the supposedly 111-year-old former slave on the porch of the man’s grandson’s
house in Eagle Pass,
the much younger reporter in so many words asked a classic cliché question: To
what do you attribute your ripe old age?
Born in the Deep South and a Texan
since before the Civil War, Tom Sullivan looked at the journalist and gave an
answer as stereotypical as the question: Moderation in eating and drinking.
Finally, the old man with snow white hair departed a bit from the norm when he
admitted that moderation did not exclude the occasional consumption of distilled
spirits, though it did help to stick with “good whiskey” in addition to “taking
care of myself.” By that, he said he meant never consuming so much good whiskey
as to get in trouble.
“I wish I had a drink of good whiskey right now
to celebrate my birthday,” he said as the journalist scribbled away on his note
In truth, Sullivan had found another secret to longevity he never
publically admitted: Faking your date of birth. While Sullivan claimed to have
been born on April 10, 1824 in Logan County, KY, he was actually at least 20 years
But no one ever challenged his claim until Austin researcher
Sloan Rodgers ran across Sullivan’s story while digging into the life of former
Texas Ranger Big
Foot Wallace. Pouring over online census records, Rodgers found that Sullivan
had not begun claiming his 1824 birth date until after 1920. Further, he was born
in Mississippi, not the Blue Grass state.
Why he chose to posture as a really old man when already a fairly old man can
only be guessed at today. Maybe he liked the attention. Maybe he figured in might
entitle him to some form of government assistance.
Whatever the reason,
judging from a couple of surviving newspaper interviews, Sullivan had an interesting
life. Of course, if a fellow will lie about his birthday…
claimed his mother had been one of George Washington’s slaves. Eventually freed
by the first president, Sullivan’s mother married a man named Sullivan and had
several children. Though free, her children ended up being pressed back into slavery,
literally “sold down the river” from Kentucky to Mississippi.
or 1849, as Sullivan told his story, he and several other slaves arrived in Galveston
with William Redus, who along with his two brothers had purchased land in Medina
County. Though slaves were not supposed to go around armed, Redus provided Sullivan
with a pistol and shotgun. That raised eyebrows.
“Sure, I armed him,” Sullivan
said his master told others. “Do you think I want some damned Indian to kill him?”
Working on a 20,000-acre ranch near Hondo,
west of San Antonio, Sullivan said
that on several occasions he joined settlers in the pursuit of Indian raiders,
once using his sharp knife to successfully cut an arrow out of a man’s back.
at the end of the Civil War, Sullivan took up cotton farming in Frio County. He
also traded in cattle and horses and after moving to Frio County, secured a contract
to carry mail from Pleasanton
to Frio Town.
living in Frio County, he claimed to have met and become well-acquainted with
two notable Texas characters, the flambouyant outlaw-turned-lawman King Fisher
and the even more famous Big
Foot Wallace, Texas Ranger, Indian fighter and stagecoach operator.
truth, if Sullivan came to Texas when he said he did, he would have only been
a young child. It is clear that he did spend time in Medina and Frio counties,
and likely some of his tales were true.
If Sullivan had any notion of
making money off his colorful if-somewhat-fictionalized story, it didn’t happen.
When Sullivan died in a San Antonio
hospital on March 3, 1936, no one in his family had enough money to pay for his
For nearly a week, an Alamo City funeral home held his body while
his daughter tried to raise the $166 needed to get him buried next to his wife
near Pearsall. The problem
came to the attention of the San Antonio Express, which ran a story headlined,
“Body of Aged Negro Who Fought Indians in Medina County Awaits Burial for Lack
of Funds to Pay,” but if they family managed to come up with the money, the newspaper
ran no follow-up.
Rodgers can find no record showing where the former
slave ended up, speculating he may lie near his daughter Edna’s grave in San
Antonio’s San Fernando City Cemetery No. 3. Likely, the family never could
afford putting up a tombstone.
Cox - November 7, 2012 column
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