People of the Texas Revolution: Deaf Smith
By: Amelia White, Alamo Digital Marketing & Content Manger
Viewers of the “Texas Rising” miniseries event that aired on the History Channel last summer were introduced to Deaf (usually pronounced Deef) Smith, an early Texas pioneer who played an important role in the Texas Revolution. As is often the case, Hollywood’s version of the events and people of the Texas Revolution was skewed in favor of storytelling. In Smith’s case, however, there was little need for embellishment.
Born April 19, 1787 to Chilaib and Mary Smith, Erastus lived in Duchess County, New York until about age eleven when the family migrated to Port Gibson, Mississippi. An illness during his childhood resulted in the partial loss of his hearing, which earned him the nickname Deaf. Deaf first traveled to Texas in 1817, but did not settle permanently in Texas until 1821.
As was common for single immigrant males, Erastus married a Tejana, Guadalupe Ruiz Duran. The two married in 1822. Guadalupe was a widow with three children from her first marriage. She and Erastus had four children of their own, three of whom survived to adulthood; one child died in 1833 during the cholera epidemic that spread throughout much of Mexico. Although Deaf worked as a surveyor for Green DeWitt’s colony, the Smith family resided primarily in San Antonio de Bexar near Mission San José.
Deaf Smith was well respected by both the Tejano and Anglo communities in Texas. At the onset of the Texas Revolution he was resolved to remain neutral. This resolve was tested during the Siege of Bexar when, while attempting to return to his home, Mexican dragoons sought to take him captive. One even struck Smith with a saber, knocking off his hat and wounding him. Affronted by this treatment, Smith joined the Texas army and participated in the remainder of the siege of Bexar and the subsequent battle. He was wounded during the battle in the same attack that killed Texas commander Benjamin Milam.
After removing his family to the eastern part of the state, Smith remained primarily in San Antonio until February 15, 1836, when he left the city as a courier for Alamo commander, William B. Travis. Smith was in Gonzales in March 1836, with other men assembling to march on San Antonio and the besieged Alamo, when Sam Houston dispatched Deaf to travel to San Antonio to find out if the old mission still stood. It was Deaf who encountered Susanna Dickinson, Angelina Dickinson and Joe and led them to Houston so they could deliver the news of the fall of the Alamo.
Throughout much of his service in the Texas army, Deaf served as a scout, a job that he was well suited for due to his familiarity with the terrain and his command of the Spanish language. On April 18th, just days before the Battle of San Jacinto, Smith and Henry Karnes intercepted a Mexican courier with dispatches for Santa Anna. According to an account of the campaign given by James Washington Winters, these dispatches contained valuable information on the route of the Mexican army.
Smith is arguably best known for his role in destroying Vince’s Bridge prior to the start of the April 21st battle. This bridge, situated across Vince’s Bayou, was of strategic importance as its destruction greatly hindered the Mexican army’s ability to retreat from the field of battle, as well as to supply reinforcements. Following the battle, Smith was dispatched by Houston with orders from Santa Anna to General Vicente Filisola, wherein Santa Anna ordered the Mexican army to evacuate Texas. During this time, Smith happened upon James Wells, uncle of Dilue Rose Harris, and accompanied him to a camp made by the Rose family on their return trip during the Runaway Scrape. In her reminiscences, Dilue described Deaf Smith saying “He was dark and looked like a Mexican. He was dressed in buckskin and said that he would be ashamed to be seen in a white shirt.”
Following the revolution Smith and his family lived in Columbia, Texas before ultimately settling in present day Fort Bend county. Smith commanded a company of Texas Rangers during this time. He died on November 30, 1837 and was buried in Richmond, Texas outside of Houston. Although his name is not as well known as that of James Bowie or David Crockett, there is no denying the impact Erastus “Deaf” Smith had on Texas history. His services as a scout and spy during the revolution were invaluable to the success of the Texas army, a point reiterated by Sam Houston, who upon hearing of Smith’s death proclaimed, “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.”
Thomas W. Cutrer, “SMITH, ERASTUS [DEAF],” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fsm10), accessed July 21, 2015. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on June 1, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Stephen Hardin. Texian Iliad: A Military History of the Texas Revolution. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
Dilue Rose Harris. “The Reminiscences of Mrs. Dilue Harris. II.” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association. Vol. 4, №3 (Jan 1901), pp. 155–189.
James Washington Winters. “An Account of the Battle of San Jacinto.” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association. Vol. 6, №2 (Oct. 1902), pp. 139–144.
A version of this article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of “The Alamo Messenger,” the Alamo’s monthly newsletter. Subscribe to “The Alamo Messenger”