Sam Houston was so badly shaken by the Nov. 30, 1837 death of Deaf Smith, the famed San Jacinto scout, that he took a month-long leave of absence from the presidency of the Lone Star Republic.
Even though Erastus Smith was among the earliest of Anglo immigrants to the Mexican province, he was a late convert to the cause of independence. Hoping the climate would cure his ailing lungs, the Mississippian moved to San Antonio in 1821, married a local woman and for the next 14 years quietly raised a family.
But a personal conflict with a Mexican officer in October 1835 propelled the 48 year old spectator into the vanguard of the rebellion. In spite of a severe hearing loss, he combined unmatched tracking skill with clear-headed courage to become the Texans’ secret weapon. Commander-in-chief Houston commended him as “the eyes and ears of the revolution.”
Of Smith’s many wartime feats, none was more important that the destruction of Vince’s Bridge on the morning of Apr. 21, 1836. Had he left the span intact, Mexican reinforcements might have reached San Jacinto in time to change the outcome of the battle. But the quick-thinking scout’s demolition of the bridge ensured victory for the Texans on that historic afternoon.
The exciting exploits of the middle-aged warrior made Smith the favorite of the common man. Ordinary Texans identified with the resourceful private, who always outthought and outfought the enemy.
Smith idolized Sam Houston, obeying his every order and defending him against the criticisms of his post-Alamo retreat. Yet in his official report of the San Jacinto engagement the General neglected to mention the scout’s presence much less his crucial contribution. This cruel slight cut Smith to the quick and would not be the last time Houston treated him unfairly.
With the threat of Mexican retribution hanging over their heads, Texans began picking up the pieces of their lives in the autumn of 1836. Smith was no exception and enjoyed a brief reunion with his wife and children.
But duty soon called dependable Deaf. He formed a ranging company to protect the western perimeter of the beleaguered Republic against Indians, outlaws and the Mexican military.
Meanwhile, Mexico refused to recognize the breakaway government and its territorial claims. Texans insisted the Rio Grande was their legitimate national boundary, while the sore losers drew the line at the Nueces.
President Houston counseled restraint and cautioned against any rash action which might result in renewed hostilities. But a bellicose faction of influential officials advocated a get-tough policy toward Mexico that caused a deeply divisive debate.
A prominent hawk took matters into his own hands. Secretary of war William S. Fisher went behind Houston’s back and gave Deaf Smith marching orders for the Rio Grande. To put teeth in Texas’ boundary claim, Fisher instructed the intrepid scout to occupy Laredo on the Mexicans’ doorstep.
Smith was only doing his duty by accepting the maverick mission. Blind to the hazards of the political infighting plaguing the Republic, he was also oblivious to the controversial consequences.
Smith left San Antonio with 20 men in early March 1837. On this fateful occasion the intelligence specialist had no idea what lay ahead.
On Mar. 16, the small detachment rode headlong into a squad of Mexican cavalry on the edge of Laredo. Though outnumbered two to one, the Texans put ten opponents out of commission while suffering only minor wounds.
Moments after the beaten cavalrymen withdrew, Smith learned Laredo was garrisoned by a large and well-armed force. Fearing certain annihilation, he rapidly retraced his steps back to San Antonio.
There was no heroes’ welcome for the weary riders. Instead they were greeted by sympathy for the Laredo defenders and the vile rumor that old Deaf Smith had turned tail and run.
Sam Houston blew his stack, when informed of the unauthorized adventure. In a rage he wrote, “I am afraid our old friend Deaf Smith has acted badly, if reports are true.” The publication of the presidential temper tantrum subjected Smith to unwarranted ridicule and public humiliation.
Houston evidently planned to apologize but waited too long. Smith’s lungs finally gave out on him six months later, and he died gasping for breath.
“My friend Deaf Smith is no more!” wailed grief-stricken Houston. Texas had to do without a president for the next 30 days, while he mourned the missed opportunity to make amends.