As BRYAN began to drink heavily in the early 185o’s, and his capacity for civic leadership waned, a new personality rose in the community — Alexander Cockrell, Dallas’ first capitalist. Cockrell made himself so strongly felt and his initiative, before his untimely end, so foreshadowed the spirit of the later builders of the town that not only was he the next dominant figure after Bryan, but he was a landmark in the city’s history. Where Bryan had an exceptional education for his times and was a moody dreamer, Cockrell could not read and write and was most emphatically a man of action. Though Cockrell was ten years younger than Bryan, their lives ran curiously parallel. Within a year of each other both went to live with the Cherokees, Bryan in Arkansas and Cockrell in the Indian Nation.
Cockrell was born in Kentucky in 182o, but when he was four years old his father moved to the frontier state of Missouri, where his mother died. Such was his independence of spirit that by the time he was fourteen, he had left home and gone to live with the Indians. Like Bryan, he spent some time learning their language, and he became expert in the handling of stock. The Cherokees in the Indian Nation had two rival factions which fought each other and it was characteristic of Cockrell to enter into this rivalry and it was probably because he found himself on the vanquished side that he drifted again into white civilization.
Following some runaway slaves down into Texas, he was starting back to his home on Red River when he paused to visit a cousin, Wesley Cockrell, who lived west of Dallas near Mountain Creek. Alexander evidently liked his relatives and the country, for taking time out in 1846 to take part in the Mexican War under Colonel McCullough, where he carried dispatches to Monterrey for the army, he came back to make his home with Wesley and shortly afterward he married the daughter of one of the neighboring families, Sarah Horton.
After his marriage in 1847, he located a claim of 640 acres in Peters’ Colony — where today the Dallas Power and Light Lake stands on Mountain Creek. Here he not only engaged extensively in the stock business, but carried on a freight service with ox teams going to Houston, Jefferson and Shreveport.
Cockrell was evidently a man of extraordinarily clear vision. He observed the effect on Dallas of becoming a county seat and perceived the possibilities which lay in the growing village. He converted a portion of his holdings into cash and in August, 1852, for the sum of $7,000 he purchased from Bryan what remained unsold of his town and the ferry concession. Between the laying out of the village in 1845 and the sale to Cockrell which was to become effective March, 1853, Bryan had sold and executed deeds for eighty-six of his lots.
Moving from his Mountain Creek Ranch into Dallas, Cockrell began a campaign of building. In its scope and thoroughness this suggests a modern promoter skilled in the way of cities rather than a frontiersman who had spent a good part of his formative years among the Indians. One of his first concerns was to deal with a problem constantly arising over the years, as the town developed — the jealousy of its neighbors because of the things the community managed to draw to itself. This, the very first instance of it, grew out of the selection of Dallas as the county seat. The people living on the west side of the river who saw Hord’s Ridge as the logical choice felt a lingering resentment at the closeness of the vote and a very practical consideration kept their annoyance alive. Getting across the river to transact business was a problem and a trial, especially during the overflows when the bottom land on the west bank became largely impassable. Cockrell living on his ranch had been a west sider. He knew just how those people felt and why. His vision of the coming events made it apparent that, like it or not, Dallas was going to become the center of the region. If people found it easier to cross over to Dallas, their irritation would subside and, as the town grew, their dependence upon its conveniences would increase.
Shortly after he made his purchase from Bryan, Cockrell took steps to replace the slow and awkward ferry with a toll bridge arid causeway through the bottom land. Having obtained a franchise, he himself set about building the bridge. He erected a circular steam sawmill on the eastern bank of the river by the site where he cut the cedar logs. When the timbers for the bridge were done, he moved the mill to the edge of his wooded lands (near the eastern approach to the present Cadiz Street viaduct), to sell needed building material to the growing community. He studied the land on the east bank of the river and bought the most desirable part, so that most of it where the town was likely to develop came into his hands. He erected a two story brick building on the southeast corner of the square, and by 1857, observing the inadequacy of the town’s single wooden hotel, he planned and got under way a hotel which was to be the most impressive building in north Texas and which gained wide fame for its comparatively luxurious appointments. Built of brick on a lot ioo feet square, it was the first three story structure in the town. With its spacious office, wide stairway, long halls and rooms that lent themselves to public functions, it offered a hotel the like of which the town and the countryside around it had never seen.
It is interesting to speculate upon how Cockrell would have changed the face of Dallas had he been allowed to give expression to his energy and vision for twenty years instead of five. But it was not to be. On Saturday, April 3, 1858, he engaged in an altercation with the City Marshall, Andrew M. Moore, and lost his life.
The Herald which appeared once a week carried a guarded notice of the tragedy the following Saturday. The story gives some of the bare facts of the encounter, but it is the antithesis of modern reporting in its careful avoidance of setting down details of the sensational case. Doubtless all during the week these had been discussed and rediscussed in hushed voices by its readers, but the reason for leaving them out was not because the news was stale. Nor was the carefully phrased account which appeared tucked away inconspicuously in the Herald in the middle of the third of its four pages there because public interest in the affair had died down.
The exact manner in which the paper published the news of the duel is worth noting, for it is as striking an illustration as one could find of an attitude which was characteristic of the community not only then but in later years. The code of honor with which men grew up in this frontier land brooked no rash public discussion of what was considered a man’s private business. Under the heading “Fatal Rencontre” (the frequent use of French words found in early Dallas newspapers was characteristic of journalism throughout the South at that time), the Herald reports:
On Saturday evening last, a distressing and fatal rencontre occurred in this place between A. M. Moore and Alexander Cockrell, two leading citizens of the town resulting in the death of the latter. Both parties were armed with a double barrelled shotgun and revolver, and Moore at the time was attempting to arrest the deceased under a writ for violating a corporation ordinance. Eight shots from Moore’s gun took effect on the deceased, most of them in the lower portion of the abdomen. He survived about an hour and a half. As the whole affair will undergo judicial investigation we forebear making any comment or from stating the circumstance in detail as we do not wish to prejudge or prejudice the case one way or the other in advance of the trial. Moore was admitted to bail in the sum of $5,000. We will only add that this unfortunate occurrence has thrown a gloom over this community. It is a distressing affair that cannot be too much deplored.
The word of mouth story that has come down in the town appears to fit the facts so guardedly hidden by the Herald. In it, the occasion of the “rencontre” was itself too trifling to have caused any serious complication under ordinary circumstances. But back of the meeting was a grudge. There already existed smouldering hard feelings between the two men for Cockrell had loaned money to Moore and unable to collect it was turning to law in the matter. Angered and resentful, Moore seized upon the “rencontre” in his official capacity rudely to press Cockrell. Cockrell was a man of proven courage and not one to accept an affront to his dignity. The Herald account says that he like the marshal was armed with a double barrel shotgun and a revolver. When the town officer attempted to assert his authority in such ill-advised fashion, doubtless one thing that precipitated events was a certain nervousness on Moore’s part as to how Cockrell would receive his undiplomatic intrusion. Thus a situation which handled with tact would have been a minor, forgotten incident became a tragedy for a wife and four small children and the town as well.
It is in keeping with the firmness of purpose and character of Mrs. Cockrell that she carried through her husband’s determination to collect an honest debt. A letter exists from her attorney written after the shooting which indicates a judgment against the debtor was given by the jury and which says that the money will be paid her as soon as it can be “collected off of Moore.” Moore eventually got from under the courts in the murder charge and lived for ten years after the “fatal rencontre.”
The newspaper that carried the story of Cockrell’s death also carried his advertisement for lumber from his sawmill, for in spite of the fact that Cockrell himself could not read, his keen mind grasped the power of the press and he made use of it in his business. Doubtless he was able to do so much through the help of his wife, Sarah, who kept his accounts for him, read him what was necessary, and wrote his letters. She had a native intelligence which in the eleven years of their married life taught her much about the procedure that had made Cockrell a successful man of affairs. When she was left a widow with three children under eight years of age, she resolutely set about managing the affairs that had so abruptly been thrust into her hands. She brought the hotel to completion, and for many years, in spite of the conflagration in 1860 which wiped out her new hotel before it was a year old and much of her other property, was a force in the community. She fitted out another hotel and added a flour mill to the enterprises which her husband had left her.
She placed the toll bridge in charge of a Negro family slave. The name of this faithful man deserves to be recorded. It was Berry Derrit. Berry tended the bridge collecting the tolls until the west section collapsed in August, 1858, when Mrs. Cockrell revived the ferry concession which her husband had purchased from Bryan. The boat had been kept in repair and anchored in deep water to be used when the river occasionally overflowed the causeway through the bottoms. The ferry was also turned over to Berry who refused his freedom when emancipation came and continued to act as ferryman until a new bridge was built in 1872.