Webber, Silvia Hector [Aunt Puss] (1807–1892)

By: María Esther Hammack

Type: Biography

Updated: January 28, 2021

Silvia Webber, also known as Sylvia Hector and “Aunt Puss,” was born in 1807 in Spanish West Florida in the parishes that became part of eastern Louisiana. Silvia was the first free Black woman settler of Webberville, Texas, a town located on the outskirts of present-day Austin. She was also one of the few free African American settlers in present-day Travis County on the eve of the Texas Revolution and during the Republic of Texas and antebellum eras. Little is known about her childhood or her parents. According to family lore, she and her White husband, John Ferdinand Webber, may have helped asylum seekers and fugitives from slavery find safe haven in Mexico.

There are few records of Silvia’s childhood except a bill of sale from 1819. On March 10, 1819, twelve-year-old Silvia was sold to Morgan Cryer, Sr., of Clark County, Arkansas, by his son-in-law, Silas McDaniel, of Clark County, Missouri, for $550. Considering Silvia’s birthplace and her age in 1819, she may have been held as property from birth by members of the extended Cryer family. The Cryer family lived on a plantation in South Carolina during the American Revolution. The extended family migrated to Georgia, where McDaniel married Morgan’s daughter, then, in 1806, moved to St. Helena Parish in Spanish West Florida. Morgan and his family moved to Arkansas and Missouri Territory in 1815. Silvia’s life in Arkansas was not documented.

Records suggest that Silvia came to Texas as enslaved property of John Cryer (often spelled Crier) when she was nineteen years old. At least three of Morgan Cryer’s adult children immigrated to Mexican Texas: John, Rebecca (Cryer) Cummins, and Keziah (Cryer) Taylor. John and his brother-in-law, James Cummins, moved to Austin’s Colony in 1826 and petitioned for a Mexican land grant as part of Stephen F. Austin’s Old Three Hundred colonization enterprise. Silvia may have been one of the five enslaved persons listed with John Cryer in Austin’s register of families on March 15, 1826.

According to Silvia’s emancipation papers and several witness’s accounts, she met John Ferdinand Webber, a business partner of Cryer, between 1826 and 1829, and he “became infatuated with her.” Cryer and Webber initially entered into a short-lived tobacco smuggling business across Northern Mexico. Silvia and Webber’s first child, Alcy (sometimes spelled Alecy, Alcey, or Elsie), was born in October 1829. By 1834, and while still enslaved, Silvia had given birth to two sons, Henry Webber and John Webber. On June 11, 1834, John Webber and Silvia purchased her freedom and that of their three children. According to witness accounts, Cryer, “cognizant of the situation, took advantage of it to drive a sharp bargain” when Silvia and John made their request. To secure Silvia and the Webber children’s freedom, Cryer required payment, but not in money or specie. Webber agreed to deliver a two-year-old enslaved boy to John Cryer and a three-year-old enslaved girl to Polly Odum, likely Cryer’s niece, before the final day of October 1834. Enslaved children were valuable for any Texas slaveholder.

After Silvia’s emancipation, she and John F. Webber lived as husband and wife. It is unclear when they married; however, oral histories given by their descendants state that Silvia and John Webber were wed by a Catholic priest named Father Michael Muldoon. Although interracial marriage was legal under Mexican law in 1834, most Anglo-American immigrants in Texas frowned upon it. After the Texas Revolution, the 1836 Constitution of the Republic of Texas outlawed interracial marriage and severely restricted rights and freedoms held by free Blacks under Mexico. Nevertheless, Silvia and John Webber made their union work. They had thirteen children: Alcy, Henry, John, Leonard, Sarah Jane, James M., Nelson, Santiago James, Nelson, Sabrina, Andrew, Rachel Amanda, and Jeremiah. All were born in Travis County, except the youngest, Jeremiah, who was born in South Texas.

Silvia and her large family lived in Austin’s Little Colony (see MINA MUNICIPALITY) on the 2,214.2-acre land grant that her husband secured on July 22, 1832, located on the Colorado River near what is today the Travis-Bastrop county line. In that isolated location, Silvia and John established their ranch on what became known as Webber’s Prairie. She was likely the first free Black settler and founder of that area, which developed as early as 1826. A few years later she helped her husband establish the town of Webber’s Prairie on the Colorado River, approximately fifteen miles southeast of Austin. The town’s name changed to Webberville in 1853 after Silvia and her family were pushed out of the area.

Silvia was described by other early settlers as intelligent, kind, and welcoming. She became widely known as “Aunt Puss” Webber by her neighbors in Webber’s Prairie. 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 rights, mobility, and daily life as a free Black woman in antebellum Texas. Her house was “always open to anyone . . . and no human being ever went away from its doors hungry.” According to some accounts, Silvia and her family were widely known to help people who were destitute and those who sought asylum.

After living at Webber’s Prairie for approximately twenty years, Silvia, her husband, and their children left Travis County. Seeking to escape racial discrimination, the “strong prejudice against free Blacks,” and increased animosity and attacks the family faced, the Webber’s sold their land in Central Texas and moved south in 1851. In 1853 they purchased 8,856 acres in a region known as the Porción Agostadero del Gato, six miles east of Hidalgo, near the U.S.-Mexican border and established another successful ranch located near San Juan and slightly south of Donna.

In South Texas Silvia continued to assist her husband in rebuilding their lives 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 Matilda and Nathaniel Jackson, another interracial couple known that helped fugitive slaves and asylum seekers. Family descendants and South Texas lore tell of Silvia’s role in helping many a runaway slave find refuge on the Webber’s ranch, and how she often utilized her home as a stop on the rumored Underground Railroad that led south into Mexico. At the Webber Ranch Silvia and John built a ferry landing and licensed a ferry stop that led directly from their home on the Rio Grande to Mexican waters. Their construction was useful for both their trading business and as a means to facilitate helping fugitives from slavery reach freedom in Mexico.

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 was persecuted for being “Union sympathizers” and quickly driven off their ranch. One of her sons was arrested and charged as a “Unionist,” and another was able to escape to Brownsville. During this time Silvia, her husband, and some of their children moved to Mexico and did not return to Texas or the Webber Ranch until 1882. Her husband died soon after in 1882. Silvia continued to live on her ranch until her death in 1892. She is buried near her husband and descendants at the Webber Cemetery in Hidalgo County.

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Randolph B. Campbell, The Laws of Slavery in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010). Mark M. Carroll,Homesteads Ungovernable: Families, Sex, Race and the Law in Frontier Texas, 1823–1860 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001). Jesús F. de la Teja, Lone Star Unionism, Dissent, And Resistance: Other Sides of Civil War Texas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016). Earl Vandale Collection, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Roseann Bacha Garza, Christopher L. Miller, and Russell K. Skowronek, eds., The Civil War on the Rio Grande, 1846–1876 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2019). Bruce Glasrud and Milton S. Jordan, Free Blacks in Antebellum Texas (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2015). Maria Elena Hernandez, “UTRGV Researchers uncovering South Texas’s part of the Underground Railroad,” The Newsroom, February 19, 2019 (https://www.utrgv.edu/newsroom/2019/02/19-utrgv-researchers-uncovering-south-texass-part-in-the-underground-railroad.htm), accessed December 20, 2020. Pike County Archives and History Society, The Gems of Pike County Arkansas VII (Summer 1996). Noah Smithwick, The Evolution of a State or Recollections of Old Texas Days (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983). J. Lee Stambaugh and Lillian J. Stambaugh, The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas(Austin: San Felipe Press, 1974). Ruthe Winegarten, Black Texas Women: 150 Years of Trial and Triumph (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995).

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

María Esther Hammack, “Webber, Silvia Hector [Aunt Puss],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 29, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/webber-sylvia-hector-aunt-puss.

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January 28, 2021

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