Temple Lea Houston was the only one of the Houstons' eight children to be born in the Texas governor's residence in Austin. By the time he was seven, both his parents had died. He lived with an older sister and her family in nearby Georgetown, Texas. At the age of 13, Houston left home to join a cattle drive and later worked on a riverboat on the Mississippi River. Aided by a friend of his father's, he gained an appointment as a page in the U.S. Senate and worked in Washington, D.C. for three years.
Houston returned to Texas in 1877 at the age of 17 to attend the Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Texas A&M University). He transferred to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he graduated in 1880 with honors in law and philosophy. He "read the law" with an established firm and was admitted to the bar. He was the youngest attorney in Texas when he opened his practice. That year he was appointed as the attorney for Brazoria County near Houston, Texas.
In 1882, Houston was appointed as the district attorney of the 35th Judicial District of Texas, which then covered a large part of the Texas Panhandle, based in Mobeetie, Wheeler County.
Established in his career, on February 14, 1883, 23-year-old Houston married Laura Cross, the daughter of a planter. They lived near Fort Elliott, which protected the border against American Indians, as well as the important cattle drives. The couple had seven children, only four of whom lived past infancy.
Houston was elected in 1884 to a single term in the Texas State Senate from District 19.
He concentrated his law practice on the Santa Fe railroad (the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway). He spoke French and Spanish, as well as seven Indian languages. In 1888, he gave the dedication address for the opening of the Texas State Capitol, which is still in use after several renovations.
In 1894, Houston moved his family to the cattle town of Woodward in Oklahoma Territory. He was legal counsel of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway; its Woodward depot became one of the most important points in the territory for cattle shipping to the East. Houston became widely known and popular for his courtroom dramatics. He was charged with murder in the shooting of a brother of the outlaw Al Jennings, after an argument in the Cabinet Saloon, and was acquitted.
Houston won a reputation as a brilliant trial lawyer. In 1899, he delivered his "Soiled Dove Plea" in a makeshift courtroom in Woodward's opera house. The argument on behalf of Minnie Stacey, a prostitute who worked at the Dew Drop Inn, became famous for winning her acquittal after ten minutes' consideration by the jury.
The historian William T. Hagan described Houston as "a flamboyant figure in his black frock coat and shoulder-length auburn hair topped off with a white Stetson. He liked to lace his arguments with literary allusions and could enthrall a courtroom or legislative chamber."
Temple Lea Houston died on August 15, 1905. His wife Laura (Cross) Houston died on April 17, 1938. They are buried together at Elmwood Cemetery in Woodward, Oklahoma.Edna Ferber modeled her main character of Yancey Cravat on Temple Houston in her novel Cimarron (1929). (The novel was adapted as film versions under the same name, produced in 1931 and 1960.)
Ross Elliott played Houston in "The Reluctant Gun" (1959) episode of the western anthology series, Death Valley Days.
In the 1960 film Oklahoma Territory, Houston was played by Bill Williams. Gloria Talbott was cast as Ruth Red Hawk, Ted de Corsia as Chief Buffalo Horn, X Brands as Running Cloud, and Walter Sande as Marshal Pete Rosslyn. The film was written by Orville H. Hampton and directed by Edward L. Cahn.
A 1963–1964 NBC/Warner Brothers television series entitled Temple Houston, which aired 26 episodes, was co-produced by the actor Jeffrey Hunter, who also played the part of Houston. Temple Houston was placed on the schedule in a matter of six weeks after it was sold by studio boss Jack Webb to the network.