Nobility in Big Spring

Texas claims its share of frontier characters—buffalo hunters, Indian fighters, gunslingers, and cowboys—who roamed and sometimes helped settle the vast western regions. The remittance man, although a less well-known frontier character, represents a few hundred wealthy Europeans, mostly Englishmen, who found themselves exiled in the wilds of West Texas. Although these nobles lost their positions at home, their families continued financial maintenance (remittance) in an apparent effort to keep them out of sight.

Heneage Finch, 7th Earl of Aylesford

Heneage Finch, 7th Earl of Aylesford

Joseph Heneage Finch, Seventh Earl of Aylesford, fits the bill as a remittance man. He held claim to one of the finest estates in England until his life blew up in a scandal that shook British nobility, including such personages as the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII), and Lord Blandford Churchill, uncle of the future Sir Winston Churchill. It seems Finch accompanied the Prince of Wales on a goodwill trip to India in 1875-76 only to abruptly leave his sponsor and return home to confront his unfaithful wife and her lover. A divorce followed that shook the highest levels of English society. Finch lost his estate, and he left for adventure in America.

Upon arriving in New York, Finch met Jay Gould, president of the Texas & Pacific Railroad, who described the cheap land and good turkey and antelope hunting in West Texas.

With former buffalo hunter John Birdwell serving as his guide, the earl bought a 37,000-acre ranch northeast of the new railroad town of Big Spring in 1883 and stocked it with $40,000 worth of cattle. Birdwell warned Finch that cowboys “don’t cater to big names and such, so we’ll just call you ‘Judge.’ ” The Judge became popular with the local cowhands for his tales of hunting in India with the Prince of Wales and for footing the bill for their drinking parties.

Storytellers say Finch bought a saloon, tended bar himself, and at the end of the party gave the establishment back to its former owner. We know he satisfied his yen for mutton, which did not sit well with local cowboys and cattlemen, by building his own meat market, the first permanent building in Big Spring. He lined the walls of his lodge with an amazing collection of hunting gear and after the structure burned, he bought the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Some folks say he bought the hotel because he and his friends needed a place to party for one night. He gave the hotel back the next day with the understanding that there would always be a room for him and his buddies. On January 13, 1885, after throwing a lavish Christmas dinner and drinking party that lasted two weeks, the Seventh Earl of Aylesford died in his hotel room at the age of 36.

A Texas Historical Marker in Big Spring tells the English nobleman’s story.

Texas Historical Marker, Big Spring

Texas Historical Marker, Big Spring

Ex-Slave Becomes Community Leader

Born into slavery in Arkansas in 1845, Nelson Taylor Denson moved, at age eleven, to Falls County in East Texas with his master. Denson, who had been educated by his master, developed high regard for Sam Houston after hearing Houston speak when he visited Marlin in his campaign for governor. During the Civil War, Denson accompanied his master in the Confederate Army, serving as a saddle boy looking after the horses.

An account titled Slaves Narratives—Rural NW Louisiana African American Genealogy includes Denson’s account of the Civil War in which he praises Sam Houston for standing by his principles and refusing to take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, which resulted in Governor Houston being removed from office. Denson says he that at age sixteen he went to war as his master’s “bodyguard.” In his gripping account of the night before the Battle at Mansfield on the Sabine River, he describes the sound of whippoorwills calling and the low mummer of the men singing spirituals and listing for an attack from the Yankees camped just across the river.

Denson views the slaves who ran away and joined the Union forces as not properly caring for the women and children left behind on the plantations. He goes on to share his concern after the war for the change in the “old order,” and the decline in virtue and chivalry.

After the Civil War, Denson returned to Falls County as a free man and began working to fulfill his two dreams—to preach and to teach. Incorporating a deep understanding of human needs and rights, Denson became a circuit preacher in the Baptist denomination.

On November 8, 1868, the Reverend Denson, his wife, and eleven other blacks organized the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church, the first black congregation in Falls County. Denson believed that black citizens must have the basic rudiments of education, which led him to teach the fundamental skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic. He helped start a school sponsored by the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church, and others soon followed. By the mid-1880s Denson won election as county commissioner, becoming the first black official in the county. His good judgment and spirit of cooperation won the respect of both the black and the white communities, and he continued to be respected and called on for advice and counsel until his death in 1938 at the age of ninety-three.

The Rev. Nelson T. Denson and the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church historical marker is located at 507 Bennett at George Street in Marlin, Falls County.on

Sally Skull: Legend in Her Lifetime

Chroniclers say the tiny, hook-nosed, blue-eyed Sally Skull rode a horse like a man, cursed like a sailor, shot like an Indian, and spoke Spanish like a Mexican. Stories abound of her five husbands—she may have killed one or two, and number five may have killed her.

Sally grew up young, and she grew up tough. Born in 1817 as Sarah Jane Newman, her family moved to Texas in 1821 and settled in the northernmost part of Stephen F. Austin’s original colony. Besides the constant threat in her childhood of Indians stealing the family’s horses and corn, Sally watched as an Indian stuck his foot under the cabin front door to lift it off the hinges and her mother used an ax to chop off his toes. At other times her mother put the children to bed and blew out the candles fearing Indians might shoot them through the cracks between the log walls of the cabin. Finally, the family moved to Egypt, a settlement south of present Houston that was less prone to Indian attack.

Like many girls of that time, Sally married at age sixteen. Jesse Robinson, a man twice her age, served as a volunteer in the Battle of San Jacinto that won Texas independence from Mexico and in several subsequent military campaigns. When they divorced in 1843, he claimed Sally was a scold and “termagant” and committed adultery with someone she kept in the washhouse. Sally said Robinson was excessively cruel. They both fought for years over custody of their two children.

Sally married again on March 17, 1843, eleven days after the divorce, but not to the accused in the washhouse. Despite three more unions, husband number two, George H. Scull, provided her famous name with a slight variation in the spelling.

After the Scull marriage, Sally sold her inherited property around Egypt and disappeared for about ten years. She may have spent that time near her children who attended convent schools in New Orleans. Those who knew Sally reported that she adored her children and always found other children delightful. However, as her notoriety spread, mothers often chided their children to behave or Sally Skull would get them.

George Scull disappeared from the record by the early 1850s about the time Sally established a horse-trading business twenty miles west of Corpus Christi at the crossing of Banquete Creek and El Camino Real (the old road from Matamoros on the Rio Grande to Goliad and beyond). Several accounts place Sally at the great 1852 State Fair in Corpus Christi because she is remembered for shooting a man—in self-defense, of course.

Her reputation also spread over her lifestyle choices: she often wore men’s pants, she rode her horse astride rather than side-saddle, and she buckled at her waist a wide belt anchoring two cap and ball revolvers. Her only nod to feminine attire consisted of a slatted sunbonnet to protect her once-fair complexion.

She hired a few Mexican vaqueros that rode with her on horse-trading trips as far south as Mexico and along the Gulf coast all the way to New Orleans. She purchased up to 150 horses at a time with gold carried in a nosebag around her neck or over her saddle horn.

Sally did not allow anyone to inspect or cut her herds, which may have fueled rumors that after she visited ranches, Indians drove off the best horses that appeared later in Sally’s herds. Wives sometimes claimed she made eyes at their husbands while her vaqueros stayed busy running off their horses.

Several tales surround Sally’s loss of husband number three, John Doyle, who like George Scull simply disappeared from the scene. Some accounts claim Doyle and Sally had a duel and her superior marksmanship won the day. Others said that while in Corpus Christi for a fandango, which she loved attending, she did not wake quickly enough the following morning and Doyle poured a pitcher of water on her head. She leaped from the bed not fully awake, drew her pistol, and became a widow. Another tale tells of her insisting that John Doyle and her vaqueros ride across a swollen river. The rushing current swept away Doyle and his horse. When the Mexicans asked if they should look for his body, she said, “I don’t give a damn about the body, but I sure would like the $40 in that money belt around it.”

In December 1855, Sally married Isaiah Wadkins and divorced him the following May for beating her, dragging her nearly two hundred yards, and living openly in adultery. After she won the divorce, the Nueces County Grand Jury indicted Wadkins for adultery.

Sally’s number five was almost twenty years her junior. Christoph Horsdorff or “Horsetrough,” a moniker he earned for just sitting around.

With the start of the Civil War Sally quit horse trading, fitted out several mule train wagons, converted her Mexican vaqueros into teamsters, and began the highly dangerous and lucrative business of hauling Confederate cotton to Mexico. The Union blockade of all the ports on the Gulf Coast made it necessary for the Confederacy to ship cotton to the mills in England through the neutral Mexican port of Baghdad at the mouth of the Rio Grande. Hundreds of English ships waited for the precious cargo in exchange for Winchester rifles, ammunition, and medical supplies for the Confederate Army. The old route to Matamoros that led through Banquete became known as the Cotton Road as ox-carts and mule-drawn wagon trains lumbered along its sandy route hauling thousands of bales of cotton from all over the South.

Some storytellers believe Horsdorff (number five) killed Sally because she was seen riding away from Banquete with him and he returned alone. Later, a man claimed to have noticed a boot sticking out of a shallow grave and discovered her murdered body. No one was ever charged.

  1. Frank Dobie, historian and folklorist best described the illusive lady: “Sally Skull belonged to the days of the Texas Republic and afterward. She was notorious for her husbands, her horse trading, freighting, and roughness.”

And that’s the truth.

Lindheimer, Father of Texas Botany

Texas rat snake

Texas rat snake

If you have heard of the Texas prickly pear, the Texas yellow star daisy, milkweed and loco weed, or the Texas rat snake, you may be surprised to know all five derive their scientific name from Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer—a botanist who scoured the wilds of Texas in the 1830s

Frederich Lindheimer, Botanist

Frederich Lindheimer, Botanist

and 40s to discover several hundred new plant species.

Prickly Pear

Prickly Pear

Raised in a wealthy German family and university educated, Lindheimer taught at Frankfurt’s Bunsen Institute where he became affiliated with a group seeking government reforms. Finding himself at risk for his political associations, which alienated him from his family, he fled to the United States. Lindheimer settled first in Illinois where he joined some of his former German colleagues. From there, he went to a German group on a plantation near Vera Cruz, Mexico, where he began his lifelong fascination with collecting plants and insects.

Excited by reports of the Texas Revolution in 1836, Lindheimer joined a company of volunteers heading to Texas. They missed the action, however, arriving the day after the final battle at San Jacinto. For the next year Lindheimer served in the Texas army.

At the invitation of George Engelmann, a botanist and friend from Frankfurt, Lindheimer traveled to St. Louis where he agreed to collect plant specimens in Texas for Engelmann and Asa Gray, a Harvard botanist. Lindheimer roamed the Texas coast and hill country for nine years with his botanical cart and his dogs, collecting plants, which he identified, dried, and shipped to Englemann at the Missouri Botanic Gardens and Asa Gray at Harvard.

When a group of German noblemen organized the Adelsverein in 1844 with a plan to settle immigrants in Texas, Lindheimer helped their leader Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels find the settlement site, which became New Braunfels, at the confluence of the Comal and Guadalupe rivers. Prince Carl awarded Lindheimer with a piece of property high above the Comal River in New Braunfels where Lindheimer built his home.

Lindheimer collected his first specimen of the nonvenomous Texas rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) in New Braunfels. Reaching lengths of more than six feet, the Texas rat snake consumes large quantities of rodents, birds, frogs and lizards.

Because of his years roaming through Texas, Lindheimer held the respect of area Indians and occasionally hosted Santana, war chief of the Comanche, in his home.

After he married and began raising a family of four children, Lindheimer gave up his travels in 1852 and for the next twenty years served as editor and then publisher of the German-language New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung. He also ran a private school for gifted children and served as the first justice of the peace for Comal County.

Believing a lack of bees needed to pollinate the fruit in the area accounted for the low fruit production, Lindheimer convinced Wilhelm Brückisch, a scientific beekeeper from Silesia (Prussia) to come to Texas. Brückisch arrived with his wife, three sons, two daughters, and several hives of Italian black bees and settled across the Guadalupe River from New Braunfels. Credited as the first person in Texas to begin the commercialization of bees, Brückisch established an apiary on the river and published numerous books and articles on beekeeping.

As rumblings of secession from the United States grew in intensity, Lindheimer is credited with keeping down much of the discontent felt in other German communities with his editorials admonishing his German readers opposing the Civil War to support the Confederacy as a means of maintaining regional stability. Historians say his postwar writings indicate his true loyalty lay with the Union.

Lindheimer died in 1879 and is buried in New Braunfels. Today, the Lindheimer home on the banks of the Comal River serves as a museum and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors see framed botanical specimens, the sword given to Lindheimer by Prince Carl, the family Bible published in 1701, Lindheimer’s desk, and several pieces of furniture made by some of the New Braunfels cabinet makers.

Frederich Lindheimer House Museum, New Braunfels

Frederich Lindheimer House Museum, New Braunfels

At least twenty institutions hold Lindheimer’s plant collections, including the Missouri Botanical Gardens, the British Museum, the Durand Herbarium and Museum of Natural History in Paris, and the Komarov Botanic Institute in St. Petersburg.


Goddess of Liberty Intended for the Capitol Dome

Goddess of Liberty Intended for the Capitol Dome

The first big land giveaway in Texas started in 1749 when the Spanish Colonial government began establishing villas along the Rio Grande. Mexico continued the practice of granting empresarial contracts to men eager to establish colonies in Texas. The Republic of Texas issued land grants to pay its debts, including payment to the army and volunteers for their service in the war for independence from Mexico. After Texas joined the Union and negotiated to keep its public land, the state offered land to encourage development of farms and ranches, to attract new industry, to fund its public schools, and to entice railroad construction. Finally, the state Constitution of 1876 to set aside three million acres of land in the Panhandle to fund construction of the state’s fourth capitol.

The third capitol burned on November 9, 1881, increasing the urgency to name a contractor for construction of the new building. By 1882 the State of Texas initiated one of the largest barter transactions in history to pay wealthy Chicago brothers, John V. and Senator C. B. Farwell, three million acres of Panhandle land in exchange for building the $3 million State Capitol at Austin.

Owners of Granite Mountain, a solid rock dome about fifty miles northeast of Austin, donated enough “sunset red” granite to construct a Renaissance Revival design modeled after the national Capitol in Washington. Convict labor hauled the huge blocks of granite to a newly built narrow-gauge railroad that carried 15,700 carloads of granite from the quarry to the building site in Austin. Upon completion of the 360,000 square foot capitol in 1888 and the placing of the statue of the Goddess of Liberty atop its dome, the building reached a height of 311 feet—almost fifteen feet taller that the National Capitol.

Since the land used to pay for the capitol stretched across the unsettled Texas Panhandle from present Lubbock to forty miles north of Dalhart, the capitol syndicate decided to establish a ranch until the land could be sold. Representatives went to England in 1884 to secure $5 million from British investors to finance the purchase of cattle, fencing, and the entire infrastructure for the huge enterprise.

Trail boss Abner Blocker drove the first herd to the ranch in 1885 only to discover that a brand had not been selected. Trying to create a design that could not be easily changed, Blocker drew “XIT” in the corral dust with the heel of his boot, and it stuck as the brand and ranch name. In later years the story spread that the brand stood for “ten (counties) in Texas” because the ranch spread into ten counties. Other folks speculated that it meant “biggest in Texas.”

The vastness of the operation required dividing the ranch into eight divisions with a manager over each. A 6,000-mile single-strand wire fence eventually enclosed the ranch, the largest in the world at that time. By 1890 the XIT herd averaged 150,000 head, and the cowboys branded 35,000 calves a year. Fences divided the ranch into ninety-four pastures; 325 windmills and 100 dams dotted the landscape. Cowhands received pay of twenty-five to thirty dollars a month. XIT men and their “hired guns” sometimes formed vigilante groups to combat problems of fence cutting and cattle rustling. Wolves and other wild animals took a heavy toll, especially during calving season. Lack of ample water, droughts, blizzards, prairie fires, and a declining market resulted in the XIT operating without a profit for most of it years.

The schoolteacher wife of one of the managers, Cordia Sloan Duke, kept a diary, writing notes on a pad she carried in her apron pocket while she “looked after” her own family and the 150 cowboys who worked the ranch. She successfully encouraged eighty-one cowboys and their families to keep diaries. Eventually, she and Dr. Joe B. Frantz published a book, 6,000 Miles of Fence: Life on the XIT Ranch of Texas. Through Mrs. Duke’s efforts, an authentic account of the work and lifestyle of that early phase of American life has been preserved in the cowboys’ own language.

With British creditors demanding a positive return, the syndicate began selling the land for small farms and ranches. All the cattle had been sold by 1912, but the last parcel of land was not sold until 1963. One hundred years after the land exchange, the tax value on the property reached almost $7 billion.

The XIT Ranch, built on land that served as payment for building the largest state capitol in North America, is remembered at the annual Dalhart XIT Reunion Parade where a horse with an empty saddle honors the range riders of the past.

Texas State Capitol

Texas State Capitol

Stephen F. Austin, “Father of Texas”

Stephen F. Austin fits the image of a reluctant father. He came to Spanish Texas in response to his own father, Moses Austin’s, deathbed wish for Stephen to continue with Moses’ dream of settling 300 families in Texas. Like many apprehensive fathers, Stephen F. Austin austin1embraced his responsibilities and spent the remainder of his life guiding his colony and all of Texas toward its best opportunity for success.

Austin understood and admired the adventurous, hard-working settlers willing to move to a wilderness and carve out a new life because he grew up around the French Canadian, Spanish, and American mine workers in the primitive, lead mining towns his father founded in western Virginia and Spanish Louisiana (present Southeast Missouri). Unlike Moses Austin whose quick temper and need to challenge those with whom he disagreed, Stephen embraced patience, tact, willingness to compromise, and the diplomacy necessary to work with the independent-minded settlers and with the tangles of Spanish and Mexican government bureaucracy.

Stephen reached San Antonio in August 1821, secured authority to continue with Moses Austin’s colonization grant, and arranged for allocating 640 acres for each man, plus 320 acres for a wife, 160 acres for each child, and eighty acres for each slave at a cost of twelve and a half cents per acre to be paid to Austin for administering the surveys and expenses of establishing the colony.

Settlers eagerly grabbed the land offer as Austin scrambled to find financial partners. From the beginning of his colony, Austin insisted all land grants be carefully recorded in bound volumes to preserve a permanent record—a wise decision in light of the news of Mexico finally winning its long battle for independence from Spain.

The first test of Austin’s diplomatic prowess came in December 1821—the first settlers were already arriving—when Mexican authorities refused to approve the terms of Austin’s Spanish land grant.

He left immediately for Mexico City, and after patient negotiation, the Mexican government established a new empresarial policy offering each married man a league of land (4,428 acres) and opened colonization to several more empresarios, agents like Austin who received permission to bring settlers into Texas. The law denied empresarios the right to charge administrative fees, providing instead 67,000 acres for settling each 200 families. However, empresarios received their payment in land only after settling all the families. Imagine trying to sell land to colonists that were getting it free in Mexican grants.

Despite the loss of administrative fees and personal debts mounting as he bore more and more of the unforeseen costs of establishing the Austin Colony, by late 1825, Austin’s colony reached 300 families—known today as the “Old Three Hundred.” Between 1825 and 1829, Austin settled an additional 900 families.

Dealing with the Mexican government required constant compromise. The slavery issue presented a continuing challenge since most settlers came from slave-holding states and the original colonization law allowed them to bring their chattel into Texas. When the new constitution of the state of Coahuila and Texas prohibited slave importation, an uproar spread through the colony. Austin’s personal beliefs (he owned a slave woman he described as old and not worth anything) seemed to shift. As with other issues that he felt represented the best interest of the colonists, he negotiated a scheme allowing settlers to free their slaves at the Texas border and make them indentured servants for an indefinite time.

Recognizing the plight of many colonists who came to Texas without paying their debts in the United States, Austin secured a law closing the courts for twelve years to debt collectors and permanently exempting land, tools, and implements used in business and farming from creditors—an early version of the homestead exemption law.

Austin located his colony in fertile farmlands with access to transportation along the Colorado and Brazos rivers, and then lobbied the Mexican congress to legalize the port of Galveston and to allow trade through ports at the mouth of the Brazos and other rivers.

Despite Austin’s efforts to ease tensions between the differing cultures and remain aloof from Mexican government intrigues by encouraging the colonists to “play the turtle, head and feet within our own shells,” outside forces kept Mexican officials on the defensive. Several offers from President Andrew Jackson for the United States to buy Texas drew Mexican suspicion that the U.S. was plotting to take Texas, which resulted in an 1830 Mexican law halting further colonization by settlers from the United States. Again, Austin wrangled an exemption for his and for Green DeWitt’s colony, and by the following year succeeded in getting the law repealed.

However, when Haden Edwards, in an effort to win Texas independence from Mexico tried to drag Austin’s beloved colonists into the Fredonian Rebellion in late 1826, Austin sent a militia to put down the revolt and save his settlers from the wrath of the Mexican government.

The colonists’ dissatisfaction with Mexican President Anastacio Bustamente’s heavy-handed immigration controls and introduction of tariffs finally led to Austin joining the colonists in supporting Antonio López de Santa Anna in the Mexican presidential elections. Santa Anna soon proved not to be the liberal leader of his campaign, but a dictator who clamped down on the increasingly independent-minded colonists.

Austin did not favor the conventions held in 1832 and 1833 to express Texan grievances, and believed they would not serve the colonists’ best interests, but he attended each event hoping to moderate the actions of the increasingly rebellious settlers. Despite his efforts to temper the resolutions, the delegates, even those who disagreed with Austin, recognized his influence with the Mexican authorities, and elected him to present their petitions of grievance to the government in Mexico City.

Austin’s negotiations resulted in important reforms, but as he headed back to Texas, Santa Anna ordered him arrested and held until July 1835—an absence from Texas of twenty-eight months. During that time Austin recognized that independence would be the only answer for Texas.

Strong factions organized a consultation to begin the process of declaring independence. The consultation delegates selected Austin and two other men as emissaries to the United States to solicit loans and volunteers and to arrange credit for munitions and other equipment, including warships. The men were also charged with getting a commitment of recognition of Texas independence and eventual annexation to the United States.

By the time Austin returned to Texas in June 1836, the celebrated Battle of San Jacinto on April 21 had decisively won the Texas war for independence from Mexico.

Austin “offered his services” as president of the republic in the September election, but it was not to be. Sam Houston, the man who marched across Texas with the army, the flamboyant general who led the troops in the winning Battle of San Jacinto, won the contest. President Houston appointed the quiet and unassuming Austin to the office for which he was well suited—Secretary of State.

Despite failing health and no money to heat his tiny office and living quarters, Austin worked diligently to set up the state department of the new Republic of Texas. As he lay near death with pneumonia on December 27, 1836, he roused from a dream with these last words: “The independence of Texas is recognized. Didn’t you see it in the papers?”

Austin died at age 43 without knowing his beloved Texas, which he nurtured and guided with such patience, would become the twenty-eighth state to enter the Union, and that annexation would trigger the Mexican War (1846-48). Like dominoes falling across the historic landscape, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending that conflict stretched the United States borders to the Pacific Ocean, adding nearly a million square miles and increasing the size of the nation by almost one third.