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The Drowned Town of Preston, aka Coffee's Trading Post

Updated: Oct 20, 2023


Two grave markers.
Sophia's grave (right) sits next to her last husband's, James Porter. Sophia may have nursed Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jancinto; warned Colonel James Bourland of Union encroachment; and learned that her third husband, George Butts was killed by William Quantrill's guerillas. Or she made all this up.

The Drowned Town of Preston, aka Coffee's Trading Post


Founder

Preston was founded by a man who called himself Holland Coffee. I always thought that whether his mother called him that was still open for debate, because such a melodious name does not just happen; but he really was named Holland Coffee. Coffee was one of those early Anglo-Texas frontiersmen who dabbled in pretty much everything and anything. Born in Kentucky, he set up several trading posts along the Red River in order to exchange goods with the Comanches, Kiowas and Wichitas who called the river home. The stockades and stores he built helped to bring American capitalism to an area that was dominated by nomadic bison hunting and Mexican-Indian trade. Along with his partner, Silas Cheek Colville, Coffee established his first post between Spanish Fort (Montague County, Texas) and Petersburg (Jefferson County, Oklahoma) in the 1830s. Since the post was located in the newly-created Choctaw Nation (established during the late 1820s when the Choctaws were forced to remove to Arkansas Territory, which became Indian Territory in 1828) and it did not have permission to conduct business there, in 1835 Coffee and his partners moved their operations to where Cache Creek entered the Red River, south of today's Lawton in Jefferson County. Coffee apparently believed he was inside Texas, not Indian Territory, as the his new post lay at the North Fork of the Red River, which Texas claimed as theirs. Lo and behold, he was still in the Choctaw Nation. By 1837, he crossed the Red River and set up shop on a loop of land on the river's south shore in what was then Fannin County and would later become Grayson County, Texas. The settlement that grew up around Coffee's Trading Post, and in which Coffee invested, became known as Preston, but before that it was known as Washita Bend as this is the area where the Washita met the Red River.

Good Place The site of Coffee's last and most enduring trading post was opportune. It sat along what some have called the "Old Spanish Road," "Branch of the Chihuahua Trail," "Red River Santa Fe Trail" or what-have-you, a path that connected Nacogdoches to Santa Fe alongside the Red River. In the north/south direction, Washita Bend was at the point where Texas cattle were driven across the river along what became known as the Shawnee Trail. Several cotton plantations were being founded in the area as well, in both Indian Territory and Texas, and along with them came profitable slave transactions. Talk about steamships coming up the Red River brought the promise of more economic opportunities. And since the federally-controlled Indian Territory had outlawed the sale of liquor, an easy ferry ride or shoal crossing into Texas brought many Choctaw and Chickasaw customers to Coffee's trading post, where saloons welcomed them. Just below the post lay the small settlement named Georgetown, which sprang up around Fort Johnston, a lightly used fortification that was supposed to protect Texas settlers from Indian raids and Mexican hostilities but didn't really do much of anything. The Snively Expedition (a military operation authorized by the Republic of Texas in 1843 that was supposed to confiscate trade goods ferried by Mexican traders along the portion of the Santa Fe Trail claimed by Texas) commenced from Fort Johnston, so there's that. Lastly, the road from the Red River at Preston southward connected the trading post to a burgeoning little village known as Dallas, designated in 1841 as "Preston Road." I always find it funny how much of Texas history is mythologized by re-imagining many of the state's Anglo founders as heroes when in reality, their characters were often found wanting. The whole point of the "gone to Texas" movement in the early 1830s was to escape regimented society and the law (and, before the Revolution, to leave the United States!) so many of these dear pioneers were more than a little flawed. Holland Coffee and his associates serve as prime examples of this.

Characters Coffee and Colville had established their trading post on a headright claimed by John Hart, an early Texas trader who had served in the Texas revolutionary army. Hart had settled along the Red River at Warren's trading post (the first Fannin County seat), where he acted as sheriff. When Hart tried to claim his land at Washita Bend, Silas Colville stabbed him instead. I guess that's one way to develop real estate. By the way, Colville himself was stabbed to death a few years later by an unknown assailant. Coffee's transactions with Kiowas, Wichitas and Comanches, which included trading items for American and Mexican captives who could then be ransomed back to their families, led the Republic of Texas to condemn and investigate him. Luckily Coffee knew Sam Houston, who once was his neighbor at Fort Gibson in Indian Territory. Houston cleared Coffee's reputation and instead named him an Indian Agent for the Republic. In this role, Holland Coffee successfully negotiated a peace treaty with Wichita tribes and the Republic, most likely in order to continue his trading operations with the Natives. After serving a term in the House of Representatives during the Republic of Texas, Coffee married Sophia Suttenfield. Before he did that, however, Sophia had to petition the courts to divorce Augustine Auginbaugh, who had abandoned her. After making their relationship legal, Holland and Sophia acquired a number of enslaved people who built a plantation at Preston, which they named Glen Eden. Alas, marital bliss did not last forever. Coffee died in a confrontation with another trader, who had apparently made a rude remark about Sophia (Sophia had a somewhat dubious reputation, with some people claiming that she was a prostitute who had followed the Republic of Texas army from camp to camp.)

Industrial Age Even without its founder, Preston continued on. The town served as the starting point for Randolph B. Marcy’s journey up the Red River as well as a few dragoon expeditions. But it was surpassed in importance within a few decades. Sherman, Grayson County's seat, was founded in the 1840s and quickly became a major trading center. Benjamin Colbert, a Chickasaw citizen, established a ferry in the 1850s a few miles downriver, linking his plantation to Shawneetown in Grayson County across the river. Colbert's ferry helped to solidify the Texas Road, a pioneer trail from Missouri and Kansas into Texas, and his plantation house also served as a hotel. Because Preston had a somewhat seedy reputation (and also didn't invest in infrastructure improvements), the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach bypassed it in favor of Colbert and Sherman. By the 1870s, the Missouri Kansas Texas Railroad paralleled the Texas Road and crossed into Texas at Colbert's Ferry, and once again, Preston was bypassed. Directly across the river from Preston, Woodville was founded at a freshwater springs in the 1880s. When the Frisco Railway built its tracks through Woodville, it did so from the east to the west, and thus Preston never saw train service. Preston stayed a small town until the 1940s, when the Army Corps of Engineers evacuated the town in order to create Lake Texoma. Many of the prominent landmarks, including Glen Eden and the cemetery, were moved to avoid being drowned. The cemetery was relocated about a mile from Preston's original site. The Old Settler's Association, a group of Grayson County pioneers who worked to preserve the memory of the antebellum years, assisted in preserving several of Preston's structures, which eventually found their way to Loy Lake Park, a living history village. Preston's no more, but it sure gave us a good run when it existed.


Map
Preston stood at the site of Washita's Bend into the Red River (1853 TX GLO).
Woman with photo of a plantation home
Sophia Suttenfield Auginbaugh Coffee Butts Porter had a reputation that spanned from a prostitute to a frontier woman to an enslaver to a plantation mistress to a consumate gardner to a historian to a born-again-Christian. Can't make her story up!
Two men in front of brick buiding
A mill building at Coffee's Post, which is now under Lake Texoma.
Brick tomb
Holland Coffee's original tomb at Preston.
Gravemarker
Holland Coffee's grave sure has changed since Lake Texoma was built. I wonder if he's even buried here or if he still rests beneath the lake in the tomb picture above.

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