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Biography of Erastus Smith
One of the largest counties in Texas is named for Captain Erastus “Deaf” Smith, a deaf man. Captain Smith was the leader of General Sam Houston’s scouts during the Texas Revolution, the war in which Texas won its freedom from Mexico. The county named in his honor is called Deaf Smith County.
A scout in the days of the Texas Revolution was much like a spy is today. Captain “Deaf” Smith would find out where enemy troops were camped and how many men the enemy had, and he would report to Sam Houston. Even when other people could not see or hear any sign of people or animals, Captain Smith would know where they were. Sometimes he would guide Texas troops through enemy territory without the enemy even knowing they were there.
Erastus Smith was born in New York on April 19, 1787, but went to live in Mississippi when he was 11 years old. He went to Texas for a short time in 1817, and four years later returned to Texas to stay. He wandered over Texas as a surveyor before he volunteered for army service after the start of the Texas Revolution.
Smith married a Mexican woman, and they had four children- three girls and one boy. He spent a lot of time learning the customs, manners, and language of the Mexican settlers. When the Texas Revolution began in 1835, Smith initially refused to take part in it out of respect for his family’s heritage. However, after Mexican troops tried to stop him from going to San Antonio to visit his family, he volunteered for service with the Texans. He was made a captain.
The first major battle of the Texas Revolution occurred in February 1836, at an old fort called the Alamo. Nearly 6,000 Mexican soldiers fought against only 187 Texans. The Texans managed to defend the fort for twelve days, but in the end, all 187 Texans were killed in the battle.
General Houston was very upset by the fall of the Alamo to Mexican General Santa Anna. He sent Captain Smith to get more details. Smith returned bringing with him Mrs. Almeron Dickerson and her 15-month-old baby. Mrs. Dickerson had been the only American woman at the Alamo.
It was the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, that made sure Texas would be free from Mexico. Before the battle, General Santa Anna had received 400 new troops to strengthen his army. However, the troops were tired when they arrived, and Santa Anna ordered a rest period.
Meanwhile, in order to cut off the Mexicans’ escape in case General Houston’s troops were successful in defeating them, Captain Smith suggested that an important bridge that had been used by the enemy should be torn down. General Houston agreed. He told Smith to take a group of men armed with axes and do the job.
Then, Houston and 783 Texans made a surprise attack on the 1,000 resting Mexican soldiers. General Santa Anna tried to escape. Wearing only red slippers and a blue dressing gown, he jumped onto a horse and galloped off in the direction of the bridge. But because the bridge was gone, his escape plans were ruined, and he was captured the next day.
During the Battle of San Jacinto, Smith rode back and forth across the field behind the Texans waving his axe to let them know that the bridge was destroyed. He called to the fighters: “The bridge is down! They can’t get away! Victory or death!”
Erastus Smith was 49 years old at the time of the Battle of San Jacinto. He died about a year and a half later, on November 30, 1837, at the age of 50.
Adapted from: Goodstein, A. & Walworth, M. (1979). “Interesting Deaf Americans.” Washington, DC: Gallaudet University. Used with permission from the Gallaudet University Alumni Association. Revised by Vivion Smith and Ellen Beck.
Gallaudet University, chartered in 1864, is a private university for deaf and hard of hearing students.
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