TEXAS HISTORY MINUTE: Erastus Smith, defender of Texas territory
Erastus "Deaf" Smith was perhaps one of the most unique figures to emerge from the early years of Texas history. In spite of a nearly total hearing loss, “Deaf” Smith still served Texas with courage and distinction. While he may not have been able to hear, Texas listened closely to what he had to say.
Smith was born in Duchess County, New York, about 80 miles north of New York City. His parents, Chilaib and Mary Smith, were farmers. In 1799, they moved to Natchez in the Mississippi Territory in pursuit of the new lands available.
According to reports, Smith lost nearly all of his hearing due to an unspecified illness he suffered as a child. In the years before vaccines and antibiotics, such tragedies were not unusual and any of a number of diseases curable with modern medicine could have been responsible. Nevertheless, his vision and keen sense of discernment remained intact, and Smith remained determined not to let this loss discourage him in any way.
He briefly visited Texas in 1817 before returning to Mississippi. In 1821, he returned to Texas and settled in San Antonio where he married a local widow. Together, they had four children. In 1825, he became one of the first settlers in the community of Gonzales, the first American settlement in Texas west of the Colorado River.
In 1835, when Mexican Gen. Martin Perfecto de Cos briefly seized control of San Antonio, they blocked Smith, who had been away for some time, from seeing his family. At the age of 48, he joined the forces of Stephen F. Austin in an attempt to break the siege and served as a scout. Smith’s careful observation revealed that Cos did not have the resources to survive a long siege. Half-starved, Cos and his army surrendered in December.
Smith stayed in San Antonio to help with the defense of the city while his wife and children fled to nearby Columbia. Mexican forces returned the next February. After Col. William Barret Travis wrote his now-famous appeal to Texans and the world for aid, he sent Smith with the letter to Gen. Sam Houston, commander of all Texas forces. Houston sent Smith back to the Alamo to learn of its fate, only to return with the news of its fall and the slaughter of its defenders.
Houston promoted Smith to the rank of captain and continued to use him for reconnaissance while Texas forces pulled back toward San Jacinto. Smith captured a number of Mexican spies and messengers and as the battle at San Jacinto approached and cut down a wooden bridge with an ax to cut off a possible retreat by Mexican forces. After the battle in April, Smith was entrusted with delivering the orders of the surrendering Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna to all remaining Mexican forces to leave Texas.
Smith returned to military service briefly in 1837 as a Ranger to deflect Mexican forces attempting to enter Texas at Laredo. Shortly afterward, Smith moved to Richmond, just west of modern-day Houston. His time here would not last long. In November, he contracted a sudden illness and died. He was only 50 years old.
The Telegraph and Texas Register newspaper in Houston revered his life upon the news of his death, “This singular individual was one whose name bears with it more respect than sounding titles. Major, Colonel, General, sink into insignificance before the simple name of “Deaf Smith.”” The Republic of Texas later put his image on the Texas $5 bill. In 1876, the state legislature named Deaf Smith County in the Panhandle in memory of the revered hero of the Texas Revolution.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.