Ben Milam statue in Cameron, Milam County, Texas
Ben Milam (1788–1835), soldier, colonizer, and entrepreneur, was born in Frankfort, Kentucky, on October 20, 1788. He had little or no formal schooling but showed an interest in military affairs, enlisting in the Kentucky militia and fighting for several months in the War of 1812. When his period of enlistment was completed he returned to Frankfort. Restless, he went to Texas by 1818, trading with the Comanche Indians on the Colorado River. Here he met another Indian trader, David G. Burnet and the two became friends. In 1819, Milam met José Félix Trespalacios and James Long in New Orleans and learned about their plan to help the revolutionaries in Mexico and Texas gain independence from Spain. Milam joined up, commissioned a colonel. While he and Trespalacios sailed to Veracruz, Long marched on La Bahía but was eventually captured. In Veracruz, Trespalacios and Milam also met with disaster and imprisoned. Ultimately, Milam and his associates appealed their case to the new revolutionary government of Agustín Iturbide which, in turn, accepted and treated them with respect and generosity and ordered their release.
In 1822, a guard shot Long under circumstances that convinced Milam that the killing was plotted by Trespalacios. In retaliation, Milam and several friends planned to kill Trespalacios but the plot was discovered. Once again in prison, Milam was saved through the influence of Joel R. Poinsett, United States minister. Milam quickly left the country.
By the spring of 1824 Milam returned to Mexico encouraged by the passage of the Constitution of 1824 and made several important contacts. In Mexico City he met Arthur G. Wavell, an Englishman who had become a general in the new Mexican army. Trespalacios, now prominent in the new government as well, made overtures to Milam to renew their friendship, and Milam accepted. Granted Mexican citizenship and commissioned a colonel in the Mexican army, he became Wavell’s partner in a silver mine in Nuevo León in 1825–26. The two also obtained empresario grants in Texas. Wavell managed the mining in Mexico while Milam recruited settlers for their colony, making improvements in the region intended to make the region more desirable. Milam removed the great Red River raft of debris, which for years had blocked traffic in the upper part of the Red River for all vessels except canoes and small, flat-bottomed boats. He then purchased a steamboat, the Alps, the first of its kind to pass through the channel.
At the same time, the Mexican Congress passed the law of April 6, 1830, prohibiting further immigration of United States citizens into Texas, effectively crippling Milam’s efforts to attract settlers.
Undaunted, Milam went to Monclova in 1835 to lobby for clear land titles to Anglo-American settlers caught in the labyrinth of Mexican immigration law. However, before Milam could leave the city, word came that Antonio López de Santa Anna had overthrown the representative government of Mexico, had established a dictatorship, and was en route to Texas with an army. Milam and prominent Mexican federalists were captured and imprisoned at Monterrey. Milam eventually escaped and headed for the Texas border, which he reached in October 1835. By accident he encountered a company of soldiers commanded by George Collinsworth, from whom he heard of the movement in Texas for independence. Milam joined them, helped capture La Bahia, and then marched with them to join the main army to capture San Antonio. While returning from a scouting mission in the southwest on December 4, 1835, Milam learned that a majority of the army had decided not to attack San Antonio as planned but to go into winter quarters. Convinced that this decision would be a disaster for the cause of independence, Milam then made his famous, impassioned plea: “Who will go with old Ben Milam into San Antonio?” Three hundred volunteered, and the attack, which began at dawn on December 5, ended on December 9 with the surrender of Gen. Martín Perfecto de Cos and the Mexican army.
Milam did not survive to witness the victory, however. On December 7 he was shot in the head by a sniper and died instantly.