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Vollie's Ride

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Traveling with her grandparents from San Saba to Austin a couple of days after her graduation from Texas Women's University in 1960, Marilynn Johanson discovered that while she had succeeded in getting a college education, she still had much to learn about her own family.

"I was driving and my grandfather was sitting next to me," Johanson recalled. "Somewhere between Lampasas and Briggs, my grandfather looked out at the prairie there where it seems like you can see forever and said, 'I never come to Austin without thinking about how your great-great grandmother rode by herself from Travis County to San Saba with her two little children.'"

It's roughly 120 miles from the Capital City to San Saba, a two-and-a-half hour drive at most. But that's today, along paved highways. When Vollie Ann Warren made her ride in 1863, she followed only a winding, two-rut wagon road. She also had to cross numerous creeks and ford both the South and North forks of the San Gabriel River. On top of being a difficult trip, in riding alone through that stretch of the state in that era, she risked her life and the well-being of her children.

Born Dec. 9, 1841 in Hardeman County, Tenn., Vollie came with her family to Texas in 1847. They first settled in Travis County, but in 1855 her parents decided to move to the frontier in San Saba County.

Then 14, Vollie had her own ideas. She stayed behind, marrying a young man named Jerry Robinson. They set up housekeeping in Bastrop County and within six years had two children, a boy and a girl.

When Texas joined other Southern states in seceding from the Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, Robinson and many other able-bodied men from Bastrop County signed up for Confederate military service and marched off to war in 1861. Most of the volunteers, including Vollie's husband, never returned. They died not from Yankee bullets, but an outbreak of measles.

After learning of his son-in-law's demise, Jeff Warren wrote his daughter to tell her that he would send her a good horse so she could come home with her children. Her father intended Vollie to join others in making the trip, but for reasons not known to her descendants, she either decided to go it alone or the larger traveling party did not materialize.

Holding her 18-month-old daughter on the saddle in front of her while her three-year-old son sat behind her, the new widow left Austin for her parents' home. A rider working a horse hard can make roughly 30 miles a day. But a young women with two young children could not possibly have kept that pace. Even at 30 miles a day, Vollie faced a four-day ride. Likely her trip look a week or more.

"The story I heard was that she would ride until she came to someone's cabin and then ask to stay the night," Johanson said. "In the morning, they'd tell her, 'Ride yonder way to the next place and you can spend tonight there.'"

Clearly one tough Tennessee-born, Texas-raised lady, Vollie had undertaken a ride even an armed man would have been reluctant to make alone. With most able-bodied men away at war, hostile Indians enjoyed near free reign along the state's frontier. And in 1863, little law enforcement existed. Beyond avoiding Indians who would happily take her honor, life and scalp while making her children theirs, Vollie had to be wary of outlaws, draft dodgers and Union sympathizers.

What little protection frontier settlers did have came from the Texas Rangers. One of those rangers happened to be another Tennessean, Newton Dickens McMillan. He had come to what became San Saba County about the time the Warren family put down roots there along the upper Colorado River. In 1858, he served in the ranger company that chased a Comanche war party and recovered two small children the Indians had kidnapped after killing their parents and older siblings. The event in what is now Mills County came to be known as the Jackson Massacre.

Not long after Vollie and her children arrived unharmed in San Saba, she met "the Captain," as he was called. He surely admired her pluck as well as her beauty. Within a year, he asked her to marry him.

"When he proposed," Johanson said, "he was 48 and Vollie was 23. He told her, 'If we have no children I will love and take care of yours as if they were my own."

They married at her parents' home on July 26, 1864.

McMillan honored his pledge. While he was at it, he helped raise the other nine children he and Vollie went on to have. (Two others died in infancy, for a total of 13 children born to Vollie.)

The old ranger died at 87 on the Fourth of July, 1903. Vollie would live another 12 years.

On the evening of July 16, 1915, after attending a revival, Vollie sat with one of her daughters and her son-in-law on the porch of their house. A light south wind felt good, and the stars shined nearly bright enough to read by. Finally excusing herself for bed, Vollie told her daughter: "I don't believe I will be with you much longer." Before falling asleep that night, maybe she thought about the long, perilous ride she had made as a young mother, and the tough but kind-hearted ranger she married. In the morning, her family found her dead.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" June 23, 2016 column

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