Ol’ Deef

Here is the conclusion of our story about Erastus Smith. If you missed the first part, it’s here.

By the time Deaf Smith was trying to reach his home in San Antonio, Texas was in full revolt against Mexican authority. Months earlier, President-General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had started the ruckus by arbitrarily striking down Mexico’s liberal constitution to consolidate his power. In the fall of 1835, he sent General Martin Perfecto de Cos to make Texas shut up about it. Cos worsened the situation with bungling gestures that not only failed to frighten rebels but alienated moderates. The determination of everyone to resist Cos turned into a resolve to run him off. The rapidly unraveling situation surprised Cos like a blow to the head. He hunkered down in San Antonio with a garrison of edgy soldiers few in number and far from home.  

The whole situation surprised Erastus Smith too. That October, he returned from a buffalo hunt up north to discover an army under Stephen Austin outside San Antonio preparing to effect Cos’s ouster. Austin had been one of those prudent moderates urging patience, but a Mexican prison cell had adjusted his attitude. Smith could see how that would happen, but he plainly declared he wanted no part of this argument. He was married to a Mexican, had a thriving family, and owned a sizable tract of land east of town. He was also getting on in years — forty-eight and feeling like it of mornings — and coping with a consumptive cough that sometimes brought up blood. He had lived under the Mexican government for fifteen years and didn’t expect to live much longer, which was a powerful incentive to sit out a fight likely to foreshorten the little time left him.

Stephen Austin understood. He told Smith to go home, and the Texas picket guards silently nodded at “ol’ Deef” as he made his way toward town.  

Deaf Smith
Erastus “Deaf” Smith

The Texas Republic’s first president Sam Houston commissioned Smith’s portrait in the spring of 1837, but it was not painted until the following fall. Jefferson Wright was the artist, and he completed the work just a month before Smith’s death. William E. Henry made this copy from the original about ten years later. 

In an incident as momentous as any of the Texas Revolution, the Mexicans guarding San Antonio would not let El Sordo go home. They insisted that only General Cos could permit him to enter the town, which was probably correct about a man now fearful of Anglos in general and spies in particular. When Smith saw mounted soldiers advancing at a fast trot, he sensed a trap being sprung and skedaddled. The guards opened fire, but Texan pickets covered his flight. Safely back in the Texan camp, Deaf Smith barged into Austin’s tent to announce his neutrality at an end. “The Mexicans,” he explained, “got rascally with me.” 

Smith’s mood could have been nothing more than a fit of anger over a personal insult, for he was neither a firebrand nor a philosopher. Having plainly stated that he was indifferent about hard authority as long as it didn’t touch him, he had made clear that he was inclined to ignore the protests of those it did. And though what happened to him outside San Antonio made his decision easy and final, reducing Erastus Smith’s motive to petulance diminishes our understanding of him as an American uniquely typical of his time. The six-word sentence he spoke to Austin was a torrent of words for this usually closed-mouth fellow, and he wasn’t flippant with the word “rascally.” For him, it defined something ruined beyond redemption.

Added to his fiercely independent streak was a curmudgeonly one stemming from Smith’s childhood when deafness made him pretend to like being alone. It was the way he avoided the embarrassment of conversations always heard as mysterious mumbles. Nobody evidently tried to educate the ineducable boy, and he apparently never learned his letters. That alone makes the honesty and trust crucial in human relations different commodities for such a man. The literate world frames its “trust” and “honesty” in written pledges, signed contracts agreed to by “parties” and upheld by courts. 

The illiterate, however, is uneasy with a world ruled by words he cannot read on paper that he finds flimsy. Contracts are curiosities, but a man’s name is his marker. A “party” is something you go to for fun, and courts always fog the obvious and dwell on the obscure. Much preferred are the binding handshake, the spoken pledge, and the conduct that justifies trust.  

To a man like Erastus Smith, a constitution is just another kind of contract, something for blather and lawsuits, but telling a man where he can and cannot go is an outrage. 

Martin Perfeco Cos
Martin Perfecto de Cos   

Cos was a hapless man, despite the relative good fortune of being Santa Anna’s brother-in-law. It was on his orders that El Sordo was denied entrance to San Antonio in October 1835, an incident that drove Smith into the Texas revolutionary camp. Smith found Cos much changed when he captured him seven months later, two days after the Battle of San Jacinto. The general was walking alone while carrying an ear of corn in one hand and a fine china pitcher in the other. Smith didn’t know who Cos was until he delivered him to Sam Houston’s headquarters. 

The Mexican government doing that was acting “rascally” and didn’t deserve obedience, let alone loyalty. Though such an attitude does not define an ideologue’s ideal revolutionary, it made Deaf Smith into a full-fledged rebel in an instant, and an everlasting one to the end of his numbered days. The depth of his anger helps to explain the folly of his choice, for, by all prudently weighed evidence, Smith had picked the wrong side in a lopsided contest. Early Texas victories briefly masked this reality, especially when the ragtag army was able to expel Cos from San Antonio. Smith fought in these skirmishes and could even laugh off his wound from San Antonio as a badge of resistance. Texan revolutionaries, however, soon found themselves in a great deal of trouble. 

Santa Anna was determined to do more than suppress the rebellion in Texas. He aimed to exterminate those who had kindled it. He conducted a forced march in the winter of 1835-36 to bring forth the full might of Mexican military power. Santa Anna expected his overwhelming numbers to scare sensible men into either begging for mercy or running for their lives. When defiant men did neither, two forlorn outposts suffered a savage fate. Santa Anna killed every soldier at the Alamo in San Antonio and burned their corpses to foul the air and blacken the sky. He had his lieutenants cold-bloodedly murder with mass executions the Texans who opposed him at Goliad. He put thousands of soldiers into a vast maneuver of encirclement and promised relentless destruction and merciless killing. It was too late to beg for mercy. Most Texans ran for their lives. 

Sam Houston came down from the new capital of the newly declared Republic of Texas to assume command of several hundred ragged rebels. He found that the few men able and willing to fight for Texas could be easily distracted and did not take to taking orders. But Houston also found the one in their midst everyone called “Deef,” six years older than himself, strangely calm, quietly angry. Houston liked him immediately. 

More important than his affinity for Smith, Houston discerned that those Mexican guards at San Antonio had given the Texas rebellion an invaluable asset. Nobody in Texas was as knowledgable as Deaf Smith about the terrain Sam Houston knew his army would have to run through and hide in. Texas was enormous, and strangers — including those leading the Mexican Army — stumbling across its uncharted ground, often marveled in exasperation over how everything looked the same. A broad expanse of grassland with scattered clumps of trees could stretch for miles, making references to landmarks pointless. Winding rivers caused a man to lose his bearings, and heavy rains made tame streams into impassable swamps. Fifteen years of ceaseless travel had made every marshy bayou and every formless grassland familiar to Deaf Smith. 

For that reason alone, Smith became more valuable than a mere scout and more trustworthy than any map. Houston knew he couldn’t defeat the Mexican host that had destroyed the Alamo. He had to hide from it, which meant he had to know where it was and how to go where it wasn’t. It has never been clear what his long-range plans were as he commenced a retreat covering miles, crossing rivers, consuming days, then weeks, and often had his men on the verge of mutiny. But through it all, he had a group of scouts who also acted as spies, with Deaf Smith chief among them and the most trusted. He was never insubordinate, never questioned an order, never bristled over a hardship. He sometimes seemed sickly, and his shoulders hunched as he coughed, but he never complained. 

Indeed, he had a formidable will and excellent powers of concentration. He napped in the saddle and moved stealthily during the day and effortlessly at night. He covered ground others avoided. His rapid pace made him slippery, his small frame made him inconspicuous, his diminutive ponies made him fast, and his focus made him almost infallible as an observer. Good scouts dropped to their knees and puzzled out tracks. Smith glanced at mud and counted horses, reckoned when they had passed, and could say if they were carrying men or supplies. He made only one mistake during the long retreat of Texan forces when he saw in fading light a herd of longhorn cattle and mistook their horns for muskets carried by Mexican soldiers. The incident spurred him to broader surveillance. He slept even less, rode more often, and reported more carefully. Houston liked him from the start but came to admire him immensely. He never called him “Deef.” Sam Houston called him “Mr. Smith.”

After Houston had spent six weeks running from Santa Anna, hiding his army, and stalling its hotheads, Mr. Smith captured a Mexican courier with a trove of information that Houston read like a revelation. Santa Anna had recklessly ranged far ahead of his main force, shedding men and equipment. Moreover, the dispatches suggested that Santa Anna was a bit lost. Thanks to Erastus Smith, Houston would remind Santa Anna not only where he was but where everyone else was too.

That happened on April 21, 1836, on the banks of the San Jacinto River. The battle there lasted eighteen minutes and ended with a Texan victory so complete that it gave birth to legends and minted scores of heroes. Deaf Smith was among them, but he was also crucial to the success of this final act of the Texas Revolution. On the morning of the battle, he destroyed the only avenue of escape through the region’s marshy terrain. 

So it was that when the Mexican position at San Jacinto collapsed hours later, Santa Anna fled the battlefield on a swift horse headed for a bridge that was no longer there. Instead of breaking loose to reach the main body of the Mexican Army, a 4000-man force he could have used to quash the Texas rebellion, Santa Anna was captured and brought to Houston’s camp. There he had no choice but to consent to a formal surrender and to order all Mexican forces out of Texas. Because of Erastus Smith, the Battle of San Jacinto secured Texan independence. 

San Jacinto
Santa Anna meets Houston   
In this famous yet somewhat fanciful representation, the captured Mexican general meets his victorious Texan counterpart as he reclines with a nasty ankle wound beneath a sprawling oak. To Houston’s left is Deaf Smith, cupping his ear to hear the conversation

In this famous yet somewhat fanciful representation, the captured Mexican general meets his victorious Texan counterpart as he reclines with a nasty ankle wound beneath a sprawling oak. To Houston’s left is Deaf Smith, cupping his ear to hear the conversation

Ordinary men born to perform for an extraordinary moment are lucky not to survive it. A blaze of glory immediately begins to lose its luster when a legend returns to the workaday world. Texas appreciated Deaf Smith’s deeds, but its rewards for them — a house in San Antonio, a portrait commissioned by President Sam Houston — were pale substitutes for his seven months of high adventure and meaningful service, a time when men hung on his every word and followed him without fear into peril. With independence gained, Smith tried to prolong both the adventure and the service by joining the Texas Rangers, but his moment had passed, and his health was failing.  

He died in November 1837 while working out the details of starting a land agency in Richmond, Texas. He was but fifty-years-old. Except for his indispensable toil in gaining Texan independence, he would have died mostly unnoticed. Even so, “the wonderful Mr. E,” as Houston had called him, had a small funeral with fewer mourners than he merited. Eventually, Texas would name a county for him in the panhandle, and the yarn spinners would gin up tall tales about El Sordo’s remarkable powers and eccentric ways. One of the last was about his request to be buried on his head. He had come into the world feet first, and he wanted to get into Heaven that way too. At least, that is what the tall tale claimed.

An old-timer reminiscing about “ol’ Deef” while downing the last swallows of a beer probably had a better take on the matter. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he would insist that Deef was plum sure in Heaven, whether feet first or not. Saint Peter wouldn’t dare repeat the fool mistake them Mexican guards had made at San Antone.