Webster defines maverick as “a person who refuses to follow the customs or rules of a group.” It is a term used to describe both the innovative and the obstinate, the creative and the stubborn. The origins of the word can actually be traced back to a fairly recent point in history and to a specific, definitively Southern gentleman by the name of Samuel Maverick. Maverick’s life was full of adventure, acquiring fortunes, exploring and colonizing new territory, months spent in captivity, and signing declarations, but it was his work as a rancher—or rather lack of work as such—that established Maverick’s position in history and the dictionary.
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1803 to a well-to-do family heavily invested in Charleston’s ports and surrounding plantations, Maverick never felt the sting of destitution in his youth. The affluent young Southerner attended Yale before returning to South Carolina to study and become licensed in law. He departed briefly to Alabama in order to run a plantation, gifted to him by his prosperous father, but quickly found that the planter life was not for him. Maverick disliked the task of supervising slaves to such an extent that he abandoned the plantation in order to seek his truest passion and dream: Texas.
From the moment his unsullied boots touched Texas soil, Maverick became acquainted with the other, dirtier side of life. When Maverick arrived, Texas still belonged to Mexico–but not for long. He immediately set about purchasing massive tracts of land along the Bravos River and in San Antonio. It was in San Antonio that Maverick felt the first rough lick of the Revolution; the Mexican Army placed a guard at the door of Maverick’s residence and refused to let him leave as the army overtook the city. When troops finally released Maverick, he immediately fled to the aid of the Texan Army and assisted them in regaining the city.
Maverick remained with the Texan Army at the Alamo and (perhaps foolishly, given the current state of governmental affairs) continued to soak up as much land as a dry sponge soaks up water. Even after his election to the Texas Independence Convention, Maverick remained at the Alamo as the fort was besieged, finally leaving for the Convention in order to ask for reinforcements. Maverick was, unfortunately, too late, but the loss of the Alamo did not render the Texan rebels invalid, but instead only reinforced their desire for independence. Maverick himself signed the Texas Declaration of Independence which, in addition to freeing his beloved new state from the clasps of the militant Mexican Army, also declared all of his previously purchased land holdings within the state null and void.
Not to be discouraged, the resilient Maverick sold his former holdings back East (including that Alabama plantation) in order to re-invest in the newly independent Texas. Maverick purchased as much land as possible in anticipation of the expected influx of immigrants. Over the next several decades, Maverick established himself as a major landholder and politician in Texas. He was well-respected among locals and despised by his enemies, including the Mexican Army, who captured the Texan in 1842. They marched Maverick south for three months, and even two bands of Texan allies couldn’t rescue him and his fellow prisoners. Rather than begrudge his captors, Maverick instead regarded the experience as an adventure and journaled throughout his incarceration. The Mexican government promised to release Maverick upon one simple condition: he must publicly support Mexico’s claim to Texas. Rather than capitulate and gain freedom, Maverick rebuked, “I cannot persuade myself that such an annexation, on any terms, would be advantageous to Texas, and I therefore cannot say so, for I regard a lie as a crime, and one which I cannot commit even to secure my release.” Growing tired of their vocal prisoner, the Mexican army finally released Maverick in March of 1843, and he walked home, his chain of imprisonment still locked to his ankle.
Following his stint as a prisoner of war, Maverick settled gradually into a more peaceful life. With huge swaths of Texas land under his name and a seat in the Texas legislature, Maverick’s place in society was set. His natural next move, according to his neighbors and the general run of things in Texas at the time, was to become a rancher. His massive land holdings could have established him immediately as one of the most successful ranchers in Texas, but there was one minor holdup: Maverick was simply not interested in ranching.
Despite his disinterest in the field, Maverick was forced into ranching when a debtor repaid him with 400 head of cattle. With passive disregard, Maverick set the cattle to roam on an unfenced portion of his land without even branding the animals. At that time, branding cattle was an integral part of ranching; without a brand, wandering cattle could be claimed by anyone. Local ranchers encouraged Maverick to brand his animals, but he batted away their concerns. Justifications for his actions, or lack thereof, ranged dramatically: some ranchers claimed Maverick’s greed encouraged his actions, since he could claim any unbranded cattle as his own; others believed Maverick’s behavior came from a place of kindness and that he didn’t want to hurt the innocent animals; still others believed Maverick’s actions were ones of sheer laziness. In truth, the last claim was closest to the truth: Maverick’s indifference toward the herd meant that he simply didn’t care whether the animals were branded or not.
Eventually, local ranchers came to recognize the unbranded animals and labeled them “mavericks.” Many of them took advantage of Maverick’s passivity and incorporated the rogue animals into their own herds with their own brand. News of the unlabeled herd spread through Texas, and soon ranchers across the state began referring to unbranded cattle as mavericks. Word of Maverick’s stubbornness spread, too, and the term also became associated with anyone possessing a uniquely independent characteristic or nature.
And so it is that Maverick, survivor of the Alamo, master of Texas politics, and waggish prisoner of war, earned his place in history, not through his many accomplishments, but through one moment of lethargy.