The Legend of Mustang Jane
Let me share the legend of a woman about whom I’ve recently learned. Sally Newman, the woman later called "Mustang Jane" by her vaqueros, was born in Illinois in 1817 to Rachel (nee Rabb) and Joseph Newman. Her parents followed her maternal grandparents through several states to eventually settle in southeastern Texas and become part of Stephen F. Austin’s "Old Three Hundred." (If you’re not familiar with Texas history, Stephen F. Austin’s 300 families who were early settlers is a big deal there.) As a pioneer wife, Mrs. Newman was no stranger to conflict. On at least two occasions, she thwarted attacks from Comanche or Apache with quick and decisive action while young Sally watched.
When Sally was sixteen, she registered the brand for the cattle she had inherited from her father. Although she registered the brand in her maiden name, she noted on the application that she was the wife of Jesse Robinson, a man eighteen years her senior. The alliance lasted for ten years. Custody of their children, Nancy and Alfred, was ceded to Jesse when the couple divorced in 1843. Sally kidnapped Nancy, but was forced to return her to Jesse.
Sally’s luck was no better with her second, third, fourth and fifth husbands. Through her third through fifth marriage, she continued to go by the last name of her second husband, Scull. It was while she was married to George Scull (sometimes spelled Skull) that she developed her love for and interest in horsetrading.
While she was losing husbands (with some speculation that she might have assisted a couple of them in departing this life), Sally was gaining a reputation for marksmanship. Whether in skirts or pants, she always wore two pistols belted to her waist and usually wore a bonnet. She was a dead shot with both pistol and rifle, in either hand.
No known photograph exists of her, but accounts say she was a tiny woman with steel blue eyes and weighed 125 pounds at most. Her rough language was notorious, and she spoke Tex-Mex as well as if it were her native tongue. When she wasn’t traveling alone, she rose in the company of several Mexican vaqueros. She roamed the wide territory between the Sabine River and the Rio Grande, making her headquarters at a small settlement called Banquette, about twenty miles west of Corpus Christi. The vaqueros who worked for her and other Mexicans who knew her called her "Juana Mestena," Mustang Jane. She could outshoot any of her ranch hands, roped and rose with the best of them, and could drive a herd better than any of the wranglers in her employ.
Horsetrading was her primary business, a profitable one, and often under questionable circumstances. After a trip into Mexico, she always returned with a nice herd of stock, yet her money belt was still full. Sally knew all the ranches in the area. Ranch wives sometimes hinted that while Sally made eyes at the menfolk, her vaqueros were busy cutting the best horses from the herd. There were also rumors that she had assistance from the Comanche. If Sally admired particular horses and the owner refused to sell, Comanche raiders mysteriously visited the ranch shortly after Sally’s departure. No one ever caught Sally in possession of a horse for which she couldn’t show rightful ownership because she never let anyone inspect her herd.
Sally worked hard and played hard. She was an avid poker player and her favorite haunts included Old St. Mary’s Saloon at Copano Bay, Pancho Grande’s in Corpus Christi, and several places in Refugio. She attended many a fandango due to her love of dancing. Can’t you imagine her dancing while wearing those two pistols belted around her waist?
During the Civil War, Sally’s knowledge of the southern Texas backcountry served the Confederacy. Union forces blockaded Texas ports, stopping all shipments from England. The United States could not block ports south of the border, so Mexico’s ports were open. Sally sold her stock of horses, bought wagons, and turned her vaqueros into cotton haulers. Her wagons became a common sight on the roads from San Antonio to Matamoros on what became known as the Cotton Road. Cotton was traded in Matamoros for guns, ammunition, medicines, coffee, shoes, clothing and other goods vital to the Confederacy and supplies needed by inland Texas settlements. When the war ended in 1865, Sally sold her wagons and resumed the horse business.
Sally had little to do with her son, Alfred, who lived with his father and stepmother and their eight children on Ramerania Creek, about fifty miles northwest of Corpus Christi. No one knows what happened to Alfred Robinson. Nancy and her mother were closer. Sally sent her to one of the best boarding schools in New Orleans. Nancy returned to Texas, married, and lived up to her mother’s dreams. They were close until one visit when one of Nancy’s family dogs growled at Sally and she shot the dog.
No one knows what happened to Sally Scull. Texas mothers used to cajole their children to behave or "Old Sally Skull will get you." Not a nice remembrance, but Sally Scull had defied all expectations of womanhood for her era or any other. She walked tall in a world of strong men and made anyone in her path step aside.
Historian J. Frank Dobie wrote, "Sally Skull belonged to the days of the Texas Republic and afterward. She was notorious for her husbands, her horse trading, freighting, and roughness."
Sally Scull had defied all expectations of womanhood for her era or any other. She walked tall in a world of strong men and made anyone in her path step aside. Since no one knows where she's buried, it's nice that she's been honored with a Texas State Historical Marker in Refugio that says:
Dressed in trousers, Mrs. Scull bossed armed employees; was sure shot with the rifle carried on her saddle or the two pistols strapped to her waist. Of good family, she had children cared for in New Orleans School. Often visited them. Loved dancing. Yet during the war, did extremely hazardous "Man's Work".
Thanks to FROM ANGELS TO HELLCATS: LEGENDARY TEXAS WOMEN 1836-1880, by Don Blevins; http://www.legendsofamerica.com/;
Find out more about Caroline Clemmons at http://www.carolineclemmons.com/ or visit her blog at http://carolineclemmons.blogspot.com/
Thanks for stepping in for me today. What a fascinating story about Jane Skull. I hadn't heard of her before, but she sounds like an amazing woman. I'm glad to know about her.
Caroline--what a woman! I would loved to have seen a photo of her. I can only imagine someone that small--about my size plus three more pounds--having that much strength and resiliency. I couldn't if my life depended on it.ReplyDelete
In fact, I greatly admire our female ancestors. Maybe we could have done it, too, but I probably would have been one to fall by the wayside first...or refuse to get in the wagon!
Thanks for this--another fascinating character in our history. Celia
What an interesting woman! I hadn't heard of her myself but she sounds like a fascinating character.ReplyDelete
Thanks, Carolyn, for such an interesting and informative post!
What an interesting, but tough life for a woman. With all the settlers moving west, stealing trained horses was a very profitable business.
Thanks for the great story.
Caroline, utterly fascinating! What I wouldn't give to take a little time travel trip and watch Sally in action. I so wish I'd learned to shoot like she did. I was good at it.ReplyDelete