by Ronald W. Hurten Milam’s name is well known in Texas. Streets, a county, parks and countless schools have all been named after this frontiersman and hero of the Texas Revolution. However, little is actually known about what kind of person he was. We know him mainly from his actions and acquaintances. Although recent archeological findings have shed some light on his physical appearance at the time of his death, we can only make educated guesses about what motivated Benjamin Rush Milam in love, work or war.
One way to understand Ben Milam is to look to his ancestors; they had much in common.
Milam’s parents were Moses and Elizabeth Pattie Boyd. They married in 1774 and had six children—Archibald, Patsy, William, John, our Benjamin and James. Ben, the next to youngest, was born on October 20, 1788, in Frankfort, Kentucky.
The Milam Clan can be traced back to Thomas and John Milam, brothers who were in Virginia during the 1730s. Most of the Milams who live in the Southern or Southwestern states can trace their lineage to one of these two brothers.
Robert M. Wilbanks, IV, a genealogist and historian who publishes "Milam Roots," a Milam family newsletter, believes Thomas Milam was born before 1716 and married Mary Rush Adams about 1744. At that time, Thomas lived in Orange County, Virginia. His land was near Doubletop Mountain near Milam Gap, named for him. This land became part of Culpeper County when it was formed in 1749 and it's now part of the Shenandoah National Park. Thomas and Mary packed up and moved to Bedford County, Virginia about 1760. Bedford County, further west than Culpeper, promised inexpensive tracts of fertile land that was perfect for the growing Milam family.
By the time the Milams had relocated in Bedford County, they had as many as seven children. Thomas, who died in 1775, mentioned his "two youngest sons," Solomon and Rush Milam. There were probably others, including William, Benjamin, John, Moses and Zachariah. In all probability, Thomas Milam left his land to his two youngest sons because his other sons, who were all adults, already owned their land. Many middle-class Virginians had moved to Bedford County in the middle 1700s for the same reason—plenty of land for their large families. Proof of this is the fact that five of Thomas Milam’s children spent their rest of their lives in Bedford County.
Moses Milam, the father of "Old Ben" would have been the witness, and eventually participant, several significant historical events during his young adult years. The first was the start of the migration over the mountains that separated Virginia from the vast wilderness to the West. Before the American Revolution, the British government forbade any movement into Tennessee or Kentucky. A few brave souls went anyway. While the war clouds were gathering that would result in a rebellion against the British, word was beginning to filter back to civilization that the Promised Land actually existed over the mountains.
Most of the people in Bedford County had been born in the east. What was another move. They were pioneers and it was in their blood. Ben Milam would inherit this sense of adventure and need for freedom.
The floodgates were ready to open, but first, there was a war to fight. Riots, then battles, quickly spread from the Northeast to the South. Bedford County was a hotbed revolutionary fervor as hundreds of Bedford’s young men joined the militia. One settlement in the county was even named Libertytown. As the militia left to join the American army in Camden, S.C., four of Thomas Milam’s sons left with them. William, Benjamin, Moses and Rush were going to be soldiers.
Three of the brothers would eventually return. Benjamin would die in captivity after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. The southerners had done their job, however. They had driven Cornwallis north, toward Yorktown, where Washington and the French would find him. The militia from Bedford County found in all of the major southern battles—Camden, Eutaw Springs, Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse. We don’t know if the Milams fought in all those battles, but we can be sure that when Ben Milam was a young boy, he heard his father and brothers tell their part in the Revolution.
After the war ended in 1782, Virginians began to cross the mountains into what is now Tennessee and Kentucky. In 1788, Moses Milam moved his family to Fayette County, Kentucky. It was there that Benjamin Rush Milam was born. In 1796, Moses again pulled up stakes for the greener pastures of Franklin County, Kentucky. He lived there until he died, sometime after the 1810 census. Ben Milam, by then a young man, knew all the stories of his family's part in helping move the frontier. He was now ready for his own adventure.
As the War of 1812 was heating up, Ben joined the 8th Regiment of the Kentucky Infantry as a private. He would serve in Captain John Jones’ Company until 1815, when he was discharged as a Lieutenant. Milam now had his own war stories to tell, but he was more interested making money. The rest of Milam’s career as a businessman and revolutionary are well documented. By 1818, Milam had been drawn like a magnet to Texas. For the next two decades, his alliances and friendships read like a who’s who of early Texas history. There was James Long and an unsuccessful filibustering expedition. Milam spent time in prison—twice. He became a Mexican citizen became an empresario. He looked for gold and silver in Mexico and tried to start a lumber business along the Trinity River. He would share a blanket with David Burnet at an Indian settlement.
He found time to become engaged to Annie McKinney. She was the daughter of Collin McKinney, a colonist and good friend of Milam. Ben left Annie for three years, didn’t write and Annie married someone else. Milam was evidently too busy with his schemes to care. That was as close as Milam ever got to marriage.
After another brief stint in a Mexican prison for trying to represent the Texas colonists, Milam was allowed to escape and was soon back in Texas where another Revolution was brewing. This would be "Old Ben Milam’s" Revolution. He would have his own stories now. On December 3, 1835, Milam was with the Texan Army outside San Antonio. Ben Milam, either by design or impulse, issued the challenge for the Texans to go into San Antonio. "Who will go with old Ben Milam into San Antonio?" He was 48 years old. Four days later, Milam disregarding the warnings of his men, would peer over a wall at the Verimendi House and a Mexican soldier would shoot him in the forehead. Milam died instantly. His story was complete. In death, he had made a place for himself in history. Had he lived, he might have become only another footnote in the story of the Texas Revolution. Or perhaps he would have become part of another story at the Alamo.
Ron Hurt is a freelance writer in Dallas, Texas.