El Sordo

deaf smith 001

Deaf Smith Photograph by Billy Hathorn

Erasmus Smith was born on 19 April 1787 in Duchess County, New York.  When he was aged ten or eleven, his parents moved to Natchez, Mississippi … then known as the Mississippi Territory.

Natchez is located in the far southwest corner of the present-day state of Mississippi, a city established in 1716 as Fort Rosalie.  After the United States acquired the territory from the British (following the American Revolution), Natchez served as the capital of the territory (later serving as the capital of Mississippi until the establishment of Jackson, in 1822).  It’s strategic location helped Natchez to develop as a major center for trade and commerce.  In particular, Natchez was instrumental in developing the Old Southwest during the first half of the nineteenth century, serving as the southern terminus of the Natchez Trace [1], and the northern limit being in Nashville. In Natchez, one would expect to find the rugged captains and crews of the flatboats and keelboats, which transported goods up and down the Mississippi River.  The Natchez Trace also played an important role in the War of 1812.

As a child, Smith suffered a disease that left him deaf.  I have no way of knowing the extent of his deafness; I doubt it was complete, otherwise he would not have been able to communicate so effectively with others during his lifetime —it does appear as though he earned an exceptional reputation as a frontiersman, scout, spy, and Texas Ranger— and did so in his own life time.

In any case, Smith first ventured to Texas in 1817.  We aren’t sure what he was doing in Texas at that time.  What we do know is that in 1822, he married a Mexican widow named Guadalupe Ruiz Durán.  Together, they had four children, three of whom (all daughters) survived to adulthood.

Three years later, Smith and a few others settled in the DeWitt colony, about one mile west of present-day Gonzalez, Texas.  It was the first settlement in the colony, and one of the first established west of the Colorado River.  We also know that, like most Texians, Smith was divided in his thoughts about Mexican politics.  One may recall that at this time, Anglo-settlers were citizens of Mexico, and, human beings being political animals, there was no shortage of opinion within the settlements.

Mexico, having only recently achieved its independence from Spain, had entered into a period of great debate over the issue of whether to establish a federalist or centralist government.  It is often the little things that nudge people in one direction or another.  In Smith’s case, he one day encountered a Mexican soldier, a sentry, who refused to allow him passage into San Antonio de Béxar.  Insulted and perturbed, Smith promptly joined the Texian Army under Stephen F. Austin —which at the time, had laid siege to San Antonio (following the Battle of Gonzalez).

Smith was evidently a clever man who had the ability of fluent Spanish, which causes me to imagine that Smith wasn’t entirely deaf.  As everyone called him Deaf Smith (also El Sordo), his condition, combined with the fact that he was a man of few words, may have left others with an impression that he was handicapped.  The assumption would have made him a perfect spy.

Smith had learned from soldiers assigned to General Martin Perfecto de Cos, who was in command of the Mexican garrison at Béxar, that they were unhappy with their present circumstances, or as it was then said, “disaffected to the cause which they were serving.”  Smith communicated this information to Charles Stewart [2], who was then serving Texas as a de facto Secretary of State.  Stewart promptly passed this valuable information to Austin along with his assurances that any information he might receive from Smith was likely to be indisputable.

After visiting with the influential Richard Royall, who found Smith to be importantly useful to the Texian cause, Smith returned to Austin’s army and participated in the Battle of Concepción [3].  Smith was responsible for the discovery of a Mexican supply train, which was the genesis of the so-called Grass Fight.

During the siege of Béxar, Smith guided Colonel Francis Johnson’s men into town.  Smith was wounded on 8 December while standing atop the Veramendi [4] Palace —almost in the same instant that Ben Milam [5] was killed as he stood outside the home’s main entry.  Despite his wound, Smith remained with the Army.  He was later mentioned in dispatches for his vigilance and meritorious acts, and Texian Governor Henry Smith noted that “his services as a spy cannot be dispensed with.”

After recuperating, Deaf Smith rejoined the fight serving as a messenger for William B. Travis, who considered him the “bravest of the brave in the cause of Texas.”  It was Smith who carried Travis’ letter from the Alamo on 15 February 1836.  On 13 March, Sam Houston sent Smith and Henry Karnes back to Béxar to learn the status of the Alamo garrison.  When Smith returned to Gonzalez to give his report, he had with him Susanna Dickinson and her daughter, Angelina.  Susanna gave her testimony about what happened at the Alamo.

In Gonzalez, Smith was assigned to Colonel Karnes’ Cavalry Squadron, 1st Regiment,  commissioned a captain in charge of training recruits.  He was also active in gathering intelligence and performing special missions before, during, and after the Battle of San Jacinto.

At Harrisburg, Smith captured a Mexican courier with dispatches that revealed the strength and disposition of forces operating under General Antonio López de Santa Anna.  Before the Battle of San Jacinto, Houston ordered Smith to destroy a nearby bridge, which would deny any retreat of Mexican forces.  Having done so, Smith and his raiders rejoined the main body of Houston’s forces to participate in the Battle of San Jacinto.  After the battle, Smith captured General Cos, who had removed himself from the main battle site.  Later, after Santa Anna’s capture, Houston directed Smith to deliver Santa Anna’s order to General Vicente Filisola to withdraw his force from Texas.

Captain Smith continued to serve in the Texas Army under General Thomas Rusk.  On one scouting expedition, having been gone for two weeks, Smith was mistakenly reported as captured by Mexican forces.  Nevertheless, throughout his service to Texas (as with many other Texians), his family, living in Columbia, became destitute.  Realizing the plight of the Smith family, and owing to his invaluable service to Texas, the Congress granted to Smith the seized property of Ramón Músquiz in Béxar.  Smith declined the offer, however, and his family remained in Columbia.

Smith resigned from the Army in late 1836 but accepted a commission to serve as Captain of a company of Texas Rangers.  On 17 February 1837, Deaf Smith’s company defeated a superior force of the Mexican army at Laredo [6].  During this confrontation, two of Smith’s men were wounded, while inflicting heavier losses on the enemy.  Smith also captured forty horses.

Soon after this, Smith resigned from ranger service and returned home.  After relocating his family to Richmond, Texas, on 30 November 1837, Deaf Smith passed away.  He was just fifty years of age.  Sam Houston wrote of him, “My friend Deaf Smith, and my stay in darkest hour, is no more.  A man, more brave, and honest, never lived.  His soul is with God, but his fame and his family must command the care of his country.”

Sources:

  1. Barr, A. Texans in Revolt: The Battle for San Antonio, 1835.  Austin, University of Texas Press, 1990.
  2. Nance, J. M. Attack and Counterattack: The Texas-Mexican Frontier, 1842.Austin, University of Texas Press, 1964
  3. The Writings of Sam Houston,1813-1863, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1938

Endnotes:

[1] Maintained today as the Natchez Trace Parkway.

[2] Businessman, soldier, diplomat, politician, and delegate to the Convention of 1836.

[3] On 28 October 1835, the opening engagement in the Siege of Béxar.

[4] The home of Juan Martin de Veramendi, first mayor of Béxar, Vice Governor of Coahuila y Texas, and father-in-law to James Bowie. The entire Veramendi family died from cholera in 1833, including his daughter, the wife of Jim Bowie, and their two children.

[5] Benjamin Milam (1788-1835) is remembered as a hero of the Texas Revolution.  A frontiersman from Kentucky, Milam establish trade relationships with the Comanche in 1818, fought as a filibuster on the side of Mexico in the War of Independence, served in the Mexican army with the rank of colonel, obtained an empresario grant for colonization of Texas, and later joined the fight for the Republic of Texas.

[6] This incursion by the Mexican army occurred nearly a year after Santa Anna had surrendered his force at San Jacinto, which provided an early indication that Mexico would not abide by the agreement to end hostilities between Texas and Mexico.  Tejanos living in South Texas have never accepted Santa Anna’s defeat, even to this day.

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9 Responses to El Sordo

  1. Brian Alcorn says:

    Wow, I’ve never heard of Deaf Smith, public school really sucked. Even in the 80’s, I don’t want to imagine the great history kids are missing today, and the re-written history they are being spoon fed daily.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      These truly are fascinating tales and none of ithese are available in public schools or universities. Given the ever-growing Hispanic populations in Texas, for example, I can only imagine how the Texas Revolution is being presented to kids in middle school. The educationalists in America have been quite clever in how they’ve arranged the curriculum, though … and good luck finding any American history classes in colleges and universities. They’ve all given way to gender or ethnic studies, and these all conclude with an amazingly similar message. If the plan is to change society and culture, then begin, as the educationalists have, with revising that society’s history. One can see the effects of this in the USA, of course … but also in Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, and most of the European states. As a direct consequence, future generations will have to (painfully) relearn history’s most important lessons.

      Thanks for weighing in …

      Like

  2. Kid says:

    Always a pleasure getting some education I never got in school When I think of what I was presented with in history class, I shudder. And that was between 1958 and 1970.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      America’s education system has been messed up for a very long time, Kid. I don’t know when federal money started pouring in state coffers, but I’d be willing to bet there’s a connection.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Kid says:

      Agree on the money pouring in and speeding up the process. This and the teacher’s union And the parents that were AWOL on the whole subject.

      My 43 yr old stepson tells me his generation of parents did an Exceptionally bad job of parenting.

      Wait til all these little geniuses are running government.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Wait? What about AO-C?

      Like

    • Kid says:

      We may end up with an entire Congress full of AO-C’s and bitches sporting hijabs.

      Like

  3. Andy says:

    Not to make too much light of it, but I don’t know what would be worse: to be known as Erasmus or Deaf. In any case, he was certainly a man of many talents. Interesting and lively story.

    Liked by 1 person

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