By Ann Cipperly
When the southwestern region of America was nothing but a wilderness with lush river bottoms, abundant wildlife, deep fertile forests and widely scattered settlements, John Smith T was a rugged explorer and a feared duelist. He was also known as a well-educated man with polished manners. Smith T also left a legacy of a distinctive name, which is mainly carried on by his descendants in Opelika.
John Smith T’s great-grandparents, Nicholas and Sarah Smith, left their home in Essex County, England, just northeast of London in 1695 to begin an adventurous journey to the new world. The Smiths settled in Gloucester County, Va., where Nicholas was a vestryman and church warden, positions held only by men of distinction and ability.
Nicholas’s sons became active in politics. His son, Captain Nicholas Smith, was appointed a justice along with Col. Frances Smith, John’s grandfather, who was also a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses in Essex County, Va. He was an influential man who held various civil posts and owned a large estate.
John was born in 1770, the fifth generation of the colonial family. His parents, Francis and Lucy Wilkinson Smith, moved from Essex County to Wilkes County, Ga. John spent some of his youth in Georgia and then attended the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
John then moved into east Tennessee in 1795 and began numerous land transactions.
To distinguish himself from all of the other John Smiths, he started adding a “T” to the end of his name to become John Smith T, which he used as his signature for all documents, letters and deeds.
A slender, small boned man with blond hair and blue eyes, Smith T began land transactions in East Tennessee in 1795. He was appointed to serve on the commission to lay out the town of Kingston, Tenn. and supervise the construction of a county courthouse.
While in Kingston, Smith T began to look westward and traveled the west side of the Mississippi River in Spanish Upper Louisiana. He purchased large tracts of land in both east Tennessee and territorial Missouri and became a developer of lead and iron mines. He was a frequent traveler between Kingston and the wilds of what would later become Missouri.
John married Nancy Walker, a gentle woman of education and refinement, and they had a daughter named Ann.
In 1798, Smith T arrived in Ste. Genevieve, about 60 miles south of St. Louis on the Mississippi River. The educated gentleman was made a justice, a commissioner of the militia and a judge of the court and proceeded to acquire fame as a statesman and a jurist.
He built a spacious, two-story house with a long porch that ran along the left side of the house at Shibboleth near Potosi, Mo. Towering trees surrounded the house, and the grounds contained a deer park and peacocks.
Smith T continued to purchase large tracts of land and additional mines. He went into salt manufacturing and obtained a license to trade with the Indians along the Mississippi. He frequently traveled on horseback or by boat up the river to his estate and mining sites.
Legends and tall tales surrounded his name and followed him throughout the territory. While he was known for his skill with firearms and numerous duels, John was also respected for his kindness, polish and hospitality at Shibboleth.
Among the legends was that John killed between 10 and 15 men in duels and gunfights.
One of his gunsmiths, Davey, made weapons that were considered the most accurate available on the frontier. The pistols were of a very large bore with 12-inch barrels and commanded high prices.
As Smith T roamed the vast wild countryside, he was never without four pistols, two in his belt and two in his pockets. When an opponent challenged him to a duel, Smith T offered his adversary the use of his best guns.
John and Nancy often entertained distinguished visitors at their estate. Henry M. Brackenridge, an author and lawyer, recorded his visit after being astounded to see the mild-mannered Smith T invade a bear’s den in a cave and come out triumphant.
“Crawling in on his belly, torch in hand, he shot the beast, lying down so that it would rush out over his body,” described Brackenridge. “And he then came out coolly, as if he had done nothing very extraordinary.
“Coolness of manner was his chief characteristic, which was surprising in a man of hot temper, but frontiersmen knew to mind their manners in his presence,” reported Brackenridge. “In his own home with his family, he was mild and gentle in manners.”
When Aaron Burr contemplated invading Mexico in 1806, Smith T along with other militia officers were misled into going to join the expedition, which they assumed to be a legitimate military enterprise.
When they reached New Madrid and heard President Jefferson’s proclamation denouncing Burr and his activities, they returned home to Ste. Genevieve.
Smith T declared he was a loyal American and refused to be arrested. However, because of implications in the Burr conspiracy, Smith T was removed from all of his public offices by a relative of one of his business competitors, while the other officers were not punished.
A nephew of Aaron Burr, Lionel Browne, challenged Smith T to a duel over a remark he made about Burr. Smith T won the duel, which was held on an island in the Mississippi.
As fear of John Smith T spread, a number of stories were recorded. One involved James S. Rollins, who later became president of the University of Missouri.
When the young attorney Rollins was active in the temperance movement, he went to Jefferson City to deliver an address on the evils of drinking. At the hotel, he took a seat by the fireplace to wait for dinner to be served. On the other side of the fire sat Smith T, who was a stranger to Rollins.
Smith T invited the young lawyer to step up to the bar and have a drink with him. When Rollins replied he was not a drinker, the bartender whispered in his ear, “That man is Mr. John Smith T, you had better drink with him or he will most likely shoot you for declining his hospitality.”
The young Rollins stepped up to the bar and had a drink, but Smith T’s hospitality required a number of repeat visits. Soon the teetotaler Rollins was in a sad state. He later said, “I was so drunk that I was totally unable to deliver my temperance lecture!”
While it is said that Smith T was quick to anger, it was known that he was just as quick to act kindly toward those with whom he had quarreled. He was a scholar, outclassing the majority of those with whom he had dealings.
He took an active part in enterprises needed for the development of the county in which he was a pioneer. He managed the lead mines, mill sites, salt springs and other valuable tracts of land. Smith T was a candidate for governor of Missouri in 1832 but was defeated.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on Opelika’s Smith T’s and how they got their name. This story tells about the first Smith T, who never set foot in Alabama, but set the stage for “our” Smith Ts . We found this story quite entertaining. John Smith T was typical of early American heroes, a kind, gentle, productive citizen by choice but you didn’t want to cross him.