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Fascinating early Dallas history: a letter from Sarah Horton to her sister back east in Virginia ... SUPER interesting

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This is the text of a letter written from Sarah Horton to her sister soon after the town of Dallas was established by John Neely Bryan. It is a remarkable account. Possibly the best thing about it is Sarah saying that of all the sisters who make up their family, she (Sarah) is the most forgettable among them. That turned out to be HUGELY untrue because Sarah married a man named Alexander Cockrell and, after his death, took over his business affairs. By the time of her death in Dallas in 1892, Sarah had a net worth of what today would be hundreds of millions of dollars. Here's Sarah's letter to her sister back east:


To: Jane Horton Bradshaw
The Bradshaw Farm,
Abington, Virginia


My beloved sister, Jane, your letters arrived in the same post yesterday. It was good to hear from you. I can tell by some of the questions you asked and the comments you made that you have not been receiving all of my letters. It is just as well. I have no idea which ones you received and which ones were lost en route, but I can only wish that some of my babbling went astray. My face turns red when I think how I must have sounded like a lovesick school girl in some of the things I wrote. If you, perchance, did receive those two letters telling you about my meeting with Mr. Alexander Cockrell, please know that I have come to my senses and no longer give him a thought.


We are having a beautiful spring. The crops are all in and looking great. Harvest time is just around the corner. For now, I have dispensed with school. I can only hope that encouraging our sisters to read, to write to you and to take advantage of every opportunity for learning is turning them into young ladies who will have a modicum of education along with their charm and beauty. Our sisters are beautiful! I look at them and wonder how I could have turned out so plain—nondescript brown hair, and not a lot of it—to their ravishing locks that fall halfway down their backs and are chestnut, bronze and golden wheat. Our three sisters with blue eyes all are framed in black lashes as are Martha’s lovely brown— almost black—eyes while I managed to get deep-set gray eyes with little to recommend them! There is no doubt that of all of my sisters—you, Mary, Martha, Rachel, Lucy and Emma—I am the most forgettable of all!


During the second week of April, Pa finally gave way to our wheedling and took us into town. It was an all-clay affair with only a couple of hours to spend in the village before we had to begin our trip back home. The boys hitched the oxen to the wagon and took us to the banks of the Trinity River. Pa rode across on his horse and rented Mr. Bryan’s canoe, then returned for us. The little boat is so small that only four of us, at best, could make the trip across. Pa took Ma, Mary and Emma across, then returned for Martha, Lucy and me. It took only a short time to row across the river, but I felt that time was wasting for my own adventures to begin. I learned later that Ma, Mary and Emma were welcomed by Mrs. John Neely Bryan as soon as they arrived, as were we when we got to her cabin on the east bank of the Trinity.


Mrs. Bryan is such a tiny thing and so young! I am sure she has not yet reached her twenties, but she is twice a mother already. I felt such a kinship with Mrs. Bryan, whose name is Margaret. She was a Beeman, the daughter of the second family to arrive in the area to join Mr. Bryan in the founding of the town. The Bryans live in the largest cabin in the town; it is their third. Mrs. Bryan said that her husband brought her as a bride to his first home right on the banks of the Trinity, a one-room tiny cabin where she prepared their meals on the open hearth. Shortly after their wedding, Mr. Bryan started another house for them, a larger cabin that was washed away when the river overflowed not long after they moved into it. Then, he build a third cabin, the one in which they now live, which was completed shortly before John Neely Bryan, Jr. was born. It is a fine home, located far enough away from the river where Commerce and Broadway streets (more on this later) intersect. Made of cedar logs, it has two big rooms under one roof. The room on the east with doors and a window facing the rising sun is for cooking and dining.The one on the west, its outlets facing the river, is the family space that is used for a living room and for sleeping.We were royally entertained in the family room but were shown the rest of the house. The second room has a walkway between it and the first so that cooking odors and heat will not permeate the other part of the house. Both are floored with puncheons, wide planks smoothed on top but still uneven. Mrs. Bryan is working on a rag rug for the “front” room. She said it is going slowly because fabric is so hard to get, and she must use what she can find. When we cut our dresses from the fabric we bought in town at the new Smith & Patterson general merchandise store, I hope to have some scraps to give to Mrs. Bryan for her rug. I am tempted to start one of our own. Perhaps some day in the future I may even have a house where I could use such a thing!


We were told that the first census has been completed and that 53 “men” now live in the area. I take it that means families! There is such a tendency in these parts to count the men and dismiss all the rest of us as irrelevant. The “First” families include: the Bryans, of course; the John Andersons; the Beemans (brothers John and James Beeman with their wives Emily Hunnicutt and Sarah Crawford, later joined by Samuel, a third brother); the Cochrans (William M. and his wife, Nancy Hughes Cochran) three of Nancy’s sisters with their husbands (Mary Hughes Webb and her husband Isaac Blackmon Webb, Sarah Matilda Hughes Williams and her husband Thomas Carroll Williams and Serena Caroline Hughes Knight and her husband, Obadiah Woodson Knight); the Rawlins family; and, of course, I include our own family—the Horton family on Mountain Creek, plus Wesley Cockrell and family, our neighbors to the north and the Hords, our neighbors to the south.There are others, many which this first census missed.The one thing that most upsets, even angers me, is that the “men” are counted. Many, like my own father, is “head” of a large family that includes Ma, our four brothers, five sisters and me! What is this? That only the married men count and nobody else is to be noted in the census?


In February Texas formally installed a state government in Austin. Several men from Dallas are among the new officers. Even more important to us than having a state government is that we now have a COUNTY! One of the state legislature’s first acts was to create Dallas County, carving it from portions of Nacogdoches County on the east and Robertson County on the west. Dallas has been named the first seat of county government simply because Mr. Bryan designated space in his cabin for county records and immediately, with the help of three or four other men, began to construct a separate building to seat the officials and house the records.We witnessed the start of the cabin, some 15 by 16 feet in size, which is located on the northwest cornér of what Mr. Bryan designates to be the “square” of his town. It is being made of four-foot boards, has puncheon floors and a large fireplace with a chimney of split wood daubed with clay. For furnishings, at least temporarily, split logs will be put in for seating. Mr. Bryan is a real visionary, never lets an opportunity pass without taking advantage of it. Mrs. Bryan seems to take everything he does calmly. She is several years younger than he, and I suppose looks on him as the founding father he claims to be.


Not everybody is pleased with the town of Dallas as a seat of government.We are a part of a community west of the Trinity River now known as Hord’s Ridge.To the north of the village of Dallas is a settlement called Cedar Springs. For now, as of May 12, Mr. Bryan has been designated as the official to select managers who are to name temporary officers and select a date, time and place for an election that will determine where the county government will be permanently located and who will serve as its officers.


Mr. Bryan was also concerned with setting up a city government. He has already laid out the “city” of Dallas and named its streets. When J. P. Dumas, a surveyor, and Mrs. Dumas arrived two and a half years ago, Mr. Bryan hired him to survey the area in 200 by 200 foot blocks.As it was laid out, it extended eight blocks west to east from the Trinity to Poydras Street and 10 blocks north and south from McKinney to Young Street. Mr. Bryan proudly showed Pa and James the plat provided by Mr. Dumas. Neatly laid out in squares, it included from the north to the south, McKinney, Columbia, Polk,Wood,Jackson, Commerce, Main, Elm, Burleson, Carondelet, Walnut and Calhoun streets and from the Trinity River on the west eastward, Water, Broadway, Houston, Jefferson, Market, Austin, Lamar and Poydras. Mr. Bryan says he is selling city lots on these streets, and he hopes to have at least a hundred families living in the “city” soon. But now, as I said, there are only four cabins! There is no doubt he was hinting that Pa should purchase one of the lots, but none of us has any desire to live in town.


Everybody is talking about the Mexican War. The men, of course, discuss it and the women are supposed to play dumb and have no clue about what is going on. I listen but do not voice an opinion. That way I learn a lot! There is a great deal of disagreement over whether we should be fighting this war at all. In April when President Polk asked Congress to declare a state of war with Mexico, there seemed to be no way to settle the dispute between that country and ours over the borders of Texas, portions of California and New Mexico. But then, as General Zachary Taylor was ordered to post troops on the left bank of the Rio Grande River, across from Matamoros, Mexican authorities began to seek a face-saving way to avoid conflict. By that time, I understand, President Polk was spoiling for a fight and in mid-May had his way when Congress approved a resolution that “a state of war exists between the Government of Mexico and the United States Government.” Congress then authorized the recruitment of 50,000 soldiers and agreed to $10 million to fight the war.There is a growing feeling that the real issue has to do with the disagreement between the North and South over whether, or not, slavery will continue. For me, this war has a face—that of Mr. Alexander Cockrell. I think of him often and wonder what role he is playing. He told me that he was not in the regular Army, only a volunteer, and I wonder if this means he can walk away if he wants to. Please don’t misunderstand; I have absolutely no romantic feelings toward this man. I would feel the same way toward anyone who faced danger in battle. I think women do this.The government can glibly talk about an Army of 50,000, but each of those is an individual, some mother’s son, some woman’s husband or sweetheart or friend, some sister’s brother. I think of how I would feel if any one of our brothers was recruited into the Army. I lie awake at night and ponder these things . . . and all the while continue to miss you so very much.


Much love,
Sarah Horton


This letter comes from Vivian A. Castleberry's wonderful biography of Sarah Cockrell entitled "Sarah--the Bridge Builder: Dowager Of A Dallas Dynasty." It was published in 2004 and comes highly recommended. You can get a copy on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Mrs. Castleberry is an excellent writer.

Beauty is only skin deep but Texas is to the bone.

Posted : 25th July 2020 11:07 am