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The Reluctant Matriarch

A man founded Dallas. A woman built it.
By Elizabeth York Enstam |

When Sarah Horton came to Texas with her parents from Virginia in 1844, she was 25 years old and still unmarried. A plain woman, but a clear-headed, serious, intelligent one, she must have contemplated spinsterhood, with all the ridicule the young and growing country heaped on it, as a definite possibility. But then she met Alexander Cockrell, who had left home at the age of 14 with a horse, a gun, and a suit of “store-boughten”” clothes, to make room for his father’s second family. Alex had lived with the Cherokees in the Indian Nation, had hunted and trapped along the Red River, and had served as a courier in the war with Mexico. But the wandering frontiersman was ready to settle down. In 1847, they were married.

The Cockrells took up a headright of 640 acres and lived in a tent while Alex built their house. Sarah cooked over a campfire with a skillet, a frying pan. two kettles, and a tripod. They ate pigeons, prairie chickens, quail, venison, bacon and wild vegetables. Sarah ground corn in a hand mill to make hoe-cake, pone-bread, flapjacks, and corn cakes. For four years they lived on the Mountain Creek ranch in the whitewashed home that the neighbors called “the white house.”

Alex was away for weeks at a time, driving heavy freight wagons to Houston. Shreveport. and Jefferson. Alone with two small children, Sarah Cockrell knew the isolation that meant both boredom and danger. Indians still traveled through the countryside to trade and hunt. But while other women packed their children into the ox wagon and drove to the nearest neighbor’s at the mere sight of an Indian, Sarah Cockrell traded corn for honey with the Indians who came to her door.

Four years after their marriage, Alex sold his stock and left the freight business. One day in 1852, he came home to Mountain Creek and announced, “Mrs. Cockrell, I have bought you a town.” He had purchased the remainder of his friend John Neely Bryan’s headlight as well as Bryan’s ferry across the Trinity River. The Cockrell family moved into Dallas, an agricultural hamlet of perhaps 300 persons.

Dallas had two general stores and at least one saloon. School, if there was one, was taught in the teacher’s home. There were no churches; worship services were held in private homes whenever an itinerant minister rode through the town. But in the year the Cockrells arrived, Maxime Guillot opened a carriage factory and storekeeper William Caruth offered lots for sale in the “Ca-ruth Addition.”’ The Dallas Herald was being edited by its founder. James Wellington Latimer. whose wife Lucy was admired for her learning, her grace, and her talent in playing the piano. Adolphus F. Goughnant taught music, French, and Spanish, took photographs, made wine, and painted pictures and signs. Frances and Thomas Crutchfield were running Dallas’ first hotel, the Crutchfield House, and Mrs. Crutchfield, like Mrs. Durgan before her. was also unofficially running the post office. The frame courthouse, 16 by 32 feet, was already too small.

In such a place, a man like Alex Cockrell made a noticeable difference. Within five years he had set up a construction business, built a wooden toll bridge across the Trinity to replace the ferry, erected a two-story brick building for rental to business firms on the public square, was running a saw-grist mill at Rockwall, and had begun the construction of a hotel, whose three brick stories would make it the most imposing building in North Texas.

Sarah was Alex’s partner, adviser, companion, best friend. She kept all records, handled all correspondence, participated in decisions, and knew all the details of Alex’s ventures. It’s well that she did, for on April 3, 1858, 37-year-old Alex Cockrell was killed over a debt owed by the town marshal. Sarah was left with four children, the oldest of whom was eight.

She collected the debt the marshal owed to Alex, and took charge of all the family interests. When Alex”s bridge across the Trinity collapsed one day in August 1858, she put the ferry back in service. The next year she applied to the state legislature for a charter to build a larger, iron toll bridge. In February I860, the charter was granted to Sarah Cockrell “and such persons as she may choose to associate with herself.” In late 1859, she opened the new hotel, the St. Nicholas, with a grand ball attended by guests from alloverTexas. Less than a year later, fire destroyed almost all of Dallas, including the hotel. Sarah Cockrell furnished the two-story brick building Alex had built on the public square and opened it as the Dallas Hotel in the fall of I860.

But the 1860’s was a decade of dislocation, as the Civil War and Reconstruction brought growth in the young town to a virtual halt. Nature played its own sad tricks with the disastrous flood of 1866, which poured seven feet of water into Sarah’s house. Sarah’s Dallas Bridge Company languished, without investors or even a board of directors. But by 1870 she had found them, some of the substantial men in Dallas, men like John M. Stemmons and an array of bankers, merchants and businessmen. The bridge opened for traffic in 1872 and at once became an object of civic pride.

1872 was the landmark year for Dallas. The railroad came, bringing more people and more trade, more goods and more business. Sarah Cockrell purchased a third interest in Dallas’ first commercial flour mill. Three years later, in partnership with her son Robert and businessman Mitchell Gray, she formed S. H. Cockrell and Company. Flour milling was Dallas’ growth industry then, and by 1880 there were five other mills in the town, supplying all the principal markets in the South with wheat flour.

The railroad brought a building boom of hastily constructed firetraps and a floating population of transients and tramps searching for work in the West. It brought hard drinking, gambling, prostitution, and major criminals and petty crooks who found Texas an easy place in which to hide. By 1880, Bat Masterson included Dallas in the regular circuit of professional gamblers, along with Tombstone, El Paso. New Orleans, and San Antonio. The census report even frankly listed the occupations of some women as “III Fame.”

Through it all, Sarah Coekrell stuck to a conservative business philosophy. She never speculated, never over-reached herself, though if she could be said to have “wheeled and dealed,” she did so in land. Sarah handled several land deals a year, buying, selling, leasing, renting land to railroads, churches, business firms, individuals, and the town of Dallas. When she died in 1892. she still owned approximately one-fourth of downtown Dallas, some 2500 acres of Dallas County, and smaller properties in Mineral Wells, Cleburne. and Houston- all this after liquidating many assets between 1887 and 1890 and after giving land to her sons and grandchildren. In the last year of her life, the Dallas city directory listed her as “S. H. Coekrell. Capitalist.”

Through it all, she made a secure home for four children and a wide variety of relatives and friends. Her letters are filled with the comfortable details of her home life – the garden and its yield, the jellies and jams she had made, the prize her wine won at the fair. “1 have the finest stove I “ve ever seen and one of the best. I can cook everything I want at the same time,” she wrote her daughter Aurelia in 1870. while Aurelia was visiting relatives in Missouri.

And she endured repeated personal bereavement. Her first child, a son named Logan, died in 1849 at the age of five months, and her husband was killed in a stupid quarrel. In 1872, which should have been a year of triumphs with the opening of the bridge, the purchase of the mill and the coming of the railroad. Sarah’s only daughter. Aurelia Gray, died in childbirth at the age of 22. Her oldest son Robert died in 1886 of pneumonia after cold and exposure during a buffalo hunt on the Red River. He was 34.

Sarah Cockrell was undoubtedly the richest person in Dallas for years. If she faced resentment because she was a woman, she did everything possible to defuse it. She did not put herself on the board of the Dallas Bridge Company, even though she was the sole grantee of the charter and owned the controlling number of shares. Whenever possible, she worked through managers, superintendents, attorneys, and after 1880. her sons, avoiding possible confrontations with workmen and male employees. Only in 1875 did she finally put her own name on one of her businesses, the milling company. Even her home of 34 years was remembered into the 20th century as the Alex Cockrell home.

Sarah Cockrell’s discretion paid off. ofcourse. Her image has come down to usas that of a woman who, as John Rogerswrote, “bowed to the conventions of theday and publicly was only a woman wearing reticence and frailty with which women were supposed to be endowed byGod.” But perhaps Sarah would be secretly pleased to find she stands amongthe bearded buckskin patriarchs as Dallas” one matriarch, mother to the citythat grew from the town Alex bought herback in 1852.

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