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Erastus Smith:  "Deaf Smith"

Also see: Deaf Smith (1)

 Cody Ricewood
May 29, 2007

DEAF SMITH

            Erastus Smith, commonly known as Deaf Smith, is responsible for helping determine the history of Texas.  Despite his significant hearing loss, Smith made major contributions to his society.  He obviously focused on his talents to make his life better, rather than being limited by his difficulties.  Those around him must have looked past his challenges and given him the opportunities to serve that he had.

            Born on April 19, 1787, in New York, Deaf Smith moved to the Mississippi Territory at about 11 or 12 years old.  (Huston, 1973)  His parents were strict Baptists who thought morals and education were very important.  (Huston, 1973)  From birth or a childhood illness, Deaf Smith experienced a partial hearing loss.  (Griffis, 1958; Huston, 1973)  While he could converse face-to-face (Huston, 1973), and may have been a good lip-reader (Griffis, 1958), he could not follow ordinary conversation, especially in a crowd.  (Huston, 1973)  When he got lost in the conversation, he tended to walk away and stare into the distance.  (Huston, 1973)  His voice was weak and high-pitched.  (Huston, 1973)  He had an independent personality, always liked being alone and loved being outdoors.  (Griffis, 1958; Huston, 1973)   Because of his hearing loss, Erastus was known as “Deaf Smith.”  (Griffis, 1958)  Smith was also sickly as a child and while living in Mississippi developed some long-term lung illness, often called as consumption.  (Griffis, 1958; Huston, 1973) 

            Deaf Smith moved to Texas in 1821 at the age of 34 permanently.  (Huston, 1973)  He brought hornless cows with him, the first of these type cows in Texas, and drove them 200 miles from Velasco to Mission San Jose.  (Griffis, 1958; Huston, 1973)  This adventure made him an expert in the geography and terrain of the area, which would come in handy later in his life.  (Huston, 1973)

            In 1821, Smith settled down in the Mexican town of San Antonio de Bexar, and in 1822, he married a Mexican widow who already had 3 children.  (Griffis, 1958; Huston, 1973)  Together they had 4 more children.  (Griffis, 1958)  Smith learned Spanish and Mexican customs so that he easily fit into both cultures.  He wore a hat to hide is reddish hair that made him different.  (Huston, 1973)  His Spanish nickname became “El Sordo,” meaning the deaf one.

            Deaf Smith spent much time away from his family, off in the wilderness or on adventures.  (Griffis, 1958; Huston, 1973)  He enjoyed hunting, especially buffalo, and trained a dog to quietly warn him of danger.  (Griffis, 1958; Huston, 1973)  In 1825, Smith assisted in starting the development of land near Gonzales, Texas, that 400 families were going to colonize.  (Huston, 1973)  Smith acted as a guide through the lands for the Texan colonists who began arriving in great numbers.  (Huston, 1973)

            The Mexican central government and the Texan colonists coming into the area began to struggle for control.  Deaf Smith, with his feet in both cultures, avoided picking a side.  However, when Deaf Smith tried to ride home to evacuate his family from the danger of fighting, Mexican General Cos’s men tried to capture him, hitting him on the head with a saber and knocking off his hat as Smith was escaping.   (Huston, 1973)  Because of this, Smith rode immediately to Army General Stephen Austin of the Texas Volunteers to offer his services as a scout and spy.   (Huston, 1973)

            Between 1835 and 1836, Smith rose to the status of a war hero.  Soon after joining the Texans, he became the chief spy, and was known as “the eyes of the army.”   (Huston, 1973)  As a scout, he helped guide Texan forces over the land he knew so well.  He also led a group of recruits known as the New Orleans Grays.  (Huston, 1973)  At the Battle of Concepcion, he marched at the head of command into the city.  (Griffis, 1958; Huston, 1973)  There his excellent rifle skills, leadership and bravery helped the Texans force General Cos to retreat.  (Huston, 1973)  He was again important in a skirmish known as the Grass Fight.  (Griffis, 1958; Huston 1973)  After that, he was a leader and sharpshooter when the Texans descended upon the city of San Antonio de Bexar, his old hometown, which led to General Cos’s surrender. 

            The Battle of San Jacinto was the important turning point in the conflict.  Texan women and children were fleeing their homes to avoid Mexican President Santa Anna’s advance.  (Huston, 1973)  The Battle of San Jacinto stopped Santa Anna’s push to drive Texans out of the area.  Before the battle began, Smith was responsible for capturing a messenger sent by General Cos to Mexican General Santa Anna, giving away Santa Anna’s location.  (Huston, 1973)  Next Smith went into Santa Anna’s encampment disguised as a poor Mexican to gather information.   (Huston, 1973)  Then, on the orders of General Houston, Smith destroyed Vince’s Bridge to prevent any retreat or reinforcements.  (Gartman, 2006; Griffis, 1958; Huston, 1973)   Smith also joined in the fighting at San Jacinto.  The Mexicans, outnumbering the Texans by far, fled.  First, Santa Anna was captured and then Smith captured General Cos.  (Huston, 1973)  Finally, General Houston relied on Smith to relay a message from Santa Anna to his general Filisola telling Filisola to retreat back to Mexico. (Huston, 1973)

            After the Battle of San Jacinto, Smith acted as a scout and spy to monitor the retreat of the Mexican army.  (Huston, 1973)  During that time, he learned of another planned attack and was able to stop it.   After that, he headed up a company of rangers which monitored a strip of land that both Mexicans and Texans claimed.  (Huston, 1973) In February 1837, he and his rangers battled the Mexicans near Laredo and, although outnumbered, they suffered many less casualties.  (Wilcox, 2007)  Smith’s goal was to "to raise the flag of Independence on the spire of the Catholic Church at Laredo," but the rangers never made it to Laredo.  (Wilcox, 2007)  Smith left the rangers and soon after died on November 30, 1837.  (Huston, 1973)

            “There were but few men that did more than Erastus Smith did in 1835 and 1836 in winning and maintaining the Independence of the Empire of the State of Texas,” according to Moses Austin Bryan in a letter dated May 26, 1880.  (Griffis, 1958, Preface)  Smith “engaged in most of the hard fighting that has occurred in Texas, happening always to ‘drop in.’ as if by chance on the eve of battle,” according to the Matagorda Bulletin, September 6, 1837.  (Griffis, 1958, Preface) 

            Not much is mentioned about how Smith communicated in all these roles.  He may have been a good lip-reader.  (Griffis, 1958)  While acting as a scout, he probably could communicate face-to-face which would make understanding easier.  Huston (1973) mentions one instance of someone being assigned to Smith in battle to help Smith talk with others.  People around him probably took the time and energy needed to communicate with Smith in order to take advantage of Smith’s valuable services.  Even having the name “Deaf” and “El Sordo” might have reminded people to pay more attention when trying to talk with Smith.  Perhaps his hearing loss also made Smith develop other senses better, which maybe led to better scouting, spying and leadership skills. 

            After his death, Smith was honored with his face on the five-dollar bill of the Republic of Texas in 1840 and with his name as the name of a Texan county, as well as on various monuments.  (Huston, 1973)

            The history of Deaf Smith reveals a determined man who lived life his own way.  The skills he built up over his lifetime of doing what he loved were put to good use by the Texan leaders.  Brave, confident, adventurous, resourceful, and intelligent are just a few of the obvious characteristics that made this person the legend he is today.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ellis, L. Tuffly, Pohl, James W. and Tyler, Ron (ed.) (1996)  Erastus Smith (1787-1837). The Handbook of Texas Online.  Texas State Historical Association, 1996. Retrieved 15 Apr. 2007: http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/SS/fsm10.html

Gartman, Barbara. Battle of San Jacinto recalled. The Monitor, April 20, 2006.

Griffis, Faye Campbell. (1958). The Nine Lives of Deaf Smith. Dallas, Texas: Banks Upshaw and Company.

Huston, Cleburne. (1973) Deaf Smith, Incredible Texas Spy. Waco, Texas: Texian Press.

Kemp, Louis Wiltz. (1932)  Erastus Smith.  Albert and Ethel Herzstein Library of San Jacinto Museum of History Association. Retrieved 15 Apr. 2007:  http://www.sanjacinto-museum.org/Herzstein_Library/Veteran_Biographies/Browse_Biographies/biographies/default.asp?action=bio&id=3581

McKeehan, Wallace. (2006) The Battle of San Jacinto and the San Jacinto Campaign. Texas A&M University, Sons of DeWitt Colony Texas. Retrieved 15 Feb. 2007:http://www.tamu.edu/ccbn/dewitt/batsanjacinto.htm.

Wilcox, Seb S..  "Laredo during the Texas Republic", Southwestern Historical Quarterly Online Volume 42, Number 2, Retrieved 22 May 2007: http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/publications/journals/shq/online/v042/n2/contrib_DIVL1579.html


Also see: Deaf Smith



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