Success sometimes comes from the most unlikely places. Those intrepid souls willing to take a chance are the ones who change the course of their own lives and sometimes their own communities. Sarah Cockrell, an early Dallas settler, was one of those figures, who went from living in a tent on the Trinity River to becoming one of the most powerful business owners in Dallas.
She was born Sarah Horton into a large Virginia farming family in 1819. Few details are known about her early life, but she moved with her family to Texas in 1844. She married Alexander Cockrell in 1847.
Alexander Cockrell was a Kentucky native who arrived in Missouri with his family when he was still young. At the age of 14, he left home, lived with the Cherokees for a time, and picked up a few trades along the way.
After the two married, the Cockrells moved to the Dallas area. But what would become Dallas was only a small town of only about 800 people nestled along the Trinity River. Most of the county was largely farmland or unsettled. They staked a claim just west of what is now Dallas and operated a ferry service across the Trinity River, living for months in a tent near the riverbank. They bought an additional patch of land that included portions of Dallas in 1853 and moved into town.
The Cockrells established a brickmaking business and began branching out quickly, moving into construction and other enterprises. Before long, they had also acquired a sawmill and a flour mill. Cockrell never learned to read or write. However, he trusted his wife’s judgment, and the two worked closely together to build a successful series of businesses. Sarah Cockrell was literate and was an effective bookkeeper, handling all their finances on their move upward. Dallas was emerging as an important center for agricultural distribution and processing, and the Cockrells were determined to put themselves in the middle of it.
By 1854, they had acquired a charter to complete a wooden toll bridge across the Trinity River, crossing on their own land. They also built rental houses and business space for the many people coming to Dallas. In 1858, they completed a new hotel, which added to their holdings.
Tragedy struck in 1858 when Alexander Cockrell was shot and killed by the city marshal. With her husband murdered and with four young children to care for, Sarah Cockrell was not about to let the business they had built together fall apart. The situation grew even worse when a massive fire wrecked much of Dallas in 1860. The ravages of the Civil War made it even more difficult to operate her businesses. Nevertheless, she became determined to turn their holdings into an empire. For the next tree decades, she relentlessly bought, sold, and traded properties to increase her family’s fortunes.
Women at that time were never expected to become involved in business at all. Cockrell was not going to let the social conventions of the time dictate how she would provide for herself and her children.
She built another hotel and bought several more flour mills. She continued to buy property across the area. She ran the Dallas Bridge Company, which in 1870 pulled together enough investors to construct one of her most significant projects – a new iron toll bridge across the Trinity River, replacing the now lost wooden bridge. Construction was completed in 1872.
The new bridge connected Dallas first to the growing community of Oak Cliff on the south side of the river and to all the roads heading south to Houston and Austin and to Fort Worth to the west. The new bridge helped Dallas expand its economic reach for distribution of agricultural and industrial products as well as banking and other financial ventures. This put it in a major position to capitalize on the coming oil boom at the beginning of the twentieth century and helped it later absorb Oak Cliff entirely.
She was known to be kind and generous. She co-founded the First Methodist Church in Dallas and donated a considerable amount of money for its construction. She also gave to many local charities.
By 1885, she completed a five-story office building, one of the tallest in the city at that point. By 1890, Cockrell was one of the most powerful and most respected business figures in Dallas, a city now past 38,000 residents.
She ultimately owned a quarter of the properties in downtown Dallas as well as land in Cleburne, Mineral Wells, and Houston. By the end of her life, she had become the first millionaire in Dallas and one of the first in Texas. With a fortune well past $30 million in modern dollars, Cockrell had surpassed the most astute and able business minds in the state. In a city known for its millionaires and titans of industry, Sarah Cockrell had beaten them all. She died in 1892.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.