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Backroads: Pioneer Financed Move To Belton With Tobacco Hoard

Tis the season when cash registers ring cha-ching and credit cards swoosh. Paychecks come in here, and they exit over there.

A long time ago in Bell County, a woman new to Texas grew her own “coin of the realm.” Money may not grow on trees, but it sure does help when a person can roll it and smoke it.

Bah-humbug to all pundits who say that the West was won with barbed wire, whiskey and railroads; bartering and tobacco really civilized the frontier.

The story of Kerenhappuch Sophronia Buie (1842-1921), a restless woman searching greener pastures, is a tale of resilience and good ol’ fashioned financial enterprise. An essay about her life written by her cousin, Aline Law, was published in “Women in Early Texas” by Evelyn M. Carrington (Texas State Historical Association, 1994).

By the onset of the War Between the States, Sophronia was living in Arkansas with her widowed mother and three siblings, all in the crossroads between Union and Confederate troops. According to family history, renegades from both armies stole tools, animals and household goods in frequent forays. The family at times hid in nearby swamps for safety.

Desperate, Sophronia urged her mother to move to Central Texas while Arkansas remained in the war zone. The move would mean they could be near friends and extended family. In their sparse baggage loaded on their ox cart was an abundant cache of tobacco that would bankroll their journey.

Tobacco grew wild in many states, but farmers, such as the Buie family, prided themselves on their own cultivated crops. The consumption of tobacco — mostly cigarettes and pipes — was ubiquitous among the Indians of Texas before the arrival of the Spaniards. The Indians gathered and cured the wild tobacco and also cultivated it in small patches.

Early settlers to Texas introduced several varieties of Kentucky and Tennessee tobaccos grown for home consumption. In 1850, Texas farmers produced 66,897 pounds of tobacco. Sophronia planned to add some more to those numbers.

She described their journey to Texas in a handwritten account dated September 1867.

On their way to Bell County from Arkansas, the Buie family became sick with what she called “bilious fever.” A settler living en route took them in and allowed them to work on his farm in return. Sophronia used some of her precious tobacco cargo for bartering: 10 pounds of tobacco that she sold for 75 cents a pound. That was enough to bankroll the rest of their journey.

Finally, they reached Bell County, crossed the Leon River and arrived in Belton.

“We did not like it all,” Sophronia wrote. So the family went south to what is near present-day Salado. “We thought that perhaps the water would help us, but it made us all sick except Ma (mother), and it helped her.”

With her family sick, Sophronia walked to the nearest grain mill, but the meal was too expensive. She walked three more miles to a second mill, where she bought four bushels of meal for four pounds of tobacco.

Trying to settle in, she again bargained. “We bought a chair without any bottom from a chair maker and gave him one and a half pounds of tobacco,” she said. “We bought some beef from a man that was camped at the springs and paid part in tobacco, the hind quarter at three cents a pound.”

But the decision to settle in Bell County was worrisome. Sophronia detailed her problems: “The reason we did not like it out there, it was hilly and very rocky and poor range and the people was mostly northerners and abolitioners (anti-slavery activists). The water was limey, the river and spring water both. We could not hear of any house or place that we could rent but several wanted to sell at $5 to $6 per acre.”

Her tobacco-bartering skills helped the family make do. Shopping in Belton, she was able to barter for molasses, but a butcher wanted a more pungent flavor to her tobacco and refused to trade for bacon. Finally, she was left with just $4 and little tobacco. She wrote relatives back in Arkansas to send more seeds and arbor vitae starts to replenish what she had.

Her hoard of tobacco had served her well during difficult times of settling into a new life in Texas.

Finally in 1868, Sophronia met and married Isaac Johnson Webb (1842-1913) of Cameron, a native Tennessean and a Confederate veteran. Eventually, the Webbs settled in Bee and later Dimmit counties.

Sophronia and other newcomers to Texas survived on this ancient system of trading “this” for “that.” Accounts by 17th-century Spanish friars describe Tejas Native Americans especially adept at trading systems.

“Among them, there is no exchange, save by bartering. It seems that everything they own, they do not hold as personal property, but as common property. Therefore, there is no ambition, no envy to prevent peace and harmony among them,” according to observations transcribed in a 1926 article in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly.

According to some high-tech wizards who operate websites and phone apps, the barter system is back. The truth is, bartering is an age-old system that never really went away. Neighbors frequently trade simple chores (such as dog walking) for plates of cookies, but could bartering work today for Christmas shoppers in malls?

While there are no tax advantages or disadvantages to bartering, there are tax consequences. “A trade dollar and a cash dollar are the same in the eyes of the IRS,” according to Robert Meyer, publisher of Barter News magazine.

Thankfully, Sophronia didn’t have to worry about the IRS’ Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act. Barter exchanges are legally designated custodians of the financial records of their members, who of course must pay taxes.

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