women rarely make history, the saying goes, and a woman known to history
as Sally Skull can be used to reinforce the point. It’s not that Sally
made so much history but she participated in a good deal of it and
her personal history is the stuff of which legends are made.
We admire her now because she reminds us of a time when men were men
and women like Sally Skull could whip their butts, or kill them if
she thought they needed it. Like her male gunslinging counterparts,
there is some question as to how many men she actually killed and
how many of those were married to her at one time. Only one of her
five husbands, the last one, is suspected of killing her.
Skull was born Sara Newman in Illinois but she always went by Sally.
The family moved often, usually in a southerly direction, and eventually
settled in Fayette
County as part of Stephen
F. Austin’s Old
Three Hundred. Sally’s mother, Rachel, was mostly left alone while
her husband fought Indians, worked cattle and chased after bad guys.
Sometimes the very Indians her father was looking for showed up at
the house while he was away. In one memorable instance, a warrior
stuck his foot through a gap in the front door as prelude to breaking
in. Rachel grabbed an axe and chopped all of his toes.
Another time, Sally, her mother and a sister were alone with a male
visitor who was not a member of the family and not much of an Indian
fighter, either. When some Indians were spied sneaking up a hill toward
the house, the man freaked out and lied that his gun was broken. “I
wish I was two men,” he said. “then I would fight those Indians!”
“If you were one man you would fight them,” Sally shot back. “Give
me that gun.” The Indian she subsequently shot is said to have been
the first man she killed.
At age 16, Sally married Jake Robinson, who was twice her age and
a lot like her father in that he was rarely home. The couple fought
for the better part of 10 years, had two children, and divorced in
1843. Less than two weeks after the divorce was final, she married
a gunsmith named George Scull. She kept the name through subsequent
husbands but she either changed the spelling or it was done for her
by chroniclers of her life and times. At some point, George disappeared.
“He died,” Sally explained. People believed her.
We are not sure what happened to her third husband, John Doyle. One
story has it that he died moving horses across a fast-moving river.
Sally is said to have commented, “I don’t give a damn about the body…sure
would like to have the gold in his money belt.” That might not be
true. Sally might have shot him. Or she might have drowned him in
a barrel of whiskey, which could have inspired the first lines of
the song “Whiskey River” (“I am drowning in a whiskey river…”) but
didn’t, even if the incident did happen.
Sally moved to a 640-acre spread at Banquette
in Nueces County
in 1852 and became a respected and probably somewhat feared horse
trader, riding with vaqueros she had hired to go with her into Mexico
and bring horses back for sale. That same year she attended the first
state fair in Texas, the Lone Star Fair in Corpus
Christi. John S. “Rip” Ford was there, taking in the sights and
sounds when he heard a gunshot and saw a man fall to the ground as
Sally slowly lowered her pistol.
“She was a noted character named Sally Scull,” Ford wrote. “She was
famed as a rough fighter and prudent men did not willingly provoke
her. It was understood that she was justified in what she did on this
occasion, having acted in self defense.”
Isaiah Wadkins married Sally in 1855, on the day after Christmas.
Fortunately for Wadkins, the marriage ended in divorce.
Just prior to the start of the Civil War, Sally married her fifth
husband, who was named Charley Horsdorff but everybody called him
“Horse Trough.” The war interrupted yet another unhappy marriage.
Sally ran guns and goods for the Confederacy up and down backroads
frequented by Indians, Union solders, guerillas and outlaws of all
stripes. She was not intimidated.
John Warren Hunter remembered Sally from those days and later wrote
of her, “She wore a black dress and a sunbonnet, sitting erect as
a cavalry officer, with a six-shooter hanging at her belt.” As we
have already established, she knew how to use it.
Like so many of her husbands had done, Sally Skull just sort of disappeared
under mysterious circumstances one day, never to be heard from again.
The general consensus among historians is that Horsdorff killed her
and took the gold she had saved from her gun running days.
Whether he did it or not, old Horse Trough vanished from the record
not long after that.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
1, 2012 Column