History is complicated, and full of surprises. Take this tale for instance. It concerns two men and one woman. Can you guess where this is going?
The first man, John Ferdinand Webber, was from Vermont. He was a veteran of the War of 1812 who emigrated to Austin’s Colony in 1826.
The other man, Jack Crier, came to Texas from Arkansas in 1825. His family was one of the Old 300. Crier and Webber were business partners in those early days, smuggling tobacco across the Rio Grande.
The woman, Sylvia Hector, was born in Spanish Florida in 1807. Everybody called her Puss. She also arrived in Texas in 1825. To John Webber, she was the love of his life. To Jack Crier, she was his property (surprise).
Between 1829 and 1834, John Webber and Puss Hector had a daughter and two sons. Under the laws of the Mexican State of Coahuila y Tejas, those three children were as much Jack Crier’s property as was their mother.
In June of 1834, Crier agreed that Webber could purchase the freedom of Puss and their children. What price did Crier demand? A three-year old enslaved boy and a two-year-old enslaved girl (surprise). I told you history was complicated. Try wrapping your head around that devil’s bargain.
John Ferdinand Webber and Puss Hector were married that same year, interracial marriage, as well as slavery, being legal in the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas. Father Michael Muldoon, the only priest in the Texas colonies, performed the ceremony. Ten more children were eventually born to the Webbers for a total of thirteen.
They settled in what is now eastern Travis County at a place folks began to call Webber’s Prairie, and while few of his neighbors approved of his family situation, he was esteemed highly enough to be made an election judge.
Noah Smithwick was a neighbor who had also been a partner in Webber and Crier’s tobacco smuggling. Smithwick wrote about the Webbers in his memoir:
“Webber having become entangled in a low amour, the result of which was an offspring, which, though his own flesh and blood, was yet the property of another, without whose consent he could not provide for nor protect it, he faced the consequences like a man.
Too conscientious to abandon his yellow offspring and its sable mother to a life of slavery, he purchased them from their owner, who, cognizant of the situation, took advantage of it to drive a sharp bargain.
Building himself a fort in the then unsettled prairie, Webber took his family home and acknowledged them before the world. There were others I know of that were not so brave.
The Webber family of course could not mingle with the white people, and owing to the strong prejudice against free negroes, they were not allowed to mix with the slaves, even had they so desired, so they were constrained to keep to themselves.
Still there wasn’t a white woman in the vicinity but knew and liked Puss, as Webber’s dusky helpmeet was called, and in truth they had cause to like her, for if there was need of help, Puss was ever ready to render assistance, without money and without price, as we old timers know.
Webber’s house was always open to anyone who chose to avail himself of its hospitality, and no human being ever went away from its doors hungry if the family knew it. The destitute and afflicted many times found an asylum there.
One notable instance was that of a poor orphan girl who had gone astray and had been turned out of doors by her kindred. Having nowhere to lay her head, she sought refuge with the Webbers. Too true a woman to turn the despairing sinner away, Puss took her in, comforting and caring for her in her time of sorest trial. Beneath that sable bosom beat as true a heart as ever warmed a human body.
At another time they took in a poor friendless fellow who was crippled up with rheumatism and kept him for years. By such generous acts as these, joined to the good sense they displayed in conforming their outward lives to the hard lines which the peculiar situation imposed on them, Webber and his wife merited and enjoyed the good will, and to a certain extent the respect, of the early settlers…
After the Indians had been driven back, so that there was comparative safety on Webber’s prairie, a new lot of people came — “the better sort,” as Colonel Knight styled them — and they at once set to work to drive Webber out.
His children could not attend school, so he hired an Englishman to come to his house and teach them, upon which his persecutors raised a hue and cry about the effect it would have on the slave negroes, and even went so far as to threaten to mob the tutor.
The cruel injustice of the thing angered me, and I told some of them that Webber went there before any of them dared to, and I for one proposed to stand by him. I abhorred the situation, but I honored the man for standing by his children whatever their complexion.
But the bitter prejudice, coupled with a desire to get Webber’s land and improvements, became so threatening that I at length counseled him to sell out and take his family to Mexico, where there was no distinction of color. He took my advice, and I never afterward saw or heard of him.”
But the Webbers didn’t go to Mexico, at least not right then.
In 1853 they used the proceeds from selling their place on Webber’s Prairie to establish an 8800 acre ranch on the Rio Grande near Hidalgo.
They also established a ferry across the river on their property. Family lore says they the Webber’s ferry was the last stop for fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad to Mexico.
When the Civil War came, the Webber’s Unionist loyalties placed them in danger once again, so most of the family moved across the river themselves. They returned to their Texas home just a month after Appomattox, in May of 1865.
John Ferdinand Webber, who had been going by Juan Fernando for three decades, died in 1882. Puss Webber passed ten years later and is buried with him in the family cemetery near Donna.
The Webber children stayed in the area and married into local families. The descendants of Puss and John Webber are in the area to this day.
Many Tejanos researching their genealogy find that among their ancestors are a white man from Vermont and a black woman from Florida.
Like I said, history is complicated and full of surprises.