John Smith T.
Washington County, Missouri
Researched & Written By:  Esther. M. Ziock Carroll

John Smith "T" first settled in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri in about 1800 then later moved to Shibboleth, in what is now Washington County. He was a wealthy, well educated and prominent Missouri businessman. Smith "T"'s principal business was mining but he also manufactured guns and his weapons were considered the finest in the country. He was originally from Georgia and after residing in Tennessee he came to Missouri. Having a common name like "Smith" he devised a very ingenious way to differentiate his name from all other Smiths. He added the "T" to his name. "T" stood for Tennessee, indicating that he was John Smith "T" from Tennessee.

John Smith "T" had a notorious reputation as a duelist and carried on a long career of violence and intimidation. It was rumored that during his lifetime he had killed as many as 15 men. He was tall and slender with courteous manners and did not give the impression of being at all dangerous. He was described as "as miled a mannered man as ever put a bullet into the human body." He had a quick temper and when aroused he was considered one of the most dangerous men in the state of Missouri.

John Smith "T" had a mania for firearms and was a skilled weapons-maker and an excellent marksman. Rumor had it that he traveled, ate, and slept with his rifle beside him which he called "Hark from the Tombs,". He carried two pistols in a belt around his body, two pocket pistols in a side coat pocket, and a dirk in his bosom. His house, which resembled an arsenal, was filled with a variety of guns.

Smith "T" kept a number of slaves who were expert at making weapons. His slave gunsmith, Dave, had five mechanics working for him in a shop built expressly for his use. The slave's only duty was to keep the rifles, guns, and pistols in order. A dueling pistol made by one of Smith "T"'s slave gunsmiths is on display at the Ste. Genevieve Museum.

Smith "T" and Moses Austin were the two most powerful men in Washington County and became lifelong adversaries. Will Carr once advised Moses Austin, "Beware of than man! He is the spirit of faction and exists only in the element of discord!" Smith "T", as like Moses Austin, had "supporting gangs of thugs" in his employ.

In 1804 Smith "T" was made a justice of the Ste. Genevieve district (which included Washington County). He was also a Lt. Col. of Militia and Commissioner of Weights and Levies. 1806 was quite a year for Smith "T". He was appointed as one of the Territorial Judges of the court of General Quarter Sessions. He became a business partner of William H. Ashley. And Smith "T" had a showdown with Moses Austin. At one time Smith "T" had demanded that Austin surrender the three pound cannon which Austin had been keeping for several years by Durham Hall in Potosi.  Smith "T" threatened to attack the mansion if Austin did not relinquish it voluntarily. When Austin did not comply Smith "T" carried out his threat on July 4th, 1806.

Also in 1806 Smith "T' attempted to join Aaron Burr's scheme for invading Mexico but upon learning it was illegal he returned to Ste. Genevieve. Upon his return he was presented with a warrant issued against him for treason. Smith "T" drew his pistol, defying lawmen to place him under arrest and he was not arrested. However, for being implicated in the Burr conspiracy, preventing the execution of a warrant and resisting a public officer the acting governor of the Territory of Louisiana, Frederick Bates, removed John Smith "T" from all public offices in 1807. For the next several years Bates interfered in some of Smith "T" 's extensive mineral speculations; Finally, in 1812 an angry Smith "T", on Christmas eve, actually sent a challenge to Gov. Bates for a duel, however Bates declined stating that he was accountable only to the government.

The custom of dueling, which began in Europe then carried over to America, became more frequent after the Revolutionary War. It was usually confined to the aristocracy - men of honor or "gentlemen" as they were usually called. It was a confrontation between two persons with deadly weapons to secure satisfaction for personal grievances. According to the code, the challenged party chose the weapons and the location where the duel would be fought. The formal arrangements were then conducted through their seconds. The seconds were also present at the duel to act as witnesses and see that it was fought fairly. Sometimes they joined in the combat.

Television movies sometimes dramatically portray duels as occurring at sunrise. As the dawn mist still lingers the two duelists start back to back with their pistols held upright in front of them. They walk ten paces with a witness loudly counting out the steps. They then stop, turn to face each other, aim and fire at will with each one hoping they are the better shot.

In the year 1819, John Smith "T" evidently made some sort of derogatory remark about Aaron Burr. Lionel Browne, former sheriff of Washington County and a nephew of Aaron Burr, apparently took offense and challenged Smith "T' to a duel. It was the custom of the time and area that duels were fought on an island in the Mississippi River. This duel took place on an island opposite Herculaneum (Jefferson County) and on September 20th Lionel Browne was shot through the head in the first fire and fell dead on the ground. Smith "T" was unhurt. Lionel Browne is buried in New Diggins Cemetery in Washington County.

In July, 1821 the first person indicted for murder in the Washington County Circuit Court was none other than the notorious John Smith "T". He claimed that Mr. Richard Rose had tried to persuade some of his slaves to leave him. When Smith "T" and Rose happened to meet at Samuel Thompson's stillhouse, four miles northeast of Potosi, Smith "T' shot and killed Richard Rose. John Smith "T" was never punished for the murder.

John Smith T became very upset when his younger brother, Rueben, died in 1828. He was convinced that the slaves of Rueben's father-in-law poisoned Rueben while practicing black magic.

In September of 1830 John Smith "T" is up to more mischief. While drinking at the bar of William McArthur's tavern in Ste. Genevieve he became involved in a quarrel with a stranger named Samuel Ball. Smith shot Ball, killing him instantly. Smith "T" was acquitted of the murder and was not punished.

Despite his turbulent life-style John Smith "T" died a quiet, non-violent death while on a trip to Tennessee.  He contracted a fever in 1836.  His body was returned to Missouri & he is believed to be buried at "The White Cliffs" of Selma on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River in Jefferson County.  There is no tombstone to mark his grave.

 

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An excellent book about the life & times of John Smith "T" is pictured at left.  It is entitled "Frontier Swashbuckler - The Life & Legend of John Smit T"  & authored by Dick Steward.  The book is available from University of Missouri Press.

Even though Smith T was one of the most notorious characters in Missouri history, by the late nineteenth century he had all but disappeared from the annals of western history. Frontier Swashbuckler seeks to rescue both the man and the legend from historical obscurity. At the same time, it provides valuable insights into the economic, political, and social dynamics of early Missouri frontier history.