A Love Story

Jim Shankle was born in 1811 on a Mississippi plantation. When he married Winnie, she already had three children fathered by the plantation owner. Soon after the marriage, Jim overheard the business deal their master made with a planter to sell Winnie and her children. He knew they were taken to a plantation in East Texas. He grieved for several days and then made up his mind to find his family. With a price on his head as a runaway slave, he headed west, always moving at night, foraging in fields for his food, and hiding in the fields when he heard others on the road. Not daring to use a ferry, he swam both the Mississippi and Sabine rivers.

After a 400-mile journey, he reached East Texas and moved at night from plantation to plantation asking about Winnie. Finally, Jim found her as she collected water at a spring. For several days, Winnie hid Jim and brought food to him at night.  Some accounts say Winnie’s master found Jim, other stories say she told her master about her husband. Whatever the truth, the plantation owner agreed to buy Jim.

In addition to Winnie’s three children, they raised six of their own. When emancipation came following the Civil War they became farmers and began buying land with their partner Steve McBride. Eventually, they held 4,000 acres, and as other black families began settling in the area, they formed the community of Shankleville. The Shankles and McBride oversaw the building of a school, church, a cotton gin, sawmill, and gristmill.

Stephen McBride

Steve McBride, who could not read, married one of the Shankle daughters. He established McBride College (1883-1909), fulfilling his dream of helping others receive the education he had been denied.

Winnie Shankle died in 1883 and Jim died five years later, ending a love story that has become an East Texas legend.

Texas Historical Marker story of Shanklesville.
Courtesy Barclay Gibson

Advertisements

The Thing That Comes in the Night

A story, circulated since the 1830s in South Central Texas, contains enough truth to merit a Texas Historical Marker. Residents along the Navidad River bottom in Lavaca and Jackson counties began seeing strange footprints along the riverbank, and at the same time, they began missing small amounts of sweet potatoes and corn. On moonlit nights half the food in their cabins disappeared even though an intruder had to step over sleeping dogs. Tools vanished, only to be returned, brilliantly polished and sharpened. In fall around hog-killing time families stopped fattening hogs because a fat hog was invariably replaced with a scrawny substitute. Valuables such as gold or watches were never taken although they were plainly visible when the food disappeared.

Everyone speculated about “it.” Slaves believed it was a ghost and called it “The Thing That Comes.” Settlers, finding two sets of footprints, believed one of the intruders to be a man and the other a smaller companion, perhaps a woman or child.

Many people organized search parties trying to capture the “Wild Man of the Navidad.” Sometimes they found his camp among a thick growth of trees, but he never returned to the site while the pursuers waited.

Texas folk author J. Frank Dobie in his book Tales of Old-Time Texas concluded that the phantom figure had to be a woman because several well-documented sightings reported that “it” had long, flowing hair and facial features more similar to a woman. Dobie writes of a near capture in 1846 during an intense search when a rider heard rustling in the brush just before “it” ran in the light of the moon onto the open prairie.  “She ran directly across the prairie in the direction of the main forest. The man nearest her rode a fleet horse and it needed all the speed it had to keep up with the object in pursuit. As the figure neared the dark woods, the rider was able to throw his lasso. But, as the rope neared the woman, the horse shied away and the lasso felt short. The figure darted into the woods never to be seen again.”

Dobie said the rider claimed that the creature had long, flowing hair that trailed down almost to its feet and it wore no clothing. Her body seemed to be covered with short, brown hair.

“As she fled to the woods, she dropped a club to the ground that was about five feet long and polished to a wonder,” Dobie said.

Finally, in 1851, with the help of dogs trained to hunt down runaway slaves, local residents following their baying hounds found a black man in a tree. He wore no clothes and spoke no English. Some accounts say he was put in jail where he remained for about six months until a sailor wandered through who was familiar with the native dialect of the captive’s African tribe.

The captive said his father, a chief of their tribe, sold his son into slavery for the price of a knife and tobacco. The new slave and a companion escaped after their transport ship reached Texas. They settled in the Navidad River bottom because of the abundance of wildlife and fruit. His companion died from exposure.

The captured man, whom they called Jimbo, was sold back into slavery and lived in Victoria and Refugio counties. Freed after the Civil War, he reportedly died in 1884.

J. Frank Dobie writes, “Of course all of this happened many years ago and in the telling, you can always guarantee some build up in the information will take place.  If these things did happen, I cannot explain how.”

Legends of A Lady Pioneer

Two official Texas historical markers sit on the shore of Lake Texoma, the enormous reservoir separating North Texas and Oklahoma. One marker commemorates Holland Coffee’s Trading Post, now under the waters of Lake Texoma. The neighboring marker calls Sophia Coffee

Sophia Coffee Porter, Grayson County TX GenWeb

Porter a Confederate Lady Paul Revere. The colorful lives of Sophia and Holland Coffee came together in 1837 probably while Coffee served in the Congress of the Republic of Texas.

Sophia was born a Suttonfield in 1815 on the remote military post at Fort Wayne (present Indiana). As a beautiful dark-haired girl of seventeen, she ran away with Jesse Aughinbaugh, the headmaster at her school. The twosome split up in Texas—Sophia said he deserted her—in 1836 and Sophia, who told many stories about herself, claimed to be the first woman to reach the battle site at San Jacinto. She arrived on April 22, 1836, the day after Texas won its independence from Mexico. Although no record exists of their relationship in Sam Houston’s published letters or biographies, Sophia maintained that she nursed the wounded general back to health. Some historians believe she may have been a camp woman who sold her services to the general.

Coffee’s Trading Post
Grayson Co TX GenWeb

Holland Coffee established his trading post in the early 1830s on the Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) side of the Red River and moved to the Texas border in 1837. The historical marker says Coffee traded with the Indians for many white captives. Coffee ransomed a Mrs. Crawford and her two children by paying the Indians 400 yards of calico, a large number of blankets, many beads, and other items. In later years, Mrs. John Horn wrote that when Comanches refused to trade for the release of her and her children, Holland wept and then gave her and the children clothing and flour. Despite being accused by settlers of trading whiskey and guns to the Indians for cattle and horses they stole from the whites, his neighbors must have forgiven him because they elected him as their congressman.

When Sophia failed to get a divorce from Aughinbaugh through the courts in Houston, she petitioned the legislature to intervene on her behalf. After several attempts to get a bill through Congress, Sam Houston, President of the Republic of Texas, used his influence and the petition passed both houses with Holland Coffee as a member of the House of Representatives voting aye.

Coffee and Sophia took a 600-mile honeymoon on horseback through Washington County, to Nacogdoches, and along the Red River, stopping at several locales to attend balls in celebration of their marriage. Coffee settled with his bride at his trading post, a popular place for Indians and for cowboys heading north with their cattle. Coffee gave Sophia a wedding gift of one-third league of land––about 1,476 acres—only the first of her many acquisitions. In her later accounts of life on the Red River, Sophia said her nearest neighbor lived twenty-five miles away.

Because of the constant threat of Indian attacks, the Texas Rangers guarded their trading post. While their slaves plowed the fields, the horses had to be watched. At preaching services, they stacked firearms nearby for easy access. The Republic of Texas built a protective line of forts along the western edge of the frontier and connected them with a Military Road from Austin to Fort Johnson on the Red River near Coffee’s Trading Post. The military base bought supplies, clothing, tobacco, gunpowder, and tools from Coffee, which injected new life into his business. He opened a ferry at a crossing on the Red River and he and Sophia continued to buy land and slaves. New settlers arrived, and in 1845 Holland sold town lots for the town of Preston.

Glen Eden
Grayson County TX GenWeb

In 1845-46 Holland Coffee hired Mormons traveling from Illinois to Central Texas to build Glen Eden, a home that expanded over the years into the most impressive house in North Texas. Sophia entertained lavishly. By her own account, her guests included such notables as Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant (no record exists of either man being there), and Sam Houston. Men from nearby Fort Washita in Indian Territory came often to Glen Eden.

Stories vary about how Coffee died in 1846. Some say it began when Sam Houston arrived to dedicate the new county courthouse in nearby Sherman and planned to stay with the Coffees at Glen Eden. Coffee’s niece had married Charles A. Galloway who offended Sophia by commenting about her former relationship with Sam Houston. She demanded that Coffee horsewhip his new nephew. When Coffee refused to publically air the family problems, Sophia said she would rather be the widow of a brave man than the wife of a coward. Coffee started an “Indian duel,” a fight to the death, with Galloway who killed Coffee with a Bowie knife.

A rich and charming widow of a brave man, Sophia, at age thirty-one managed the 3,000-acre slave plantation, tended her extensive gardens, and continued to host grand parties. On one of her regular trips to New Orleans to sell her cotton crop, she met Major George N. Butts, who returned with her to Glen Eden to manage the plantation. There is no record of a marriage in either Texas or Louisiana, but the relationship became Sophia’s happiest—Butts enjoyed the niceties of gracious living—and they paid for their lifestyle with the sale of their cotton and land. They enlarged Glen Eden, filled it with fine furnishings and china from New Orleans. She became known for her rose garden, an orchard of more than a hundred fruit trees, and grape and berry vines for jams and wines. She grew a magnolia tree in the front yard from a seedling given to her by Sam Houston. Albert Sidney Johnston brought catalpa seeds from California, which she planted, in a line down the driveway.

In 1863, William Clark Quantrill with his group of Confederate guerrillas from Kansas and Missouri moved into Sherman and began robbing and killing anyone who did not agree with Quantrill’s brand of Confederate support. Although Sophia and Butts were southern sympathizers, Butts got into an argument with one of Quantrill’s men and was ambushed one night as he returned from a cotton-selling trip to Sherman. Sophia garnered the sympathy of Sherman residents against Quantrill and got him arrested; he later escaped.

Some historians say the historical marker calling Sophia Coffee Porter a Confederate Lady Paul Revere may not be altogether accurate. Several tales surround this claim, most of them of Sophia’s own telling. One story says that when James Bourland, commander of a Texas frontier regiment, stopped at Glen Eden on his way back to Fort Washita, he warned her that federal troops were following him. When the Yankees arrived, Sophia fed them dinner and took them to her wine cellar where they proceeded to get drunk. She locked them in the cellar and then, riding a mule, forded the treacherous Red River to warn Bourland of the Union’s plans, thus preventing the invasion of North Texas. Another version of the story says she stripped to her underwear and swam the river and then whistled to get the Confederates’ attention.

At age fifty, toward the end of the Civil War, Sophia found the Red River country too dangerous. She packed her gold in tar buckets and took her slaves with her to the safer environment of Waco in Central Texas. There, she met Judge James Porter, a Confederate cavalry officer from Missouri. Rufus Burleson, president of Baylor College performed their marriage on August 2, 1865, and the Porters returned to Glen Eden. With her slaves freed, Sophia’s net worth dropped, but she and James Porter began buying land at sheriff’s auctions and reselling it quickly to increase their holdings.

James Porter apparently influenced Sophia’s desire to “get religion.” She attended a camp meeting and rushed forward throwing herself at the feet of the preacher. Before the entire congregation, the minister said Sophia must wait for twelve years because “the sun, moon, and stars were against her being a Christian.” The Methodist preacher in Sherman, however, welcomed her into the church. She gave a section of land to Southwestern University, a new Methodist institution at Georgetown and land for a Methodist Church at Preston Bend.

“Aunt Sophia,” as she became known in later years, apparently earned the respect of her neighbors. At the first meeting of the Old Settlers Park in Sherman in 1879, Sophia Porter entertained the crowd with the stories of her life as a pioneer woman along the Red River.

Glen Eden continued to be a social center, but Sophia no longer allowed dancing. She and James Porter continued giving money or land to churches in the area until his death in 1886. For the next eleven years, Sophia and her long-time friend and companion Belle Evans searched

Sophia Coffee Poter
Grayson County TX GenWeb

the shops in nearby Denison and Sherman and ordered from catalogs new fashions that would restore Sophia’s youth. Mrs. Evans also applied Ayer’s Hair Dye each week to maintain Sophia’s black locks that had attracted so many suitors over the years. On August 27, 1897, when Sophia died quietly at the age of eighty-one in her fine home of fifty-four years, the man at her side was Reverend J. M. Binkley, the Methodist preacher from Sherman who had accepted her into his congregation.

Lady Trail Driver

Margaret Heffernan Borland

Margaret Heffernan Borland

She buried three husbands and then hit the cattle trail in 1873 with her children and a grandchild in tow. Margaret Heffernan was born in Ireland, and when she was five years old, two Irish empresarios went to New York to recruit newly arrived immigrants to settle on their land grant in South Texas. In 1829 her father, who had been a candle maker in Ireland, became a rancher in the McMullen and McGloin Colony on the prairie outside San Patricio. Stories vary about how Margaret’s father died—either by an Indian attack or by Mexican soldiers in the lead up to the Texas Revolution. Another story claims that with the outbreak of the war for independence, Margaret’s mother fled with her four children to the presidio at Goliad, where  they were spared the massacre because they were so fluent in Spanish that they were thought to be Mexicans. (I know of no record of women and children being massacred at Goliad.)

After Texas won its independence from Mexico, the family returned to San Patricio.  Margaret married at nineteen, gave birth to a baby girl, and was widowed at twenty when her husband lost a gunfight on the streets of Victoria. A few years later Margaret married again, had two more children, and lost that husband to yellow fever in 1855. Finally about three years later Margaret married Alexander Borland, who was said to be the richest rancher in the county. Margaret bore four more children. One of her sons-in-law, the Victoria Advocate newspaper editor and historian, Victor Rose, wrote of Margaret Borland: “a woman of resolute will, and self-reliance, yet was she not one of the kindest mothers. She had, unaided, acquired a good education, her manners were lady-like, and when fortune smiled upon her at last in a pecuniary sense, she was as perfectly at home in the drawing room of the cultured as if refinement had engulfed its polishing touches upon her mind in maiden-hood.”

Margaret partnered with her husband in the ranching business; however 1867 proved to be another year of tragedy. Alexander Borland died in the spring while on a trip to New Orleans. Later that year a dreadful yellow fever epidemic that swept inland from the Texas coast, killed thousands, including four of Margaret’s children and one infant grandson.

As the sole owner of the Borland ranch, Margaret managed its operations and enlarged her holdings to more than 10,000 cattle. The Chisholm Trail had proved so profitable that in the spring of 1873 Margaret led a cattle drive of about 2,500 head from Victoria to Wichita, Kansas. She took a group of trail hands, two sons who were both under fifteen, a seven-year-old daughter, and an even younger granddaughter. After reaching Wichita, Margaret became ill with what has been called both “trail fever” and “congestion of the brain.” She died on July 5, 1873, before she had time to sell her cattle.

Although at least four women are known as “Cattle Queens” for having taken the cattle trail, it is thought that Margaret Heffernan Borland was the only woman to ride the trail without being accompanied by her husband.

Bonnie Parker, Dead at Twenty-three

She was an honor student and loved poetry, but she dropped out of school, married Roy Thornton before her sixteenth birthday, and had “Roy and Bonnie” tattooed on her right knee to celebrate the union. After a stormy two years, Thornton went to prison; Bonnie never divorced him and died five years later, still wearing Thornton’s wedding ring. Those five years would make her a legend as the partner of another man.

Bonnie Parker

Bonnie Parker

Bonnie Elizabeth Parker was four in 1914 when her father died. Her mother moved her three children to “Cement City,” an industrial area of West Dallas to be near relatives and to secure work as a seamstress. That rough and tumble area was where Bonnie met and married Thornton, and it was where the four-foot-ten inch, eighty-five pound Bonnie met Clyde Chestnut Barrow one year after Thornton went to prison.

Clyde Barrow had already made a name for himself with the Dallas police force for a series of robberies. When he was arrested again, Bonnie wrote letters pleading with him to stay out of trouble, and then she smuggled a handgun to him that he used to escape. He was captured in a week and sent to Eastham Prison Farm in April 1930. One account says that to avoid hard labor on the prison’s plantation, Barrow had a fellow inmate chop off two of Barrow’s toes on his left foot. Another account says that before Barrow was paroled in February 1932, he beat another inmate to death for repeated sexual assaults. Whatever happened in that two-year prison experience, Clyde Barrow walked out as a hardened criminal, bent on getting revenge for the treatment he had received.

Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde

Historians believe Bonnie stayed with Barrow and his gang, which had an ever-changing list of members, because she loved him. She willingly took part in the series of small robberies—stores and gas stations—with the goal of eventually launching an attack to liberate Eastham prisoners. She was arrested with one of the gang members as they tried to steal guns from a hardware store. After a few months in jail, a grand jury failed to indict her, and she was released. While Bonnie was in jail, Barrow was accused of murder because he drove the car in a robbery in which a storeowner was shot and killed.

A few months later, while Bonnie was visiting her mother in Dallas, Barrow and a couple of his cronies were at a dance in Oklahoma and ended up killing a deputy and wounding a sheriff—the first time the Barrow Gang killed a lawman. Before the reign ended, they had killed nine.

The crime spree continued. In the last six months of 1932 the gang killed five men—law officers and private citizens they were attempting to rob. The following March, Clyde Barrow’s brother, Buck was released from prison and the two couples—Bonnie and Clyde and Buck and his wife Blanche—moved into a garage apartment in Joplin, Missouri. Their loud drinking parties caused neighbors to grow suspicious and report them to authorities. On April 13, 1933, when five lawmen approached the apartment, the gang opened fire killing a detective and fatally wounding a constable. As the gang ran for their car, Bonnie covered their escape by firing her M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (their weapon of choice). The got away without any of their personal belongings, which included Buck’s three-weeks-old parole papers, a large stash of weapons, one of Bonnie’s poems, and a camera with several rolls of undeveloped film. Before the police gave the film to The Joplin Globe, Bonnie and Clyde were known primarily for their crimes in the Dallas area. But the pictures, swaggering attempts to look tough as they posed with their guns, made the Barrow Gang a front-page story across the nation.

For the next three months they made headlines, roaming from Texas to Minnesota, robbing banks and stealing cars, killing those who got in their way, and kidnapping both lawmen and robbery victims. Sometimes they released their hostages with enough money to get back home. While the public enjoyed following the increasingly violent behavior, the five members of the gang, forced to ride in one car, began to bicker according to a prison account written years later by Blanche Barrow. There was no place to hide—restaurants and motels offered the threat of exposure—forcing them to cook on campfires and bathe in cold streams.

On June 10, 1933, Clyde missed a construction sign and flipped their car into a ravine. Bonnie received third-degree burns on her right leg, either from a fire or acid in the car’s battery. While they waited in a tourist court near Fort Smith, Arkansas, for Bonnie’s leg to heal, other gang members botched a robbery and killed the town marshal of Alma, Arkansas. Despite the serious condition of Bonnie’s leg, they were forced to flee.  It was July 18 when they checked into a tourist court near Kansas City, Missouri, and began a series of stunts that drew immediate attention. Blanche Barrow, while wearing jodhpur riding breeches—clothing unfamiliar to women in that area—registered for three guests, and five people openly stepped from the car. She paid with coins instead of bills for the lodging and for meals at the neighboring restaurant that was a favorite hangout for Missouri highway patrolmen. When Clyde went to a drugstore to purchase bandages and ointment for Bonnie’s leg and crackers and cheese, the pharmacist became suspicious and notified authorities who were on the lookout for strangers shopping for such supplies.

Ironically the ensuing gunfight resulted in a bullet hitting the horn on the lawmen’s armored car and caused them to think it was a cease-fire signal. Although they got away, both Blanche and Buck Barrow were severely injured. Clyde Barrow was so sure his brother would die from his injuries that Clyde dug his grave. Again, they drew attention to themselves by tossing out bloody bandages. When the authorities arrived, Bonnie and Clyde escaped on foot; Buck was shot and died later, and Blanche was taken into custody.

For six weeks the remaining three members of the gang moved from Colorado to Minnesota and south to Mississippi, committing small robberies and trying to replenish their arsenal. They returned in September to Dallas where their families tended to Bonnie’s leg injuries, which never healed properly and caused her to spend the rest of her life hopping on one foot or being carried by Clyde. He stayed busy pulling off minor robberies until November 22, 1933, when the Dallas sheriff almost caught the pair as they headed to a family meeting. Clyde sensed that something was wrong and drove quickly away amid police machine gun fire that struck both him and Bonnie in the legs.

The next week, a Dallas grand jury indicted Bonnie and Clyde for the 1933 murder of the Tarrant County deputy—the first murder warrant issued for Bonnie Parker.  On January 16, 1934, Clyde Barrow succeeded in reaching his goal of revenge on the Texas Department of Corrections by leading an escape of former gang members and other prisoners from the Eastham Prison. One of the escapees shot a prison officer, which focused the full power of state and federal authorities on the capture of Bonnie and Clyde.

Retired Texas Ranger Captain Frank A. Hamer was employed to get the Barrow Gang. A tenacious hunter, Hamer had the reputation for getting his man—during his career he suffered seventeen personal wounds and killed fifty-three criminals. For over two months Hamer stalked the gang—always one or two towns behind. On April 1, 1934, Barrow and another gang member killed two Texas highway patrolmen. A witness, who was later discredited, claimed to have seen Bonnie laugh at the way the patrolman’s “head bounced like a rubber ball.” The story was picked up in the papers and fueled the public outcry against Bonnie Parker. The Highway Patrol offered $1,000 for “the dead bodies,” and Governor Ma Ferguson put up another $500 for each of the killers.

Bonnie closed the door on any possible claim for clemency a few days later when Clyde and another gang member killed a sixty-year-old Oklahoma constable and took the police chief as a hostage. Before they gave the chief a clean shirt and let him go, Bonnie asked him to spread the word that she did not smoke cigars (she chain-smoked Camels). The arrest warrant named Clyde, a John Doe, and Bonnie as the killers of the constable.

Bonnie Parker/Cigar

Bonnie Parker/Cigar

Frank Hamer had been studying the movements of the gang. He realized that they visited family, moving in a circle along the edge of five midwestern states, enabling them to escape without law enforcement being able to follow them across the state line. He estimated when it would be time to visit a gang family member in Louisiana.  Hamer amassed an armor-piercing arsenal, a posse of four Texas and two Louisiana officers and lay in wait on a rural road near Arcadia, Louisiana. The father of one of the former gang members, who later claimed that he was forced to cooperate, flagged down the speeding Ford carrying only Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow at 9:15 a.m. on May 23, 1934. The posse opened fire, hitting the stolen vehicle with 167 bullets. Reports said that Bonnie’s bullet-riddled body was found holding a machine gun, a sandwich, and a pack of cigarettes. Clyde, whose body was barely recognizable, was still clutching a revolver.

The death scene erupted in chaos with souvenir hunters scavenging pieces of clothing, hair, and shell casings. They were not buried together as they wished, but in separate Dallas cemeteries. Mobs descended on the Parker home, and a throng of 20,000 made it almost impossible for the family to reach the Dallas gravesite. Although thousands crowded both funeral homes hoping to see the bodies, the Barrow family held a private service and buried Clyde next to his brother Buck. They shared a simple granite marker with their names and the words that had been selected by Clyde: “Gone but not forgotten.”

No one will ever know the real extent of Bonnie Parker’s involvement in the crimes of the Barrow Gang. Some gang members claimed that she never killed anyone, but she was involved in eight murders, seven kidnappings, less than a dozen bank heists, many armed robberies and car thefts, and a major jailbreak. One account says that the largest haul of any of the robberies netted only $1,500.

Bullet-riddled car

Bullet-riddled car

Margaret Hallett, Legendary Pioneer Texan

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 the Mexicans in that area were fighting for their independence.  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 named Goliad in 1829 and opened a trading post.  A third son, Benjamin, and a daughter, Mary Jane, were born, but 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 to escape 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, 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 neighbors who told stories of constant Comanche attacks.  Margaret called a meeting of the settlers and the two 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.  She also raised cattle and horses that carried her own brand.

As Margaret learned their language, the Tonkawas became good friends, warning her of impending Comanche attacks.  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 quit a 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 time came to select the county seat, the older town of Petersburg claimed the honor.  Some stories say 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 seems to have 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 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 of the stories 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 Hallettsville City Memorial Park and a grave marker placed on the site that names her the city founder.

Margaret Leatherbury Hallett gave marker in City Memorial Park

Margaret Leatherbury Hallett grave marker in City Memorial Park

Preacher With A Gun

William “Choctaw Bill” Robinson, a Baptist preacher, came to Texas in 1848 and preached with his gun beside his Bible until his death at the age of eighty-nine.  By the time fgRobinson came to Texas his first wife was dead after giving birth to eight children.  He and his second wife had another six children, and all the family accompanied Robinson to Texas where he became licensed as a Baptist minister.  The tall, dark, longhaired and bearded preacher believed so strongly in his gospel message that he did not hesitate to exhort those beliefs in four-hour sermons. He became known as “Choctaw Bill” after word spread that a group of Choctaws departed during one of his sermons saying, “White man lie. Him talk too long.”

Part of Choctaw Bill’s enthusiasm included his certainty that only members of the Baptist faith knew the “true religion.”  Since Methodists made up the largest number of non-Baptists on the frontier, Choctaw Bill carried a Methodist Discipline and used every Bible text at his command to prove his Methodist brothers wrong.

Over the years Robinson organized or served as pastor of at least twenty Baptist Churches.  Since ministers of that day did not receive a salary, Robinson supported his wife and large family by farming and raising cattle.  Some report that he carried his branding iron regularly and was rather “free” in its use.  On weekends he rode a horse (some say a mule) to preach in settlements that did not have organized congregations.  At one village, it is reported that ruffians had broken up earlier attempts to hold services.  Robinson leaned his rifle against the pulpit and placed a pistol on each side of his Bible.  He looked intently at the congregation for a few minutes and then announced that he was there to preach the gospel by the grace of God and his trusty rifle.  There were no disturbances.

In later years Choctaw Bill operated a sawmill and gristmill at Hazel Dell, one of the roughest towns in Texas, located between present Waco and Abilene.  Some claim that of the first ten settlers in the community, Choctaw Bill is the only one who escaped a violent death.  He held services under the shade of an oak tree across the road from a store and saloon and preached to the patrons who came from the saloon.  The tree became known as “Choctaw Robinson Oak.”

Despite arriving in Texas with considerable wealth, Robinson at the age of eighty, wrote to the State Baptist paper:  “I have preached on the Texas frontier from the Red River to the Rio Grande.  Now I am old and feeble with no finances and no home.  Help me what you can.”  Choctaw Bill died a poor man in 1898.