The story that places Margaret Leatherbury Hallett in early Texas merits being called a “legend” because not every part of her saga meets the truth test. Born on Christmas Day 1787, she was the youngest daughter of a prominent Virginia family and probably the feistiest.
At eighteen she fell in love with John Hallett, a merchant seaman—not exactly the pedigree her parents planned for their daughter. One account says that John was the youngest son of a gentleman from Worcester, England. At an early age, he joined the Royal Navy, but when an officer threatened him, he jumped overboard and swam to a nearby American ship. Allowed to stay on board, he was brought to the United States and adopted by a merchant seaman. Either Margaret’s family did not know his history or they did not care, because it is said that when they insisted that she could do better than a seaman, she said “I would rather marry John Hallett and be the beginning of a new family than remain single and be the tail-end of an old one.” Whereupon she left for the Chesapeake Bay area, and a chaplain married the couple onboard ship.
Margaret and John lived in Baltimore for several years, and after John fought in the War of 1812 against his former countrymen, one of the accounts says that he and Margaret joined a wagon train of homesteaders heading west. The West to which this story refers was still part of Spain’s colonial empire and the Mexicans were involved in a war for independence from Spain (1810 to 1821), which makes it unlikely that homesteaders were heading to that region. It is far more likely that John took his wife aboard a ship that sailed through the Gulf of Mexico to the mouth of the Rio Grande. Again, the legend needs checking because it says the couple settled in Matamoros, a Mexican port across the Rio Grande from present Brownsville. The village where they settled was a commercial center used by area cattlemen that did not get named Matamoros for another ten years. It’s still an amazing account since they opened a mercantile business in the Spanish Colonial village while Mexicans were fighting for independence from Spain. During that time, their first two sons were born in 1813 and 1815.
The family moved up to the community surrounding the Presidio La Bahía that was known as Goliad and opened a trading post. A third son, Benjamin, and a daughter, Mary Jane, were born at Goliad. Something happened to Benjamin when he was ten; some accounts say Indians carried him off, but no record of the incident survives. In 1833 John acquired a league (4,428 acres) of land from the Stephen F. Austin Colony on the east bank of the Lavaca River in present Lavaca County. The family continued operating the trading post at Goliad while John took workers with him to build a log cabin on their new property, dig a water well and protect the property with a moat around the cabin that was five feet wide and three feet deep. (The moat is never mentioned again in any of the accounts.) The family remained in Goliad and John continued to travel to their new land until his death, probably in early 1836.
After the fall of the Alamo on March 6, 1836, Margaret and her daughter Mary Jane fled in the Runaway Scrap with all the other families escaping Santa Anna’s advancing army. Upon their return, they found their property destroyed and set about rebuilding and replanting. The two oldest sons fought at San Jacinto on April 21 in the battle that won Texas independence from Mexico. The oldest son, John, Jr., returned home after the war and was killed by Indians. That same year, his brother William went to Matamoros to buy land where he was accused of being a spy and sent to prison where he died.
Margaret, a forty-nine-year-old widow, and her daughter Mary Jane were the only survivors, and when a young man, Colatinus Ballard, rode into Goliad to let Margaret and Mary Jane know that settlers were moving onto the property they owned up on the Lavaca River, the two left immediately for their cabin. Upon arriving they met two friendly Tonkawa Indians and their new white neighbors who told stories of constant Comanche attacks. Margaret called a meeting of the settlers and the Tonkawas who agreed that they must go to San Antonio to seek help from Texas Rangers to rid the land of the raiding Comanches. Margaret prepared food for the trip and issued instructions for the best route. Within two weeks the Rangers had cleared the Comanches from the area.
As more settlers arrived, Margaret stocked her cabin with supplies and began operating a trading post, bartering coffee, sugar, and other merchandise with the Tonkawas and her new neighbors in exchange for hides and pelts. She hauled the hides and pelts to nearby Gonzales to trade for corn, which she planted as a crop and began raising cattle and horses that carried her own brand.
One legend says that some Tonkawas came into her trading post asking for free merchandise (same say whiskey). When she refused, one of the Indians began to help himself, and Margaret hit the Indian on the head with a hatchet raising a large knot. When Chief Lolo came to investigate the incident, he was so impressed with Margaret’s independence that he named her “Brave Squaw” and made her an honorary member of the tribe.
Despite being a widow, Margaret never wore black, instead preferring brightly colored clothing. She also wore a chatelaine bag––a purse like affair––that hung by a chain from her waist. Gossips claimed that she carried powder in that bag, and it was not the kind that required a puff. Apparently, no one had the nerve to ask what was in the bag.
Margaret donated land in 1838 near her trading post for a town, which was named Hallettsville in her honor. She built a new house in the town and when the legislature of the Republic of Texas authorized a new county named La Baca (it later became Lavaca) Margaret opened her home for county and district court sessions. When the time came to select the county seat, the older town of Petersburg claimed the honor. Some stories claim that after two elections failed to secure Hallettsville as the county seat, Margaret Hallett sent an oxcart to Petersburg to retrieve the county records, and that settled the matter.
Although Mary Jane attended a private convent, Margaret gave the land in 1852 to establish the town’s first public school, and she helped organize the Alma Male and Female Institute. Mary Jane married Colatinus Ballard, the young man who had ridden all the way to Goliad to warn Margaret that settlers were moving onto her league of land. One story claims that Ballard, a native Virginian, was the first cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln.
Margaret Leatherbury Hallett died in 1863 at the age of seventy-six and was buried on her league. Her remains were later moved to City Memorial Park and a grave marker placed on the site that names her the founder of Hallettsville.