SILVIA HECTOR WEBBER

A FREEDOM FIGHTER STORY

Silvia Hector (also known as Silvia Webber) was a freedom fighter born in West Florida in 1807.[1]She was the first free Black woman settler of Webberville, a town located in the outskirts of present-day Austin, Texas. Silvia played a foundational role in leading freedom seekers to safe havens by ferrying them away from US bondage to freedom destinations in Mexico.[2]

In 1819, 12-year-old Silvia was transported to the Cryer family’s plantation in Clark County, Arkansas. There she was sold on Mach 10, 1819 by Silas McDaniel to Morgan Cryer Sr., a Revolutionary War veteran, for $550.[3]Silvia labored in Arkansas for seven years until she was forced South from there, to Mexican Texas by her enslaver’s son, John. Silvia arrived in Texas on March 15, 1826, as one five enslaved individuals introduced into Austin’s Colony by John Cryer, his wife, and his two children.[4]

Silvia reached Mexican Texas after Mexico issued the Federal Actof1824, a law that “prohibited in the territory of the United States of Mexico the commerce and traffic of slaves, arriving from any foreign power and under any flag,” a law that also decreed that “all enslaved persons who are introduced, from this day forward, contrary to this decree gain their full freedom as soon as they set foot in Mexican territory.”[5] Unfortunately slaveholders who received land grants to settle in Mexico created subterfuges for slavery, through legal and extralegal contracts and passports, that enabled them to continue introducing enslaved persons to Mexican territory, even in spite of the laws that prohibited those actions.[6] Silvia, according to Mexican law, was a free woman, since the moment she first set foot in Mexican Texas, but her enslaver took Mexican freedom off the table for Silvia, as many slaveholders did for thousands of Black women, men and children brought to Texas between 1824 and 1836.

While still enslaved at John Cryer’s plantation in central Texas Silvia was pursued by John Webber, a white man from Vermont who had settled in a neighboring land grant. Silvia’s freedom papers and several witness accounts highlight the relationship John Webber established with her.[7] Webber met Silvia at some point between 1826 and 1829 and records point out that “he became infatuated with her.”[8] In early 1829 Silvia became pregnant with her first child by John Webber, a daughter she named Alcy (also knowns as Elsie) and who was born, enslaved, in October of 1829.[9]

Still enslaved, by 1834, Silvia had given birth to two other of John Webber’s children, two sons they named Henry and John.[10] Silvia certainly fought for her freedom and the freedom of her children for many years. Finally, she secured freedom papers for her and her children on Thursday June 11, 1834. As was the experience of most enslaved persons, Silvia’s freedom was not gifted to her and her liberty came at a monumental cost. According to witness accounts John Cryer “cognizant of the situation, took advantage of it to drive a sharp bargain” in order to agree to allow Silvia, and her partner John, to purchase her and her three children’s freedoms.[11] And a sharp bargain it, was given that in order to secure her and her children’s freedom, Silvia and John were “obligated” to pay, not in money or specie, but had to, before the final day of October of that year (1834), deliver to John Cryer one enslaved boy and one enslaved girl, infants that Cryer required not be older than two years old.[12] Silvia and John were immediate to cut ties with Cryer. According to Silvia’s descendants it is unlikely that payment was exchanged. And there is no existing record found that such hefty price was ever paid by Silvia or John to Cryer.

During this time, when Silvia secured her freedom, Austin’s colonists adhered to punitive racist attitudes and a series of slave codes that not only limited enslaved people’s movement and rights, but also those of free black persons.[13] Silvia did not legally wed John F. Webber, likely because miscegenation was frowned upon in Austin’s colony, even when under Mexican law their marriage could have been legal. Oral histories of Silvia’s descendants, however, declare that Silvia and John Webber were wed by a catholic priest, Father Muldoon.[14]

In 1836 the newly minted Constitution of the Republic of Texas detailed specifications regarding free Blacks that effectively constricted their “ability to live and settle within the Republic.”[15] By February of 1840 the Texas congress took “a much less tolerant view of free persons of color” as they officially ordered all free Blacks to leave the Republic of Texas or face re-enslavement.[16]

Nevertheless, Silvia and John Webber made their union work. They had 11 children, most of them born in Travis County, and only one born in South Texas. From eldest to youngest their names were: Alcy or Elsy Webber, Henry Webber, John Webber, Leonard Webber, Sarah Jane Webber, James M. Webber, Nelson Webber, Santiago James Webber, Sabrina Webber, Andrew Webber, Rachel Amanda Webber & Jeremiah Webber.

Silvia Hector and her family settled sixteen miles south of the City of Austin,on the 2,214.2-acre land grant that her husband had secured on July 22, 1832.[17] Silvia became the first free Black settler of and founder of that area; an area that later became Travis County, Texas. The family established a ranch that soon became known as both Well’s Prairie and Webber’s Prairieand a few years later, Webberville, a small town that still exists today. [18]

Silvia was an intelligent, kind and welcoming in character and became widely known as “Aunt Puss” Webber by her neighbors in the Webberville vicinity. She was a woman well-liked for her good deeds, and charity to all those who needed help, even when laws in the state limited her own rights, mobility, and living in central Texas throughout the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s.[19] Her 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.”[20] According to several accounts, Silvia and her family were widely known to help people who were destitute, afflicted and even those who sought asylum.[21] Family and South Texas lore and history, passed down through her descendants, tell of Silvia’s role in helping many a runaway slave find refuge in her ranch, and how she would often utilize her home as a stop on the Underground Railroad that led South into Mexico.[22]

After over 20 years of living at Webber’s Prairie, Silvia, her husband and their children left Travis County. Seeking to escape racial discrimination, the blatant and often “strong prejudice against free Blacks” and increased animosity and attacks they faced, the Webber’s sold their land in central Texas and moved to south Texas in 1851.[23] Together, they purchased 8,856 acres in a region known as the PorciónAgostadero del Gato, six miles east of Hidalgo, near the Mexican border and established another successful ranch located near San Juan and slightly south of Donna.[24]

In South Texas Silvia Webber continued to assist her husband in rebuilding their lives anew and in establishing the Webber Ranch on land wedged between the Donna water pump in Hidalgo County and the old military highway that neighbored the ranch of another mixed family, also known to help fugitive slaves and asylum seekers, Matilda and Nathaniel Jackson’s ranch. At the Webber Ranch Silvia and John built another ferry landing and licensed a ferry stop that led directly from their home, down to the Rio Grande, directly onto Mexican waters, useful for both their trading business and as a means to facilitate their endeavors in helping fugitives from slavery reach freedom in Mexico.[25]

Silvia Webber was a staunch anti-slavery advocate and throughout the Civil War, she and her family stood against the confederacy. When confederate troops occupied Hidalgo County, Silvia’s family were persecuted for being “Union sympathizers” and quickly driven out of their ranch. One of her sons was arrested and charged as a “Unionist” and another was able to escape to Brownsville, and likely across the border into Mexico.

Silvia did not move fully to Mexico, and likely because she wanted to continue helping others to freedom. By staying on the border, Sylvia continued her labor of love and leading freedom seekers to Mexico, even going as far as taking some of her own children to live and reside there. She continued in that role until the outbreak of the Civil War when her family became a target, and were persecuted by the Confederacy. It was then, that Silvia too, moved fully to Tamaulipas, Mexico and settled there.[26] 

Silvia, her husband and some of their children returned to the Webber Ranch in the early 1880s.[27] Her husband died soon after in 1882. Silvia survived and continued to live on her ranch until her death. She died on September 13, 1892 in Hidalgo County, Texas and was buried at the Webber Ranch’s cemetery, the ranch she and her husband founded near Donna, Texas in the early 1850s.[28]


[1]In the census of 1850, her name appears spelled as Silvia, aged 43, female, Black and born in Florida. In the census of 1870 her name is spelled “Sylvia” and her trade was keeping house on a farm in Hidalgo County Texas. In the Texas State Historical Association entry for John F. Webber, her name appears as “Silvia Hector.” I have to give thanks to Professor Sonia T. Seeman, Associate Professor and Fulbright Program Advisor and Chair at the University of Texas at Austin, who in a conversation on April 3, 2018, told me about Silvia’s role in helping people to Mexico and encouraged me to research her life and deeds.

[2]Flavia Webber Ortiz, Oral History Interview, January 8th, 2015, provided to author by Silvia’s descendants, October 8, 2020; For more on Silvia’s role on the Underground Railroad see Roseann Bacha-Garza, Christopher L. Miller and Russell K. Skowronek, The Civil War on the Rio Grande, 1846-1876(College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2019), 94; Jesús de la Teja, Lone Star Unionism, Dissent, And Resistance: Other Sides of Civil War Texas(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), 132-133; Ruthe Winegarten, Black Texas Women: 150  Years of Trial and Triumph(Austin: University of Texas at Austin, 1995),6. 

[3]Clark County, Arkansas, Deed Book A, page 24-25. Recorded by the Clerk on July 3, 1819. 

[4]Register of Families in Stephen F. Austin’s colony, The Texas General Land Office: http://www.glo.texas.gov/history/archives/land-grants/registeroffamilies.cfm?intID=41  

[5] Ley Federal de Julio 13, 1824, The Republic of Mexico.

[6]Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998), 39-41

[7]Silvia’s Freedom Papers, Earl Vandale Collection, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.

[8]J. Lee Stambaught and Lillian J. Stambaugh, The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas(Austin: San Felipe Press, 1974), 118.

[9]Silvia’s emancipation record lists the names of her first three children, Silvia’s Freedom Papers, Briscoe Center; Census of 1850; Roseann Bacha-Garza, The Civil War on the Rio Grande, 92.

[10]Smithwick, The Evolution of a State, 163; Regarding Silvia and John Webber’s first three children see:  Roseann Bacha-Garza, The Civil War on the Rio Grande, 92-93.

[11]Smithwick,The Evolution of a State, 163; Andrew Forest Muir “John Ferdinand Webber” TSHA Handbook of Texas entry: https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fwe59; Mark M. Carroll, Homesteads Ungovernable: Families, Sex, Race and the Law in Frontier Texas, 1823-1860(Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2001), 57-58.

[12]Silvia’s Freedom Papers, Earl Vandale Collection, Briscoe Center.

[13]Direct quotes on this subject regarding Silvia: “Aside from the laws, racist attitudes could be very punitive,” Ruthe Winegarten, Black Texas Women: 150  Years of Trial and Triumph (Austin: University of Texas at Austin), 6; For quote: “The Webber family of course could not mingle with the white people, and, owing to the strong prejudice against free n*****, they were not allowed to mix with the slaves” see Smithwick, The Evolution of a State, 163. 

[14]Webber Oral Histories; Note: Family descendants claim that Silvia officially wed John, and that there is a marriage record. I have not been able to locate the record in any local or catholic archive.

[15]Randolph B. Campbell, The Laws of Slavery in Texas(Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2010), 112-114

[16]Ibid.  

[17]John F. Webber Land Grant. Abstract number 26, Travis County. The Texas General Land Office: http://www.glo.texas.gov/history/archives/land-grants/landgrants.cfm?intID=140116

[18]Texas Historical Commission “Webberville Historical Marker” https://texashistoricalmarkers.weebly.com/webberville.html  

[19]J. Lee Stambaugh and Lillian J. Stambaugh, The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas(Austin: San Felipe Press, 1974), 118; 

[20]Noah Smithwick, The Evolution of a State or Recollections of Old Texas Days(Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1983), 165-66.

[21]Ibid.

[22]Maria Elena Hernandez, The Newsroom Documentary“UTRGV Researchers uncovering South Texas’s part of the Underground Railroad” February 19, 2019, https://www.utrgv.edu/newsroom/2019/02/19-utrgv-researchers-uncovering-south-texass-part-in-the-underground-railroad.htm;  Roseann Bacha-Garza, Christopher L. Miller and Russell K. Skowronek, The Civil War on the Rio Grande, 1846-1876(College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2019), 94; Jesús de la Teja, Lone Star Unionism, Dissent, And Resistance: Other Sides of Civil War Texas(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), 132-133. 

[23]Bruce Glasrud and Milton S. Jordan, Free Blacks in Antebellum Texas(Denton: University of North Texas Press,  2015), 25.

[24] Stambaugh, The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, 118-19

[25]Bacha-Garza, The Civil War on the Rio Grande, 94.  

[26]Flavia Webber Ortiz, Oral History Interview, January 8th, 2015, provided to author by Silvia’s descendants, October 8, 2020.

[27]Bruce Glasrud and Milton S. Jordan, Free Blacks in Antebellum Texas(Denton: University of North Texas Press,  2015), 24-25; On the Webber’s move and time in Mexico during the Civil War go to: Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail, Podcast, “Webber’s Ranch,” University of Texas Rio Grande Valley: https://www.utrgv.edu/civilwar-trail/civil-war-trail/hidalgo-county/webber-ranch/index.htm; Lee Nichol’s “From Prairie to Settlement to Village” The Austin Chronicle, June 6, 2008, https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2008-06-06/632171/

[28]The Census of 1850 states she was born in Florida, and the Census of 1870 states she was born in Louisiana; Webber Family Geneology Tree in: GENI; Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail, Podcast, “Webber’s Ranch,” University of Texas Rio Grande Valley: https://www.utrgv.edu/civilwar-trail/civil-war-trail/hidalgo-county/webber-ranch/index.htm

The official version of this biography was funded and has been published by The Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas Women as of January 2021. Read it here: Silvia Hector Webber.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close