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Texas Tales by: Mike Cox

The SMITH’s of Texas-

No matter how significant their contribution to mankind may be, people named Smith begin life with a strong chance of being lost to history simply because of their last name. They blend in with all those other Smiths and fade into obscurity.

One example of this unfortunate phenomenon is the Rev. Dr. William P. Smith. He had a significant role in the Texas Revolution, but so far hasn’t rated an entry in the voluminous online Handbook of Texas. With the eventual passing of all who had known him, he might not be remembered at all if it had not been for Leonie Rummel Weyland and Houston Wade, whose “An Early History of Fayette County” was published in 1936.

Their book calls Smith “one of the most remarkable men who ever lived in Fayette County,” influential and highly regarded. He had helped organize Rutersville College, and variously served his community as a Methodist preacher, mayor, postmaster, coroner and notary public. As a pioneer sawbones, he attended the sick and injured and presided at the birth of many new Texans. He also wrote for a publication called the “Texas Monument,” and was a Mason.

Beyond all that, which would be enough accomplishment for most men, his patriotic oratory encouraged the literal and figurative lighting of the fuse that ignited the 1835-1836 rebellion against Mexico. Once the fight began, as a doctor, he treated the wounds of some of those his words may have led to action.

Born in Tennessee on Jan. 15, 1795, he fought in the War of 1812, taking part in the pivotal Battle of New Orleans in late December 1814 and early the following January 1815. Back in Tennessee, in November 1829, he was ordained as a Methodist minister. At some point, he also attended medical school.

In January 1835, at the beginning of the fourth decade of his life, he came to Texas and settled in Fayette County. Nine months later, he helped make history in Gonzales.

On Oct. 1, 1835, a Thursday, Smith sat astride his mule and spoke to the nascent Texas army, a group of 140 or so armed men under the command of Col. John H. Moore, a fellow Fayette County man.

While any good “sky pilot” seeks to lead his flock into more verdant spiritual pastures, as he later remembered his remarks that day, the Rev. Dr. Smith’s words were more political than theological. He was preaching, but not the gospel. First of all, he did not address those assembled as “Brothers or Sisters,” but “Fellow Soldiers.” In fact, in today’s perspective, it was a pro-Second Amendment talk.

The immediate issue was the Mexican military’s insistence that the citizens of Gonzales surrender to them a small cannon the town had for protection from Indians. The Texians, well on their way to the world-wide pro-gun reputation they have today, were not so inclined to hand over their weaponry.

“Give up the cannon,” Smith told the volunteers, “and we may surrender our small arms also, and at once be the vassals [basically, slaves] of the most imbecile and unstable government on earth.” (Remember, he was talking about Mexico.)

He went on, “But will Texas give up the cannon? Will she surrender her small-arms? Every response is NO, NEVER. Never will she submit to a degradation of that character!”

Indeed, the volunteer soldiers had decided to go pro-active and attack the 100 Mexican dragoons under Francisco de Castaneda that had come to Gonzales to claim the cannon. That happened the following day, October 2.

The day began with a heavy fog, but when the haze lifted, the Texans faced the Mexicans across the Guadalupe River near present Cost in Gonzales County. With no shortage of bravado, Moore sent a courier to demand the Mexican surrender. The commander could see no good reason why a contingent of professional soldiers should allow themselves to be taken into custody of “foreigners.” At that, Moore told his men to open fire.

“Immediately,” Rev. Dr. Smith later wrote, “the Mexicans were saluted by a volley of grape [shot] thrown into their camp from the very cannon which had been the bone of contention. Being quickly seconded by a general discharge of small arms, the Mexicans retreated precipitately towards San Antonio…and took their killed and wounded with them…”

The following Sunday, October 4, Rev. Dr. Smith apparently preached a somewhat more traditional sermon.

“Acting in the joint capacity of surgeon and chaplain to the army,” he wrote in the third person, “he [I] preached to a large and promiscuous assembly of officers, soldiers, and citizens.”

In doing so, according to his later recollection, he invoked Isaiah 1:19-20, and told all who had gathered to hear him:

“If ye be willing and obedient ye shall eat the good of the land; but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured by the sword, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”

That sounds more like a warning of the hard days that would follow than a battle cry for war, but however the Tennessean intended it, in the months that followed, many Texas and Mexicans would indeed be “devoured by the sword.”

Rev. Dr. Smith died on May 18, 1870 and is buried in the Fayetteville Cemetery. The state placed a marker near his grave in 1962 noting his service in the Texas army, but it offers no detail on his life.