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
“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 younger.
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
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.
In 1848 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.
Freed 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.
While 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.
In 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 funeral.
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.
© Mike Cox
- November 7, 2012 column
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