TORCH BEARER, TOWN BUILDER AND BANK EXAMINER OF THE TEXAS WILDERNESS: DR. NILES F. SMITH
By W. T. Block
Dr. Niles F. Smith probably arrived in Robertson's Colony, in the Mexican province of Texas-Coahuila, during the summer of 1834. Born in New York state, he first settled at St. Joseph, Berrien County, a few miles north of Niles, Michigan, about 1825. Although Smith did not show up in Jefferson County on a somewhat permanent basis until 1839, it would be the ultimate of coincidences not to connect his first appearance at Sabine Pass, Texas, with the arrival of a father and son team, Neal and Otis McGaffey, who first came to Beaumont in December, 1839, where the father was naturalized in Judge Henry Millard's court on December 31st.1 Like Smith, the McGaffeys left their family members at White Pigeon, St. Joseph County, which is a few miles east of Niles, Michigan,2 and in the fall of each year, the men would return to Michigan to visit their families. In addition, Smith and the McGaffeys lived as neighbors at Wiess Bluff, Jasper County, Texas, for a time in 1840, before settling permanently at Sabine Pass, where in 1845, Smith and Neal McGaffey would become partners in the second townsite of Sabine Pass.
When the writer discovered that the last four of twelve large volumes of the Papers Concerning Robertson's Colony contained a huge number of references and footnotes about Niles F. Smith, he was most hopeful that they would shed some light on that individual's early life in New York and Michigan, but they did not. However, they do document his activities at town-building from 1834 to 1836, which contribute significantly to the telling of his life story.
Niles F. Smith was born in New York in 1800 and died at Sabine Pass, where he is also buried, in 1858. The fact that his wife, Abigail Smith, was born in New York in 1812 lends some credence to the fact that they met and married in New York, before moving west to Michigan. However, that may not have been the case at all since, apparently, Abigail was his second wife.3 Likewise the writer strongly believes that she may have been the sister of his first wife.
Whatever medical education Niles Smith received must have taken place either in New York or Michigan, for he certainly had neither the time nor place to study medicine after arriving in Texas. In 1839, at least two accounts referred to him as "Doctor Niles F. Smith." The first account, in May, 1839, stated that "Doctor Niles F. Smith" of Sabine Pass would be acquainted with the "destitute condition" of a thief, caught by Galveston County Sheriff Wilson, aboard a boat in the Sabine Pass estuary.4 When Smith was a member of a committee which gave a ball in Houston, honoring President Sam Houston, in February, 1839, he was again referred to as "Doctor Niles F. Smith."5
The writer has often commented that if the early Texas pioneers of 1836, such as Niles F. Smith, had had Volkswagons instead of ox wagons, it would be all but impossible to keep track of them and their movements. Not only did Texas have no trains, planes, or autos in 1834, it also had no stage coaches or inland steamboat transportation as well.
In October, 1835, Niles Smith was still domiciled in Robertson's colony.6 In 1836 he was in the Texas Army, and on December 10, 1836, he was located in Columbia, Texas.7 During 1837 and 1838, he was a Houston realtor and business man, associated with the Allen brothers in the townsite of Houston, and in February, 1839, he was a committee member planning to host President Sam Houston at a ball in his honor.8 In January, 1840, he was busy selling town lots at Sabine Pass, while simultaneously residing at Grant's (Wiess') Bluff, Jasper County, where he also voted in 1839.9 And his only means of transportation was either by horseback, row boat, or sloop on the inland waters or by schooner or steamboat on the offshore waters.
Smith may have shown up in Robertson's colony, at the "falls of the Brazos," as early as the summer of 1834. He received a Mexican land grant of one league (4,428 acres) from "empresario" Sterling Clack Robertson on December 30, 1834, and normally it would take a few months to drag measurement chains, survey the seven square miles of land, and prepare field notes before such a grant could be issued.10
Robertson's colony was a large Mexican grant of perhaps 25,000 square miles to empresario Sterling Robertson, all of it in the general vicinity of Waco. The headquarters of the land grant was at a townsite that Robertson was trying to promote, called "Viesca," in Milam County, where "Guillermo" (meaning William in English) Steele was the land commissioner, and where Niles F. Smith was appointed "agent to sell town lots."11
On February 2, 1835, Niles F. Smith swore on an affadavit to Steele that he was 34 years old, a widower, and the father of two minor children, Helen V., age four, and Niles, age two. It appears that both of his children were still living with relatives in St. Joseph, Michigan.12
It appears obvious that Smith did not want his children with him because Robertson's colony was in an exposed wilderness of the Texas frontier, where Waco, Tonkawa, and sometimes Comanche war parties were still raiding the settlements. On October 6, 1835, he wrote the empresario Robertson, who was on an extended visit in the United States, that:
Three grants of one league each in Robertson's colony were of particular interest to the writer. The first grant was to Niles F. Smith for one league, located on the west bank of the Brazos at Pond Creek in Milam County.14 The second grant was to Erastus "Deaf' Smith, one of the heroes of San Jacinto, whose assignment was to burn Vince's Bridge, in order to trap General Santa Ana's army.15 The third grant was to Charles Cronea, one of Jean Lafitte's ex-pirates, with whom Niles Smith would later reside as a neighbor at Sabine Pass, and who would win some notoriety as the last member of the Galveston pirates to die in 1893.16
While Robertson's colony was generally successful insofar as the number of leagues of land issued to applicants is concerned, the townsite of "Viesca" was a dismal failure, and it never amounted to much more than the log cabin where Robertson, Steele, Smith and their associates transacted business. Too, it appears that Niles F. Smith's (whom Robertson called "Nely") principal purpose for being there was to keep check on Steele and advise Robertson, who spent most of his time residing in the United States.
Sterling Robertson once wrote to his son in the colony that: ". . . if you see anything wrong, tell Niles F. Smith about it immediately."17 In 1835, during a Mexican court session, Robertson issued his power of attorney to Niles F. Smith, authorizing him "to take possession and defend my interest, right, and title as Empresario of the Nashville colony during my absence."18 As further proof of Robertson's distrust of his land commissioner, he wrote the following authorization in July, 1835, as follows:
On October 5, 1835, when the storm clouds of the Texas rebellion began to assemble, an election was held in Robertson's colony to elect delegates to attend the Consultation of San Felipe. Smith had nominated Robertson, but because the latter was away on business in the United States, he lost the election. Smith wrote to Robertson at Fort Jessup, Louisiana, requesting that the empresario return to his colony "in haste and don't fail to push every jump till you get here."20
The last record of Niles F. Smith in Robertson's colony occurred on February 1, 1836, when he served as election judge at Viesca, renamed Milam, to select delegates to attend the Convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos, where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed on March 2, 1836. About the same time, Smith joined the engineering service of the Texas Army, and he never returned to the colony "at the falls of the Brazos," where he had spent his first two years in Texas.21
As opposed to his career in Robertson's colony, there is almost no information available about Niles F. Smith's service during the Texas Revolution. His name does not appear on either the muster rolls or veterans' donation grants at the General Land Office, but Niles and Abigail Smith were both dead by the time that veterans' donation grants were authorized in 1871. About all that the writer can verify about him is what has already been published -- that, according to the Comptroller's Military Service Records, pages 437 and 572, "Niles F. Smith served during the Texas Revolution in a corps of engineers, and that he received a salary of $100 a month."22
After the Texas Revolution, Niles F. Smith next appeared in Columbia, Texas, which was the infant republic's first capitol, and he remained there at least until early in 1837. Most likely, he was to follow the government and its leaders to Houston when the capitol was transferred there. Another source states that Smith was nominated and confirmed as notary public for Jefferson County in December, 1836, but the writer has never found any other evidence that confirmed his residence in Jefferson County as of that date.23 Instead, it seems quite probable that he resided in Columbia at the time he was appointed as Texas' first bank examiner, as follows:
Another writer stated that Niles F. Smith made his first inspection of that bank (the Bank of Agriculture and Commerce at Galveston) when it opened in 1847, long after his period of residence at Sabine Pass had begun, as follows:
Niles Smith's years in Houston, 1837-1839, are likewise not very well documented in available books, although the Harris County Archives would certainly reveal much more about him. However, documents furnished to this writer recently by the Texas State Archives list sundry receipts paid to him for rent of the State Department building, also receipts for merchandise, tables, medicines, etc. bought from Niles F. Smith and Smith and (H. R.) Allen by the Texas Surgeon General, the Military Hospital, and the Texas Navy during 1837-1838. In February, 1839, Smith was a member of a Houston committee that gave a ball to honor Sam Houston.26 Another writer revealed that that ball, which was Houston's first charity ball, was held at the Capitol Hotel on February 20, 1839, and that reservations at $10 a plate could be made through the commandant of the Milam Guards.27
Niles F. Smith owned business property near the capitol building in Houston, and one source noted that "the Secretary of State's offices were housed in a building that belonged to him, for which he received a monthly rental from the government." A receipt owned by the writer shows he received a monthly rental of $47. A Master of Arts thesis observed that in 1837, Niles Smith was one of the land agents of the "Houston Townsite Company," and he was a partner with a brother of the townsite proprietors, the Allen brothers, in a grocery, dry goods and general mercantile store.28 Another writer observed that Smith was present at a ball in Houston in honor of John "Jack" Shackelford, and Smith gave one of the toasts to the honoree.29 Smith also owned the site where the First Presbyterian Church was built in 1841.30
There is no doubt in the writer's mind that, sometime in 1838, President Sam Houston asked Niles F. Smith to go to Sabine Pass, Texas, a strip of coastal marshland that was almost as devoid of people and trees as it was of arable land, to survey and develop a townsite. On December 2, 1833, Houston and his Nacogdoches associate, Colonel Philip Sublett, as agents of a Nacogdoches Mexican, Manuelo de los Santos Coy, patented a 2 1/2 league (11,070 acres) grant at Sabine Pass. The Santos Coy grant, a three-mile by six-mile strip of coastal marshland, ran southwest from Sabine Lake to the gulf beach, but it contained no high land on the Sabine Pass suitable for a townsite, or any arable land on the Front or Back Ridges, where farmers might raise cotton.31 It is doubtful if either Houston or Sublett ever saw the land, which passed to them after Santos Coy's death in 1836, before the grant was patented.
There were two, perhaps three, other factors that probably influenced Niles F. Smith's decision to leave Houston. In 1837-1838, Houston was a very violent town, often with murders, duels, and gun fights quite common on the main streets around the capitol building.32 Secondly, the yellow fever plague struck very hard there in July-August, 1838, and in 1839, three hundred people died of the "yellow jack" in Houston.33 It's rather ironic that, if Dr. Smith fled from Houston to escape yellow fever, he later settled at Sabine Pass, where (after his death) probably as many as seven members of his family died of yellow fever in 1862. And finally, he settled at Grant's (Wiess') Bluff, north of Beaumont in Jasper County, where in 1839 he voted and paid taxes on four slaves.34
The writer knows that Dr. Niles F. Smith was still residing in Jasper County as late as April, 1841. So was Neal McGaffey, who in 1843, was a candidate, but was defeated, for Jasper County's representative in the Texas Congress.35 This also was about the time that each of the men would move his family from the vicinity of Niles, Michigan, to Texas. The writer also believes that the Wiess Bluff period of residence was probably Dr. Smith's only attempt to operate a cotton plantation, for otherwise he would have had no cause to own slaves. In the 1850 Jefferson County census, Schedule II, (Slaves), Smith was not recorded as owning any slaves, although in 1851, his wife Abigail paid $650 to Dr. George W. Hawley for a female slave (26-year-old Sara) to become her household servant.36 Niles F. Smith may have accepted the titles to slaves in his land and grocery transactions, as all of the frontier merchants did, but if so, he disposed of them quickly. In researching the earliest volumes of the Jefferson County Personal Property Records, the author failed to note any transfers of slave titles either to or from Niles F. Smith.
In January, 1839, the founders of General Sam Houston's Sabine City Company met at Old Harrisburg, Harris County, and organized the Sabine City Company, with intent to develop Houston and Sublett's grant at Sabine Pass. The proprietors of that company were about as 'blue-ribbon' as Texas history can provide, and their names read much like the muster rolls of the Battle of San Jacinto. In addition to General Houston and Colonel Sublett, they also included Colonel George W. Hockley, also a San Jacinto veteran; General Sidney Sherman, who commanded the Second Regiment of Texas Volunteers at San Jacinto; J. S. Roberts and A. G. Kellogg, who spearheaded Houston's rise to Texas military prominence;37 W. D. Lee and James S. Holman, who were Houston merchants; Andrew J. F. Phelan, a Sabine customhouse employee; Augustus Hotchkiss, a Sabinetown merchant; and several others.38 They then deeded an undivided one-eighth of the townsite to Dr. Smith for $10,000, and authorized him to issue 1,000 shares of stock in denominations of $250, $500, and $1,000. The $250 stock certificate listed 2,060 lots as having been surveyed in the townsite.39
Upon arrival at Sabine Pass, Dr. Smith discovered that none of Houston and Sublett's land bordered on the Sabine Pass, and all of it was marsh land, unfit for a townsite. In the meantime a Jasper County ship captain named Barney Low offered to sell Dr. Smith two bounty land certificates for 817 valuable acres fronting on the Sabine Pass, and General Houston and Colonel Sublett advanced Smith the $3,000 needed to buy the Low certificates.40
Almost immediately, William Kennedy, the British consul at Galveston, hailed the new Sabine City townsite as the "natural collecting point for the commerce of East Texas."41 Even Dr. Smith wasted no time in extolling his new land venture with three articles, as follows:
As part of his first townsite promotion, Niles Smith announced that the steamboat Laura would leave Houston for Sabine City so that sightseers could see the town, and the boat would return immediately. On January 10, 1840, Dr. Smith held his first public sale of lots and held the first of his annual stockholders' meetings at Sabine Pass, at which attendance either in person or by agent was required on penalty of stock forfeiture. In April, 1840, an additional 460 lots were surveyed and added to the original 2,060. The Richmond Telescope observed that 365 lots were sold on the first day. In 1840, Houston and Sublett were taxed for 2,113 lots held in common; General Sidney Sherman was taxed for 25 lots, and Dr. Smith was taxed for nine lots.43
At the same moment, a competitive townsite, "City of the Pass," had been surveyed a miles to the south by Dr. Stephen H. Everitt, who was a cotton commission merchant at Sabine Pass, as well as president pro tem of the Texas Senate. However, while the Sabine City Company sold its town lots with ease, the townsite "City of the Pass" grew only marsh grass on its street surveys.44 Senator Everitt was to become Niles F. Smith's principal enemy at Sabine Pass, not for any personal feud between them, but because of the man that each of them supported. Dr. Smith was an unequivocal Sam Houston supporter, whereas Dr. Everitt hated Houston with a passion and extolled the virtues of Houston's arch-enemy, President Mirabeau B. Lamar, as the following quote verifies:
Dr. Smith's main problem at Sabine Pass was to evolve, not from Dr. Everitt, as one might think, but from John McGaffey, the brother of his Michigan friend, Neal McGaffey. Dr. Smith knew that McGaffey, being the first settler at Sabine Pass in 1832, had surveyed the McGaffey league even before the Texas Revolution, and his application for a league of seven square miles overlapped with the acreage, owned by himself, which he had purchased from Barney Low. And suddenly, in 1844, after four long years of deliberating both claims, the General Land Office ruled that Dr. Smith's certificates, purchased from Low, were clever forgeries. And all land titles at Sabine Pass that had been sold by the Sabine City Company were suddenly worthless when the Land Office gave a clear title to the McGaffey league to John McGaffey. Thus, the first townsite of Sabine Pass came to an abrupt end.46
In 1906, Tom J. Russell, an early Beaumont lawyer-historian, was quick to impugn the integrity of Dr. Smith, Colonel Sublett, Barney Low, and others, but he was careful to avoid any reference to Sam Houston, as follows:
Russell's account brought on an immediate rebuttal from Mrs. Abigail (Shaw, Kendall) Irwin, Niles F. Smith's granddaughter, who at that time was operating a boarding house at Village Mills, Texas.48 And it was indeed a gross and regretable error on Russell's part to question the integrity of Dr. Smith and others. While Smith did purchase the certificates, he had no way of knowing that they were superb forgeries, the product of a band of counterfeiters who, although arrested several times, continued to operate near present-day Deweyville, Texas, from 1836 until 1856. In fact, it took the land office four long years to determine that they were forgeries. (Sheriff E. C. Glover and John Moore, the master coin, currency, and land certificate counterfeiters of Orange County, were eventually captured and executed without a trial by a band of Moderators in June, 1856).49
At that moment in Niles F. Smith's life, as he stood there in the ashes of his Sabine City Company, he must have considered it as the end of his life's work and ambitions. The writer recalls as well when he and W. D. Quick stood in the Sabine Pass Cemetery and read the pitiful inscription on a broken tombstone, flat on the ground, which, along with the faint and rusted remnants of what once must have been a lovely wrought-iron fence, read as follows: "Sacred to the memory of our little boy, Henry Smith, who was accidently shot by his playmate on September 17, 1848."50 It was then that Quick and the writer decided to enlist the aid of two Boy Scout troops in an efforts to rebuild as many of the old graves as possible.
Much of the history of the Niles F. Smith family must be reconstructed from the birth dates and birth places as recorded in the old Sabine Pass census enumerations. Those records strongly suggest that Dr. Smith returned to Michigan before the Texas Revolution and married Abigail --------, who would become the mother of his remaining children. Daughter Susan E. Smith (Shaw, 1840-1862) was the last of the children born in Michigan, whereas Homer W. Smith, born at Sabine Pass in 1843, was the first of those born in Texas. Hence, based on the census enumerations, the writer must conclude that Dr. Smith moved his family from Michigan to Texas about 1841.51
That Dr. Smith quickly patched up his quarrel with John McGaffey is readily visible in the fact that Smith's oldest child, Helen V. Smith, married John McGaffey's stepson, Wesley Garner (Mrs. McGaffey's son by her first marriage) on February 21, 1849.52 The Niles F. and Abigail Smith progeny were as follows, as of 1850: Helen V. Smith Garner, age 19; Niles H. Smith, age 17; Elias T. Smith, age 15; Susan E. Smith, age 10; Homer W. Smith, age 7; and Frost B. Smith, age 5.53 Soon after the census was enumerated, the last child, Henry M. Smith, was born in 1850, and was given the same name as the 4-year-old child that died of a gunshot wound in September, 1848.54 (That was a common practice back in that era.)
Perhaps the reader is curious as to why Dr. Smith did not rely entirely on his medical practice for a livelihood. The answer is that almost none of the pioneer Texas physicians, with the exception of those in Galveston, could depend solely on medicine in sparsely-settled Texas. Also land speculation, merchandising, and cotton-buying offered much faster methods to earn a livelihood or even become wealthy. Despite the large number of lots sold there in 1840, Sabine Pass apparently grew very slowly at first. In 1844, the French ambassador to Texas, Count Dubois de Saligny, a dapper Parisian, described the village as consisting of only "eight or ten sorry, wooden shacks."55 By 1848, however, the town was growing a little more rapidly, and one editor noted that "twenty or thirty new buildings have recently been erected in the city." By 1850, the population was about 250 persons.56
The loss of Smith's first townsite of Sabine Pass was probably cushioned somewhat by his friendship with Neal McGaffey, which probably enabled Niles to come to terms quickly with Neal's brother, John McGaffey. Certainly from 1844 on, the old townsite proprietors were ejected from any further control of the second townsite of Sabine Pass. On October 8, 1844, Dr. Smith signed an indenture with John McGaffey, whereby, for the sum of $10,000 paid to McGaffey, Smith would receive an undivided one-quarter interest in the townsite and the 640-acre Barney Low tract, with McGaffey remaining as the principal stockholder. However, all other land titles issued earlier on that tract became null and void.57
In 1845, Dr. Smith and John McGaffey appointed Neal McGaffey as their agent to develop the square mile tract into lots, streets, and public grounds. At the same time, Dr. Smith bought a 260 acre tract from John McGaffey, as well as the 177-acre Thomas Court labor on the Back Ridge, as a part of his personal estate. In December, 1845, John McGaffey sold nearly all of the remaining McGaffey league, 4,000 acres, to his brother Neal McGaffey, making the latter and Dr. Niles Smith the sold owners of the townsite.58
Two more deed records need to be mentioned because two wealthy outsiders, Sidney A. Sweet of San Augustine and William M. Simpson of Nacogdoches, were soon to become Sabine residents and a part of the townsite, as well as partners of Neal McGaffey and Dr. Smith. Sidney A. Sweet was particularly important because he believed that the way to make Sabine Pass grow was to bring in industry, and as a result, more people. On March 6, 1846, Neal McGaffey sold Sweet an undivided one-half interest in the 4,000 acres that he owned of the McGaffey league. Three months later, Sweet sold one-half of his undivided one-half of the 4,000 acres to William Mercer Simpson, leaving Dr. Smith, Sweet, Simpson, and Neal McGaffey in control of the town, its businesses, and institutions. Niles F. Smith continued to serve as the agent of his partners in the sale of town lots.59
At this point, the writer must turn the clock back somewhat in order to catch up with other aspects of the life of Niles F. Smith. It seems a little ironic that, despite the passing of the old Sabine City Company, Dr. Niles Smith was still calling stockholders' meetings as late as 1846, as follows:
To the present day, the writer ponders exactly what Dr. Smith's "notice of stockholders' meeting" really meant. December, 1845, was the month that John McGaffey sold his league to his brother Neal, and three months before Sweet bought an interest in it. Thus, it appears that only Neal McGaffey and Dr. Smith were involved at that time in ownership of the townsite, so who was the notice being addressed to? The writer is still uncertain.
When in 1906 T. J. Russell asked Mrs. Mary Keith Stockholm who the first Sabine Pass merchant was, she readily responded that it was Niles F. Smith. However, in 1839, the first year that any merchants began business at Sabine Pass, Mrs. Stockholm was only six years old, although she may have been depending on her husband's memory to answer the question.61 The ads of Dr. S. H. Everitt as a Sabine Pass grocer and cotton merchant began in the New Orleans papers as early as February, 1840.62 By November, 1840, a Galveston paper was carrying the ads for both Dr. Everitt and Augustus Hotchkiss.63 Whether or not he was the first merchant there would be difficult to prove, but Niles F. Smith had to sell his grocery at Sabine on March 9, 1842, as soon as he was appointed Collector of Customs.64
Dr. Smith served as Collector of Customs at Sabine Pass for 22 months, appointed on February 3, 1842, and replaced by W.C. V. Dashiell on December 20, 1843. On the same nomination sheet which appointed Dashiell, Dr. Smith was also appointed Notary Public for Jefferson County. A year later he was again appointed Notary Public for the Port of Sabine Pass.65
Niles F. Smith probably regretted the customhouse appointment from the beginning. It was too restrictive of his movements, was too much work for too little pay, created too many enemies among the shippers, and commanded the respect of no one.
At the Texas State Archives, there are 27 cubic feet of Sabine Bay customhouse correspondence (File 4-21/10), that the historian can spend weeks filtering through, and Dr. Smith's original reports, letters and other correspondence can be found throughout those boxes, as they were not in chronological or any other order when the writer examined them. The writer was only able to go through two boxes of 27 in two days time. Smith soon learned that he could still sell lots, but he could no longer merchandise or buy cotton because of conflicts of interest. On the other hand, a United States flag vessel could merchandise at prices no Sabine Pass grocer could match, and the customs collector was helpless to prevent it. Niles Smith got through his 22 months of service rather quietly, but an undeclared customs war in Sabine Lake broke out under his successor, with Collector Dashiell firing his cannon balls at the United States cotton schooners that defied him.
By American boundary agreements with Spain, Mexico, and Texas, the United States maintained jurisdiction on the waters of the Sabine River, Lake, and Pass all the way to landfall on the west bank. Smith's and Dashiell's customhouse experiences convinced both of them that annexation to the United States was the only future path for Texans to follow, although most Texans no longer actively sought annexation.66 There are also two fine books by R. E. L. Crane at the University of Texas in Austin, his M. A. thesis, "The Administration of the Customs Service of The Republic of Texas," and his doctoral dissertation, "The History of The Revenue Service and Commerce of The Republic of Texas," which adequately cover the customs war, as well as Niles F. Smith's period of service as Collector of Customs at Sabine Pass.
When their initial efforts at annexation were spurned in 1837, most Texans thought very little about annexation thereafter until a Joint Resolution of the American Congress in 1845 invited Texas to join the Union. Nevertheless, many Texans were opposed. Dr. Smith invited a group of Sabine Pass pro-annexationists like himself to meet at his store on April 7, 1845, for the purpose of passing and publishing their Sabine Pass Resolutions, which were in fact published in six different newspapers. Niles F. Smith was a member of a committee of five appointed to draft the resolutions, and the writer would suggest that, due to the lofty, patriotic language, the other four members had very little to do with the drafting. The writer also has copies from the Texas Archives of three of Niles Smith's long letters to General Sam Houston, and he believes that the lofty language could come only from the pen of Dr. Smith, a very small portion of which follows:
(For the complete text of the Sabine Pass Resolutions, see Dr. Ralph Wooster, "Jefferson County and The Annexation of Texas," Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, XI (November, 1975), pp. 30-43.)
After selling out his store to Matthew Hopkins in March, 1842, Dr. Smith was back in the cotton business as quick as he could shed his customhouse title. His first experience in the spring of 1844 was unpleasant because he was fined for "merchandising without a county license."68 Thereafter, he paid his county fees diligently, as follows: "to merchandise," 6 months, 1845; "to merchandise," 12 months, 1845-46; "to merchandise," 12 months, 1846-47; "to retail liquor," 12 months, 1847-48; "to retail liquor," 12 months, 1848-49, "to operate ten pin alley," 12 months 1849-50; and "to retail liquor," 12 months, 1849-50.69 On August 1, 1851, Dr. Smith sold out to Dr. George W. Hawley for $10,000 the business "known as the grocery and ten pin alley (bowling alley)," along with all "fixtures, groceries, and medicines." The down payment for the transaction was the "Negro girl named Sara," who was soon to become Abigail Smith household servant, and Dr. Hawley executed several annual notes for the balance.70 By 1853, Dr. Hawley had left Sabine Pass for Beaumont, and Niles Smith may possibly have foreclosed on the business.
During 1842-1843, the customhouse records are filled with Dr. Smith's reports, entitled with such names as "Abstract of Duties Paid," "Quarterly Expense Account," and "Quarterly Report of Exports." Between 1844 and 1846, the customhouse records also reflect that Niles F. Smith was a major cotton broker at Sabine Pass. For instance, on March 17, 1845, Smith shipped 159 bales of cotton to New Orleans aboard the cotton schooner Lone Star. On May 25th of the same year, he exported 394 bales to New Orleans aboard the large cotton schooner Robert Mills.71 In 1847, Dr. Smith quit his individual cotton-broking when he joined two newcomers to Sabine Pass, John H. Hutchings and John Sealy, to found the cotton-shipping firm of Hutchings, Sealy, Smith and Company. A year later, Smith's real estate partner, William Mercer Simpson, announced in all East Texas newspapers that he had bought out the Niles F. Smith cotton interests in that company, and thereafter the firm would be known as Hutchings, Sealy, Simpson and Company.72 In 1854, after earning a $50,000 profit in gold at Sabine Pass, Hutchings and Sealy moved to Galveston and joined George Ball in founding the huge cotton-shipping and banking firm of Ball, Hutchings, Sealy and Company. Hence, Dr. Niles Smith was once a part of the firm, whose present-day legacies to East Texas are the huge First Hutchings-Sealy National Bank and the John Sealy Hospital complex.73
S. A. Sweet and W. M. Simpson, Dr. Smith's real estate partners, both came to Sabine Pass in 1846, and each of them lived only a short time afterward, Sweet dying in January, 1849, and Simpson in 1851. While Sweet and Simpson were there, Dr. Smith and Neal McGaffey invested in their industrial ventures, but took no active part in the management. Sweet always signed his deed record for himself and "as agent for N. F. Smith and Neal McGaffey." The first of the new industries was S. A. Sweet and Company, the first steam sawmill in the area, which towed its logs across Sabine Lake from the Sabine River. After Sweet's death, the mill was sold two or three times until it became D. R. Wingate and Company in 1857. When the Union Navy burned D. R. Wingate and Co. sawmill in October, 1862, it was the largest sawmill in Texas, cutting 30,000 feet daily with its new circular saws. Other businesses that Dr. Smith owned an interest in with Sweet and McGaffey included the "Shipways of Sabine Pass" and a sash, door, and millwork plant.74
Sweet, Smith and Neal McGaffey were also active in many cultural activities, all of which were 'firsts' for the town and county. In February, 1848, Sweet, Smith and McGaffey erected the first Sabine Pass (Methodist) church building on the lot adjacent to "where the school house now stands," and in 1850, that Methodist church, with a 100-person seating capacity, was the only church building in Jefferson County.75 Dr. Smith and Otis McGaffey also bought from Sarah McGaffey for $1 the site which became Sabine Pass Cemetery.76 The school house mentioned above was also the first school house in Jefferson County, and was apparently organized about 1842 by Dr. Smith and John McGaffey, when their children were of school ages (Neal McGaffey's children were already grown). Wyatt McGaffey, a young, single man from New Hampshire, who was Neal's nephew, lived in Sabine Pass for only four years, from 1839 until he drowned in Taylor's Bayou in 1843, but he managed to accomplish three more of the town's 'firsts' during that short span of years. In 1840, he was appointed the first postmaster and first notary public in Sabine Pass.77 Local traditions also hold that he was the town's first school teacher in 1842, but the writer is unable to cite a source at the moment for that information.
For the last seven years of his life, Dr. Niles F. Smith apparently survived by his land sales and medical practice alone. Sabine Pass was growing by "leaps and bounds," but it's doubtful whether or not he could have survived by medical practice alone. Other than his trading in town lots in Milam, Houston and Sabine Pass during his lifetime, Dr. Smith also traded state-wide in large tracts of land, usually of one league (4,428 acres) in size. The grantor and grantee indexes of Jefferson County contain a total of about three or four pages of his local land transactions. For the last six years of his life, he was the only physician living in Sabine Pass, and no one replaced him during the first year after his death. Smith died in October or November of 1858, without the slightest inkling of the tragedies his family were about to endure. He died intestate, and there is no record or probate file for him, beyond the testamentary letters issued by the court to Abigail Smith in December, 1858.
When the 1860 Sabine Pass census was enumerated on July 10th, the population had grown to 500 persons, but the man who had devoted twenty years of his life to building that dream was not there to see it. People were arriving in droves in search of the economic opportunity that Sabine Pass offered, since it had become the wholesale supply center for all the East Texas merchants. Many of the newcomers were foreign immigrants, and some historians believe that the population had reached 900 or 1,000 by April, 1861, the month that the Civil War began.
By 1860, Helen Smith Garner and her husband Wesley had five children, Susan, Alice, Niles, David, and Claude. Wesley Garner was a stockman, who owned four slaves, about 1,000 range cattle, and he had accumulated a net worth of $15,000.78 Sons Niles H. Smith, age 27, and Elias T. Smith, age 25, were bar pilots, as well as steamboat pilots for the inland rivers. On September 21, 1854, Niles H. Smith married Mary Elizabeth Parr, a native of Georgia, and they had three small children in their household when the war began, Susan, Helen, and Kate. Niles Smith's net worth was $5,432, all in real estate.79
Abigail Smith evidently owned a very large, two-story residence, since she kept eight boarders, in addition to her four sons, Elias, Homer W. Smith, age 17; Frost B. Smith, age 15; and Henry W. Smith, age 10. Her daughter, Susan Shaw, age 21, and two granddaughters, Abigail and Effie Shaw, also lived with her. Abigail's personal estate was worth $7,820, and Susan Shaw was worth $7,000, much of it being her deceased husbands herd of 800 heads of cattle and horses. The next year she sold the entire herd for $3,000. Among Abigail Smith's boarders were the town's new physician, Dr. D. G. J. Murray, three ship carpenters, a printer, a clerk, and two music teachers.80
Only two months earlier, in May, 1860, one of the family's worst tragedies, and its second gunshot victim, occurred. On May 22, 1855, Susan Smith married William D. Shaw, a cattleman from Port Bolivar, Texas.81 The couple settled in a comfortable ranch house located on the Back Ridge. Early in May, Shaw became involved in a gun altercation, about which no details survived. T. J. Russell observed that "Shaw was killed in a personal difficulty with some of his family connections,' which the writer interprets to mean he was killed by one of Susan Shaw's brothers.82 The 1860 Mortality census noted only that W. D. Shaw lived for four days before dying of a gunshot wound.83 The writer has searched the old Criminal Docket Books and Minutes of the District Court for that period, but found that no charges were ever filed against anyone. Hence, he concludes that Shaw's death was adjudged either a case of self-defense or a justifiable homicide. Needless to say, the altercation and resulting death had to have caused much regret, much grief, and perhaps ill-feeling among the Smith family members.
When the American Civil War arrived on April 14, 1861, that decade was to bring to the Niles F. Smith family members their greatest period of grief and tragedy. Of seventeen Niles F. Smith family members, that is, widow, children, and grandchildren, who were alive in 1860, seven of them were dead by 1870. The probate files reveal that five, and probably all seven, were dead by the time the Civil War ended. Although the writer can not rule out the possibility of measles, diphtheria or the usual childhood diseases for the three younger victims, he is fully convinced in his own mind that all seven died of yellow fever during the fall of 1862.
On April 20, 1861, only a few days after the Confederate Army bombarded Fort Sumter, South Carolina, 100 Sabine Pass men organized a ninety-day infantry company, designated as the "Sabine Pass Guard," of the 2nd Regiment of Texas Volunteer Militia. Niles H. Smith was elected 3rd Sergeant, whereas Homer W. Smith, Frost B. Smith, Elias T. Smith, and the son-in-law, Wesley Garner, enlisted as privates.84
When the ninety-day enlistment period expired, the "Sabine Pass Guard" was mustered a second time for ninety days on July 21, 1861. Homer W. Smith was elected 3rd Sergeant, while Niles H. Smith and Frost B. Smith re-enlisted as privates. Elias T. Smith's name does not appear on the muster, so he was probably away on a steamboat voyage up one of the rivers.85
In September, 1861, Captain J. B. Likens of the Sabine Pass Guard received authorization to raise a battalion. He immediately converted his company into one artillery company, designated as Company B, Likens' (later Spaight's) Battalion, and he then converted the "Ben McCulloch Coast Guard" into a cavalry unit, Company A of Likens' Battalion. Frost B. Smith enlisted in Company A, was with that unit still when it was inducted into the Confederate Army in March, 1862, and he served at the Battles of Bayou Fordoche, Bayou Bourbeouf, and Calcasieu Pass, all in Louisiana, before the war ended. No other Smith family member served in Company A, because First Sergeant H. N. Connor left a complete muster roll of everyone who ever served in that company in his unpublished diary, of which the writer owns a copy.86
Captain K. D. Keith was elected captain of artillery Company B, Spaight's Battalion, and the only surviving muster roll of the company is dated April 30, 1863, long after the Sabine Pass yellow fever epidemic of July-October, 1862. In the 1863 muster roll, Niles H. Smith is listed as 2nd Lieutenant, and Elias T. Smith served as a private. The writer is fully convinced that Homer W. Smith died of yellow fever while serving in that company in 1862.87
Companmy B was manning four cannons at old Fort Sabine on the Sabine Pass ship channel in September, 1862, when nearly all of the men were down with or dying of yellow fever. In Captain K. D. Keith's published memoirs, he reported that the disease was very fatal, with about one-third of the ill soldiers dying, but he listed only Lieutenants Goodnoe and Concannon of his company among the dead and no enlisted men's names. Captain Keith wrote:
The last appearance of Homer W. Smith in history records was when he enlisted for the second time in July, 1861. His name does not appear subsequently on any other muster roll, or at Sabine Pass in either the 1870 or 1880 census, or in the Jefferson County Marriage Record, or in any other research the writer owns. Hence, the only conclusion that the writer can reach is that he died of yellow fever in September, 1862. There is no probate file for him.
About July 1, 1862, the British steamer Victoria ran the blockade and docked at Sabine Pass, carrying munitions and an unwanted stowaway, called "yellow jack" in the nineteenth-century vernacular. A boy named Hartsfield, who had visited aboard the ship, caught the disease first, and within three weeks, all five members of his family were dead. The local physician, a young Scotsman name Dr. Murray, failed to recognize the symptoms of the disease, and by the time that Sarah Vosburg, who had nursed the Hartsfield family, gave the alarm, many citizens, particularly those connected with the stores, the hotel and boarding houses, were already infected. About 200 or more civilians caught the disease, and at least a hundred of them died. Among the victims were Julia Sweet Burgitt, the widow of Sidney A. Sweet; Mrs. Helen Sweet, the daughter of Dr. Hawley; her mother, Mary Hawley; Mrs. Neal McGaffey, the wife of N. F. Smith's partner; and Lt. R. J. Parsons, the adjutant of Sabine Post and Otis McGaffey's son-in-law.89 At the first alarm, Lieutenant Niles H. Smith got his family aboard a steamboat and took them elsewhere, probably up the Sabine River, and the writer presumes he took his two young nieces, Abigail and Effie Shaw, as well. As the writer reconstructs it in his mind, he believes that Susan Smith Shaw and Helen Smith Garner remained behind to nurse their mother, Abigail Smith, and two brothers, Homer and Henry Smith, and as a result, signed their own death warrant.
Sergeant H. N. Connor wrote in his diary that: ". . .soldiers are waiting on civilians until at last there are not enough well ones to wait on the sick ones. It is with great difficulty that a grave can be dug. . ."90 For lack of concrete proof, the writer can only surmise that, among the 150 civilians and soldiers who died, the following Smith family members were included: Abigail Smith, Susan Smith Shaw, Homer W. Smith, Henry M. Smith, Helen Smith Garner, Susan M. Garner, and David Garner.
During the epidemic, the Union Navy occupied Sabine Lake, burned the sawmill, depot, and railroad bridge over Taylor's Bayou, and Sabine Pass was cut off both by water and by rail until 1863. Niles H. Smith may have waited a year before moving his family back to Sabine. In the meantime, there was no hurry to file probate or testamentary papers unless there was land to be sold, and by 1863, no one would sell land for Confederate money.
Lieutenant Niles H. Smith filed probate papers for Abigail Smith and Susan Shaw on August 31, 1863, only a week before the Battle of Sabine Pass would be fought, and was appointed executor for each of them. Wesley Garner filed probate papers for Helen Smith Garner on November 21, 1866, and at that time it was revealed that two of her children, Susan and David Garner, had also died during the Civil War. There is no probate record for Homer, who was age 19, and Henry Smith, presumably because each was still a minor who owned no real estate.91
On September 24, 1862, while the "yellow jack" epidemic was still raging, three Union Navy gunboats attacked Fort Sabine while only twelve of Company B's cannoneers were convalescing and fit for duty. Union shells exploded all around the fort, but the Union frigates were careful to remain two miles away as they fired, well out of range of the Confederate guns. Niles H. and Elias T Smith, along with the other soldiers fit for duty, evacuated Sabine Pass on the last train to leave there during the Civil War (the railroad bridge was burned the next day). Company B was then assigned to man the two 24-pound cannons, which guarded the Neches River, at Fort Grigsby at Port Neches, where they remained in garrison until January 15, 1863. On that date, Lieutenant Niles H. Smith and half of his company were transferred to man the three 12-pound cannons aboard the Confederate cottonclad gunboat Uncle Ben. The other half were detailed to man the artillery aboard the cottonclad John F. Carr in Matagorda Bay.92
Lieutenant Niles H. and Private Elias Smith were to remain aboard the Uncle Ben for the next nine months. On January 21, 1863, they were aboard when the Confederate cottonclads Uncle Ben and Josiah Bell fought the two offshore blockaders, the Morning Light and Velocity, during a two hour, thirty-mile chase at sea before the blockaders surrendered. On that occasion, Lt. Dick Dowling's 64-pound gun struck the Morning Light with four shells at two-mile range, proving that his gunners were adequately honed for another battle coming up eight months later. Company B concentrated its cannon balls on the Velocity. The Confederates captured two fine ships, twelve cannons, and 200 prisoners.93
On September 8, 1863, the date of the Battle of Sabine Pass, the Uncle Ben was still patrolling the Sabine Pass channel, its three 12-pound cannons still under the command of Lieutenant Niles H. Smith. One of the strangest coincidences of Texas history occurred that day, because on the west bank, a Confederate engineer, also named Lieutenant N. H. Smith, was busy at work with his contingent of soldiers and slaves, trying to complete the unfinished rear wall of Fort Griffin. Due to a shortage of officers when the battle began, Lieutenant Nicholas H. Smith, the engineer, and Lieutenant (Dr.) George H. Bailey, the Confederate assistant surgeon, stepped into the fort to command a battery of cannons each, about which they knew nothing. During the next forty minutes, Lieutenant Dowling's Confederates fired 130 shells at the Union fleet, two of which exploded the steam drums on the Union gunboats Sachem and Clifton.94 (For more information on Lt. Nicholas H. Smith, the engineer, see Alwyn Barr, "N. H. Smith's Letters From Sabine Pass," East Texas Historical Journal, IV, No. 2 (Oct., 1966), pp. 140-143.)
As the Uncle Ben moved earlier toward the mouth of the Sabine Pass, three 64-pound shells from the 8-inch Union guns passed harmlessly overhead. Because its pop-gun artillery could not compete with the large guns of the Union fleet, Captain F. Odlum from the fort, who was aboard the Uncle Ben, ordered the cottonclad to retreat behind the fort for protection. As soon as firing stopped, the Uncle Ben steamed to the Louisiana side of the Pass, where Lieutenant Niles H. Smith accepted the surrender of the Sachem and then towed the disabled Union gunboat to Fort Griffin.95 (A drawing of the sidewheeler Uncle Ben retreating to the protection of Fort Griffin's guns appeared in Harper's Weekly on October 22, 1863.)
Major Leon Smith (no relation), commander of the Texas Marine Department and all Confederate gunboats in Texas, arrived at Fort Griffin during the battle, and he held the Confederate flag aloft over the fort until the last shot was fired. In his official report of the battle to General Magruder, he made the following commendations, as follows:
Up until her death in 1912, it seemed to concern Niles H. Smith's widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Smith, that the role of her husband at the Battle of Sabine Pass should not be confused, as is reflected in her obituary, as follows:
Also according to the obituary, while the battle was in progress, Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Smith joined Kate Dorman and Sarah Vosburg in cooking meat, coffee, and doughnuts and carrying it in Mrs. Dorman's cart to the soldiers in the fort.
After the battle, the Uncle Ben was decommissioned as a gunboat, and Lieutenant Smith and the soldiers of Company B (which included the writer's grandfather and his three brothers) were transferred to Fort Griffin with Dick Dowling's company where they manned the newly-installed guns, captured aboard the Union gunboats.97 In January, 1864, Dowling's Company F, of the 1st Texas Heavy Artillery, was transferred back to Galveston, and Lieutenant Niles Smith's Company B remained the only artillery company in garrison at Fort Griffin during 1864. In November, 1864, Griffin's and Spaight's battalions were united to form the 21st Texas Regiment, and for some reason unknown to the writer, Company B was left out and reassigned as Company I of Bates' 13th Texas Regiment.98 The company was then transferred to man the heavy 32-pound guns at Fort Manhassett, six miles west of Sabine Pass.99 They remained there until May 24, 1865, six weeks after the war was officially over, when they marched away to Beaumont and were discharged from the Confederate Army.100 Being the last forts in the old Confederacy to lower their Rebel emblems, one writer observed that "only the forts (Griffin and Manhassett) at Sabine Pass were still defiantly held."101
Frost B. Smith served in cavalry Company A, Spaight's Battalion. throughout the war. He fought under General Tom Green in a number of battles along the Bayou Teche of Louisiana in the fall of 1863. On May 6, 1864, he fought under Colonel W. F. Griffin at the Battle of Calcasieu Pass, Louisiana, where 14 Confederate soldiers were killed and many more wounded. He too was discharged at Beaumont, Texas on May 25, 1865.102 On January 2, 1871, Frost B. Smith married Rachel Johnson, the daughter of San Jacinto veteran Benjamin Johnson of Sabine Pass.103 As of 1906, they were still living in St. Louis, Missouri, but the writer has no other information about that family.104
Neither Frost B. or Elias T. Smith were listed in the Sabine Pass census of 1870. And no marriage license for the latter is recorded in either Jefferson or Orange counties. In July, 1877, the remnant of Niles F. Smith's family survivors had another family tragedy to bear, as witness the following quote:
Elias T. Smith's probate file at the Jefferson County courthouse indicates that he owned two and one-half lots at Sabine Pass, worth $800.106
Between 1865 and 1870, economic and social conditions at Sabine Pass were very bad. Cotton shipments had dropped from 20,000 bales before the war to 6,000 in 1866.107 Niles H. and Elias Smith probably had difficulty finding employment because of the small amount of cotton and only one steamboat moving in the Sabine River in 1868, and apparently none on the Neches. In 1869 and 1870, only two sternwheelers, the Orleans, owned at Sabine Pass, and the James L. Graham, owned at Wiess Bluff, were the only cotton boats on the rivers, and one source noted that "they will not be able to carry all the cotton at the river landings."108
Wesley Garner's personal estate had dropped from $15,000 in 1860 to $800 in 1870 as a result of the Civil War. And Niles H. Smith's personal estate had dropped from $5,432 in 1860 to $500 in 1870.109 In June, 1871, Niles Smith ran an ad in the Sabine Pass Beacon, which read: "Niles H. Smith, House, Sign, and Ornamental Painter, Sabine Pass, Texas." The same paper, making note of the moderate hurricane of June 9th, reported that: "The steamer Orleans was moored to Messrs. Keith and Vaughan's wharf, but through the exertions of Mr. Niles Smith, she weathered the gale, sustaining only little damage."110 Smith was probably the pilot of the Orleans during the cotton-shipping season, but June was the off-season, when the sternwheeler stayed tied up from May until November. The Orleans was sunk during the hurricane of September, 1871.
There was one school of about 40 students, taught by Mrs. Sarah Keith, at Sabine Pass in 1870, and apparently Susan Shaw's youngest daughter, 12-year-old Effie Shaw, was a student at that school.111 Effie was living in the household of Kate Dorman, the "Confederate heroine of Sabine Pass" and a longtime friend of the Smith family, perhaps in order to be near to the school. In August, 1862, Kate Dorman turned her Catfish Hotel into a hospital during the yellow fever epidemic. She nursed yellow fever patients there, as did Sarah Vosburg, while everyone else was fleeing the town, and perhaps some of the Smith family members died there.112 In September, 1990, Texas historical markers for Spaight's Battalion and the immortal Kate were dedicated in Sabine Pass State Historical Park. On July 12, 1875, Effie Shaw married Orrin W. Brown, a widower who was nearly forty years her senior, and the writer believes that Effie Brown and her children may have drowned during the hurricane of October 12, 1886.113
Susan Shaw's oldest daughter, 15-year-old Abigail Shaw, was not enumerated at Sabine Pass in 1870, and the writer presumes she was boarding in Beaumont while attending Beaumont Academy. On November 2, 1873, she married W. O."Billy" Kendall, an English immigrant. In 1873, an ad noted that Kendall ran the "Nonpareil Bar and Billard Saloon" in Sabine Pass. In the 1880 census, Kendall was recorded as a dry goods merchant there, and although they had been married for seven years, there were no children in the household.114 In 1906, Abigail Kendall, remarried to ------- Irwin, was running a boarding house in Village Mills, Texas.115 The writer had no other information about Susan Shaw's descendants.
Of Helen Smith Garner's descendants, her daughter Alice married John Wyatt McGaffey in August, 1867, and she died in 1894.116 That was the second marriage of a Niles F. Smith descendant into the McGaffey family. The writer has neither any information of any Alice McGaffey descendants, nor any further information about Niles and Claud Garner.
For any family member interested in the genealogy of Abigail Smith, a native of New York, the writer offers one of her deed records as a possible clue. On December 27, 1858, only a few weeks after she received testamentary papers appointing her as executor of her dead husband's estate, Abigail Smith sold an undivided two-thirds interest in the 177-acre "brig landing labor ," bordering on the waterfront, to a Harvey Baldwin of Syracuse, New York. Now, in 1858 strangers from New York state passing through Sabine Pass in search of land were scarce, like hens' teeth, and had he been one of Niles F. Smith's former wholesale connections, he would have been either from New Orleans or New York City. Could Abigail have turned to one of her brothers in order to raise cash during a period of family emergency? The writer doesn't know; he offers it only as a clue.117
It appears that most of the Niles F. Smith descendants living today were descended through the oldest son, Niles H. Smith. This comes about, perhaps, because he was able to get his wife and children out of Sabine Pass at the beginning of the yellow fever epidemic and because all of them survived the huge storm of October, 1886. However, Niles was exposed to the disease himself because the "yellow jack" plague began in July, 1862, and he never evacuated Sabine Pass until the last train left there on September 24th - long after many men in his company had already died. As of that date, he was the last lieutenant alive, Lieutenants Goodnoe and Concannon having already died of the fever. Hence, it's entirely possible that he had contracted the disease and was lucky enough to have survived it. Sarah Vosburg had survived yellow fever in New Orleans, which made her immune to it, and hence, she could nurse patients without any fear for herself.118
As of 1870, Niles H. Smith (b. Sept. 21, 1832-d. Jan. 14, 1891) and his household consisted of his wife Mary Elizabeth Parr Smith (b. July 14, 1835-d. April 14, 1912), their daughters Susan Smith (1855-1941), Helen Smith, Kate Smith (1861-1953), and sons Arthur Smith (b. Jan. 1, 1864-d. March 12, 1915), and Niles F. Smith (b. April 8, 1867-d. April 18, 1933). A steamboatman named William Lapham was also living in the household.119
The 1880 census revealed that all three of the daughters of Niles and Elizabeth Smith were already married, although one, Kate Elder, was still living in the household. Two more sons had been born, Charles Buchanan "Buck" Smith, age 8; and T. E. Smith, age 6, who died young. In both 1870 and 1880, Niles H. Smith was still employed as a steamboatman or pilot.120
On September 6, 1870, Susan A. Smith married the family boarder, William S. Lapham.121 Being a steamboatman, perhaps Lapham and Smith sailed on the same boat at times. In January, 1873, Lapham was the mate on the old cotton sternwheeler James L. Graham, which in June, 1871, set the speed record of four hours and thirty minutes between Beaumont and Sabine Pass. The Graham, with stacks belching black pine knot smoke, was often seen racing the Era No. 8 in Sabine Lake.122 As of 1880, Susan Lapham had three daughters, Katie, Nellie and Beulah.123 On January 10, 1888, Katie Lapham married Walter Merriman, and she and her two daughters are buried in Port Neches. On May 21, 1890, Nellie Lapham married Henry Heisler, also of Port Neches.124 After the 1886 storm, William and Susan Lapham, along with the Smith family, moved to Beaumont, where Lapham died on November 12, 1898. Later Susan married ----- Merriman. After living to a very old age, Susan Merriman died and is buried on the Smith family plot in Magnolia Cemetery.
Helen V. Smith married (1) Robert C. Patton on August 14, 1873, and (2) Gus Werley sometime prior to 1912. In 1933, Helen Werley was living in Silsbee, Texas, and she was the mother of one son, Gus Gregory.125 Kate Elder lived out her life in Beaumont, died at age 92 in 1953, and is buried on the family plot. She had one daughter, Edna Clapp; she had one grand daughter, Catherine Fulbright, and two great grandsons, Mack and Dick Fulbright, all of Beaumont. At one time, Kate Elder also ran the boarding house in Village Mills, Texas.126
No information is known about Arthur Smith, except that he died at Beaumont, at age 51, in 1915. He is also buried on the family plot. Niles F. Smith III, a tugboat captain for about forty years, died at Beaumont in 1933. About 1883 he worked on a steamboat that belonged to Captain William Wiess of Beaumont. He died single, and he is also buried on the family plot.126 Charles Buchanan "Buck" Smith (Ca. 1871-Ca. 1949) was a police detective, at first at Port Arthur, and later at Beaumont, and he retired from that employment. He had three sons, Harvey, Lindsey, and Ronnie, all of Houston, by his first marriage, and some of them, perhaps all, are deceased. He has a surviving daughter, Mrs. Neal Barton of the Westbrook faculty, by his second marriage.
After living through the hurricane of October 12, 1886, which drowned 86 people, Niles H. Smith moved his family to Beaumont, where he also died in 1891. An obituary clipping, believed to be from the Beaumont Enterprise of January 15, 1891, and owned by Mrs. Barton, reads as follows:
Mary Elizabeth Parr Smith continued to reside for the next twenty years at her Beaumont residence, expiring there after a long illness on April 14, 1912. Her obituary noted that:
That obituary ends the amazing annals of the Niles F. Smith family story, as well as that of his son Niles H. Smith. Perhaps spurred on by grief at the loss of his young spouse, Niles F. Smith came to Texas and lived on the outer fringe of the frontier, where an Indian arrow could just as easily have ended this story in 1834. In 1836 he espoused the cause of the Texans against Mexico, and in so doing, he became a friend of Sam Houston, Colonel Philip Sublet, General Sidney Sherman, Colonel George W. Hockley, Dr. Ashbel Smith, the Texas surgeon general and later, secretary of state; R. A. Irion, secretary of state; as the letters and papers in the Texas State Archives (as well as at the end of this monograph) so attest. Hence, he walked and talked with the Texas military and political elite of his day. His friendship with Sam Houston won for him appointments as bank examiner and customs collector. As land agent, colleague, and merchant partner of the Allen brothers, the founders of Houston, Niles F. Smith contributed to the early development of Houston, as well as Milam and Sabine Pass. He was a colleague and land agent for the Mexican empresario Sterling Robertson, who trusted and regarded him very highly. Amid all of his other activities, he managed to mould careers as merchant, cotton shipper, bowling alley owner, as well as sawmill and shipyard owner. And to others, he extended the healing hand as Sabine Pass' only physician. All in all, the author concludes that Niles F. Smith was quite a frontier figure, whose life story deserves to be emblazoned on a Texas state historical marker somewhere, as well as preserved in some niche of the Texas Archives.
The Smith family history, though, had more than its share of tragedies, among them two gunshot victims, a drowning, and apparently, seven deaths, almost half of their numbers, in a few weeks time from yellow fever. After all, for those who had to live in that frontier age, the price of forging out the Texas enjoyed by all today came high in the lives that were prematurely lost, the personal tragedy, and the human suffering.
Although the Smith family came from the North, they embraced the Confederate cause, although not to perpetuate the institution of slavery. The four Smith sons who served in the Confederate Army owned no slaves. They fought in many battles, won many commendations, and even a battle at sea. The nickname for the Spaight's Battalion members was the "Swamp Angels," but they liked to style themselves, following the offshore battle, as the "horse marines." And although unconfirmed, it appears that Homer W. Smith died of yellow fever while wearing the Confederate uniform. The Niles Smith descendants of today have every right to be justly proud of their family history and the illustrious heritage which they share.
1Naturalization Paper of Neal McGaffey, December 31, 1839, Henry Millard, Chief Justice, Jefferson County, Texas State Archives; Obituary of Niles H. Smith, (Beaumont) Enterprise January 16, 1891, original copy owned by Mrs. Neal Barton.
2G. W. McGaffey, Genealogical History of the McGaffey Families (Bradford, Vt.: Opinion Press, 1904), pp. 34-36; "History of the McGaffey Family," (Beaumont) Journal, January 14, 1906.
3Seventh Census of the United States, 1850, City of Sabine, Jefferson County, Texas, residence of Niles F. Smith.
4(Galveston) Civilian and Galveston Gazette. May 17, 1839.
5(Houston) Telegraph and Texas Register, February 6, 13, 1839.
6Letter, D. C. Barrett to Governor of Texas, October, 1835, in J. H. Jenkins (ed.), The Papers of The Texas Revolution (Austin: Presidential Press, 1973), IV, 250.
7Comptroller's Military Service Records, pp. 437, 572, Texas State Library and Archives; C. W. Hayes, Galveston: The Island and The City (Austin: Jenkins, 1974), I, 179.
8W. P. Webb et al, The Handbook of Texas (Austin: 1952), II, 625.
9G. White (ed.), The 1840 Census of The Republic of Texas (Austin: Pemberton Press, 1966), p. 91; (Richmond, Tx.) Telescope, April 4, 1840; Volume D, p. 475, Deed Records, Jefferson County Archives.
10 M. D. McLean (ed.), The Papers Concerning Robertson's Colony, 12 vols. (Arlington, Tx.: UTA Press, 1983), IX, 46, 54.
11Ibid., IX, 40.
12Ibid., IX, 362.
13McLean, Robertson's Colony, XI, 67.
14Ibid., IX, 171. The legal reference to that tract was described as "Volume 14, p. 105, recorded Book A, pp. 97, 243."
15Ibid., XI, 564; D. W. C. Baker (compiler), "Burning of Vince's Bridge," A Texas Scrapbook (Austin: Steck, 1935), Ch. XXIV, pp. 98-101.
16McLean, Robertson's Colony, XI, 194; W. T. Block (ed.), "Charles Cronea of Sabine Pass: Lafitte Buccaneer and Texas Veteran," Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, XI, No. 1 (November, 1975), pp. 91-95, reprinted from Cronea's long obituary in (Galveston) Daily News, March 6, 1893.
17McLean, Robertson's Colony, XI, 345.
18Ibid., X, 31.
19Ibid., X, 544.
20McLean, Robertson's Colony, XI, 63-64.
21Lelia M. Batte, The History of Milam County, Texas (San Antonio: Naylor, 1956), p. 28; L. W. Kemp, The Signers of The Texas Declaration of Independence (Salado, Tx.: Anson Jones Press, 1944), p. 62.
22Comptroller's Military Service Records, pp. 437, 572, as reprinted in Barker and Williams, The Writings of Sam Houston, 1836 (Austin: Pemberton, 1970), I, 507; also in W. P. Webb et al, The Handbook of Texas (Austin: 1952), II, 625.
23Hayes, Galveston: The Island and The City, I, 179; also E. W. Winkler (ed.), Secret Journals of the Senate, Republic of Texas, 1836-1845, in Texas Library and Historical Commission First Biennial Report, 1909-1910 (Austin: 1911), pp. 32, 220, 282, 298, 307.
24Barker and Williams, The Writings of Sam Houston, I, 507; Winkler, Secret Journals of The Senate, p. 32. See also H. P. N. Gammel (compiler), The Laws of Texas, 1822-1897 (Austin: Gammel, 1898), I, 1135.
25T. C. Richardson, East Texas: Its History and Its Makers (New York: 1940), III, 1344.
26Copies of sundry invoices, receipts, etc., Texas State Archives to W. T. Block, July 17, 1991, pertaining to N. F. Smith's business activities in Houston, 1837-1838; W. P. Webb et al (eds.), The Handbook of Texas (Austin: TSH Association, 1952), II, 625. See also (Houston) Telegraph and Texas Register, July 15, 1837 and February 17, 1838.
27A. Pat Daniels, Texas Avenue at Main Street: The Chronological History of A City Block in Houston (Houston: 1964), p. 22.
28Barker and Williams, Writings of Sam Houston, I, 507; Virginia Jackson, "A History of Sabine Pass," Master of Arts Thesis, Austin: The University of Texas, 1930, p. 9, quoting Telegraph and Texas Register, July 15, 1837 and February 17, 1838.
29Richardson, East Texas: Its History and Its Makers, III, 1344.
30(Houston) Morning Star, January 3, 1841.
31An Abstract of The Original Titles of Record in The Texas General Land Office (Houston: Niles and Co., 1838), p. 889.
32Daniels, Texas Avenue at Main Street, pp. 10-16.
33Ibid., pp. 17, 19.
34White, 1840 Census of The Republic of Texas, p. 91.
35Volume D, p. 275, Deed Records, Jefferson County Archives; also (Houston) Telegraph and Texas Register, October 11, 1843.
36Seventh and Eighth Censuses of the United States, 1850, 1860, Jefferson County, Texas, Schedules II, Slaves; Volume M, p. 150, Jefferson County Deed Records.
37Proclamation of Sublett and Kellogg, Barker and Williams, Writings of Sam Houston, I, 303.
38Volumes A, pp. 188-190, and D, pp. 26-27, 154-155, Deed Records, Jefferson County Archives.
39Ibid., Vol. C, pp. 247-248; also W. T. Block, "Some Early History of Sabine Pass, Texas: President Sam Houston's Sabine City Company," Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, XXV (November, 1989), pp. 80-91.
40Volume E, pp. 94-95, 189-190, Deed Records, Jefferson County Archives.
41W. T. Block, A History of Jefferson County, Texas From Wilderness to Reconstruction (Nederland, Tx.: Nederland Publg. Co., 1976), p. 30; W. Kennedy, Texas: The Rise, Progress, and Prospects of The Republic of Texas (Fort Worth: 1925), p. 24.
42(Houston) Telegraph and Texas Register, July 24, 1839; (Houston) Morning Star, May 13, 1839; D. G. Wooten, A Comprehensive History of Texas, 1685-1897 (Dallas: Scharf, 1898), I, 150; Virginia Jackson, "A History of Sabine Pass," Master's Thesis, Austin: University of Texas, 1930, p. 7.
43(Richmond, Tx.) Telescope, April 4, 1840; White (ed.), The 1840 Census of The Republic of Texas, p. 98; (Houston) Morning Star, April 8, 1839.
44Vol. D, pp. 27-31, Jefferson County Deed Records; Block, History of Jefferson County, p. 30.
45C. A. Gulick et al (eds.), The Papers of Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar (New York: AMA, 1973), II, 563.
46Title to McGaffey League, State of Texas to John McGaffey, recorded in Vol. 9, p. 450, Jefferson County Deed Records.
47(Beaumont, Tx.) Journal, January 14, 1906.
48Ibid., March 25, 1906; also T. J. Russell, Pioneer Reminiscences of Jefferson County (Beaumont: 1986), p. 41.
49W. T. Block, "The Orange County War of 1856," Old West (Winter, 1979), pp. 10ff; also "Troubles in Orange County," (Galveston) Tri-Weekly News, July 15, 1856.
50W. T. Block, "Reminiscences of Old Sabine," Yellowed Pages, I, No. 2 (May, 1971), p. 68.
51Seventh Census of the United States, 1850, Sabine Pass, Jefferson County, Texas, Schedule I, Population, the Niles F. Smith residence.
52Book A, No. 141, Jefferson County Marriage Record.
53See Footnote 51.
54Eighth Census of the United States, 1860, Sabine Pass, Jefferson County, Texas, res. 314. Ironically, the first of the Smith family to die in 1848 was the only one whose tombstone survived to the 1970s. Since then, the graves of two other family members have been marked, but several still lie unmarked. In 1850, a 3-year-old child, Stephen R. Terry, no family relation, was enumerated in the Niles Smith household. At the same moment, a man named Stephen B. Terry, presumably the child's father, was locked in the Jefferson County jail, awaiting trial for murder.
55Nancy Barker, The French Legation in Texas (Austin: 1973), II, 554.
56(Houston) Telegraph and Texas Register, February 10, 1848; Seventh Census of the United States, 1850, Sabine Pass, Jefferson County, Texas, Schedule I.
57Volume E, pp. 191, 438-439, Deed Records, Jefferson County Archives.
58Ibid., Vol. E, pp. 301, 354, 372.
59Ibid., Vol. F, pp. 209-215.
60(Galveston) Civilian and Galveston Gazette, December 17, 1845; also (San Augustine, Tx.) Redlander, February 12, 1846.
61T. J. Russell, Pioneer Reminiscences of Jefferson County, p. 36.
62(New Orleans) Weekly Picayune, February 24, 1840.
63Ads of both Hotchkiss and Everitt, (Galveston) Civilian and Galveston Gazette, November 4, 1840.
64Vol. F, pp. 171-172, Jefferson County Deed Records; Winkler, Secret Journals of the Senate, Republic of Texas, p. 220.
65Barker and Williams, Writings of Sam Houston, II, 472, and III, 492; Winkler, Secret Journals of the Senate, pp. 220, 282-284, 307.
66For a detailed account of the undeclared customs war in Sabine Lake and more about Niles F. Smith at the customhouse, see W. T. Block, "The Romance of Sabine Lake, 1777-1845," Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, IX (November, 1973), pp. 9-43.
67(Houston) Morning Star, April 24, 1845.
68Criminal Docket Book, 1839-1851, Jefferson County Archives.
69Record of Retail Licenses, 1839-1850, Jefferson County Archives.
70Volume I, p. 92-93, Deed Records, Jefferson County Archives.
71"Quarterly Report of Exports," W. C. V. Dashiell, Collector, April 30 and July 31, 1845, Sabine Bay Custom Records, File 4-21/10, Texas State Archives.
72(Galveston) Civilian and Galveston Gazette, June 2, 1848; (Nacogdoches, Tx.) Times, April 22, 29; June 3, 17, 34; and July 8, 1848; (Galveston) Weekly News, October 27, 1848.
73History of Texas Together With a History of The Cities of Houston and Galveston (Chicago: 1895), pp. 303-305, 713-714; J. Brown, Indian Wars and Pioneers of Texas (Austin: 1897), pp. 149, 152.
74Block, History of Jefferson County, pp. 55-58; Volume F, pp. 166-168,; G, pp. 157, 164, and L, pp. 571-574, Jefferson County Deed Records; Jefferson County Censuses, 1850, 1860, Schedule V, Products of Industry, for Spartan Mill Company and D. R. Wingate and Co.; and (Houston) Weekly Telegraph, 2 articles, November 5, 1862; also Vol. A, p. 5, Personal Property Records, Jefferson County Archives.
75Vol. F, p. 163, Jefferson County Deed Records; Seventh Census of the United States, 1850, 1860, Jefferson County, Texas, Schedules VI, Social Statistics.
76Volume I, p. 97, Jefferson County Deed Records.
77(Houston) Telegraph and Texas Register, October 7, 1840; (Houston) Morning Star, October 15, 1840.
78Eighth Census of the United States, 1860, Sabine Pass, Texas, Schedule I, Population, res. 318; Schedule II, Slaves; and Schedule IV, Products of Agriculture.
79Ibid., Schedule I, Population, res. 323; Book A, No. 236, Jefferson County Marriage Record.
80Ibid., Schedule I, res. 314.
81Book A, No. 243, Jefferson County Marriage Record.
82(Beaumont, Tx.) Journal, February 25, 1906, reprinted in Russell, Pioneer Reminiscences of Jefferson County, p. 33.
83Eighth Census of the United States, 1860, Jefferson County, Texas, Schedule III, Mortality.
84Muster Roll, Sabine Pass Guard, April 20, 1861, Texas State Archives, copy of original owned by the writer.
85Muster Roll, Sabine Pass Guard, July 22, 1861, recorded in Vol. C, pp. 59-60, Jefferson County Personal Property Record.
86Muster Roll, Co. A, Spaight's 11th Texas Battalion, in C. R. Walker, M. D., "Spaight's Battalion, C. S. A.," Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, VIII (November, 1972), pp. 28-29; Complete Muster Roll of all Members, Co. A, Spaight's Battalion, in Connor, "Diary of First Sergeant H. N. Connor," unpublished MSS, copy owned by the writer.
87Muster Roll, Co. B, in Walker, "Spaight's Battalion, C. S. A," pp. 29-30.
88K. D. Keith, "The Memoirs of Captain K. D. Keith," Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, X (Nov., 1974), p. 58.
89Keith, "Memoirs of K. D. Keith," pp. 57-58; Report of Yellow Fever Epidemic, Dr. George Holland to Col. Spaight, (Houston) Tri-Weekly Telegraph, September 10, 1862; K. D. Keith, "Military Operations, Sabine Pass, 1861-1862," in Burke's Texas Almanac and Immigrants Handbook for 1883 (Houston: n. d.); Block, History of Jefferson County, pp. 102-103; W.T. Block, "Sabine Pass in The Civil War," East Texas Historical Journal, IX, No. 2 (October, 1971), pp.. 130-131; W. T. Block, "The Civil War Comes to Jefferson County, Texas," Blue-Gray Magazine, IV,No. 1 (Sept., 1986), pp. 12-13.
90MSS, "Diary of First Sergeant H. N. Connor," unpublished, p. 2.
91Probate Index and Probate Book, Final, Vol. D, pp. 67, 167.
92Block, History of Jefferson County, pp. 104-106.
93W. T. Block, "The Cottonclad Gunboat Uncle Ben," in Block, Frontier Tales of the Texas-Louisiana Borderlands (Nederland, Tx.; 1988), pp. 129-131.
94A. F. Muir, "Dick Dowling and The Battle of Sabine pass," Civil War History, IV (Dec., 1958), pp. 399-428; Frank X. Tolbert, Dick Dowling at Sabine Pass (New York: 1962), entire book.
95Block, History of Jefferson County, p. 114; Alwyn Barr, "Texas Coastal Defense, 1861-1865," Southwestern Historical Quarterly, XLV (July, 1961), pp. 23-25; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, D. C.), Series I, Volume XX, pp. 542-561.
96A Compilation of The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, D. C.), Series I, Volume XXVI, Part 1, p. 308.
97Official Records, Armies, Series I, Vol.XXVI, Part 2, p. 563.
98C.K. Ragan (ed.), The Diary of Captain George W. O'Brien (Houston: n. d.), pp. 7, 16, reprinted from Southwestern Historical Quarterly, LXVIII (1963).
99Official Records, Armies, Series I, Volume XLVIII, Part 1, p. 1356.
100Ibid., Part 2, pp. 426. 1284, 1298; Connor, "Diary," pp. 1-56.
101J. T.Scharf, History of the Confederate States Navy (New York: 1887), p. 529.
102Connor, "Diary of Sergeant H. N. Connor," MSS, pp. 1-56.
103Book A, No. 554, Jefferson County Marriage Record.
104(Beaumont, Tx.) Journal, January 28,1906.
105(Galveston) Daily News, July 19, 1877, reprinted from W. T. Block, Emerald of The Neches: The Chronicles of Beaumont, Texas, From Reconstruction to Spindletop (Nederland, Tx.: 1980), p. 107.
106Estate of Elias T. Smith, File 5, Jefferson County Probate Records.
107E. A. Kellie, "Sabine Pass in Olden Times," (Beaumont) Enterprise, April 16, 1905; (Galveston) Tri-Weekly News, November 10, 17, 1869.
108(Galveston) Tri-Weekly News, February 11, 1879; W. T. Block, A History of The Sabine River Cotton Trade, 1837-1900 (Nederland: 1978), p. 58.
109Eighth Census, 1860, Sabine Pass, Texas, residences 318, 319; Ninth Census, 1870, Sabine Pass, residences 19, 26.
110(Sabine Pass) Beacon, June 10, 1871, copy owned by writer.
111Ninth Census of the United States, 1870, Jefferson County, Texas, Schedule VI, Social Statistics, Microfilm Reel No. 44, Texas State Archives, Austin.
112Ibid., Schedule I, Population, res. 16; see also W. T. Block, "Scrappy Kate Dorman Was Confederate Heroine," in Block, Frontier Tales of The Texas-Louisiana Borderlands (Nederland: 1988), pp. 76-79.
113Book A-B, No. 675, Jefferson County Marriage Record.
114Ibid., No. 618; Tenth Census, 1880, Sabine Pass, Texas, res. 5; (Beaumont) News-Beacon, April 19, 1873.
115(Beaumont) Journal, March 26, 1906.
116Book A-B. Nos. 463, 495, Jefferson County Marriage Record; McGaffey, The Genealogical History of the McGaffey Families, p. 36.
117Volume L, p. 460, Deed Records, Jefferson County Archives.
118Keith, "Memoirs of K. D. Keith," pp. 57-59.
119Ninth Census of 1870, Sabine Pass, Texas, Sched. I, Population, res. 26; also from grave stones and obituaries.
120Tenth Census of the United States, 1880, Sabine Pass, Texas, Sched. I, Population, res. 38; see also Block, A History of The Sabine River Cotton Trade, 1837-1900 (Nederland, Tx.: 1978), p. 13.
121 Book A-B, No. 540, Jefferson County Marriage Record.
122(Beaumont) News-Beacon, January 11 and May 31, 1873; also Block, History of The Sabine River Cotton Trade, pp. 13, 61; also "Graham Sets Fastest Time on Record," (Sabine Pass) Beacon, June 10, 1871, copy owned by writer.
123Ninth Census of 1880, Sabine Pass, Texas. res. 12.
124Book A-B, Nos. 1208, 1371, Jefferson County Marriage Record.
125Ibid., No.623; (Beaumont) Enterprise, April 16, 1912 and April 19, 1933.
126Information furnished by Mack Fulbright and Mrs. Neal Barton.
127Obituary of N. F. Smith III, (Beaumont) Enterprise, April, 1919.
128Obituary of Niles H. Smith, (Beaumont) Enterprise, January 16, 1891, owned by Mrs. Neal Barton.
129(Beaumont) Enterprise; also Journal, April 14, 1912.