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EVOLUTION OF A STATE


CHAPTER XVII



Webber's Prairie; Old settlers; Humble heroes; First postoffice; First justice; Official record; Social features; Financial affairs; Exchange.

In the latter part of 1839 I took unto myself a helpmeet and established a home on a farm in the lower end of Webber's prairie, whither had preceded me my old time partner, "Dr." John F. Webber. He having retired from the practice of medicine, built the first house, a fort in the prairie, which bears his name. Other settlers collected around the pioneer cabin, among whom were the Dutys, the next to locate. There were five brothers of them, Joseph, the only one who had a family, William, Matthew, George and Richard.

Joseph and George Duty were among Austin's first three hundred, and located their headrights lower down on the Colorado, but, like many others, sold out to later arrivals and pushed out into the Indian country.

They, also, had built a fort into which were gathered all the families in the vicinity, the men going out in companies to work their farms and kill their meat, and incidentally Indians.

Washington Anderson was there, and with him his father, Dr. Anderson, a noted physician all through the country. There were the Hamiltons, four brothers - Alexander, William, James and John; Dan Shelf, James Dodd, the Manors, Joseph and James; Mrs. Scott and her daughter, Mrs. Hopkins and perhaps a few others.

Webber having become entangled in a low amour, the result of which was an offspring, which, though his own flesh and blood, was 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 wot 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 any one who close 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. The ladies visited Puss sometimes, not as an equal, but because they appreciated her kindness. At such times she flew around and set out the best meal which her larder afforded; but, neither herself nor her children offered to sit down and eat with her guests, and when she returned the visit she was set down in the kitchen to eat alone. 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.

Heroes there were then whose names and deeds history so far has failed to record, and among them Matthew Duty deserves a prominent place. I don't remember at just what date it occurred that a small party of white men, including Matthew Duty and Billy Hornsby, were surprised by a large body of Indians. All the men except Billy were well mounted, and all, with the noble exception of Matthew, ran away and left him to his fate. Not so with Matthew Duty. Dropping in behind Billy, he turned on their pursuers, presenting his gun, at which the Indians fell back, and Billy put a gap between himself and them. Wheeling his horse, Duty then ran away from the Indians, still keeping between them and Billy, and, when they began to crowd him, again turned, and, with gun presented, kept them back, till they reached Hornsby's fort in safety.

Mrs. Hornsby, Billy's mother, told me how she stood at the gate of the fort, looking on helplessly at the life and death race across the prairie, momentarily expecting to see both her son and his heroic defender killed. Matthew Duty was afterward killed in Webber's prairie by an Indian in ambush. He fell from his horse, the same one on which he saved Billy Hornsby, and the horse, being frightened thereby, broke for home, the Indians not being able to catch him. Some little time after Matthew's death, his brother Joe was out riding the same horse, when he was also ambushed, but it was after night and the bullet struck the horse, causing him to fall, when Joe bounded off and made good his escape into a thicket. The Indians would not pursue even one man into cover nor were they rash about charging on a small party so long as they stood with guns presented. One notable instance of the kind took place over on the Yegua in 1838, where Edward Blakey and Elijah Ingram were surveying. There were several men in the party, and while eating their dinner they were charged upon by a number of Indians. All the men except Blakey and Ingram broke for their horses. The two last named grabbed their guns, and, leveling them at their companions, ordered them to stand and fight, threatening to shoot the first one who offered to mount, thus compelling them to face the foe. They stood their ground and whipped them. Edward Blakey was killed in the battle of Brushy.

One more deed of heroism I must record here lest it slip my memory, though it occurred in '46. Bartlett Simms, than whom no man in that part of the country was better known, was over on the Perdenales with three other men, one of whom was his nephew, surveying. The Indians, as previously stated, were particularly hostile to surveyors, and, watching an opportunity when the party had worked away from their horses, made a dash at them. The white men succeeded in reaching their horses, but Captain Simms' horse being frightened, jerked loose and ran; upon seeing which, his nephew, who had mounted, rushed up to his uncle, and, springing to the ground, bade him take his horse. Simms took the horse and made his escape, the only one of the party who did. Men never left home unarmed, but as a man could not carry a rifle and work - and we had few pistols in those days - it often happened that they were surprised away from their guns. Indian Jim, a friendly Tonkaway, used to tell a good story on Dan Shelf. Dan had gone down into the river bottom to get a stick of timber for an ox yoke. He looked about till he found a tree that suited him and, setting his rifle up against an adjacent tree, set to work to get out his yoke. He felled his tree and proceeded to trim it up, when, hearing himself accosted, he looked up, and saw to his horror a big Indian standing between him and his gun. I wish I could give the story in Jim's own language, accompanied by his gestures, describing how Dan trembled like a leaf: "I say, 'How do you do, sir?' He look up see me; he shake all over; turn right white; he throw up his hands so, and say, 'Oh, Mr. Injun, don't shoot me; I've got a family!'" Dan acknowledged he was never so badly scared in his life, and it took Jim some time to reassure him. Jim was well known all through that section, and supposed Dan would recognize him after the first start, and only thought to play a little joke on him to show him how useless his rifle was when at work.

But, to return to Webber's prairie. When the mail route up to Austin was opened we were allowed an office in Webber's prairie. I was appointed postmaster, with a certain percentage of all the money I took in to pay me for my trouble. That was long before the advent of postage stamps, and the charge for letters was twenty-five cents, payable at either end of the line. Letters were consequently few and far between. An occasional newspaper strayed into the office and did duty for the whole neighborhood.

Peter Carr was the first mail carrier, making weekly trips from LaGrange up to Austin on horseback with the mail, which was an imperceptible addition to the load, tied up in a buckskin wallet. Peter was very accommodating and when occasionally some one would meet him on the road and inquire: "Hello, Pete! Got anything for me?" Pete would reply: "I dunno; I can see." And down he would get, untying the mail sack and emptying the contents on the ground, where he would look it over and if there was anything for the inquirer, hand it out, free of charge. Peter's rural delivery system had been in operation some little time before it came to my knowledge. I then straightway notified the postal department that unless they would furnish a locked pouch I would throw up my commission. I served a year or more, using my dwelling house for an office, and never got a cent either for my services or office rent. I might have eventually gotten a few worthless shinplasters, but the records of the department were lost during the archive war and my reports among them.

During the time that I was postmaster we were accorded a precinct and, notwithstanding the constitution limited the number of offices of trust or profit, one man might hold at a time to one, as neither the office of postmaster nor justice of the peace came within the scope of the provision, I was elected justice. I told my friends that I was not selfishly inclined and had no desire to monopolize the offices and therefore declined to qualify till our pedagogue took me aside and entreated me as a special favor to himself to reconsider my determination, as he was intending to get married and there was no one in the vicinity qualified to perform the ceremony. To accommodate Birt I qualified; my first official act being the solemnization of the marriage between himself and Miss Gilleland, a daughter of the Rev. James Gilleland, who was killed by Indians in the battle of Brushy Creek.

Birt was so near sighted that he could not distinguish one person from another across the room, and the bride, though quite a pretty girl, had the misfortune to be so lame as to necessitate the use of crutches. At the appointed time I was on hand, and, it being my first appearance in that role, I took Jim Dodd along to brace me up. Birt was stopping at Captain Grumble's, and, having only leather breeches and but one pair at that, he hired a negro to wash them after he retired on the eve of the wedding. Not being dry by morning, Birt drew them on and stood before the fire to dry them, a process which "set" them to perfection, but when he tried to sit down he couldn't make it; so he had to wet them again and sit while he dried them; consequently, when the thump of the bride's crutches on the floor of the inner room announced the approach of the bridal party, the first object that met the expectant eyes turned to the door, was the knees of the bridegroom's pantaloons performing the part of ushers as it were.

Captain Crumble said he didn't "see how in thunder he ever got out of them."

Dodd, in reporting the wedding to my wife, characterized it as the marriage of the halt and blind. School teachers those times were not to be envied. There was no public school fund to draw upon and no private fund, either, to speak of, except such surplus produce as farmers happened to have. Our first school was taught by Captain Beach, in a log cabin having neither floor or window, or even a door. A couple of the lower logs being left uncut in the doorway, over which the little tots had to be lifted, prevented the ingress of the pigs. When Beach's term expired, he was paid off in corn, for which there was no sale nearer than Austin; so he borrowed a team and hauled it to market.

There were no school houses or churches. The schools were kept in any vacant cabin, and when a preacher happened along he was invited to hold forth in some dwelling.

Some time after Birt's wedding Phillip Golding requested my services to unite him to the Widow Baker, relict of Rodney Baker, who had fallen a victim to the Comanches. After the wedding was over Phillip took me aside and asked what my fee was. "Nothing," I told him.

"Well, now," said he, "if I had known that I might have been married a long time ago. I've been working several weeks to get five dollars with which to pay you."

The bride had several small children and no means to take care of them with. Said I: "All I charge you is to take care of that woman and be a father to those little helpless children. If you do that you will have need of all your money."

To the best of my knowledge he faithfully discharged the debt. Two other couples, I believe, completed my official labors in the matrimonial line. They were Elias Marshall and his brother Joe, they having stolen their brides - the two Graham girls - down at Washington. Noting people didn't hesitate about marrying on the score of endowments or incomes then. Any young man who was willing to work could get himself enough good land to raise bread on, and with a cow or two and a few pigs and chickens he was prepared to maintain a family. He could cut down trees and build himself a house. If he was vain it would be a double cabin with either a wide passage between or a big double chimney, and by and by, when there was need of it, a smoke house. Girls all expected to be married some time, and early began to spin and weave the household linen, which was their only dower, so that they usually had on hand a stock sufficient to last many years.

On the bench I was a shining success, not one of my decisions ever being excepted to. People were all poor and struggling for a foothold in the country and I disliked to see them wrangling and wasting their slender substance in suits at law, so my usual plan was to send out my constable, Jimmie Snead, and have the contending parties brought before me, when I would counsel them to talk their difficulties over between themselves and try to arrive at a satisfactory settlement, a plan which was generally agreed to, thereby throwing the burden of costs on the judge and constable.

The most perplexing case I ever had to deal with was one in which I really had no jurisdiction. Three worthless scamps made a raid on the Lipan Indians and stole a number of their best horses. The Indians missed them almost immediately, and getting track of them, came to me to assist them in their recovery. I took the responsibility of sending two white men, Captain Beach and Andy Cryor, along with Chief Castro and a posse of Indians. They overtook the thieves down near LaGrange. The ringleaders decamped, leaving a half-witted fellow to bear the consequences. The captive was brought back to me. In a quandary as to what to do with him, I turned to old Castro.

"What shall I do with him?" I asked. The old chief looked contemptuously at the poor trembling wretch, who frightened out of what little wit he ever possessed, was literally crying.

"Oh," said he, "turn him loose." I gave the young man some wholesome advice and let him go. Old Castro gave each of his white assistants a pony to compensate them for their services, and I got nothing. I have often contrasted the conduct of old Castro on that occasion with that of white men under similar circumstances. When an Indian stole a white man's horse, hanging was the penalty if he could be caught.

When my time expired my constituents were anxious to again invest me with the judicial ermine; but as I had never collected a dollar from the office, I told them I thought it should go round, and when it came my turn again I would take it. Peter Carr was the next incumbent. I was also elected lieutenant-colonel of militia when it was organized, and so held three offices at one time but as there wasn't a cent profit in any of them, and the trust only nominal, any man could safely assume as many offices as he chose. The fees were small at best, and when paid in commonwealth paper would not keep a man in tobacco. Offices went begging. At one time there was no district attorney for Travis County, and the judge having to appoint one, the only lawyer in the county who was patriotic enough to accept it was Alex. Chalmers, a youth about eighteen who had never been admitted to the bar. But Alex. took hold and managed the business so successfully that he thus laid the foundation for a good practice.

Coin there was absolutely none, and the constantly downward tendency of the commonwealth paper kept it moving lively, something like the old play, "If Jack dies in my hand, packsaddle me." I received a hatful of new, crisp, one-dollar bills in payment for a horse lost in the San Saba Indian fight, which I immediately turned over to a creditor, without ever having folded them. People would almost rather have anything else than the commonwealth paper. Under those circumstances we established a currency of our own, a kind of banking system as it were, which though unauthorized by law, met the local requirements. Horses were generally considered legal tender; but, owing to the constant drain on the public treasury by the horse-loving Indian, that kind of currency became scarce, so we settled on the cow as the least liable to fluctuation. Mrs. H., a widow living near me, having need of merchandise, for which the cash was not on hand, offered a cow and calf in lieu thereof, a cow and calf being rated at ten dollars. The tender was accepted, Mrs. H. reserving the use of the cow during the milking season. The bill of sale being made out, the merchant paid off a debt with it and the creditor likewise passed it on. That bit of paper passed from hand to hand, always with the original reservation, till it paid about one hundred dollars; when the widow made a deal and bought the cow back again before it went dry. That was a fair illustration of the potency of confidence. We all felt satisfied that the cow was safe in the widow's keeping and would be forthcoming on demand, the only risk being the possible death of the cow.

And that reminds me of an incident arising out of a similar contingency. A couple of well known citizens of Bastrop County, in squaring up their accounts found a difference of five dollars, which they agreed should be liquidated by the payment of a yearling. There was no bodily transfer made at the time, and the two men meeting again, one said to the other, "Jake, that yearling of yours died." "What yearling?" inquired the other. "Why, that yearling you was to have from me." Thereupon a spirited controversy arose which came near ending in a lawsuit. The bill of sale called for a yearling, and as it specified no particular animal, though the vendor doubtless had such a one in mind, the holder of the bill claimed face value and got it, the aggrieved party taking care that the goods were delivered and receipted for, a safe course in every business transaction.



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