Where Romance and History Meet - www.heartsthroughhistory.com/

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Let me share the legend of a woman about whom I’ve recently learned. Sally Newman, the woman later called “Mustang Jane” by her vaqueros, was born in Illinois in 1817 to Rachel (nee Rabb) and Joseph Newman. Her parents followed her maternal grandparents through several states to eventually settle in southeastern Texas and become part of Stephen F. Austin’s “Old Three Hundred.” (Sorry if you’re not familiar with Texas history, but Stephen F. Austin’s 300 is a really big deal in Texas history.) As a pioneer wife, Mrs. Newman was no stranger to conflict. On at least two occasions, she thwarted Indian attacks on her home from Comanche or Apache with quick and decisive action while young Sally watched.

 Two years after her father's death when she was fourteen, Sally  registered the brand for the cattle she had inherited from her father. Although she registered the brand in her maiden name, she noted on the application that she was the wife of Jesse Robinson, a man eighteen years her senior. The alliance lasted for ten years before Jesse filed for divorce in 1843 because she "was a hellion to live with, a shrew of the worst sort." Angered, she also filed for divorce. Custody of their children, Nancy and Alfred, was given to Jesse. Sally kidnapped Nancy, but the court forced her to return Nancy to Jesse.

Why is it some strong women pick weak husbands? Sally’s luck with her second--George Scull; third--John Doyle; fourth--Isaiah Watkins; and fifth husband--Chris Horsdorf (so despised by those who knew him he was called "Horsetrough"), was no better. In fact, each sounded less desirable or less intelligent than the one he'd followed. Perhaps she simply needed a malleable man. (Don't we all?) She went by the last name of her second husband, Sally Scull. It was while she was married to George Scull (sometimes spelled Skull) that she developed her love for and interest in horsetrading.

When John Doyle drowned crossing a river, she is reported to have said, "Damn the man! I don't give a damn about the body, I just want the forty dollars in his pocket." While she was losing husbands (with speculation that she might have assisted a couple of them in departing this life), Sally was gaining a reputation for marksmanship. Whether in skirts or pants, she always wore two pistols belted to her waist and usually wore a bonnet. She was a dead shot with both pistol and rifle, in either hand. A small woman with steel blue eyes, she weighed 125 pounds at most...not counting the pistols, of course. When confronted, she forced many a man to back down. Her rough language was notorious, and she spoke Tex-Mex as well as if it were her native tongue.

When she wasn’t traveling alone, she rode in the company of several Mexican vaqueros. And this cowgirl traveled! She roamed the sizable territory between the Sabine River and the Rio Grande, and south down into Mexico, making her headquarters at a small settlement called Banquette, about twenty miles west of Corpus Christi. The vaqueros who worked for her and other Mexicans who knew her called her “Juana Mestena,” Mustang Jane. She could outshoot any of her ranch hands, roped and rode with the best of them, and could drive a herd better than any of the wranglers in her employ.

Horsetrading was her primary business, a profitable one, and often under, er, um, somewhat questionable circumstances. After a trip into Mexico, she always returned with a nice herd of stock, yet allegedly her money belt was still full. Sally knew all the ranches in the area. Ranch wives sometimes hinted that while Sally made eyes at the menfolk, her vaqueros were busy cutting the best horses from the host's herd.

Comanche warriors
 There were also rumors that she had assistance from the Comanche. If Sally admired particular horses and the owner refused to sell, Comanche raiders mysteriously visited the ranch shortly after Sally’s departure. No one ever caught Sally in possession of a horse for which she couldn’t show rightful ownership, but then she never let anyone inspect her herd.

Sally worked hard and played hard. She was an avid poker player and her favorite haunts included Old St. Mary’s Saloon at Copano Bay, Pancho Grande’s in Corpus Christi, and several places in Refugio. She attended many a fandango due to her love of dancing. Can’t you imagine her dancing while wearing those two pistols belted around her waist?

Freight wagon
 During the Civil War, Sally’s knowledge of the southern Texas backcountry served the Confederacy. Union forces blockaded Texas ports, stopping all shipments from England. Sally sold her stock of horses, bought wagons, and turned her vaqueros into cotton haulers. Her wagons became a common sight on the roads from San Antonio to Matamoros, Mexico on what became known as the Cotton Road. Cotton was traded in Matamoros for guns, ammunition, medicines, coffee, shoes, clothing and other goods vital to the Confederacy, as well as those needed by inland Texas settlements. When the war ended in 1865, Sally sold her wagons and resumed the horse business.

 Although she visited her children when they were in school in New Orleans, Sally supposedly had little to do with her son, Alfred, after he was grown. Reportedly, he lived with his father and stepmother and their eight children on Ramerania Creek, about fifty miles northwest of Corpus Christi. 

Caroline's dog, Webster
Nancy and her mother were closer. Sally sent her to one of the best boarding schools in New Orleans, determined that Nancy would have a better life than she'd had. Nancy returned to Texas, married, and lived up to her mother’s dreams. Allegedly, they were close until one visit when one of Nancy’s family dogs growled at Sally and she shot the dog. That doesn't sound right, does it? I mean, I'd be heartbroken if my mom killed my dog Webster, but I wouldn't stop speaking to her would you?

No one knows what happened to Sally Scull, although some believe her fifth husband killed her for her money belt. Other rumors exist of her driving herds of horses as late as 1880. Texas mothers used to cajole their children to behave or “Old Sally Skull will get you.” I suppose every era has a bogeyman, but it's not the way I'd like to be remembered, would you?

Historian J. Frank Dobie wrote, "Sally Skull belonged to the days of the Texas Republic and afterward. She was notorious for her husbands, her horse trading, freighting, and roughness."

Sally Scull had defied all expectations of womanhood for her era or any other. She walked tall in a world of strong men and made anyone in her path step aside. Since no one knows where she's buried, it's nice that she's been honored with a Texas State Historical Marker in Refugio that says:

Sally's marker
Women rancher, horse trader, champion "cusser". Ranched NW of here. In Civil War Texas, Sally Scull (or Skull) freight wagons took cotton to Mexico to swap for guns, ammunition, medicines, coffee, shoes, clothing and other goods vital to the confederacy.

Dressed in trousers, Mrs. Scull bossed armed employees; was sure shot with the rifle carried on her saddle or the two pistols strapped to her waist. Of good family, she had children cared for in New Orleans School. Often visited them. Loved dancing. Yet during the war, did extremely hazardous "Man's Work".

Thanks to FROM ANGELS TO HELLCATS: LEGENDARY TEXAS WOMEN 1836-1880, by Don Blevins; http://www.legendsofamerica.com/; http://www.tshaonline.org/; and http://www.texasescapes.com/

Find out more about Caroline Clemmons at http://www.carolineclemmons.com/ or visit her blog at http://carolineclemmons.blogspot.com/  


Virginia C said...

Wow--Wild Woman of the West! Great post! I was really admiring Sally's grit and shooting skill until she turned out to be a dog shooter. Fascinating female though!

Angelyn said...

This is awesome! Texas is full of history made by women. And this is proof. Thank you for posting this.