It was said of Texas that it was a splendid place for men and dogs, but hell for women and horses. Every now and again though, there were women who embraced the adventure with the same verve and energy that their menfolk did; and one of them was a rancher, freight-boss and horse trader in the years before the Civil War. She is still popularly known as Sally Skull to local historians. There were many legends attached to her life, some of them even backed up by public records. Her full given name was actually Sarah Jane Newman Robinson Scull Doyle Wadkins Horsdorff. She married – or at least co-habited – five times. Apparently, she was more a woman than any one of her husbands could handle for long.
Sarah Jane, later to be called Sally was the daughter of Rachel Rabb Newman – the only daughter of William Rabb, who brought his extended family to take up a land grant in Stephen F. Austin’s colony in 1823; an original ‘Old 300’ settler. (In Texas, this is the equivalent of having come on the Mayflower to New England, or with William the Conqueror to England.) Rabb and his sons and daughter, with their spouses and children – including the six-year old Sally – settled onto properties on the Colorado River near present-day La Grange. Texas was even then a wild and woolly place, and several stories about those years hint at how the frontier formed Sally the legend – well, that and the example of her mother, a formidable woman in her own right. One story tells that Rachael and her children were safely forted up in their cabin, with hostile Indians trying to break in through the only opening … the chimney. Rachel threw one of her feather pillows onto the hearth and set fire to it, setting a cloud of choking smoke up the chimney. Another time – or possibly the same occasion – an Indian raider was trying gain entry by lifting the loose-fitting plank door off it’s hinges. When the Indian wedged his foot into the opening underneath the door, Rachel deftly whacked off his toes with one swipe of an ax.
Sally first married in 1831, two years following the death of her father. She was only 16; not all that early in a country where women of marriageable were vastly outnumbered by men. Her husband, Jesse Robinson was twice her age, also an early settler, and had a grant on in the DeWitt colony near Gonzales. At about that time, Sally registered a stock brand in her own name; she did not go undowered into the wedding, which turned out to be a bitterly contentious one. She had inherited a share of her father’s herd – but signed the registry with an ‘x’ indicating that she was most likely illiterate. But if Sally had been shorted in the matter of book-learning, she had not been when it came to making a living in frontier Texas. Sally rode spirited horses, and astride – not with a lady-like side-saddle. She tamed horses, raised cattle, managed a bullwhip and a lariat, spoke Spanish fluently and was a dead shot with the pair of revolvers which customarily hung from a belt strapped around her waist. There are no daguerreotypes or any sketches from life of Sally, only brief descriptions by those who met her and took note now and again. “…Superbly mounted, wearing a black dress and sunbonnet, sitting as erect as a cavalry officer, with a six shooter hanging at her belt, complexion once fair but now swarthy from exposure to the sun and weather, with steel-blue eyes that seemed to penetrate the innermost recesses of the soul…” was the testimony of one obviously shaken individual.
Jesse Robinson served more or less continuously as a volunteer soldier, ranger and militiaman during the ten years of their marriage. He was home just long enough to father three children with her; Nancy, Albert, and a baby who died early. Those ten years included the desperate one of 1836; Jesse was with Sam Houston’s Army at San Jacinto, while Sally and the children very likely made the miserable trek east from Gonzales with other fleeing civilians. Life after the war turned out to be as disruptive to family life as before. In 1843, Jesse sued for divorce, claiming abandonment, and that she was a scold, a termagant, and adulterous, too. Sally riposted that he was cruel, abusive, wasteful of the inheritance she had brought into marriage … which she demanded be returned to her. The divorce was granted and the property divided equally, although custody of the children – Nancy, who was then nine, and her brother Albert three years younger – were not mentioned in the settlement. Two weeks later, Sally married a gunsmith named George Scull. Although she married three times more, it was an alternation of his surname that she would bear in folklore. Jesse Robinson – the occasional soldier and ranger – is on record as surviving marriage with Sally, which cannot be said with assurance of one and possibly two of her subsequent husbands.
The newlyweds sold up the real property and left the area, taking the children with them, to the fury of their father. Nancy and her brother were placed in a convent school in New Orleans, from which Jesse Robinson removed them. He put them in another convent school there, but Sally soon found them, and removed them to yet another school. According to tradition and legend, the children were swapped back and forth several times between convents by their feuding parents. Sally was by all accounts, a loving and fiercely devoted mother to her son and daughter – and in spite of being used as a ‘boogie’ to threaten disobedient children; “Be good, or Sally Skull will get you!” those same traditions report that she was indulgent and affectionate with children.
By the end of the decade, Sally and George Scull were no longer a couple. In land sale records filed in Wharton County, she declared herself as a single woman and George to be deceased. In the 1850 US Census, she was living in Dewitt County, near where her sister’s family had settled. But shortly afterwards, she had set up an establishment of her own, at Banquete Creek in Nueces County, twenty miles west of Corpus Christi. There was reliable water in the form of Banquete Creek – and her property was on the original Camino Real – the old, Spanish-established road from Matamoros to Goliad and beyond. In company with some of her Rabb cousins, Sally had a profitable horse-trading and cattle-ranching enterprise – and also another husband, one John Cook. Sally and her relations bought land, and she bought horses from as far away as Mexico and sold them up and down the Gulf Coast as far as New Orleans. She paid for the horses in gold – carrying her funds in a nosebag hanging from the horn of her saddle and already had a reputation as a woman not to be tangled with. In his memoirs years later, John ‘Rip’ Ford described seeing her shoot a man, supposedly in self-defense. No one messed with Sally; like many another old west gunslinger, a ferocious reputation was as much an effective defense as was her bull-whip, six-shooters, bowie-knife … and another pair of hideaway pistols concealed in the folds of her split-skirt riding costume.
An abiding element in Sally’s legend is that she killed one of her husbands, or contributed to his drowning at a river crossing. Scull or Doyle are the likeliest candidates, as the other three appeared in public records long after their turn in the marital barrel with Sally. One scenario had Sally and the husband of the day staying in a Corpus Christi hotel after a very merry dance the night before. When her husband was unable to wake up the deeply sleeping Sally the next morning, he emptied a pitcher of cold water over her head – whereupon she grabbed her pistol and opened fire. But she observed remorsefully afterwards that she wouldn’t have done it, if she had known it was really him. According to another stories, water was involved in disposing of a husband. In one version, Sally’s husband was crossing a flood-swollen river on horseback, but he and the horse were swept away and drowned. One of Sally’s Mexican ranch hands asked if she wanted to order a search for the body. She answered, “I don’t give a damn about the body, but I sure would like to have the $40 in that money belt around it.” A variant had the husband and Sally’s ox-team and wagon coming down a steep bank and onto a river ferry. Unable to stop the team in time, husband and animals overshot the ferry and drowned in the water, and Sally observed sorrowfully that she would rather have lost her best team of animals than her man. In any case, Sally’s next essay in matrimony, with one Isaiah Wadkins, was brief and disastrous. She filed for divorce, accusing him of not only beating her and dragging her bodily a good distance, but also of living in open adultery with another woman in Rio Grande City. The case of adultery was so open that Sally was readily granted a divorce and the grand jury charged Isaiah. Finally, on the eve of the Civil War, Sally took up with Christoph Horsdorff. Ironically, considering the age differential with Sally and her first husband, he was about half her age.
The Union blockade of the South changed everything for Sally. Cotton was the wealth and life-blood of the South., and the U.S. Navy’s blockade of Southern ports and commercial shipping held a noose strangle-tight on the Confederacy … but there was a single, significant work-around to that noose: Mexico. The cotton-wealth of Texas flowed across the border at Matamoros and from there out to the wider world. Sally – knowing the countryside well, and with her years of business experience, was the perfect person and in the perfect place to serve the Confederacy in this regard. Cotton arrived by rail in Alleytown, where the railroad from Houston terminated. Then, the cotton would be transshipped by wagon, along the old Camino Real to Brownsville and cross the Rio Grade to Matamoros. Eyewitnesses describe thickets of scrub brush and cactus alongside the roads north of Brownsville being as white as if snow had fallen, from tufts of cotton snagged by branches and thorns from the endlessly passing wagons. Returning from Matamoros those wagons carried vital war materiel for the Confederacy and imported goods not otherwise available. Sally and her horses and wagons had a vital part in this, but she did not omit her family. The Cotton Road passed close by the home of her daughter Nancy, who had married and moved to Blanconia in Bee County. Likely it was Nancy’s sons, who passed on the recollection of playing with their grandmother’s hideaway pistols.
And when the war ended, Sally Scull seemed to vanish. She did not return to trading horses as she had done before. No one reported any more memorable public encounters with the fearless, hard-riding, pistol-packing horse-trading Sally. A brief mention in a couple of court records date from 1868, but if there had been any more, fires in the courthouses where she had lived or done business erased Sally from the public records. There is no record of her death and no known grave, only a story to the effect that she and Christoph Horsdorff went out for a ride one day from the Banquete ranch, and he came back alone … but nothing conclusive or known for certain. Horsdorff went north, and married another woman in 1868. Some say that Sally was seen in and around Halletsville and Goliad in the 1870s; one historian tracked down two senior citizens who were children at that time, and related stories of seeing her around then. One of them related how he and his brother would toss silver dollars into the air, for her to shoot holes through – but she wouldn’t let them keep the holed coins, saying that she would take them home and patch them up.
A tradition persisted in her family that she went to far west Texas and settled to a quieter life with her Newman kin. Sally would have been in her fifties or sixties then – and decades of hard living and hard work in the out-of-doors would have told on the strongest physique. Save in folk-memory, Sally was gone from the scene by the time that dime novels about cowboys, rustlers, vigilantes and six-guns were being churned out in the late 1870s and 80s. She was born too soon … or perhaps she was born in the right time and place to form the woman that she was – six-shooters, sunbonnet and all.
(Crossposted at www.ncobrief.com and at my Celia Hayes book blog.)