REMARKABLE LIFE OF TOM SULLIVAN, FORMER SLAVE
By Orn Warder Nolen
From J. Marvin Hunter’s Frontier Times Magazine, July, 1954
Tom Sullivan was a negro, and one of the most remarkable characters in Southwest Texas. This writer interviewed him at his home in Pearsall, Texas, in 1929, and at that time he was 105 years old.
In spite of his age, evidenced by his snow-white hair, he had an astounding memory and was as mentally alert as he probably ever was in his life. He was still active physically, with none of the handicaps and infirmities that seem to be usual heritage of advanced age.
His wife, "Aunt Jane," was 80 years old, and she said Tom was an old man when she married him. In the late years of his life he gave a big birthday dinner and invited all of his white friends. When the white friends, seated at the tables loaded with a sumptuous feast, were through eating, Tom let his colored friends eat the remainder.
In telling of his life and experiences, he said:
"My mother was named Henrietta Washington for she belonged to George Washington. When he died he set her free and told Miss Sallie, one of his step-daughters, to be my mother's guardian. My mother was nine and one-half years old then.
"When my mother was grown she married a colored man by the name of Sullivan and I and three other children were born while she was under Miss Sallie's charge. Miss Sallie married a man who wanted to get her money. He told a man to kill her by driving a buggy over a stump but he only broke her thigh. While she was laid up in bed with the broken thigh some men came and got my mother and father and me and two brothers and one sister and carried us off.
"They drove around in two or three states and finally went to Mississippi and hid us out for two years. I was five and one-half years old when we was stolen. We kept hid on Tubby Creek, ten and a half miles north of Abilene, in Monroe county.
"Finally all of us but my father was sold to Mr. Redus' son-in-law. When Mr. Redus died we became the property of his son, Bill, and I belonged to him until I was set free by emancipation.
"Mr. Bill Redus moved to Texas in 1848 or 1849 and brought me along with him and he settled on Hondo Creek in Medina county.
"My first experience with the Indians was when some made a raid through the country and a bunch of us followed them. We came upon some men cutting hay and they said they bet we were looking for Indians. We told them we were, and one of the men said, `I think I shot one. I shot at him and he fell forward and grabbed his horse around the neck and you'd better watch out for him.' We rode on, following the trail, and pretty soon someone saw a blanket up a mesquite tree. We rode over to see what it was and it was the Indian the man had shot. The other Indians had wrapped him up in the blanket with his beads on and with his bow and arrows, lance and everything.
"During the Civil War most of the men went off to fight, and left the slaves and young boys at home to look after the folks. One evening a young fellow came over to our place and wanted my nephew and Mr. Ben Duncan's nephew to go off somewhere with him. I wouldn't let the boys go. I said, `I don't want you boys to go. I'm kinda uneasy. I've been seeing cattle running all day and the horses are acting restless.
"They still wanted to go, but I took the horses away from them and turned them loose. The boys went out to the cow pen to milk, and the young fellow who came after them rode off. Pretty soon I heard someone holler and I took my gun and went to see what was the matter. I found the young man who had come after the boys and he was all cut up by the Indians. They had pulled him off his horse; pulled his clothes off and stabbed him in the stomach three or four times with a knife. I carried him to the house and got a new blanket that belonged to a Mexican and laid the boy down on it, and he lived for three hours before he died.
"At another time a bunch of Indians made a raid through the country and about 200 men got together and went after them. We finally saw a smoke coming up from the top of some trees in a valley and we knew Indians were there. We rode up real close and got off our horses. Captain Owens gave me some horses to hold and the men leveled their guns on the camp and fired. A lot of the Indians were wounded and one of them ran right by me. As he came by Tom Malone shot and killed him. Three or four fellows ran over to scalp the Indian. When they got his scalp they found that none of them had a saddle pocket to put the scalp in. They gave it to me then. I stared at it for a minute, then threw it down and said, `I don't want no Indian scalp.' Captain Owens then tore off a piece of saddle blanket and wrapped the scalp up in it and took it home.
"The Indians killed Mr. Ketchum and then Mr. Rube Smith. When Kim Smith was killed I had to go out and haul his body in. The soldiers came down from Camp Verde once in a while hunting for the Indians.
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"When some people were killed where Moore Station now is a bunch of us went up there to bury them. We hadn't started to dig a hole before some men came by on the run and said they had seen Indians. We got in a hurry and tried to dig a shallow grave quick but in a few minutes here came the Indians `licketybrindle.' We all lit out as fast as we could go. Some of us had race horses, but some of the men were mounted on old scrub horses that ran two miles while we were running one. They sure did move fast when those Indians came a-yelling and a-whooping.
"One of our men, Dr. Speed was shot in the back with an arrow as we were running away. When we got to the ranch house Dr. Speed said, `For God's sake, cut this arrow out of my back," There were about 20 men there, but they were afraid to cut the arrow out, were afraid he would bleed to death or something. I had a knife with a razor blade and I cut the arrow out. Dr. Speed has a grandson living here at Pearsall now.
"One time some Indians chased me to the house and then stopped on a hill not far off and stood there in plain sight. I put all the horses in the corral, then hollered and told the Indians to come and get one. One Indian yelled at me in English, Spanish and Indian, telling me to come and get their horses, but they finally rode off. `
"Not long afterward I went over to a ranch and I recognized one of the ranch hands as the Indian who had dared me to come and get their horses. Golly, I sure was mad. He was one of those Kickapoo Indians from Mexico and he was passing himself off as a Mexican.
"I went up to him and I sure told him plenty. I told him if I ever caught him out anywhere I was going to fill his old hide plumb full of bullets. He never batted an eye while I was talking to him, and someone said for me to stop, that the fellow couldn't understand English. I told them he could, and I kept on telling him what I thought of him. When I finally stopped he said `My friend, will you please give me a match?' You ought to have seen the look on those fellows' faces when he said that right out in English.`
"Not long afterwards the fellow was working for Bud Walker. He and Mr. Walker were riding along one day and Mr. Walker had two saddlebags full of money on his saddle. The fellow rode close by Mr. Walker and tried to kill him with a knife, but Mr. Walker's horse jumped back and Mr. Walker shot the fellow between the eyes and killed him.
"At the close of the Civil War I was set free by emancipation, and a year later I went to Castroville and went to work for a merchant, John Vance. District Judge George Noonan kept after Mr. Vance to let me come and break horses for him and take care of his horse stock and I finally worked for Mr. Noonan for a year, then I went to freighting between San Antonio and the coast.
"I hauled freight between San Antonio and Port Lavaca, and also Indianola, or Powderhorn, as it was called part of the time. In 1867 I was in Indianola when the worst yellow fever epidemic in Texas hit that town. People died so fast they couldn't dig graves for them. They just dug a long trench on the beach north of town and buried them in it. When anyone ill with yellow fever began to spit black spit they was done for. In some cases they were put in boxes before they quit moving. I had to help take two girls off beds and put them in boxes before they quit moving. Only people who had been living there a long time was affected. Those who were from outside like I was wasn't taken sick with the yellow fever.
"When we was freighting we had to guard against robbers and cow skinners all the time. We would make a corral each night and put our steers in them to keep them safe. Cow skinners sure was bad in those day. They would kill anybody's cattle just for the hides. I've seen thousands of carcasses on the prairie north of Yorktown where the skinners had killed them.
"Once I saw the bodies of three men hanging from the limb of an oak tree down there on that prairie who had been hanged by the Vigilantes. One time the Vigilantes caught a man red-handed, right in the act of skinning one of their cows. They killed him, then cut the cow's paunch open and stuck the man's head in and then put up a sign warning other skinners that they would be done the same way.
"I was the first deputy sheriff in Medina county. You see, the first officials elected after the Civil War didn't serve. Some Northern men came down from Austin to install their own men in office. A district judge who had been a captain in the Northern army came down and a district attorney who had been a lieutenant in the Northern army came too. They stayed around a long time trying to find someone they could put in office. Finally they elected Voluntine Fulmer as sheriff and they elected me as deputy—they said I had to serve whether I wanted to or not, as one of the deputies had to be a colored man.
"I don't remember what that judge's and county attorney's names were, but August Kemp, county clerk of Hondo City can tell you, for their names is on the records there.
"I knew King Fisher well. One time some Mexicans stole a lot of cattle and took them across the river into Mexico. King Fisher just went right across and killed the Mexicans. He was indicted for it and brought and put in jail in Castroville. I was deputy sheriff then and I took Mr. Fisher many a cigar and drink.
"I also knew Ben Thompson well. One time when I was on Ben Duncan's ranch the Indians chased Ben Thompson to the ranch and he laid on my bed while I cooked dinner for him and two companions. I met Mr. Thompson several times afterwards in San Antonio and he always took me around and gave me a treat of some kind.
"They called King Fisher and Ben Thompson bad men, but they weren't bad men. They just wouldn't stand for no foolishness and they never killed anyone unless the fellows bothered them.
"I knew John Wesley Hardin, too. He was down in Bee and Karnes county. He was mixed up in the fight with the Taylors in those days. I knew Capt. Wallace, Bigfoot Wallace, as he was called, and hunted Indians with him. One time he was leading a bunch of us men after some Indians and we liked to have starved to death for water. The Indians went through a dry country and on up through the mountains. We got awful thirsty but Capt. Wallace wouldn't quit the trail. Finally when we thought we all was going to die we come to a little basin of water in some rocks in the mountains. Capt. Wallace wouldn't let the men help themselves. He made us all kneel down by the water and handed one of us a little gill cup, a little cup not bigger than your thumb. When one man took a little fill of water he had to give the cup to the next man and let him drink and it was passed on around that way for half an hour before Capt. Wallace would let the men drink from a big cup. Then we took our hats and filled them and watered our horses.
"When you'd see Capt. Wallace coming he'd start talking a long way off, and his hand would shake and shake and you'd never think he could shoot a gun and hit anything. But if you'd put a dime up in a tree a way off he'd knock it every shot.
"When Capt. Wallace got pretty old I met him one day and he said: `Tom, I'm going to Virginia to visit my people and I may never see you again." Pretty soon I said to him: `Captain, my boy has a book that's a history of your life, and they put a lot of things in it I know you never did.' He said, `I know it, Tom. They'd do anything for money.'
"I had a mail contract for 10 or 15 years. I carried the mail from here to Frio Town long in the '70s. Frio Town was the county seat of Frio county then. Later I carried it on another route. When I carried it to Frio Town they wasn't any railroad here at Pearsall then. Jim Harkness was sheriff at Frio Town and he was sheriff a long time. Mr. Harkness is still living here in Pearsall. My wife used to be a nurse in his family.
"I've got four children. One boy is a barber in San Antonio. Another cooks for a cattleman at Del Rio. One daughter works in San Antonio and the other lives in St. Louis. I work for the people here. Sometimes I cook for some cattleman and I works all the time.
"Tom Sullivan lived to be 113 years old. He was a remarkable character, highly respected by everyone, and many people still living in Southwest Texas felt that they had lost one of their best friends when the kindly old negro died and was gathered to his fathers.
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