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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Sally Skull

by Clay Coppedge
Well-behaved 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.

Sally 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"
November 1, 2012 Column

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