Carolyn E. Cook
Texas: Legends, Myths, and the Real Deal
Updated: Nov 27, 2021
Part 5: Sophia, More Fiction Than Fact?
Texas has its share of colorful male characters, but it doesn’t lack in numbers of vivid women, either. Sophia Suttonfield was one of those. She was born in Indiana in 1815 and by the end of her days, her entire name had become Sophia Suttonfield Aughinbaugh Holland Butts Porter. A mouthful.
What is known of her childhood came from Sophia. She asserted her father was a dashing, young army officer from a wealthy Virginia family and her mother was from a genteel Boston family. Historical digging proved her statement to be only partially true. Her father was indeed in the army, but as a lowly soldier. He wasn’t dashing, either. He was short and plain. Her mother did hail from Boston, although her family wasn’t even close to genteel.
Stories filled with exaggerations and falsehoods flowed from Sophia throughout her life. In 1833, at age seventeen, she said, “I do,” for the first time to Jesse Aughinbaugh, who was a teacher and a druggist, quite the interesting combination. Sophia told people he was an army officer, like her father.
Whether they were happy together or disgruntled is hard to say, although future events point toward the latter. In 1835, they up and traveled to Texas, perhaps for the availability of land there. It would have been a rough trip along narrow, dirt roads, crossing waterways on ferries. The duration was likely many weeks. Eventually, Sophia and Jesse arrived in Nacogdoches, in the piney woods, about fifty miles from the Texas/Louisiana border. The fledgling town presented only more unpleasant and primitive conditions.
According to Sophia, her husband deserted her in Nacogdoches and she was on her own. Perhaps. Or maybe she deserted him. Who could tell? Unfortunately for her, the date was late March, 1836, and the Texas rebellion against the Mexican government was in full swing. News came to the far-flung settlers about the fall of the Alamo to Santa Anna’s army and that triggered what’s called the Runaway Scrape. As most men were off fighting, it was mainly groups of women who went into panic. They grabbed children and babies, leaving all material possessions, and fled toward safety in Louisiana. Sophia joined them on the run through the thick forests, in cold and in rain.
Here is where Sophia’s story takes a turn. Apparently, she left the hustling pioneer women going east and went south, becoming the first woman, so she said, to arrive at San Jacinto, one day after the battle and the Texians’ defeat of Santa Anna. There, she nursed the injured General Sam Houston and they became good friends. Historians doubt the veracity of this. They think she might have been a camp woman who sold her services to Sam and likely others. After all, as a deserted wife, she had no financial means.
Following this escapade, Sophia must have just roamed around for months until she finally made her way to the just-started town of Houston, temporary capital of the Republic of Texas. It was there that she met Holland Coffee, owner of a trading post near the Red River, far to the north. She must have seen dollar signs in him and realized it was imperative she shed herself legally of the disloyal husband Jesse, whereabouts unknown. Gaining a divorce was more difficult than she imagined. Since Holland was a member of the new Texas House of Representatives, she appealed to him for help. He struggled with the task, too, and lobbied Sam Houston to get this done. In late 1838, the House passed a bill granting a divorce for Sophia and on January 19, 1839, she married Holland Coffee for Husband Number Two.
Sophia described their honeymoon as 600 miles of trip on horseback, protected by a group of Rangers, (multiple exaggerations here), all the way to Holland’s Trading Post. He made good profits by selling supplies to new settlers coming through, guns and whiskey to Indians. Now with a wife, Holland expanded his business dealings and acquired parcels of land that he sold at a nice mark-up. No doubt, Sophia gave some weighty urging in this lucrative venture.
By 1845, the Coffees were fairly affluent and they started a town called Preston to surround the Trading Post. They also developed a plantation named Glen Eden. The house was a large, two-story dog-trot, having lower and upper porches, a cellar, and native stone chimneys, one on each end. It was located about a mile from the Red River.
Just when circumstances were going well. . . Holland had a niece married to a fellow named Charles Galloway and they were visiting at Glen Eden. Sophia’s account was that Galloway was a scoundrel. He’d made a slanderous crack about her friendship with Sam Houston, back in the day. As any insulted woman might do, she insisted her fine husband should defend her honor. She wanted Galloway to be horsewhipped! As any reasonable man might do, Holland wanted to ignore the whole thing and not publicly display family disagreements. She declared, “I’d rather be the widow of a brave man than the wife of a coward.”
Holland gave in. He and Galloway commenced to battle physically, escalating to what was called an Indian duel, meaning a knife fight to the death. Sad for Holland. Galloway dispatched him with a Bowie knife. Self-defense was declared and Galloway wasn’t charged.
Sophia got her wish, being a widow of a brave man. It was 1846 and at just 31 years of age, she was mistress of a 3000-acre plantation, along with a number of slaves. Apparently, Sophia had no trouble in taking charge. She increased the plantation’s production of corn and cotton, while making Glen Eden the social center for miles around. She was much noted for her extravagant parties and insisted to have entertained such luminaries as Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, and Sam Houston, although historians say there is no evidence of those visits.
Sophia liked to accompany the baled cotton to New Orleans where it would be sold, and while there, she could also buy more beautiful gowns. The assumption is that she met George Butts on one of those trips. They must have hit it off instantly, as he returned to Glen Eden with her and took up residence. There is no record of their marriage in Louisiana or Texas, but she referred to him as a good husband. He did enjoy living off her wealth, while she ruled the plantation. Once in a while, he did help with the business.
Sophia continued to enlarge the acreage, added an orchard containing over 100 fruit trees, and developed a rose garden that was well-known for its beauty.
The Civil War erupted and Sophia gained more fodder for stories to tell. In 1863, William Quantrill and his Confederate guerillas raided in the town of Sherman, a few miles off. If a person expressed loyalty to the Union, he was killed forthwith and his possessions stolen. George Butts had gone to Sherman on Glen Eden business and happened to meet up with Quantrill. They fell into a heated argument. George was a Southern sympathizer, but the argument was one huge mistake. That night, he was on his way home and Quantrill’s unofficial army ambushed him.
Poor Sophia. Widowed yet again. The Sherman townspeople gave her sympathy, possibly roused by her heavy weeping. Quantrill was arrested, but with assistance, he escaped and never stood trial.
Was it really Quantrill who perpetrated George’s murder? Historians say records indicate Quantrill wasn’t even in Texas at the time.
In another of Sophia’s war stories, she was dubbed the Confederate Paul Revere. Union troops had marched onto her plantation and camped on the property. Being a good hostess, she took these enemy men down to her wine cellar and allowed them to imbibe freely. Conflicting accounts --- One says that the soldiers were simply too drunk to notice when she left the house. The other says that she took no chances and locked the cellar door before riding off on a mule. She crossed the Red River to warn Col. James Bourland and his Confederate troops who were camped there.
The end of the story has two more variations. One says, thanks to Sophia, Bourland and his men packed up and rushed away, evading the Union soldiers. The other says that Bourland and his men hurried to Glen Eden and captured the inebriated Union soldiers in the cellar.
By the end of the war, Sophia decided the Red River area was just too dangerous for her to stick around. She packed her gold in buckets and took her slaves along to Waco. (I suppose they hadn’t yet heard that they had gained freedom.) At any rate, in Waco, she met James Porter, a former judge and Confederate Cavalry officer from Missouri. On August 2, 1865, Sophia gained him as Husband Number 4 and the new couple promptly returned to Glen Eden, minus the slaves who, by then, had learned of their freedman status. Without those slaves, Sophia’s bank accounts dwindled, though not to worry. She still had plenty to live on.
Husband James must have been an upstanding guy. He encouraged Sophia to get religion and took her to a camp meeting. She was so gripped by the preacher’s sermonizing that she rushed forward and threw herself at his feet. The fellow probably knew of her rather unsavory reputation. He told her, “You must serve God for twelve years because the sun, moon, and stars are against you being a Christian.” Why the long wait? And the sun, moon, and stars? Not an exemplary preacher, in my opinion.
Sophia wouldn’t be dissuaded. She went to Sherman and talked with the Methodist preacher. He accepted her without question. In appreciation, she donated land for not one, but two Methodist churches.
After that, folks began to call her Aunt Sophia. She had finally gained respect. The parties at Glen Eden continued, but she and James didn’t allow dancing.
The years moved on. James died in 1886 and at age 71, Sophia didn’t bother to find a fifth husband. Nevertheless, she still wanted to look fashionable. She ordered from catalogues and shopped at the ladies’ dress stores in Sherman. To keep a youthful appearance, she applied Ayer’s Hair Dye each week, which kept the white strands at bay.
Sophia continued as mistress of Glen Eden until she left this world at age 81 in 1897. She willed Glen Eden to a nephew.
Into the twentieth century, the house was sold multiple times. The last owner was a man named Randolph Bryant. Around 1942, he was forced to clear out because the area was to be flooded to form Lake Texoma, on the Texas/Oklahoma border. Locals planned to dismantle the Glen Eden house, to be reassembled in Sherman as a museum showcasing Grayson County history. Just like so many events in Sophia’s life, those plans never came to fruition. The large pile of wood was burned by mistake.
The tiny town of Preston still exists, located on a narrow peninsula jutting into Lake Texoma. The sites of Holland Coffee’s Trading Post and Glen Eden are in the vicinity, but covered by deep water. At the tip of the peninsula, called Preston Point, are two Texas historical markers, one telling of the Trading Post and one of the flamboyant and strong-willed Sophia.