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 early, 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 less prone to Indian attack.

Like many girls of that time, at age sixteen Sally married Jesse Robinson, a man twice her age who served as a volunteer in the famous Battle of San Jacinto and in several subsequent military campaigns.  When they divorced in 1843, he claimed she 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 convents 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 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 Christoph Horsdorff or “Horsetrough,” a moniker he earned for just sitting around and possibly for being almost twenty years her junior.

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.

A few court records after the Civil War document Sally’s final scrapes with the law: The Goliad District Court minutes show her indicted for perjury on May 4, 1866, and acquitted seven days later.  The court closed an eight-year-old case in 1867 that had been filed for an unknown reason against “Sarah Wadkins” (name of husband four) and another woman’s husband.  The final note on the record stated, “death of Defendant suggested.”

Some storytellers believe Horsdorff killed Sally after she was seen riding away from Banquete with him and he returned alone.  Later, a man claimed that he saw a boot sticking out of a shallow grave and discovered her murdered body.  No one was ever charged.

J. 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.

Baron de Bastrop: Diplomat, Legislator, Fraud

Felipe Enrique Neri (1759-1827), a charming gentleman hailed in Texas as the Baron de Bastrop, paved the way for the first Anglo-American colony in Texas.  No one knew he left his wife and five children in Holland or that he fled his country with a bounty of 1,000 gold ducats on his head for embezzling taxes from the province of Friesland.

Baron de Bastrop

Neri arrived in Spanish Louisiana in 1795, claiming to be the Baron de Bastrop, a Dutch nobleman forced to leave Holland after the French invasion.  After ten years of various business dealings, including settling ninety-nine colonists under a Spanish land grant, Neri appeared in San Antonio in 1806 assuming an air of gentility and posing as a loyal Spanish subject, adamantly opposed to the United States’ 1803 Louisiana Purchase.  As the Baron de Bastrop, Neri opened a freighting business in San Antonio, and soon gained enough respect to be appointed alcalde (mayor) in the ayuntemiento (local government).

If you read my blog on Moses Austin, you may remember that in an odd twist of fate, Austin chanced to meet his old friend Baron de Bastrop on the plaza in San Antonio after the Spanish Governor flatly refused to even consider Austin’s request to establish a colony in Texas.  In fact, the governor ordered Austin to leave San Antonio immediately.  Under such contrary circumstances it is obvious Baron de Bastrop held considerable influence with the Spanish officials.  Bastrop convinced the Spanish governor to accept Moses Austin’s grant request by arguing that Spain needed settlers occupying the country between San Antonio and the Sabine River as a cushion against the Indian threat; that Spaniards and Mexicans were not coming into Texas, rather they were leaving; and that Anglo colonization had already proven successful in Spanish Louisiana.  Within three days the Spanish governor granted Austin permission to establish his colony in Texas.

After Moses Austin died and his son Stephen F. Austin (blog of October 5) applied for his father’s grant, Baron de Bastrop again used his considerable influence to secure permission for Stephen to continue with Moses Austin’s grant to settle 300 families in Spanish Texas.

By 1823 Bastrop won appointment as Stephen F. Austin’s commissioner of colonization with authority to issue land titles.  From all accounts, the baron faithfully handled his duties even after he was chosen in 1824 as a legislator representing the new state of Coahuila and Texas.  He served as an ideal intermediary for Austin to enact laws that were in the best interest of the colonists such as an act establishing a port at Galveston.

Mexican law required the salary of legislators be paid by contributions from their constituents, resulting in such sparse payment that when Bastrop died on February 23, 1827, he lacked enough money for his burial.  Despite the state of poverty in which he died, the Baron de Bastrop, still claiming to be of noble birth in his last will and testament, left land to his wife and children.

Although many people in his day viewed his origins as suspect—some believed him to be an American adventurer—he held respect for his diplomatic and legislative work on behalf of Texas.  In the past fifty years records from the Netherlands revealed the true story of his mysterious past.

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 embraced his responsibilities and spent the remainder of his life lovingly guiding his colony and all of Texas toward the 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 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 Austin’s Spanish land grant.

Austin 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 land only after settling all the families.  Selling the land proved difficult since colonists were getting free land.

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 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 State, 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 resulted in an 1830 law halting further colonization by settlers from the United States.  Austin wrangled an exemption for his and for Green DeWitt’s colony, and by the next 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, Austin sent a militia to put down the revolt to 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 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 dissatisfied 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 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.  Without Austin’s calming presence, the war clouds in Texas grew beyond his control; 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 arrange credit for munitions and other equipment, including warships.  They also charged the men 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 Texas war for independence from Mexico.

Sam Houston

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.

Land acquired after the Mexican War