Cool historic roads of the Lone Star State
February 27th, 2014 under West Texas Talk
By LONN TAYLOR
Texas has numerous historic roads, roads that started out as Indian paths, were widened to accommodate carts and wagons, and were eventually paved and numbered by the Texas Highway Department. State Highway 21, which crosses east and central Texas along the route of the old Spanish road from Nacogdoches to San Antonio, is probably the best-known. In 1929 the Texas Legislature officially designated it the Old San Antonio Road and the Daughters of the American Revolution have placed granite markers along its right of way. Another is State Highway 289, originally known as the Preston Road, which in the 1840s linked Holland Coffee’s trading post at Preston Bend on the Red River with a ford on the Trinity River and served as a gateway for settlers coming into North Texas. The town of Dallas was established at the Trinity River ford, and Preston Road survives as a Dallas street name.
My favorite historic road, however, is a little-known back road that runs though the bottoms of the Colorado River between Austin and Bastrop. At its Austin end it is called the Webberville Road, and when the highway department paved it in the 1930s it was designated FM 969. It crosses the Colorado River on an old-fashioned truss bridge between Wilbarger Bend and Hemphill Bend and joins SH 71 just west of Bastrop. The road traverses part of what was once known as Austin’s Little Colony, which Stephen Austin established in 1830 on the Comanche frontier. Much of the road’s historic interest derives from its position on that frontier.
Just a few miles east of the Austin city limits the road crosses Webber’s Prairie, named after Austin colonist John F. Webber. In the 1820s Webber was living at San Felipe. He fell in love with a slave and had a child by her. He purchased both mother and baby from their owner and married her, a marriage which was legal when Texas was still part of Mexico. However, they could not live among their Southern white neighbors so they took up land on the very edge of the frontier. According to Noah Smithwick, who knew the family, Webber’s black wife, Puss, was “ever ready to render assistance, without money and without price,” to anyone in the neighborhood who needed help. Smithwick, in his book The Evolution of a State, tells of several unfortunates to whom the Webbers gave a temporary home. Still, says Smithwick, when the Indian menace abated and the neighborhood filled up with settlers, the Webbers were forced to sell out and move to Mexico, where they could raise their family undisturbed by racial prejudice.
Just down the road from Webber’s Prairie is Hornsby’s Bend, marked by a bronze plaque set in a large boulder placed by the roadside by the Hornsby family. Reuben Hornsby and his wife Sarah built a log house at Hornsby’s Bend in 1832; it was the northernmost house on the Colorado River. They raised ten children there. Five members of their household, including one of their sons, were killed by Indians over the next 15 years. One of Reuben and Sarah’s great-grandchildren, Rogers Hornsby, born in 1896, became one of the greatest baseball players of the 20th century. He is buried in the cemetery at Hornsby’s Bend, along with 18 former Texas rangers, 15 of them members of the Hornsby family.
FM 969 continues east to Wilbarger Bend, a long, narrow, flat tongue of rich alluvial land. Josiah Wilbarger and his wife took up a league of land there about the same time that the Hornsbys settled at Hornsby’s Bend. In August 1833 Wilbarger went up to the Hornsby home and joined four young men who intended to scout for land further up the Colorado River. At Pecan Springs, now in East Austin, they stopped to noon and graze their horses. While they were making a lunch out of biscuits, jerky, and spring water a group of Indians emerged from the brush and attacked them. Two of the land hunters were killed immediately, Wilbarger received an arrow in each leg and was shot through the throat, and the other two reached their horses and got away. When they got to the Hornsby house they reported that they had looked back and seen the Indians scalping the prone Wilbarger, and assumed he was dead. Reuben Hornsby sent a boy down the river for reinforcements, and everyone hunkered down to spend an uneasy night at the Hornsbys’.
In the middle of the night Sarah Hornsby woke her husband up. “Wilbarger’s not dead,” she said. “I saw him in a dream, stark naked, covered with blood, sitting under an oak tree. You’ve got to go get him.” By dawn the reinforcements had arrived, and a large party set out for Pecan Springs. They took three sheets, two in which to bury the dead men and one to wrap around Wilbarger if Sarah’s dream proved to be accurate. Sure enough, they found Wilbarger sitting under a tree, scalped, naked, covered with blood, but alive. He had covered his bleeding head with a sock, the only piece of clothing the Indians had left him. They took him back to Hornsbys’ and he eventually recovered fully, although his scalp never healed and he wore a cap indoors and out the rest of his life.
The story Wilbarger told was even stranger than Sarah Hornsby’s dream. He said that the shot through his throat temporarily paralyzed him, so he felt no pain when the Indians scalped him, although he passed out while they were stripping his clothes off. When he woke up he tried to crawl toward the Hornsbys’, but his sister, Margaret, who lived in Missouri, suddenly appeared to him and told him to wait where he was, that someone would come and get him. He said that her form was so clear that he did not question her, but as she started to walk in the direction of the Hornsby house she vanished, even though he called to her to wait. Weeks later he learned that his sister had died the night before she had appeared to him. He calculated that the apparition had occurred shortly before Sarah Hornsby had her dream.
And FM 969 still has several miles to go before it reaches Bastrop.
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Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.