Sally Scull: Mean as a snake

One axiom of the old west was that good-hearted cowboys were as mythical as unicorns.  The saying probably does some injustice to stockmen, cowhands, ranchers, and trail drivers.  The truth is that the term cowboy had, at one time, the connotation of an outlaw rather than someone who worked livestock, but it does seem unfair to single out stockmen for lacking kindness at a time when almost everyone out west was “hard-boiled.” Living on the western frontier was a challenge to everyone who made that daring (and often unsuccessful) journey.  All men were tough hombres, some a bit harsher than others, but it was in the nature of the frontier environment that made men dangerous and worrisome.  It was a time when a smooth-faced teenager was as threatening and troublesome as any cantankerous old cuss.

Old Wet ladies (few of whom were lady-like) were as tough as the men; they had to be.  No one, male or female, survived long in the old west if they could not stand up to the frontier environment’s severity.  Women worked as hard as the men, and maybe even harder.  Most women could handle a firearm —not because they necessarily liked shooting, but because firearms proficiency was one (of many) needed survival tools.

Old west women had few options about their place in society.  They could (and often did) marry at a young age (some as young as thirteen years) and usually to someone considerably older.  The young bucks may have smelled better, but owing to their youth and inexperience, they were generally less capable of taking care of a wife (and children) than the older fellows —who had more ponies on his string.  Some women pursued a different path, such as Belle Starr, Jane Mosey, Pearl Hart, or Lillian Smith.  Some women began their lives in traditional ways but took another course owing to tragic circumstances beyond their control.  Many of the so-called dance hall girls were widows.

William Rabb’s father trained him to work as a miller in western Pennsylvania.  As a young man, William traveled by keelboat down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to sell processed flour and rye whiskey in western settlements and New Orleans markets.  From what we know of the riverboat trade, it was a harsh and dangerous line of work.  If the rivers didn’t kill you, river pirates might.

With this background, Rabb eventually moved his family further west —first into Ohio, and later to Illinois.  The journey started in 1801.  Twenty years later, Rabb, his grown children, and grandchildren found their way into Spanish territory —a place called Tejas, in the company of folks calling themselves the Austin Colony.

In 1805, William Rabb consented to marry his eldest daughter, Rachel, to Joseph Newman from North Carolina.  Five years later, the extended Rabb clan relocated to Illinois, where William opened a mill, a general store, and served as a judge in the court of common pleas.

During the War of 1812, Joseph Newman joined a dragoon unit that waged a bloody campaign against native Americans.  Two years after the negotiated peace between the United States and Great Britain, the Newman’s welcomed into their family the fifth of their ten children and christened her Sarah Jane.  Everyone called her Sally.

Born in 1817, Sally moved with her grandfather, parents, and siblings into the Austin colony in Texas sometime in 1823.  They were one of the original 300 of Austin’s Texas settlers[1].  As with the other early settlers, Indians frequently visited the Rabb/Newman allotments to steal their horses or harass the women-folk if the men were away.  The Newman cabin was typical of the early settlements; the door did not touch the floor.  When one enterprising Indian tried to force entry by thrusting his feet under the door to raise the door from its hinges, Rachel Newman took an ax and removed his toes.  On another occasion, Indians tried to enter the cabin through the chimney.  Rachel smoked them out by adding feathers from a pillow to the fire.

Seven-year-old Sally once observed two Indians creeping toward the house while trying to conceal their movements in the surrounding shrub.  Salley ran to the house, obtained a pistol, and shot one of them.  But one young girl and her mother could not hold off so many marauding Indians.  Deciding that the family could no longer sustain the loss of horses and corn to thieving Indians, William Rabb moved everyone from their original parcel on the extreme northern edge of the Austin Colony down the Colorado River to a place called Mercer’s Crossing (near present-day Wharton) in 1824.  It there that Sally grew into womanhood without the benefit of formal schooling.

Throughout her journey to adulthood, Sally demonstrated an unusual degree of independence.  For instance, twelve-year-old Sally registered her own cattle brand, swallow fork, and under slope[2].  The registration occurred in 1829 but remained publicly unreported in the Records of Marks and Brands until 1833.

Joseph Newman died in 1831, an event that may have forced Sally into an early marriage in 1833 to a man named Jesse Robinson[3].  Robinson was twice Sally’s age.  He was born on 11 February 1800 in Kentucky, the son of Charles Michael Robinson, a Revolutionary War veteran.  Jesse first went to Texas in 1822, taking employment as one of Stephen Austin’s rangers detailed to protect the Austin colonists from Indians.  In 1824, he was with a ranger company that rescued the Rabb and Newman families from Waco and Tawakoni Indians, who were terrorizing them.  Austin accepted Jesse as a member of the colony in 1827.  In 1831, he received title to a quarter sitio of land (about 1,112 acres) on the San Marcos River (near the Gonzales-Caldwell county lines).

After their marriage, Jesse took Sally home to his property, some twelve miles north of Gonzalez, Texas.  Jesse was a no-nonsense frontiersman and Indian-fighter.  During the Texas Revolution in 1836, Jesse mobilized with other able-bodied men to confront the Mexican Army under Antonio López de Santa Anna.  After the fall of the Alamo, Sally and her two-year-old daughter (Nancy) participated in the so-called Runaway Scrape.  Jesse, meanwhile, participated in the Battle of San Jacinto and numerous additional confrontations in its aftermath.

After the Texas Revolution, Jesse and Sally began having marital problems.  We do not know why; we only know that after Sally inherited her father’s land in Colorado County, she moved there with Nancy and their son Alfred.  Jesse divorced her in 1843 —it was a nasty divorce.

Note: Purported to be an image of Sally Scull. I was unable to verify that claim.

Eleven days following the divorce judgment, Sally married George H. Scull.  Scull was a gunsmith by trade.  On that very day, she sold the last 400 acres of the land inherited from her father together with a yoke of steers, four cows, twenty hogs, a mule and a bay colt, and Scull’s full set of gun maker’s tools and farming implements.  One may suppose that the Scull’s wanted to start their lives together “afresh.”

The relationship didn’t last long, however.  Five years later, Sally reported that George had died.  The circumstance of George’s death is unknown to us, but some claim that Sally “probably” killed him.  A sudden end was common in those days, and no one gave much thought to death unless caused by hostile Indians.  By this time, Sally was well-known for her explosive nature, and people were likely to believe anything about her.  Mr. Scull may not have died, however.  There is a legal document dated 1853 with George’s X … as if that is proof of anything.  In any event, speaking again of Sally’s violent nature, famed Texas Ranger John S. “Rip” Ford recorded in his journal an incident when Sally shot and killed a man in Corpus Christi.

In the mid-1850s, Sally lived on a 150-acre spread in Banquete, Texas (Nueces, County) —twenty-five miles west of Corpus Christi.  By this time, Sally’s reputation was that of an amazon desperado who lived in the wild country, a woman equally skilled with pistol and bowie knife, with little hesitation in using either.

Sally was a cattle and horse dealer, someone who bought and sold cattle and horses.  She purchased the livestock (or stole them —sometimes, or so the story goes, from Mexican rancheros), or captured wild horses, and moved them to her land.  When the herds reached a specific size, she either sold them from her property to those seeking to increase their livestock or moved them to markets.

If one envisions an amazon as being an unusually large or muscular female, Sally did not qualify.  She was a small woman, had a hawk-like nose and a sunburned face.  But whatever she lacked in size, she made up for in fierce determination.  In the saddle, Sally rode as men did.  She dressed in men’s clothing when working the ranch with her vaqueros, which generally involved a wide-brimmed hat, buckskin shirts, trousers, and Mexican-made boots.  Sally never went anywhere unarmed.  She carried two cap and ball pistols around her waist, a bowie knife on her hip, and a saddle gun whenever mounted.  Even when wearing ladies’ clothing, Sally carried two French pistols beneath her dress.

Sally’s steel-blue eyes were communicative —always wary, and if her profanity wasn’t enough warning, people claimed that just looking into her eyes was enough to send chills down a tough man’s spine.  People knew Sally Newman Robinson Scull as a man-killer, and no reasonable man wanted to provoke her.  She was a skilled rancher, excellent horse-woman (only the best horses would do), and she could rope as well as any vaquero.  She was also proficient with the blacksnake whip, able to pick flowers with it or leave a scar on the face of a cheeky man.  Salley could even dance the fandango as well as any Mexican senorita, or gamble as well as any cardsharp.

By the 1850s, Sally was in full operation as a horse trader and overland trader.  Her ranch in Banquete was an essential water source along the dusty, rutted Texas highway, the old Camino Real running northward from Matamoros to Goliad.  If one believes any of the tax records in early Nueces County, her success as a livestock trader is questionable.  On the other hand, most self-employed Texans saw no benefit from claiming their actual earnings to the tax collector.  In 1852, tax records reflect that Sally sold four horses and four head of cattle.  In the next year, tax records combined Sally’s income with John Doyle, whom Sally married in October.  In 1854, Sally’s assets included 33 horses, fourteen head of cattle, four yokes of oxen, and a wagon.  In 1855, Sally purchased an additional 150 acres of land in Banquete.  By this time, Sarah Doyle was in business with her cousin John Rabb[4] and his friend, Mr. W. W. Wright.

Sally Scull (as she was popularly known long after George disappeared) was not a poor woman.  She was known as a gambler, even risking as much as $500.00 on the outcome of a horse race.  When she was on the road buying, selling, or trading horses, she carried a nosebag on her saddle horn reputed to contain gold coin; this may be true.  What is also true is that other Texas ranchers resented her success, and there was no shortage of rumors about her method of acquiring horses.

Some of her competitors, for example, strongly hinted that Sally didn’t buy all her animals.  One accusation was that after she visited the ranches in a neighborhood, raiding Lipan and Comanche Indians drove off the best horses, which later turned up in her herds.  The suggestion of a business relationship with Indians defies credulity.  But there was also tongue-wagging among jealous wives accusing Sally of making eyes at their husbands while Sally’s vaqueros raided their pastures.

Sally had five husbands, which is a somewhat loose term.  She did marry a couple of these men but likely lived (in the common law) with others.  Two of these men, George Scull and John Doyle, simply disappeared.  Disappearing husbands encourage conjecture, and the longer rumors continue, the more interesting (creative) they become.  If Sally did “do away” with these men, she had plenty of acreages in which to plant them.  Husband number four was Isaiah Wadkins, age 22 —she was 44.  The marriage lasted two years.

I can not say whether this is Sally Scull, only that the fragment of the newspaper photo seems to make that claim.

Sally was well-positioned to take advantage of the Civil War and didn’t hesitate to do so.  The Union blockade of southern ports put an end to ocean trade between the American South and Europe.  However, English mills demanded cotton, and the Confederacy’s survival depended on materials from Europe.  Since international law prohibited interference with trade with Mexico, Texas cotton moved freely across the border into Mexico, and from there to Europe.  The Camino Real became the Cotton Road, and the Cotton Road became the lifeline of the Confederacy.

Cargo wagons piled high with cotton usually demanded ten oxen or six mules, but South Texas terrain often required more animals depending on the goods’ weight.  No one knew the back roads in southeast/south-central Texas better than Sally Scull.  She gave up horse-trading for hauling cotton, and because the pay was far more profitable, Sally added several wagons and teams to form mule trains.  Her vaqueros became teamsters and security for these goods’ movement, and Sally always accompanied her wagons.

Sally and her vaqueros were seemingly inseparable.  Her Spanish fluency and willingness to pay the vaqueros a fair wage guaranteed their desire to do whatever she demanded of them.  Nevertheless, Sally ruled over them with an iron hand; their obedience to her orders was always immediate and unquestioned.  Before the Civil War, Sally had no problem obtaining vast herds of horses, which led some to speculate that she got them illegally from unsuspecting Mexican rancheros.  She and her men drove most of these to Louisiana.  During the Civil War, Sally employed her vaqueros with equal efficiency.

When the war ended, the story of Sally Scull comes to an end, as well.  Sort of. America’s courthouses are repositories of history —including intriguing events and the people who participated in them.  When these courthouses go up in smoke, as several in Texas have, then whatever information they contained is gone forever.  From court records in Goliad County, we know that a county grand jury indicted Sally Scull on a perjury charge in 1866.  We also know that a jury found her innocent of the allegations.  In 1867, the court of San Patricio County reflects that a lawsuit filed by Jose Maria Garcia against Sarah Wadkins and her husband Isaiah (reasons unknown) in 1859 went through a series of continuances with one final notation, which reads “death of defendant suggested.”

Did Sally Scull die shortly after the war, or —owing to Yankee Reconstruction in Texas —did she simply disappear to avoid federal prosecution?  Was she murdered by Isiah Wadkins, as some suggest, or did she go to live with relatives in El Paso?  There is no shortage of conjecture about Sally’s ultimate demise.  We simply do not know … because, in the absence of written records, there is no history.

Sources:

  1. Bradford, T. V. Sallie Scull on the Texas Frontier: Phantoms on Rio Turbio.  San Antonio: Naylor Publishing, 1952.
  2. Kilgore, D. Two Six-Shooters and a Sunbonnet: The story of Sally Scull.  Texas Folklore Society, Legendary Ladies of Texas, 1994.
  3. Kilgore, D. Scull, Sarah Jane Newman [Sally] (1817—Unknown).  Texas State Historical Society, Biographical entry, online.
  4. Nolan, O. W. Gun-Toting Woman Horse Trader.  Cattleman Magazine, July 1943.
  5. Thomas, S. C. The Notorious Sally Skull: Blazing a trail through Colorado County.  The Colorado County Citizen, 24 September 2019.

Endnotes:

[1] Actually, 297 families and some partnerships of unmarried men purchased 307 parcels of land from Stephen F. Austin and established a colony of American settlers that encompassed an area that extended from the Gulf of Mexico to present-day Brazoria, Washington, Grimes, and Fayette counties.  Each household head received a minimum of 177 acres up to 4,428 acres depending on whether they intended to farm or raise livestock.  Settlers would forfeit grants not cultivated within two years.

[2] A method of marking the ear of cattle to prove ownership.  A swallow fork is a cut from the upper part of a cow’s ear, while the under slope is a similar cut mark on the underside of the animal’s ear.

[3] In colonial Texas, it was common for people to sign a marriage bond—a promise of formal marriage whenever a minister was available to perform the ceremony.  Jesse and Sally were “formally” married in 1838.

[4] Rabb was prolific in the acquisition of grazing land.  He ran great herds of cattle under the Bow and Arrow brand.  How great were Rabb’s herds?  When he died in 1872, his wife became known as the Cattle Queen of Texas.  The Rabb’s are long gone now, but the Bow and Arrow brand continues to exist with Mr. Wright’s descendants in Nueces County.

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
This entry was posted in Civil War, Pioneers, Society, Texas. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sally Scull: Mean as a snake

  1. Andy says:

    An extremely interesting bio. Event the footnotes captured my attention. Old Sally was quite a gal. I wonder how her children turned out with Sally as a mother and a parade of cowboys as father figures? Probably as tough as Sally, I suspect.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Her descendants are probably tattoed and pierced in all the wrong places. This was one old bird I wouldn’t want to cross, that’s for sure. I also suspect that she was one of the now-famous Andy-girls, but you’d know that better than I.

      Like

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