Tuesday, January 10, 2017


By Juan Montoya

Joe Cuellar was settling in to the laid-back life of retirement and unending doldrums at his homestead out in the southeastern reaches of Brownsville near Palm Grove Elementary.

After decades of working for the City of Brownsville's Public Works Department followed by another long stint as foreman of the Cameron County Precinct 1 Road and Bridge crew, Cuellar, now using a walker and an electronic wheelchair, was getting used to the quiet country life watching over his pet dog Peanut and his roosters.

Then he started surfing the Internet and looking into his ancestry. Suddenly, the sedate laid-back lifestyle no longer seemed enticing. Cuellar, who had shunned computers, or for that matter, the world-wide web, suddenly found he did not have enough hours in the day.

"I always wondered why some of our relatives were named Webber," he said. "Some of us had blue eyes and others were lighter-skinned than the others. I though it was just coincidence." Little did he know that he was beginning a journey that would take him back more than 400 years in time weaving through the beginning of U.S. history, slavery, the Civil War, prejudice, and South Texas early history.

After his sons, now grown with children of their own, got him hooked up to the world-wide web and taught him the rudiments of web surfing, he started looking up his ancestors. What he found caused an impact on him that still has not subsided.

He found out that he was a descendant of a New England Yankee who formed part of then-Mexican Texas Moses (Stephen's dad) Austin's colony in 1826.
John Ferdinand Webber was born of English stock and his own grandparents traced their beginnings to a John Webber who was born in Stepney, London, England in 1600 and died in 1650, about the average life span in those times.

After members of his family immigrated to the brand-new country of the United States, they settled in around New Hampshire and branched out into Vermont and other Eastern Seaboard states.
Cuellar's ancestor Webber (known locally as Juan Fernando Webber) was born 1794 in Vermont. He served in the War of 1812 as a medical technician in Capt. S. Dickinson's company, Thirty-first United States Infantry from May 13, 1813 to May 31, 1814 and fought in the Battle of Shadage Woods.

In 1832, after coming to Texas, he settled in Wells Prairie on the Colorado River sixteen miles below present Austin. He built a fort as protection against Indians, which developed into the village of Webberville.
Webber bought Silvia Hector, the slave of a neighbor, freed and married her. Cuellar has been able to trace her beginnings to Louisiana and Missouri. In those days, slaves were sold and traded like goods and had to follow their owners where they took them.

Webber provided private tutors for his eleven children with Sylvia (another was born later). Seeking tolerance for his biracial family, he moved to the Rio Grande Valley in 1851.
In 1853, he purchased 8,856 acres in Agostadero del Gato Land Grant for his Webber Ranch and other property in La Blanca Grant. As a Yankee, he supported the Union cause, and moved the family to Mexico during the Civil War.

Webber sold the northern half of his ranch to Edward Dougherty in 1877. His other tracts, about 4,000 acres, were gradually broken up until his death on July 19, 1882. He bequeathed each of his children 34.5 acres; his daughter Marcella received the family cemetery in her share. His heirs sold most of his property to Alamo Land & Sugar Company by 1918. Much of it has been recombined and is now part of Krenmiller Farms of San Juan.

That cemetery on the levee road, a short distance above the Donna, Texas pump, still exists. His widow died in September 1892. Cuellar said he and his family were always curious about their ancestor and his wife and started seeking more information on Sylvia Hector, the slave woman who married Webber.
Some of his family still lives in the Donna area on land originally acquired by Webber.
If family trees could be compared to tree species, this one could easily be classified as a Sequoia, with roots buried to ancient depths and branches reaching out into the new future.

His research has now spread to cover more than 60 families and over 1,000 people.
When Webber died on July 19, 1882, his 12 children married into the local population intermarrying with families with last names such as Alanis, Alvarado, Bar
rientos, Contreras, Cuellar, Cavazos, Esquivel, Handy, Hernandez, Limas, Martinez, Ochoa, Olvera, Reyas, Reyas, Rocha, Sarmiento, and, of course, the remaining Webbers.

"I got a note from ancestry.com that it was the largest genealogy list that they had encountered," Cuellar said. "There is a wealth of diversity in our heritage."

In 2005, the Hidalgo Historical Commission authorized the recognition of the Webber Cemetery and made a census of the names. Among the buried at the site is Juan Ferdinand Webber himself.

About a year ago his descendants, among them Cuellar and his family, gathered to recognize their progressive ancestor. They erected a granite headstone next to the grave of one of his daughters also buried there.

"To think that a person of his day would buy and free a slave girl and and have his children with her and move to South Texas because of the racial intolerance of the times is simply amazing," he said. "Just think of the prejudice that must have existed back then in a slave state like Texas where people were simply property."

The thought of finding the entire family genealogy has sparked a interest in Cuellar that has shattered the idyll that was retirement.
"I have found so much about my ancestors and I'm finding out even more every time I follow one of the branches," he said. "Who knows where it will lead next?"


Anonymous said...

Interesting. At least his family supported the Union. The same can't be said about others here. Many take great pride in being related to the white supremacists who seceded from the Union.

KBRO said...

"The same can't be said about others here." Well say it Mr Anonymous. Your credibility isn't sh*t LoL

Anonymous said...

Great story. Sam Houston supported the Union

Anonymous said...

Wow, interesting story! Good Job.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Cuellar, check out chapter 17 of "Recollections of Old Texas Days" by Noah Smithwick. He lived on Webber's Prairie in 1839 and recounts personal knowledge of him, his wife (by first name), their children; and how they came to leave and move to Mexico.
Available through Copano Bay Press.

V. Tinker Shays said...

FU, Anonymous. You know nothing about the War of Northern Agression.

Anonymous said...

Otra vez con tus pendejadas, KBRO. You speak of someone else's credibility when you have none.

Anonymous said...

War of Northern Aggression? Yes, and Adolf Hitler loved the Jews.

Anonymous said...

A man has to buy a black woman to get a wife? That is one hard up dude.