The son of Lawson Henderson and Elizabeth Carruth, James Pickney Henderson was born in Lincolnton, North Carolina on March 31, 1808. Raised in an aristocratic manner of North Carolina and Virginia, his grandfather was responsible for sending Daniel Boone westward to Tennessee and Kentucky. After completing his studies at Lincoln Academy, James enrolled as a law student at the University of North Carolina. Studying 18 hours a day, he passed his exam and was admitted to the North Carolina State Bar in 1829.
Prior to beginning his law career, Henderson entered the North Carolina militia where he achieved the rank of Colonel. Upon threat of tuberculosis, after leaving the service in 1835, Colonel Henderson moved to Canton, Mississippi to open his law practice in a milder climate. He would not remain there long, as news of the struggle between Texas and Mexico continued to reach him and he felt led to raise money and an army to assist the Texans in their fight.
Hoping to take part in the fight for independence, Henderson traveled with several volunteers to Texas, only to learn when they arrived at Velasco on June 3, 1836; most of the events were over. The Texas Declaration of Independence was signed on March 2nd, the Alamo fell on March 6th and Sam Houston’s army won the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21. On May 14th, Antonio López de Santa Anna signed the Treaties of Velasco, in which he agreed to withdraw his troops from Texas and David G. Burnet was not serving as the interim President of the new Republic of Texas. Upon Henderson’s arrival, President David G. Burnet commissioned him into the Texas Army as a brigadier general and gave him orders to return to North Carolina and muster troops for Texas. Henderson did so, at his own expense.
On September 5, 1836, Sam Houston became the President of the Republic of Texas and appointed Henderson to be Attorney General. In December of that year, Secretary of State Stephen F. Austin died from pneumonia. Following his death, Houston appointed Henderson to replace him.
The following year, President Houston gave Henderson another hat to wear. James was appointed as minister to France at the Tuileries Palace, and to England at the Court of St. James. Henderson’s efforts in securing recognition of the Republic of Texas and trade agreements with both countries were successful.
Love found Henderson under the brim of this second hat. While serving as minister to France and England, Henderson was introduced to 19-year-old Frances Cox, a native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and educated in Europe. A multi-linguist literary translator, Cox and Henderson were married on October 30, 1839 at St. George’s Hanover Square. The following year, they made their home and established a law office in San Augustine, Texas. Five children would be born to the couple.
Four years later, Henderson went to Washington, D.C. to work with Isaac Van Zandt to secure the annexation of Texas to the United States. An annexation treaty was signed on April 12, 1844, but later rejected by the US Senate on June 8th. Henderson was then ordered home by President Houston. On December 29, 1845, an annexation treaty was finally approved by the Senate and passed.
The first gubernatorial election for Texas took place in 1845, in anticipation of statehood. After the death of his law partner, Kenneth Anderson, who was a leading contender in the race, Henderson ran and won. He took office on February 18, 1846. Two months later, the Mexican-American War erupted. Governor Henderson requested a leave of absence from the legislature so he could assume personal command of the Texas troops. Leading the Second Texas Regiment during the Battle of Monterrey, he served as a Major General under Zachary Taylor. He later returned to his duties as Texas Governor, but did not seek a second term. While he was away, Lt. Governor Albert Clinton Horton served as acting governor until Henderson returned.
In 1847, Henderson went back to his private law practice. On November 9, 1857, Henderson was seated as a United States Senator from Texas, replacing Thomas J. Rusk, but served only seven months. He died on June 4, 1858 due to pulmonary disease and was buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.; but his remains were later moved to the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. His Texas legacy includes the town of Henderson in Rusk County, founded in 1843 and Henderson County, established in 1846.