Through the years, Dallas has always honored entrepreneurship above other values. Making money has been the primary game, and the man who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps was held in great esteem. Men have been the players . And yet, it was a woman who played the game first, by all the rules set down by the males, and won in a fashion far bigger than most individuals who followed her. Her name was Sarah Horton Cockrell. She was Dallas’s first entrepreneur, so overwhelmingly successful that the 1892 Dallas City Directory listed her occupation as “Capitalist.”
Sarah’s arrival in Dallas was inauspicious. She was 25 years old, an old maid by the standards of her time, when a covered wagon brought her to Dallas with her parents, Enoch and Martha Stinson Horton. They came from Russell County, Virginia, arriving on November 29, 1844. They settled at Mountain Creek in what was then called Hord’s Ridge and later Oak Cliff. At that time Dallas and Hord’s Ridge and several other small settlements of a few families each were all separate villages, none any more significant
than the other.
The fifth of the 11 Horton children, Sarah was a quiet, somewhat somber girl who often looked after her younger siblings, cooked, helped with the housework and at times, assisted with the planting and harvesting.
Sarah’s appearance was as unpretentious as her manner. Willow slender and straight; she was gifted with the flexible but tough traits of that enduring tree. Her erect carriage made her appear taller than her five feet five inches. She wore her dark hair parted in the middle, braided at the ends and caught into a bun at the nape of her neck. Heavy arched brows framed deep-set gray eyes, their green flecks vibrant and sparkling when she was animated, blazing on the rare occasions when she was angry, retiring behind darker pigment when she was reflective, and always unfathomable.
She was a quite ordinary-looking young woman and nobody could have guessed that she was a person of destiny who would form and shape her new world in such a way that it would forever be imprinted with her deeds.
The Hortons moved to Dallas with 10 of their 11 children plus several children-inlaw and grandchildren, leaving only their oldest daughter Mary, who was married to Martin M. Thompson and would move to Dallas 10 years later. The new Dallasites were Jane, John, James, Sarah, Enoch, Jr., Robert, Martha, Rachel, Lucy and Emarine. In following years, Jane married William Bradshaw; John wed Elizabeth Margaret Hopkins; James married Jane Phillips and, later, Mary (Mollie) Morton King; Enoch, Jr. had two wives: Nancy C. Reed and Lucy Laniey•, Robert died single. Martha married her cousin, William Horton, and Rachel wed Joseph Read. This litany of spouses is significant because it shows how families were interrelated through marriage during those early days. Young people often married cousins and even more often siblings of their own sister or brother.
Not Sarah. Even in those days when an unmarried girl was an old maid with all the stigma attached to that condition—no man of her own, no children, no support, destined to make her home as an unwelcome adult in the home of a brother or sister after the death of her parents—Sarah gave every evidence of being serenely unperturbed by her single state. Perhaps she dreamed of love, marriage and children as she went about her daily chores, but always she seemed separate and apart—living, not in loneliness, but aloof from prevailing conditions.
Alexander Cockrell was an intrusion into her world—literally as well as figuratively. At 26, he was as totally into his world as Sarah was apart from hers. Born in Kentucky into an affluent family, he moved with his parents to Missouri when he was four years
Those were the days when a man with more guile than education could support himself by finding and returning runaway slaves to their masters. Alexander took up the trade. In 1846, this brought him to Dallas where he stopped off for a visit with his cousin, Wesley Cockrell, a neighbor of Enoch and Martha Horton. Always on the alert for an opportunity to make money, Alex volunteered to deliver merchandise to the Horton home. Though he had•a sturdy wagon and a good team of oxen, he had not reckoned with the vagaries of the Trinity River crossing from Dallas to Hord’s Ridge nor the deep mud that would impede his progress. Doubtless, he had also loosened his tongue with a nip or so in town, for Alex was not known to exit quietly when the drinks went around. So it was that he reached his destination swearing and calling out for someone to come out and claim the freight.
Sarah met him with ice in her eyes. The few words they exchanged were curt. She claimed the freight and slammed the door. The tall black-haired, dark-eyed deeply tanned young man might be a relative of a neighbor, but it was clear that he was no gentleman, and Sarah dismissed him as quickly as possible.
Or, so she thought. She saw him again a few days later, before he took off for the Texas border to fight in the Mexican War, when she went with her family to visit the Wesley Cockrells. On this occasion, Alexander was as handsome and charming as he had been uncouth at their first encounter. True to her nature, Sarah shared with no one the effect of this unconventional young man on her. True to his nature, Alexander Cockrell took an indelible picture of a gray-eyed young woman with him along the trail and into battle. When he could not, with his usual ability to run away from involvement and responsibility, shake the vision, he backtracked to Cousin Wesley’s house.
His arrival coincided with a party, and his appearance on the scene set many a heart aflutter. He scanned the dancers and greeted several of her brothers and sisters, but did not see the girl he had come home to find.
Alexander found Sarah in the kitchen. Taking her hand he led her out under the stars of the late summer night and there, typical of his act-first, think-later manner, told her that he had come back to marry her. Sarah said yes. She did not even seemed surprised.
On September 9, 1847, over the objections •of her. father who warned her of Alexander’s unsavory character, and her mother, who spoke guardedly about the roving ways of many men, Sarah Horton married Alexander Cockrell. She was 28. He was 27. She wore, for her wedding, a new calico dress and the bridegroom was resplendent in his freshly laundered army uniform.
Alexander and his bride went home to the 640-acre homestead adjoining the farms of her parents and his cousin for which he had applied immediately after Sarah said yes. They built their home, one large room with a half-story loft and a shed room to store supplies. It was the talk of the entire countryside because, again, Alexander did things with a flourish. Not only was it bigger than most of the other houses nearby, but it was painted! Whitewashed! The first house in the entire area to be other than natural, rustic logs. The bride began housekeeping with one pot and a skillet. Their stove was the open hearth.
Alexander broke and planted a few acres of his farm, but his restless nature demanded a faster-paced life. He bought a few cattle and shortly was operating the first ranch in the area. He also ran a freight service from Dallas to Houston, Jefferson and Shreveport using oxen to transport supplies.
When he was away, Sarah managed the business. She could read and write; he could not. Though her formal schooling had been limited, she had educated herself and it was she who kept the company records, wrote the letters and was both cashier and banker. She read to her husband whatever she thought he ought to know. When he was away on long freighting trips, she managed alone. She traded corn for hides and honey with the Indians
Sarah was as steady as her husband was flamboyant, as organized as he was mercurial, as discerning as he was dashing. He dreamed wild and wonderful visions; she put fences around them. He brought her the world, often along with it the seamier sides of life. She gave him stability, often filling the mother role he had never had.
Sarah lost her first baby. The child of their wild and wonderful first passion, Logan Morgan Cockrell l was born in 1848 only a few weeks after his parents’ first wedding anniversary. A beautiful, happy baby, he seemed to give Alex Cockrell the roots that had always been missing in his life. Shortly afterward, Sarah was pregnant again. In February of 1850, following a brief illness, Logan Cockrell died. Alex was inconsolable. After the funeral, he mounted his horse and rode off. He was gone for a month, leaving Sarah alone with her grief, seven months pregnant and in charge of the family business.
Aurelia Effie Cockrell was born on May 25, 1850. The mother-daughter bonding was instant, intense and inclusive. Through letters that the two exchanged and through stories passed down through the family, there is clear evidence that Sarah taught her daughter to be independent, even when she longed to protect her from the harder aspects of life. As she grew up, Aurelia assumed much of the responsibility for the care of her three younger brothers, even though Sarah always had help. In many ways, Aurelia was a carbon of the younger Sarah.