DR. NILES F. SMITH: SABINE PASS' PIONEER PHYSICIAN, COTTON MERCHANT, TOWN BUILDER, AND TEXAS PATRIOT
By W. T. Block
Distinguished guests, members of Jefferson County Historical Commission, Port Arthur Historical Society, descendents of Dr. Niles F. Smith, fellow historians, ladies and gentlemen:
Today we honor at least ten members of the Niles F. Smith family, who are buried on this spot, at least seven of whom died of yellow fever in September-October of 1862, but in particular, we honor the family patriarch, Dr. Niles F. Smith, as well as Confederate Lieutenant Niles H. Smith, in whose Confederate artillery Company B of Spaight's Battalion, my grandfather Block and three of his brothers served here at Forts Griffin and Manhassett.
Enough information survives about the last half of Niles F. Smith's life to write a fair-sized book, but the first half of his life remains almost a complete blank. We do know that he was born in New York State in 1800, where most likely he received his medical training; also that some time after 1820, he migrated westward, where by 1830 he was married and living at St. Joseph, Berrien County, Michigan. In 1830, he and his wife became the parents of a daughter, Helen, and in 1832, a son Niles H. However tragedy struck the young family, probably in 1833, when Smith's young wife died.
Sometime early in 1834, Niles F. Smith, still distraught over his young wife's death, left his children in the care of relatives and left Michigan for the Mexican province of Texas. Somewhere in Western Louisiana, probably at Natchitoches, Smith met Sterling Clack Robertson, who was the Mexican impresario of a 25,000 square-mile colony near present-day Waco. Robertson sent Smith to Viesca, the capitol city of Robertson's colony, where Smith was appointed as "agent to sell town lots." Moreover, Smith's principal assignment was to watch Robertson's land commissioner, William Steele, whom the empresario distrusted, and to that end, Robertson issued to Dr. Smith a power of attorney to conduct any and all business in his behalf. In October, 1835, when the storm clouds of a Texas revolt thundered throughout Central Texas, Niles Smith wrote Impresario Robertson at the latter's home in Louisiana to rush to his colony with all haste.
On February 1, 1836, Niles F. Smith served as election judge at Viesca to select delegates from Robertson's colony to attend the Convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos, where Texas Independence from Mexico was declared the following March 2nd. Niles F. Smith never returned to Robertson's colony, and for the nex six months, according to Comptrollers' Military Service Rcords, N. F. Smith "served during the Texas Revolution in a corps of engineers and received a salary of $100 a month...." During that period, Smith became a confidant and friend of Gen. Sam Houston, Col. Philip Sublett, Col. G. W. Hockley, who commanded the Texas Artillery at the Battle of San Jacinto; and Gen. Sidney Sherman, who commanded the Second Regiment of Texas Volunteers at the battle.
Your speaker has often stated that after 1836, if Dr. Niles F. Smith had owned a Volkswagen instead of an ox-wagon, his movements in East Texas would have been impossible to track. In December, 1836, Smith was living at the first Texas capitol of Columbia when Gen. Houston appointed him to become the first bank examiner of the Texas Republic. By 1837, Dr. Smith had moved, along with Pres. Houston and the Texas government to the new capitol at Houston. By 1839, Smith was residing at Wiess Bluff, Jasper County, where he voted and paid taxes in that year. By 1840, Niles F. Smith had moved permanently to Sabine Pass to serve as Gen. Houston's land agent, his residence there continuing for the last eighteen years of his life.
The Texas Historical commission has chosen not to concentrate on Niles F. Smith's role as a physician because the documentation in that regard is almost non-existent. Only two newspaper accounts, one in Houston and the other at Galveston, referred to him as "Dr. Smith." In the 1850 Sabine Pass census, Niles Smith labeled himself as a "farmer," which was an affectation among many Texans of that era, perhaps because farming was the most exalted occupation of that age, but Smith's entire life was always far removed from the soil. Smith was a merchant even before he left Michigan, and he was able to follow that vocation almost until the day of his death because the population of most of the Republic of Texas was too sparse to support either a land agent or a physician who practiced only medicine.
Early in 1835, Dr. Smith swore an affidavit to Sterling Robertson that he was age 34 years, was a widower, and was the father of two minor children, Helen V. and Niles H., who were still residing in St. Joseph, Michigan. Obviously, he feared bringing them to Texas because he once wrote to Robertson that the Tonkawa Indians were on the warpath in the Waco vicinity. In fact, for the first six or seven years, N. F. Smith made annual trips to visit his family in Michigan, where on his first visit, he married Abigail, whom your speaker believes to have been Smith's former sister-in-law. Also during those years, Smith made his trips with two friends, Neal and Otis McGaffey of Jasper County and Sabine Pass, who also had left their families at nearby White Pigeon, Michigan. Niles and Abigail had at least two more children born in Michigan, Elias, born in 1835, and Susan, born in 1840, after which the remainder were born at Sabine Pass.
Between 1837 and 1839, Niles F. Smith was a merchant in Houston, either in business for himself or in partnership with H. R. Allen. Smith owned the building in which was housed offices of the Texas Secretary of State. Dr. Smith was also a partner with the Allen Brothers in the new townsite of Houston, and there are still many of Smith's personal papers from his Houston period in the Texas State Archives. In February, 1839, Dr. Smith was a member of a committee that gave a charity ball to honor Gen. Sam Houston.
In 1836, Houston and Col. Sublett acquired title to 11,000 acres of land at Sabine Pass. In 1839, they decided to found a townsite at Sabine Pass, being apparently unaware that all of their acreage was marsh land, unfit for human habitation. In February, 1839, Smith, Houston, Sublett, and several others organized the Sabine City Company at Houston, its board of directors reading much like the Texas Army's muster rolls at San Jacinto. Because the Houston-Sublett tract was solely marshland, Dr. Smith bought in 1839 from Capt. Barney Low, two land certificates, which contained 817 acres and the only high land at Sabine Pass fit for a townsite. And for five years, Smith sold hundreds of town lots to buyers, before the Texas Land Office declared in 1844 that the Barney Low land certificates were in fact clever forgeries. Very quickly, all land sales of the first Sabine City Company townsite became null and void when John McGaffey was declared the rightful owner.
Dr. Smith did not let that setback cripple his plans and economic future at Sabine Pass; in fact, he took that lemon of bad luck and made lemonade out of it. He quickly joined forces with John and Neal McGaffey to found the second townsite of Sabine Pass and Smith continued as its land agent. Niles and Abigail Smith's oldest daughter Helen married Wesley Garner, who was John McGaffey's step-son, which tended to cement Smith's bond with the McGaffey family, as Smith and the McGaffeys became the principal owners of all Sabine Pass property.
Because of Sabine Pass' sparse population of less than 100 persons in 1840, Dr. Smith was still unable to support his family by practicing only medicine and selling town lots, so he became one of the town's earliest merchants as well. And as a merchant, he was expected to buy up cargoes of cotton coming down the Neches and Sabine rivers, and in turn, to furnish many of the staple supplies that were carried back upriver to sustain the frontier economy. But another event would soon occupy Dr. Smith's time when in December, 1841, the Republic of Texas collector of customs resigned, and and Dr. Smith asked his friend, President Sam Houston, to appoint him to fill that vacancy. Smith served for about 22 months, from February 2, 1842 until December 20, 1843.
Although Dr. Smith remained customs collector for almost two years, he probably regretted holding that office from the first day. To qualify for office, he had to sell his store and quit buying cargoes of cotton. Also, because the boundary line between Texas and the United States was set at landfall on the Sabine Pass' west bank, open warfare was fomenting between the customs collector and the New Orleans cotton schooners that refused to stop and pay tonnage fees. As a result, Smith chose to resign so that he could reopen his store. In the Texas State Archives, there are 27 cubic feet of Sabine Pass customs house papers, and about six cubic feet of those papers are Dr. Smith's.
Between 1844 and 1851, Niles F. Smith served as a cotton broker, as well as operating his grocery, a drug store, a retail liquor business, and a "ten pin" or bowling alley at Sabine Pass, all of which he sold to Dr. George Hawley, the new physician in town, in 1851. As examples of Smith's cotton-brokerage activities, he shipped 159 bales of cotton to New Orleans on March 17, 1845 aboard the schooner Lone Star, and on May 25, 1845, he shipped another 394 bales of his cotton on the New Orleans schooner Robert Mills. These and several other records are all on file in Austin.
In 1847, Dr. Smith became a partner of the two newest cotton brokers at Sabine Pass, John Sealy and John H. Hutchings. Sealy and Hutchings became two of the shrewdest and most successful cotton shippers ever to reach the Texas coast, and their later banking and charitable activities at Galveston, which continue to the present day, include the John Sealy Hospital and the Hutchings-Sealy National Bank.
In the national elections of 1844, Pres. James K. Polk ran on a platform, seeking the annexation of the Republic of Texas. With Polk's election as the 11th U. S. president, there was a second frenzy among Texans for annexation to the Union, and in April, 1845, annexation meetings and resolutions were conducted and published throughout Texas. On April 7, 1845, Niles F. Smith and six other Sabine Pass residents met and adopted the Sabine Pass Annexation Resolutions, which were published at the time in four newspapers, and were also published by Dr. Ralph Wooster in the Nov., 1975, issue of Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record. Although the resolutions do not list a particular author, your speaker identifies them as having been written by Dr. Smith, since the lofty speech in them generally matches that of Dr. Smith in his letters to General Sam Houston. What follows is a single paragraph of the lofty language from those resolutions:
Dr. Smith and John McGaffey organized and built in 1842 the first school house in both Sabine Pass and Jefferson County, where Wyatt McGaffey was both the first school teacher and postmaster. In 1848, Dr. Smith, Neal McGaffey, and S. A. Sweet organized and erected the Methodist Church, the first church building in either Sabine Pass or Jefferson County, built "next door to where the school house now stands." Dr. Smith even bought from Sarah McGaffey the land where we are standing today, in order to provide Sabine Pass with a public cemetery.
During the decade of the 1840's, Niles and Abigail Smith became the parents of four more sons, Henry Smith, born in 1841; Homer, born in 1843; Frost Smith, born in 1845; and Henry W., born in 1850. In 1846, their 4-year-old son Henry was accidently shot and killed, and in the custom of that day, the parents gave the name of Henry to their last son, born in 1850. Like frontier families everywhere, the Niles F. Smith family suffered more than its share of accidental deaths. In May, 1860, Susan Smith's husband, Capt. William Shaw, was killed in a gun altercation, and on June 29, 1877, Captain Elias Smith, then pilot and violently ill aboard the steamboat Pelican State, fell overboard and drowned near Wiess Bluff, Jasper County.
During the 1850's, Sabine Pass grew rapidly as the middleman of East Texas' cotton commerce, and Dr. Smith's personal estate prospered equally. The county deed records list page after page of Smith's many land sales. In 1852, Dr. Hawley moved to Beaumont, and from that year until his death in October, 1858, Dr. Smith remained the only physician at Sabine Pass. In December, 1858, testamentary letters were issued to Abigail Smith to probate her husband's estate.
In the 1860 census, Abigail Smith was running a boarding house, where eight boarders resided, in addition to Abigail's four sons, her widowed daughter Susan Shaw, and two small granddaughters. Niles H. Smith and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Parr, had three small daughters, and Helen Smith Garner and her husband Wesley had five children. Despite Dr. Smith's death, his widow and children were still accumulating handsomely, his two daughters, Susan and Helen, owning between them 1,800 heads of cattle and horses.
Such were the family's fortunes when, suddenly, the horrors of the American Civil War swept inland from the sea, along with Jefferson County's worst epidemic of sickness. Between July and October, 1862, a virulent plague of yellow fever killed 150 Sabine Pass civilians and Confederate soldiers, included among them being Abigail Smith, Henry and Homer Smith, Susan Shaw, Helen Garner, and the latter's two children, Susan and David Garner. The Niles H. Smith family and Susan Shaw's two infant daughters escaped death because they were quickly evacuated inland on a steamboat. And your speaker surmises that Susan Shaw and Helen Garner signed their own death warrants by their choice to remain behind to nurse their stricken mother and brothers.
Elias, Homer, and Lieutenant Niles H. Smith served the Confederate States in artillery Co. B, of Spaight's Battalion, and Homer Smith died of the fever while wearing a Confederate uniform. Frost B. Smith was a cavalryman in Co. A, Spaight's Battalion, engaged in combat in several battles in Louisiana, and after the war, he settled in St. Louis, where he was still living in 1906. Lt. Niles H. Smith and his brother Elias were cannoneers variously at Fort Grigsby in Port Neches, at Forts Griffin and Manhassett at Sabine Pass, and for several months, they manned the 12-pound cannons aboard the Confederate cottonclad gunboat Uncle Ben. In fact, they were aboard the Uncle Ben in the Pass while the Battle of Sabine Pass was in progress, and after the firing ended, Lt. Smith accepted the surrender of the Union Bluejackets aboard the ill-fated U. S. S. Sachem. Confederate Major Leon Smith later wrote to his superior: "...I would also recommend the gallant conduct of Lt. Niles H. Smith of Co. B, Spaight's Battalion..." Niles H. Smith later died at Beaumont on January 14, 1891, and he is buried here in an unmarked grave on this spot just as his parents are.
And these are the brief biographical sketches of two men named Niles Smith, the younger being the well-known Confederate hero that my Block ancestors served under. The family patriarch, Dr. Niles F. Smith, came to Texas when it was a Mexican wilderness, overrun by Indians, and he labored the remainder of his life as a town builder, physician, customs collector, and cotton merchant. Today, I am finally witness to the honor and due recognition
for this man who has lain in total anonymity for 140 years, much too long I'd say, and I must confess, I never really believed that I would ever live to witness this dedicatory ceremony. Dr. Smith walked and talked with the political elite of the Republic of Texas, as copies of his letters to Gen. Sam Houston verify. My hat is off to his descendants who are here today, who labored and gave of their substance to obtain the Texas State Historical marker we are unveiling her now. I thank each of you for braving the June heat to attend this marker dedication, and truly wish to each of you, Godspeed and a safe return to your respective homes. Thank you!