HAPPY FRONTIERADO! The joyous day is here at last so let’s enjoy our meals of buffalo meat, Tumbleweed Pizzas, Southwest Fried Rice, corn on the cob, Cactus Salad, mashed potatoes and Western Spaghetti ! Later we can wash down some Deuces Wilds (Red or Black) and Cactus Jacks while playing Frontierado Poker or watching Silverado.
My most popular Frontierado articles over the years have been the ones about neglected gunslingers of the American West. Here are another man and woman whose lives were at least as interesting as those of the bigger names.
KID RUSSELL – How cool is it that an authentic, acclaimed international artist spent some of his younger years wandering the Wild West, even earning the nickname Kid Russell? Charles Marion “Kid” Russell was born in 1864 in St Louis, Missouri. As with Klondike Kate Rockwell, most of this figure’s life story is outside the purview of this article.
Since Frontierado is about the myth of the Old West I’ll focus on the legends about Kid Russell’s wild, wandering younger years full of guns, ranches, saloons, cattle drives, bordellos and sketches drawn on any nearby flat surface, sketches that showed the nascent talent that would one day make Russell world-famous.
When he was age 16 Charles’ well-to-do parents gave up trying to force him to continue his schooling and let him move to Montana, where, clad in a brand-new buckskin outfit, he worked on a friend’s sheep ranch north of Helena. It took skill with a gun and a true survival instinct to live through encounters with rustlers, hostile cattlemen and their hired gunmen but Charles, already being called Kid Russell, thrived and felt more at home in this rough and tumble lifestyle than among his family’s hoity-toity friends in St Louis high society.
Eventually the Kid’s fondness for the western landscape caused him to while away too much time with his sketchbook and not enough watching his employer’s livestock and he was fired. Always quick to forge new friendships Russell became an assistant for Jake “Lucky Boy” Hoover, a former prospector turned trapper, guide and professional big game hunter.
The Kid and Lucky Boy would sometimes be paid handsomely to guide hunting parties of European and Russian blue-bloods and tycoons. (Helena, MT was a magnet for adventurous royals at the time) Of necessity gunplay was sometimes called for to drive off Indians who didn’t want to negotiate and/or outlaws wanting to rob the wealthy customers of the duo.
Operating out of Lucky Boy’s headquarters along the Judith River near Utica, MT, Kid Russell became even more skilled at stealth and wilderness survival skills. Eventually those skills earned Charles a role in the highly dangerous job of night-wrangler for the legendary Horace Brewster, the boss of the annual Judith Basin Cattle Roundup. The Kid’s ninja-like night skills earned him the praise of no less than Indian Charlie Contway, one of Brewster’s best hands. He was now skilled at wrangling cattle as well as at gunplay.
Russell was now a very employable Cowboy, but he spent a great deal of his time in Helena, MT, gaining a reputation as a Herculean drinker and as a regular customer at the brothel owned by THE Josephine Airey, Chicago Jo(e) herself! The Kid’s favorite saloon girl was called Dutch Leina and the pair partied hard, not only at saloons but at opium dens in the dangerous Chinese part of Helena.
Kid Russell spent the 1880s living a life filled with danger, danger which claimed the lives of many of his friends. The Kid survived instances of gunplay during saloon card games unlike his pals Charlie Bowlegs and Panhandle Jack, both shot to death. The Kid survived the bullet-filled perils of night duty on cattle ranches, unlike his friends Pat Riley and Frank Harstel, victims of rustlers and bushwhackers.
When one of Charles’ well-to-do cousins from St Louis came to Montana for a visit he died of mountain fever after one month. Even Russell’s favorite saloon girl Dutch Leina one day committed suicide, overdosing on morphine but leaving no note. The Kid was distraught for weeks over her passing, but, surrounded by many forms of death as he was, he still kept returning to his art through it all.
Russell sold some of his artwork here and there and the general consensus from Helena to Utica was that if the Kid didn’t drink himself to death or get gunned down he would probably become a famous artist. Heavy paydays from commercial artwork in Helena fueled Charles’ romance with a girl named Laura Edgar, but, when she returned to St Louis he lost her to the high society boys despite their continued correspondence.
Kid Russell’s art received its first nationwide exposure as a result of his searing depiction of the havoc the winter of 1886 into 1887 had played on the cattle of Montana.
In May of 1888 the Kid was an accomplice to Phil Weinard when he eloped with Chicago Jo’s niece Mary Ferris. Charles was supposed to serve as Best Man, too, but was too hungover to show up in time. After the ceremony Mary was sent to Alberta, Canada by train while Phil was guided there on horseback by Kid Russell and one of the Kid’s few surviving friends – professional gambler B.J. “Long Green” Stilwell.
Over the next two weeks the three men survived heavy rains and flooded rivers while evading or skirmishing with hostile Native Americans on the way. When the trio reached Alberta, Phil rejoined his bride while Kid Russell and Long Green Stilwell stayed with a British rancher in the town of High River.
Alberta had outlawed alcohol, prompting the forever-thirsty Russell and his drinking buddy Stilwell to spend a few months involved in bootlegging with the nearby tribe of Blackfoot Indians. Soon our hero was living with the tribe, churning out sketches and running bootleg liquour while occassionally avoiding pursuing Mounties in the Alberta Badlands.
That bootlegging venture was so successful that the Chief offered his daughter to Kid Russell as a bride. Charles diplomatically disentangled himself from the situation and years later joked that he didn’t go through with the marriage because he didn’t like the way the prospective bride cooked dog meat.
Back in Montana in 1889 the Kid found Helena and the Judith River Basin to be getting far too settled and civilized for his taste and he wandered for a time. Rumors had him hiring on to shoot rustlers in Wyoming or running whiskey into Utah while dodging or clashing with the Mormon Danites, any number of things.
In 1892 the Kid set up a studio in a spare room at the Brunswick Saloon in Great Falls, MT, determined to earn a living as an artist. Despite his poverty, in 1895 the struggling artist supposedly turned down an offer to hire out his gun in the Cassia/ Elkins Range War in Nevada and Idaho. In 1896 the 32 year old Russell married 18 year old Nancy Cooper, a pretty young girl with a questionable past but a definite flair for business and promotion.
With Nancy as Kid Russell’s agent he became world-renowned as a master of American western art and sculpture. Silent film stars like William S Hart, Tom Mix and Douglas Fairbanks later became friends of Russell and his wife. Charles Marion Russell passed away in Great Falls in 1926 and the schools and businesses closed down to observe his funeral.
SALLY SKULL – Sara Jane Newman, the future Sally Skull, was born in Illinois in 1817. In 1823 her family moved to Fayette County in Texas, which was then part of the area that Mexico had seized from Native Americans.
Like all the other ranch families in the area, whether from Mexico or the U.S., Sally and her family lived a rough life managing their land and surviving periodic assaults from the American Indians in the area. Sally killed her first man – an attacking Indian, when she was 11, using a rifle. At age 12 Sally was proficient with all firearms and provided plenty of food for the family table by hunting.
In 1831 Sally’s father died and she began running the ranch for her grieving mother, even registering her father’s old brand in her own name. 1833 saw the 16 year old married to a Texas Ranger named Jess Robinson and settled in Gonzalez, TX, still part of Mexico.
Over the next 10 years, as Texans rebelled against the tyrannical Mexican government and broke away to form their own Republic, Sally and Jess had 2 children who survived – a son and daughter. In 1843 the couple divorced and 11 days later Sally married a gunsmith named George Skull (or Scull), whose last name she would keep throughout all her future marriages.
In 1849 George and Sally supposedly drew their guns on each other during one of their many arguments and George wound up dead. Sally Skull’s reputation would grow throughout the next few years as she developed a lucrative but risky horse-trading business working both sides of the border. Texas was by now part of the United States and after the 1846 to 1848 war between the U.S. and Mexico the borderlands were extremely unsettled and dangerous.
Sally spoke English and Spanish, was renowned for her skill with guns and always drove with a Bowie knife, a pistol, a rifle and a shotgun in easy reach. She proved equally deadly against Comanches, anti-Anglo Mexicans and outright bandits. Anyone who tried to steal from Sally Skull was soon dead while she just ambled on her way with her goods.
By 1852 Sally had moved her operation to a ranch in Banquette, TX, much closer to the border. Her horse-trading business was thriving and in October she married John Doyle, one of her employees. Doyle drowned in high water while moving horses across the Rio Grande. Sally said she never missed John but DID miss the gold in his money belt.
On December 26th, 1855 the gunslinging Sally married again, this time to Isaiah Wadkins. Isaiah not only beat Sally (reckless move given her history) but he so openly consorted with a prostitute named Juanita that Sally successfully sued him for divorce on grounds of infidelity.
By the time the Civil War started the 40-something Sally Skull was married to 20-something Christopher “Horse Trough” Horsdorff. The war caused Sally to switch from horse-trading to running guns, cotton and other supplies for the Confederacy. With the South’s main seaports blockaded by the Union Navy, trade in and out of Mexico – both legit and black market – thrived.
Feisty as ever, Sally never avoided risks, riding and guiding smuggling runs while shooting down anyone who got in her way. As always Skull wore a black sundress, a sunbonnet and a gunbelt. By the end of the war she had compiled a fortune from black market trading.
In 1868 Sally’s husband “Horse Trough” Horsdorff killed her for her mound of loot, bringing an end to the wild woman’s legend. Her son, who had served in the Confederate Cavalry during the war, re-registered the family brand in his own name.
FOR SIX MORE NEGLECTED WESTERN FIGURES CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2012/06/18/six-neglected-wild-west-figures/
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