The Thing That Comes in the Night

A story, circulated since the 1830s in South Central Texas, contains enough truth to merit a Texas Historical Marker. Residents along the Navidad River bottom in Lavaca and Jackson counties began seeing strange footprints along the riverbank, and at the same time, they began missing small amounts of sweet potatoes and corn. On moonlit nights half the food in their cabins disappeared even though an intruder had to step over sleeping dogs. Tools vanished, only to be returned, brilliantly polished and sharpened. In fall around hog-killing time families stopped fattening hogs because a fat hog was invariably replaced with a scrawny substitute. Valuables such as gold or watches were never taken although they were plainly visible when the food disappeared.

Everyone speculated about “it.” Slaves believed it was a ghost and called it “The Thing That Comes.” Settlers, finding two sets of footprints, believed one of the intruders to be a man and the other a smaller companion, perhaps a woman or child.

Many people organized search parties trying to capture the “Wild Man of the Navidad.” Sometimes they found his camp among a thick growth of trees, but he never returned to the site while the pursuers waited.

Texas folk author J. Frank Dobie in his book Tales of Old-Time Texas concluded that the phantom figure had to be a woman because several well-documented sightings reported that “it” had long, flowing hair and facial features more similar to a woman. Dobie writes of a near capture in 1846 during an intense search when a rider heard rustling in the brush just before “it” ran in the light of the moon onto the open prairie.  “She ran directly across the prairie in the direction of the main forest. The man nearest her rode a fleet horse and it needed all the speed it had to keep up with the object in pursuit. As the figure neared the dark woods, the rider was able to throw his lasso. But, as the rope neared the woman, the horse shied away and the lasso felt short. The figure darted into the woods never to be seen again.”

Dobie said the rider claimed that the creature had long, flowing hair that trailed down almost to its feet and it wore no clothing. Her body seemed to be covered with short, brown hair.

“As she fled to the woods, she dropped a club to the ground that was about five feet long and polished to a wonder,” Dobie said.

Finally, in 1851, with the help of dogs trained to hunt down runaway slaves, local residents following their baying hounds found a black man in a tree. He wore no clothes and spoke no English. Some accounts say he was put in jail where he remained for about six months until a sailor wandered through who was familiar with the native dialect of the captive’s African tribe.

The captive said his father, a chief of their tribe, sold his son into slavery for the price of a knife and tobacco. The new slave and a companion escaped after their transport ship reached Texas. They settled in the Navidad River bottom because of the abundance of wildlife and fruit. His companion died from exposure.

The captured man, whom they called Jimbo, was sold back into slavery and lived in Victoria and Refugio counties. Freed after the Civil War, he reportedly died in 1884.

J. Frank Dobie writes, “Of course all of this happened many years ago and in the telling, you can always guarantee some build up in the information will take place.  If these things did happen, I cannot explain how.”

Advertisements

Sorting Truth from Legend

When an old story comes from many sources, it is difficult to glean the exact details. In this case, we know a man was scalped and lived to tell about it

Josiah Wilbarger

Farmers like Josiah Wilbarger and his wife who settled the west accepted the ever-present danger of Indians hostile to white encroachment into their homelands. Surveyors mapping the land grants for the early colonists faced an even greater threat because the Indians feared and hated surveyors, calling their compass “the thing that steals the land.”

In addition to farming his land, part of an 1832 grant, which lay a few miles east of the present city of Austin, Josiah Wilbarger worked as a surveyor. Most accounts say that in August 1833 Wilbarger and his four friends were on a surveying trip and stopped near Pond Spring to have lunch.

The attack came suddenly when a large band of Indians swooped down with rifles and bows, killing one man, shooting another in the hip, and hitting Wilbarger in the calf of his leg.

Men scrambling to mount their horses, saw Wilbarger take an arrow to his neck. Convinced Wilbarger did not survive, his friends raced several miles to the protection of the Reuben Hornsby home. They planned to return the next morning for the bodies after the Indians finished their scalping ritual.

That night Mrs. Hornsby dreamed of Wilbarger sitting under a tree seriously injured. She woke her husband who dismissed her as overreacting to all the excitement. Mrs. Hornsby dreamed a second time, even recognizing the site where Hornsby lay naked.

It’s not clear when the men returned for Wilbarger. Some say Mrs. Hornsby insisted they leave immediately; other versions claim the men waited until morning. Either way, Mrs. Hornsby provided a blanket saying, “Take this to make a stretcher. He’s not dead but he can’t ride.”

They found him as Mrs. Hornsby claimed, scalped and near death. Placing his naked body on the blanket, they carried him back to Mrs. Hornsby who applied poultices of wheat bread and bear grease.

When Wilbarger grew stronger, he told of how the arrow in his neck paralyzed him, making him unable to feel pain as the Indians hovered about believing he was dead. One of the Indians carved around Wilbarger’s scalp. When he gripped the hair to it snatch it off, the ripping sounded like a mighty clap of thunder.

Woodcut attributed to William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry

Feigning death, Wilbarger waited until the Indians finished all the scalping rituals and left. Some stories say Wilbarger pulled the arrow from his neck and passed out. When he awoke, he blazed with fever and crawled to the nearby spring to cool his pain-racked body. He started crawling toward the Hornsby house but made it only as far as the tree where he passed out again.

Upon waking he saw his sister who lived in Missouri come toward him saying for him not to worry, help was on the way. She walked away toward the Hornsby house.

Several months later, word came that his sister died the day before the Indian attack. The family buried her on the day her image appeared to Wilbarger.

A hole about the size of a large silver dollar in Wilbarger’s scalp never healed. He wore silk bandages his wife cut from her wedding dress to protect his head for the next eleven years. He died at his home on April 11, 1844, after striking his head on a low beam in his cotton gin.

John Wesley Wilbarger, Josiah’s brother, is among the many tellers of this tale. A Methodist minister and sometime surveyor, John Wesley spent twenty years collecting accounts of Indian atrocities from sources he claimed were always reliable. In 1889 he published Indian Depredation in Texas, a 672-page piece of Texana filled with 250 separate stories of attacks and counterattacks.

The book came out at a time when academics started telling a more balanced account of Indian culture and motives. John Wesley Wilbarger, however, painted Indians as unredeemable savages.

An interesting aside related to John Wesley Wilbarger’s book is the thirty-four woodcut illustrations recently attributed to Austin resident William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry.

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.

LOVE AFFAIR BECOMES A LEGEND

If you are in deep East Texas on TX 63 southwest of Burkeville, be sure to read the historical marker designating the site of Shankleville, a black community named for an ex-slave.

Jim Shankle was born in 1811 on a Mississippi plantation.  When he married Winnie, she already had three children.  Soon after the marriage, their master sold Winnie and her children.  Jim heard enough of the business deal to know that they were taken to a plantation in East Texas.  He grieved for several days.  Then, determined to find his family, he ran away.  With a price on his head as a runaway slave, he headed west, always moving at night, foraging in fields for his food, and hiding in the fields when he heard others on the road.  Not daring to use a ferry, he swam both the Mississippi and Sabine rivers.

After a 400-mile journey, he reached East Texas and moved at night from plantation to plantation asking about Winnie.  Finally, Jim found her as she collected water at a spring.  For several days, Winnie hid Jim and brought food to him at night.  Some accounts say Winnie’s master found Jim, other stories say she told her master about her husband.  Whatever the truth, the plantation owner agreed to buy Jim.

In addition to Winnie’s three children, they raised six of their own.  When emancipation came following the Civil War they became farmers and began buying land with their partner Steve McBride.  Eventually they held 4,000 acres in the black community called Shankleville, which boasted schools, churches, a cotton gin, sawmills, and gristmills.

Steve McBride, who could not read, married one of the Shankle daughters.  He established McBride College (1883-1909), fulfilling his dream of helping others receive the education he had been denied.

Winnie Shankle died in 1883 and Jim died five years later, ending a love story that became a legend.