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.

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Memories of a Pioneer Woman

Thanks to the stories that Elizabeth Owens told her daughters, we know about life in South Texas during some of its most turbulent times

Elizabeth was two years old in 1829 when her stepfather, James Quinn, moved the family from New Jersey to Texas as part of McGloin-McMullen’s Irish Colony. While the group of fifty-three families camped on Copano Bay near present Rockport, Elizabeth’s baby sister became the colonists’ first death, perhaps from cholera that spread through the settlers and followed them as they traveled inland to the old Spanish Mission Nuestra Señora del Refugio.

Elizabeth’s family remained near Refugio and began farming. She and her brother Thomas always carried lunch to James Quinn when he worked in his fields. One time, Elizabeth said a drunk Indian caught Thomas and terrified the children by saying the sweetest morsel ever known was a white man’s heart. Elizabeth ran for help, and her stepfather used an ax to strike the Indian more than once before he released the boy.

In 1835, the family acquired from the De León Colony a league of land (4,428 acres) outside Victoria. The following year, Elizabeth witnessed a Tancahua Indian Scalp Dance on Victoria’s Market Square in celebration of the tribe outwitting the Karankawas. Elizabeth explained that the warlike Karankawas had asked the peaceful Tancahuas for help attacking the aristocratic and refined Mexican family of Don Martín De León the empresario who had founded the colony. Instead of joining the attack, the Tancahuas cut the Karankawas’ bow strings, killed thirteen members of the tribe, and carried the scalps stuck atop their spears, to Mrs. De León as a gesture of their friendship. Mrs. De León expressed her gratitude with a huge feast for the Tancahua and that is when Elizabeth, a nine-year-old, witnessed the Scalp Dance.

When war clouds built up for Texas independence, James Quinn joined a company that made the twenty-five-mile trip to La Bahía, to defend the presidio from Mexican attack. Elizabeth and her mother went to a nearby home where the women molded bullets for their husbands. With the approach of the large Mexican Army, James Quinn and other men rushed home to move their families to safety. However, Quinn discovered that his oxen had roamed away, which meant the Quinns and two other families could not leave.

They listened to the sound of the cannons fifteen miles away during the battle between James Fannin’s troops and General Urrea’s Army. A man arrived on horseback carrying a message for Colonel Fannin, but when he heard the cannon fire, he stayed with the Quinns. Startled at nearby gunfire, the messenger rushed to his horse and galloped away only to be discovered and shot.

General Urrea’s army accepted Fannin’s surrender and reached Victoria with great fanfare, parading through the streets to the sound of their bugles and drums. A Mexican officer took possession of Quinns’ front room. Although their home was constructed of adobe and had only three rooms with dirt floors, it was one of the more comfortable houses in town. Elizabeth said that ironically, the officer’s presence saved the family. A group of Mexican soldiers banged on the door with their muskets, but when the wife of the Mexican officer opened the door, the startled Mexicans quickly withdrew.

Elizabeth says that Señora Alvarez, the woman known as “The Angle of Goliad,” because she saved several of the Texans before the massacre, was the wife of a Mexican colonel. Despite stories of his abandoning her when he heard that she had rescued some of the young Texans at Goliad, she came to Victoria with her husband. Seven men who escaped the massacre rushed into Victoria, unaware that it was occupied by Mexican troops. They attempted to enter the Quinn home, and when Elizabeth’s mother exclaimed that they would all be killed if the Texans were found there, the men ran back into the yard where Mexican soldiers killed three of them. The other four were imprisoned in one of the homes. Elizabeth’s mother bribed a guard to let her son Thomas take food each day to the prisoners. A new guard discovered the boy delivering food and choked him severely.

When the Mexicans moved the four Texan prisoners to Market Square for execution, Señora Alvarez threw herself in front of the Texans, spreading her huge skirts out before them and protesting that she too would be shot. That halted the execution, and the four men were released after Texas won its independence from Mexico.

Despite Santa Anna’s surrender, a rumor spread that the Mexican Army had reorganized and was heading to Victoria. The family loaded a small cart and began their journey northward with a Mr. Blanco and his son. They crossed a creek and the Lavaca River before they reached a ferry on the mile-wide, swift-running Navidad. When their turn came to board the ferry, it tipped and threw them into the water. Elizabeth grabbed a partially submerged tree and clung to it. Mr. Blanco’s son disappeared under the water, but Mr. Blanco spotted Elizabeth’s white cap and pulled her to safety. Mr. Blanco’s son became the only casualty.

Many times, impending Indian attacks or fears of a Mexican army sent the women and children to the protection of a blockhouse; other times they crossed the Navidad River, even spending the entire winter of 1836-37 away from Victoria.

When they returned home, the Quinns found their house reduced to ashes. It happened when Texan soldiers mistook a herd of deer on a hillside for the Mexican Army and ordered all the houses burned except those that surrounded the town square. They saved the houses on the square for the soldiers’ use. That winter the family lived in the church with other families. They hung partitions for privacy.

In 1840 Comanches, who felt betrayed by whites in an incident at San Antonio’s Council House, swept down across Texas in what became known as the Great Comanche Raid. When they reached Victoria, they killed several and terrorized the town before moving on down to the port of Linnville, which they completely destroyed.

At seventeen, Elizabeth married Richard Owens, a New York native who had arrived in time to serve in the Army of the Republic of Texas. He became a very successful building contractor, freighter, merchant, and mayor of Victoria. Elizabeth worked as a community leader and raised their twelve children.

During the Civil War, Elizabeth and her daughters sewed the regimental flag for Col. Robert Garland’s Sixth Texas Infantry. Using material from Richard Owens’ mercantile store, they selected red Merino wool for the background and white silk fringe for the border. A large blue

From Home Page of Co “K”, 6th TX Infantry reenactment group

shield with twelve white stars circling a larger star represented the Lone Star State. The regiments’ name showed in white silk letters.

Before Elizabeth McAnulty Owens died in 1905, she shared the stories of her life adventures with her daughters, and in 1936 they published Elizabeth-McAnulty-Owens, The Story of her Life.

SAGA OF A PIONEER WOMAN

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.

Marker for Margaret Hallett in City Memorial Park, Hallettsville.