Black Seminole Scouts of Texas

The history is long and cruel for the Black Seminole Scouts of Texas. Their ancestors––slaves on English plantations in the Carolinas and Georgia––began fleeing in the 1600s to the protection of the Spanish crown in northern Florida. The runaways, known as maroons, joined

Seminoles, a confederation of several Indian tribes to whom the Spanish had given land as a bulwark again British incursion. Life for the Maroons improved, but freedom was not part of the deal. They were allowed to form their own communities, elect their leaders, farm their land, and use firearms, but they had to pay an annual tribute to the Seminole Indians, which was usually a percentage of their crop.

Over the years, the two cultures lived alongside each other––each race calling itself Seminoles. They rarely intermarried because the Blacks were monogamous, but the Seminoles relied on them as English interpreters during negotiations with the whites. The United States’ effort to relocate all the Seminoles to the West, triggered the Seminole Wars in which the Black Seminoles proved to be excellent guides, spies, and fierce fighters. The U.S. Army began a program to separate the two groups, by offering the Black Seminoles their freedom if they agreed to be removed to Indian Territory (present Oklahoma). The Seminoles resented U.S. interference because they felt betrayed by the Blacks and cheated them out of their property by the U.S.

When 500 from both groups reached Indian Territory in 1838, the Black Seminoles discovered they had been placed under the jurisdiction of Creek Indians who considered them slaves and did not allow them to own property or weapons. The U.S. Army refused to keep its bargain to free the Black Seminoles, which led members of both races to head to Mexico where slavery had been outlawed for years.

Mexico offered the Seminoles a large land grant near the Texas-Coahuila border in exchange for the newcomers serving as a buffer against raiding Apaches and Comanches. In Mexico, the Maroons were called Mascogos, and they settled into farming in El Moral, a village that became a haven for runaway slaves. Pressure from slaveowners and the U.S. to return the escaped slaves finally led to officials moving the Black Seminoles to Nacimiento in the Mexican interior.

In 1870 the U.S. Army needed scouts for the Texas Indian Wars and made a deal with the Black Seminoles to relocate to Fort Duncan near Eagle Pass and Fort Clark near Brackettville in exchange for land. The Black Seminole Scouts proved their value to the army as fierce fighters and for their knowledge of English, Spanish, and several Indian dialects. Four of the scouts were awarded Medals of Honor.

Despite their valiant service, controversy arose over their ethnicity. The army classified the Seminoles as Indians and planned to relocate them on Indian lands. Indian agents argued that they were Blacks. During the back and forth, conditions worsened. The Black Seminole Scouts had trouble raising crops on military reservations and they were often denied sufficient rations. In 1876, they were told to leave Fort Duncan and Fort Clark. Finally, some returned to Nacimiento in Mexico, some traveled to the Seminole Nation in Indian Territory, and others remained at Fort Clark.

By 1912, when the scouts were disbanded, about 200 to 300 Black Seminoles moved from the fort into Brackettville where they continued to maintain their cemetery. Each year in September, descendants of the Black Seminole Scouts from all over the country gather in

Last of the Seminole Scouts about 1913.

for an Annual Celebration

Black Seminole Scout Cemetery, Brackettville

Former Texas Slaves Serve in Civil War

Three Holland brothers—Milton, William, and James—were slaves born in the 1840s on Spearman Holland’s plantation near Carthage.  Apparently their father was Spearman’s half brother, Capt. Bird Holland.  Capt. Holland purchased his sons from Spearman and moved them to Travis County. Little is known of their early life except that Bird Holland served as a captain in the Mexican War (1846-48) until illness, probably cholera, forced him to resign and return home.  He became chief clerk and assistant secretary in the state department and in the 1850s he took his three sons to Ohio where they were enrolled in Albany Manual Labor Academy, a private school that maintained the very unusual policy of admitting both black and female students.

After Texas joined the Confederacy, Bird Holland was appointed secretary of state until he joined the Confederate Army in November 1861. Meantime, sixteen-year-old Milton was in Ohio and eagerly volunteered for the U.S. Army, only to be turned down because of his race.

Milton and his older brother, William, may have joined a group of blacks that formed the Attucks’ Guard, which was named for Crispus Attucks, the first man (who was also black) killed in the Revolutionary War.  The Attucks Guard marched to the governor’s mansion in Albany to offer their service, but they were turned down.  It was not until June 1862 that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton allowed black Americans to enlist and even then they had to serve in separate units commanded by white officers with less pay than white soldiers.  And, they were not allowed to rise above the rank of the non-commissioned officer.

Only known wartime photo of Milton Holland in uniform

Only known wartime photo of Milton Holland in uniform

While Milton waited for his opportunity to join the military, he used the skills he learned at the Albany Manual Labor University to work as a shoemaker for the quartermaster department.  In June 1863 he joined the Fifth United States Colored Troops, and his older brother, William, joined the Sixteenth United States Colored Troops.

Although both brothers fought in several battles, it was Milton who rose to the rank of sergeant major.  In late September 1864 while engaged in hand to hand combat at Chaffin’s Farm and then at New Market Heights, Virginia, all the white officers were either killed or wounded. Milton and three other black soldiers led the troops in routing the enemy and securing a victory that opened the door to nearby Richmond.  Despite being wounded in the charge, Milton Holland continued to lead his men.  For his extraordinary service Milton Holland was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on April 6, 1865, one of sixteen black soldiers in the Civil War to receive this country’s highest honor.  Although he had been promoted to captain

Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor

Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor

in the field, the U.S. War Department refused to honor the commission because of his race.  Ohio’s Governor David Tod offered to commission Holland as a captain if he would agree to be reassigned to another regiment as a white man.  Holland refused the offer, declining to deny his racial identity.

1st Sgt. Milton M. Holland wearing Medal of Honor.  Courtesy of Rob Lyon

1st Sgt. Milton M. Holland wearing Medal of Honor. Courtesy of Rob Lyon

During the war Milton’s father and former owner, Bird Holland, had risen to the rank of major in the Confederacy.  While serving during the Red River Campaign as head of his regiment in the Battle of Mansfield on April 8, 1864, Bird Holland was killed.

Milton mustered out of the army and settled in Washington D.C. where he worked as a clerk in the U.S. Treasury Department and studied law at Howard University, graduating in 1872.  He established a law practice, remained active in Republican politics, held offices in two black-owned banking businesses, and founded the Alpha Insurance Company, one of the first black-owned insurance companies in the country. After his death from a heart attack in 1910, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

William Holland

William Holland

Milton’s brother William attended Oberlin College, returned to Texas and taught in several Texas schools, and held a position at the Austin post office.  After moving to Waller County, he was elected to the fifteenth legislature where he sponsored bills establishing Prairie View Normal College (now Prairie View A&M University) and The Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Institute for Colored Youth, where he was superintendent for eleven years.

Born into slavery, both brothers served the United States with honor as freedmen.

Stein House is Published

For several weeks I have been blogging about the central coast of Texas where the first huge wave of German settlers landed in

Texas Historical Fiction

Texas Historical Fiction

December 1844 on a bare shell beach that developed into the thriving seaport of Indianola. The blog posts have been an introduction to the exciting history of the place where Stein House, my latest historical novel, opens in 1853 as Helga Heinrich and her four children sail into Indianola to begin their new life.  They are determined to overcome the memory and haunting legacy of Max, her husband and their papa, who drowned in a drunken leap from the dock as their ship pulled away from the German port.

Helga is anxious to be reunited with her sister Amelia, and she’s grateful her wealthy brother-in-law, Dr. Joseph Stein, fulfills his part of the bargain that brought the family to the new world, even without Max to run Dr. Stein’s mercantile store.  Helga takes charge of Stein’s massive boarding house overlooking the road to Texas’ interior and the fickle waves of Matagorda Bay.

A woman of strong passions, Helga operates Stein House for boarders of all stripes whose involvement in the rigors of a town on the edge of frontier influences and molds all their lives: the cruelties of yellow fever and slavery, the wrenching choices of Civil War and Reconstruction, murder, alcoholism, and the devastation wrought by the hurricane of 1886.

The following is an excerpt taken from the first chapter as Helga and her children walk with Amelia to their new home:

A crowd had gathered in front of an impressive white two-story building.  A sign over the door read Casimir House.

Amelia whispered, “Let’s cross to the other side.  It’s a slave auction.”

Helga’s breath caught, and she stood transfixed, staring at a black boy, not more than ten, chained by his ankle and wrist to a giant black man.  Both slaves had been oiled until their flesh shined like polished ebony, outlining every detail of their muscles.

“They look so strong.” Hermie spoke barely above a whisper. “Have you ever seen such muscles on a boy?’

Helga had not.  The child’s massive shoulders bulged under the faded, sleeveless shirt, his powerful arms hanging loosely at his sides, seemingly waiting for the next command.  She looked down at the round softness of Hermie and Paul.  How could she think their life was hard?  Yet in this new land she intended to see their lives improve.

Suddenly the crowd parted, and Helga recognized the top of Anna’s blonde head as the child stepped onto the porch and very lightly stroked the black, manacled hand of the boy.  The contact made the boy jump—the only indication of his fright.  The crowd burst into merry laughter as Anna examined her fingertip for color.

Helga pushed her way into the throng and took Anna firmly by the hand. “Please forgive her,” she whispered, her eyes riveted to the black child’s steady gaze.

The amused spectators patted Anna’s head and made comments about the lovely little German lass until the auctioneer began chanting excitedly.  Almost immediately, the bidding reached a fever pitch.

Gretchen said, “Is that man selling those people?”

“It’s legal.  A few locals use slaves as domestics.  Mostly, they’re sold to planters who take them upriver.”  Amelia kept her voice low.

Helga couldn’t speak.  She clutched Anna’s hand and stared at the boy, who continued to look into her stricken face, his eyes bold and defiant, so little remaining of the child within that fully developed body.

We must go.  You don’t want to see them taken away.” Amelia tugged at Helga’s arm.

“I’ve got to see where he goes,” Helga whispered.

A planter stepped forward wearing a big, broad-brimmed hat and a green satin vest that made his stomach bulge like he was about to strut at the head of a parade.  He paid an amazing $900 for the boy and $1,200 for the man.  The auctioneer nodded dismissively at the slaves, who trotted behind the planter in a rhythm that kept them from entangling their jangling chains.  With one smooth motion, both black bodies heaved themselves into the back of a wagon.  It creaked slowly away, the older slave glaring sullenly into the upturned faces, the boy continuing to stare over the crowd at Helga.

Amelia pulled at Helga’s arm.  “Come.  You can make yourself sick over something you can’t change.”

Anna tucked her finger protectively into the fold of her skirt.

You may order Stein House here to read the rest of the story of this family as they settle into the life of this bustling seaport that rivaled Galveston until two hurricanes finally created a ghost town.

Next week, I will return to my regular Texas history tales.

War Clouds Gather Over Indianola

Indianola was a southern town with a seaport’s connection to the broader cosmopolitan world of commerce, business

Indianola Port in 1860

Indianola Port in 1860

cooperation, and a diverse blend of residents newly arrived from all over Europe.  The soil—gritty shell beaches cut by a crisscross of shallow bayous and lakes—did not lend itself to cotton growing.  The vast slave plantations thrived much further east and north in the rich bottomlands of East Texas.  The slaves sold on the front porch of the Casimir House, an elegant hotel and social center that used slaves to serve its guests, generally were taken inland by planters who came to Indianola to purchase supplies.  Most of the blacks in Indianola were free—having bought their freedom or been freed by generous owners.  They worked the docks and they operated pig farms out on Powderhorn Lake.  Unlike most southern towns, the residents of Indianola accepted the presence of free blacks, and they were allowed to go about their business without interference.

As secession talk grew, and a few agitators arrived from the north, Indianola residents expressed confidence that Southern saber rattling would force the North to back off.  However, after a newly arrived gentleman was forced onto an outbound ship following accusations of being an abolitionist, the city appointed a “vigilance committee,” a patrol to maintain order in the town.

During the fall of 1860 merchants continued to thrive, and talk of Lincoln’s possible election caused little concern and no apparent disruption in the cooperation between northern business people pouring into the port and local shipbuilders producing steamers at a brisk pace. The newspaper editor touted the rosy financial picture, expecting it to continue indefinitely.

News trickling in of Lincoln’s election stirred patriotism for the former Republic of Texas.  Caution was thrown aside as newspapers across the state called for secession instead of living under the evils of Lincoln’s “Black Republicanism.”

On the night of November 21, a well-advertised mass meeting took place at the courthouse, preceded by a parade.  Sam McBride, who owned one of the shipyards on Powder Horn Bayou, led the parade, carrying a flag emblazoned with a Lone Star, the symbol of the former Republic of Texas.  Sewn by local women for the event, the flag drew such wild applause it drowned out the band’s rousing march music. Participants carried twenty-eight poles topped by huge, transparent pieces of glass with candle or kerosene lamps illuminating phrases like The Issue is Upon Us; Who is not for us is Against us; The Time Has Come; States’ Right; Millions in Number, One in Sentiment; and The North has Broken the Symbols of Union.

The crowd filled the courthouse to overflowing. Judge J.J. Holt gave a rousing speech saying they must take decisive action.  Then he appointed a committee to draft resolutions representing the views of Indianola citizens.  While the crowd waited for the resolutions to be written, the band played the French national anthem, a stark symbol of revolution.  After another loud and emotion-laced speech, the committee returned with support of a secession convention and demands for Texas to reclaim its right to retake the powers it delegated to the federal government when it accepted statehood.  The dye was cast.

Civil War wood engraving by Thomas Nast is titled Union Troops in the Streets of Indianola, Texas.  It was published in the New York Illustrated News, April 6, 1861.  From the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas

Civil War wood engraving by Thomas Nast is titled Union Troops in the Streets of Indianola, Texas. It was published in the New York Illustrated News, April 6, 1861. From the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas

Even before the war officially began, United States military personnel that had manned the posts along the western edge of Texas settlement to protect colonists from Indian attack, began marching through the streets of Indianola to the docks where federal ships waited to carry them away.  Families living on the edge of Texas’ western frontier were left to protect themselves from the Comanches who soon took advantage of the opportunity to reclaim some of their hunting grounds.

Most Germans and other European immigrants that settled in Texas did not want the South to secede.  First, most of the new arrivals did not have land suitable for cotton or sugar cane production and did not need slave labor.  Second, they felt a loyalty to the United States, the country that had just welcomed them to its shores.  Finally, most immigrants did not believe in slavery, having come from countries where peasants worked for such meager livelihoods, that they yearned for the opportunities that freedom offered.  But, like other Unionists such as Sam Houston and Robert E. Lee, they felt a loyalty to their new home and did not leave the South.

Indianola merchants soon realized that they had been wrong in their belief that they could continue business as usual.  The federal government quickly began a blockade of all the Gulf Coast, which resulted in the nightly adventure of blockade runners moving into the Gulf with cotton bound for trade with European, especially British, ships eager to take the Confederacy’s “white gold” in exchange for essential Winchester rifles, medical supplies, clothing, and ammunition.  The dangerous blockade routes through bayous and backwater canals that were used to transport the valuable cotton could no longer sustain the commercial traffic.  Business in Indianola and in the towns it supplied in western Texas came to a sudden halt.

Invasion and occupation will be the topic of next week’s blog post.

Saga of Sophia Suttonfield Aughinbaugh Coffee Butt Porter

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

Texas Historical Markers for Coffee's Trading Post and Sophia Coffee Porter

Texas Historical Markers for Coffee’s Trading Post and Sophia Coffee Porter

preston1Post, now under the waters of Lake Texoma.  The neighboring marker calls Sophia Coffee 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 who had been 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, said she was the first woman to reach the battle site at San Jacinto on April 22, 1836, the day after Texas won its independence from Mexico.  Although there is no record of their relationship in Sam Houston’s published letters or biographies, Sophia claimed she nursed the wounded general back to health, and they did remain friends.  Some historians believe she was a camp woman who sold her services to the general.

Holland Coffee established his trading post in the early 1830s on the Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) side of the Red River and moved it to the Texas side of the river in 1837.  The historical marker says Coffee traded with the Indians for many white captives.  Some historians think Coffee was out to make money and that, like many of the stories Sophia told of her exploits, not as many rescues took place as later generations have been led to believe.  Coffee did ransom 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.  Although he was 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.

14165345_114780775898Apparently Sophia and Holland met in Houston, one of the early capitals of the new republic.  When Sophia failed to get a divorce from Aughinbaugh through the courts, she petitioned the legislature to intervene on her behalf.  After several attempts to get a bill through the legislature that was more concerned with passing a Homestead Exemption Law, Sam Houston finally 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 Anderson in 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 drovers heading north with their cattle.  Coffee’s wedding gift to Sophia was 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 was twenty-five miles away and that to protect against Indian attack, Texas Rangers guarded their trading post, the horses had to be watched while slaves plowed the fields, and firearms were stacked nearby for easy access during preaching services.

Because of the constant threat of Indian attacks, 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 bought land and slaves.  New settlers arrived in the area, and in 1845 Holland sold town lots on his land for the new town of Preston.

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 and where Sophia entertained lavishly.

Glen Eden

Glen Eden

By her own account, she entertained such notables as Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant (no record exists that either men were there), and Sam Houston.  Men from nearby Fort Washita in Indian Territory seemed always to be guests at Glen Eden.  Stories vary about how Coffee died in 1846.  Some say it began when Sam Houston was scheduled to dedicate the new county courthouse in nearby Sherman and planned to stay with the Coffee’s 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 had 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 at age thirty-one, Sophia managed the 3,000-acre slave plantation, tended her extensive gardens, and continued to host grand parties.  On one of her regular visits 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 was 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 his 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 story calling Sophia Coffee Porter a Confederate Lady Paul Revere may not be altogether accurate.  Several tales surround this claim, most of them encouraged by Sophia herself.  One says that when James Bourland, commanding 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 then took them into 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.  In front of the entire congregation the minister said she 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 church.  She gave a section of land to Southwestern University, a 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.  When the Old Settlers Association

in Sherman was founded in 1879, one of the speakers at the first meeting was Sophia Porter who 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 the shops in nearby Denison and Sherman and ordered from catalogues 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.

Sophia Porter in later years

Sophia Porter in later years