One of the rare historical markers to be found anywhere in the nation commemorating a racehorse will shortly (1977) grace the public square of Lancaster. Lancaster is the largest of the country towns in the southern half of Dallas County. The marker will pay tribute to Steel Dust, the famous bay stallion quarter horse. The one that became the undisputed champion on pioneer Texas race tracks more than a century ago and sired a strain of quarter horse progeny that dominates the field today.
The Dallas County Historical Survey Committee and Charles Pierce of Dallas, a descendant of one of the owners of Steel Dust who brought the horse to Texas originally, have teamed up to make this official state marker possible. The text of the marker has been written by ‘Wayne Gard of Dallas, noted historian of the American West and author of Fabulous Quarter Horse: Steel Dust, the true account of the celebrated stallion, which was published in book form in 1958.
The owners of Steel Dust who brought him as a colt to Texas were Middleton Perry and his brother-in-law, James Greene. Both of these men with their families emigrated in 1844 from Greene County, Illinois, to Texas. They were following the example of their Illinois neighbors, Elder Roderick Rawlins and bis extensive family connection, who made the same emigration at that time. In 1845 Perry’s and Greene’s father-in-law, Thomas M. Ellis, also moved from Illinois to the Lancaster area, bringing his wife, their four unmarried daughters, and three sons, including the youngest, Henry Ellis, with him.
Steel Dust had been bred in Illinois and foaled in Kentucky and cost $300. The horse was to grow into an animal somewhat larger than the average quarter horse, being fifteen to sixteen hands high and weighing eleven hundred to twelve hundred pounds, according to historian Gard.
The reputation of Steel Dust as one of the swiftest mounts on any Texas track spread far and wide. Soon it was being said that there was only one other horse in Texas that was a match for him. This was the Kentucky short horse by the name of Monmouth. He had won many races in Kentucky before being brought to Texas in 1850 by his owner, Harrison Stiff, of the adjoining county of Collin on the north. Thus a date was set in 1853 on which the two racehorses would be pitted against each other in a quarter-mile race to be held in McKinney, the county seat of Collin County. The race at McKinney attracted a large gathering of racetrack fans from outside McKinney. Courts and business houses were shut down in Sherman, Jefferson in deep East Texas, and other distant points to permit their citizens to attend. “The crowd of visitors became so large,” Katherine Smith has written in her University of Texas thesis in 1951, “that the Foote House, headquarters for almost anything social or political in McKinney, was turned over to the women guests exclusively. The men were told to look for sleeping space in homes and stores.” When Steel Dust arrived from Lancaster, his appearance was somewhat deceptive, since he appeared half asleep. Collin County backers of the rival Monmouth wagered not only most of their cash but personal valuables from spurs to saddles on their favored horse. State Rep. J. W. Throamorton, McKinney’s best-known political figure and later governor of Texas, officiated.
Steel Dust was “fractious” at the starting point and required an expert rider all the way. His usual rider was thirteen-year-old Henry Ellis, son of one of the owners of Steel Dust, a bean pole of a kid who had to put lead shot in a money belt around his waist to acquire the requisite riding weight.
At the last minute, though, Henry’s mother, a devout churchwoman, learned that the race was to be held on Sunday and immediately forbade her son to take part in the race. As a result he was replaced by one of his young Negro friends, Tom McKnight, as Steel Dust’s jockey. The race, held on a straight one-fourth-mile track in McKinney, proved a clear-cut victory for Steel Dust.
Within a year, Steel Dust’s reign over Texas tracks was ended when, in a contest held in the Lancaster area with Tom Batchelor’s Shiloh, the champion injured himself at the start. As he leaped to clear the starting chute he struck a post and forced a splinter into his shoulder. Unable to continue, Steel Dust lost the race by forfeit.
This was Steel Dust’s last race. He shortly afterward became blind, probably from the shoulder injury. But he lived a number of years more, becoming renowned, as historian Gard has put it, “as a sire and soon his colts were winning matches and proving to be good cow ponies.”
Courtesy Dallas Yesterdays by Sam Acheson.