path. He said that he was going to Texas to seek his fortune.

He arrived in San Antonio in 1835 as the winds of war were blowing. No one was buying land then because no one was sure they could hold it. Sam bucked that trend. He jumped in quickly and bought huge tracts of land around San Antonio and further east on along the Brazos. He seemed to believe in the old folk wisdom that you should buy land when no one wants it and sell it when everyone does.

He quickly became a trusted and admired man in San Antonio and joined the Alamo militia.

In fact, he would have died at the Alamo had he not been selected by his fellow volunteers to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence as their representative. So he was a maverick on March 2, 1836, when he risked his life, along with 59 others Texans, by the act of signing what Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna considered a treasonous document.

After independence was won, Samuel Maverick served as mayor of San Antonio, again putting a target on his back as a leading citizen of a rebellious city. Santa Anna had not given up on getting Texas back and so kept a list of those who were his enemies. 

Six years after Independence, Santa Anna struck again. He sent General Adrian Woll to rattle his sabre in San Antonio and kill all those who took up arms against him. Maverick organized a resistance on the roof of the Maverick building. It was comprised of 53 men. Though they killed 14 and wounded 27 in the initial skirmish, they were soon surrounded by 900 Mexican troops and were forced to surrender.

Fortunately for Maverick and his friends, Woll did not carry out orders to execute them, probably because they were more valuable alive. Woll instead took many of these prominent Texans as prisoners and marched them back 1,000 brutal miles to Perote prison. One of them died along the way. Even today, at the Witte Museum, you can the water gourd that sustained Sam during that tumultuous march across Texas and Mexico.

Sam and friends were put into dark cells, chained together, and subjected to forced labor. Sam, as the representative of his men, asked for better conditions and was put into solitary confinement just for asking. 

After a couple of months, Sam was told that Santa Anna would offer him his freedom in exchange for signing a document saying that Texas had been illegally seized and should be returned to Mexico. Lesser men might have taken the deal. But Maverick refused. He wrote, “I cannot bring myself to think that it would be in the best interest of Texas to reunite with Mexico. This being my settled opinion, I cannot sacrifice the interest of my country even to obtain my liberty, still less can I say so when such is not my opinion, for I regard a lie as a crime and one which I cannot commit.  I must, therefore, make up my mind to wear my chains, galling as they are.”

While Sam was in the dungeon, unbeknownst to him, San Antonians elected him as their Congressional Representative in the Republic of Texas. 

His release was finally negotiated by General Waddy Thompson, a family friend who was also trusted by Santa Anna. He did not have to sign anything. But Sam refused to leave without his San Antonio friends. He waited for them to be freed, too, which happened within a few days. Then they all traveled back to San Antonio together.

When Sam left the prison, he took with him the chains that had bound him all those long months as a lifelong reminder of the incalculable value of freedom.

Special thanks to Mary Fisher of San Antonio.

W.F. Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. At Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell ice cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.