Just as Joseph G. McCoy had planned, the 1870 beef trade that the visionary entrepreneur had invited up from Texas was prospering his stockyard business at Abilene, Kan., which had become the northern terminus of those long cattle drives. Arriving herds were staged in McCoy's feedlots until they were ready to be shipped to Kansas City slaughterhouses. But out-of-state cowboys bringing the bovine to Abilene became very disruptive to the city.
Beginning back in 1867, the hard-bitten drovers from Texas had regularly escorted cantankerous longhorns up the Chisholm Trail to be loaded into east-bound cattle cars on a siding of the Kansas Pacific railroad; and immediately afterward the weary cowpunchers would invigorate the economy of the accommodating Kansas town with a wild splurge of pleasure-seeking. While some merchants enticed the rambunctious visitors to waste their latest earnings on local attractions, the city had gone through two years of terror generated by shooting and shouting ruffians invading from distant localities. Exhibiting a defiant brashness, the alien cowboys openly taunted the administrators of local city government.
Abilene's mayor, Theodore C. Henry, was desperately seeking someone with enough moxie to last as an effective peace officer. The will and determination of successive applicants quickly eroded in the face of adversity manufactured by rascals from the Lone Star State. Tom Smith had traveled eastward from Colorado to apply for the law enforcement job, but Mayor Henry was not sufficiently impressed with this 170 lb. red-headed fellow of Irish descent. Even at a height of nearly 5' 11'', the physically-fit Smith just didn't appear to measure up to a situation which the mayor viewed as a gigantic challenge.
By late May of 1870, Mayor Theodore Henry was still facing the pressure in Abilene. Several local volunteers had found the job of maintaining order was just too much for any of them. A pair of St. Louis policemen were hired; but they immediately gave up the very same day, climbed back onto the east-bound train, and headed for the "Mound City," as their Mississippi River hometown was nicknamed back then. The Abilene mayor decided his last resort was the fellow from Colorado who had seemed very willing to give the job a try. By telegraph, Mayor Henry sent for Tom Smith.
On Saturday, June 4, 1870, Tom "Bear River" Smith was hired as the police chief at Abilene for the monthly wage of $150. In reality, he would be the entire police force. Before coming over from Kit Carson, Colo., to establish his final residence in Kansas, service as a successful marshal up in Wyoming had followed employment laying the new Union Pacific railroad track across broad Nebraska prairies. Smith had picked up his unique nickname after battling a vigilante group during a skirmish in Wyoming. Then he served as lawman briefly in the successive railroad towns along the route. The fearless but unpretentious 40-year-old was alleged to have first worn a badge as a policeman in New York City, way back on the eastern shore of his native state.
Tom Smith immediately enforced a city ordinance prohibiting anyone from carrying guns in Abilene. His first and second challenges to the law came from the insolent "Big Hank" Hawkins and from the terrible and burly "Wyoming Frank." Neither the superior size of his antagonists nor their pistols intimidated Smith. Individually, Tom Smith quickly overpowered, disarmed, and then banished Hank and Frank from the town without having to use any weapon other than his bare hands. These unhesitating acts won admiration from many citizens and genuine respect from other outsiders gathered in Abilene. Smith's performance made nearly everyone happy. The tough New Yorker certainly converted Mayor T. C. Henry into a true believer of his most adequate abilities and amazing courage.
The resolute peace officer had quickly put the unruly climate of Abilene back in proper order, and frequently he elected to extend his jurisdiction to wherever he himself thought fitting. On Tuesday, August 9, following an exceptional triumph on a mission in pursuit of Nebraska rustlers, the dedicated "Bear River" Smith was awarded a retroactive raise in pay up to $225 a month.
Because a good horse cost a substantial sum to replace, the flourishing pastime of horse-stealing was generally considered a very severe offense throughout the Great Plains. When "Buckskin Bill" and his pal named Foster were hanging out in the yet-untamed Abilene back in the rowdy early summer of 1870, the sneaky pair decided to swipe a number of local horses.
"Bear River" Smith sought the aid of the officers and people of St. Joseph, Atchison, and Marysville in his investigation of the crime. The persistent detective found that the trail of the snatched stallions led from Dickinson county northward all the way up to what was then called the "Blackwater State." The Nebraska horse thieves had driven the plundered herd back to their home turf, where Pawnee City buyers happily took a portion of the stolen steeds off "Buckskin Bill's" hands.
On a late-July day in 1870, "Bear River" rode his beautiful saddle horse, the dappled-grey Silverheels, into Pawnee City, determined to recover the looted livestock. But certain residents there were unwilling to surrender the filched animals and brazenly threatened the Kansas lawman, attempting to run him out of the village. They advised him that he "had better get out," or he "soon would have nothing to go out on."
Ironically, when horses from Pawnee county were stolen only six years earlier, out-of-state thieves were quickly pursued into Iowa by county authorities, and hanged from a tree in Pawnee county by local vigilantes. Likely, they may have seemed to be horses of a different color.
But the ploy of intimidation failed to thwart the dauntless Abilene police chief. The indomitable Smith succeeded in recapturing most of the purloined ponies, while being quite unfavorably impressed with the defiant Pawneeans. The brave law enforcement officer from Kansas advised that anyone not keeping a firm grip on his property should skirt widely around Pawnee City.
Foster was found to be already residing under lock and key at Nebraska City for a separate offense, and "Buckskin Bill" was thrown into his hometown jail at Brownville, where his father was a prominent citizen. The reclaimed horses were trotted back home to Kansas. "Bear River" Smith returned to quell the remaining lawlessness in Abilene, disgustedly leaving Pawnee City to contemplate their inconsistent attitude concerning stolen goods.
Shortly afterward, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, Thomas James "Bear River" Smith was cruelly executed by two farmers, Andrew McConnell and Moses Miles, in the countryside 12 miles outside Abilene. While trying to arrest McConnell, who was the larger of the pair and had recently murdered a neighbor, the brave constable suffered a severe gunshot wound. During the ensuing scuffle, Tom Smith was viciously slashed by an axe handled by Miles as the lawman futilely struggled alone against the ill-natured duo. Earlier, Smith had recruited a local Abilene man to assist in the arrest; but for undetermined reasons, the temporary deputy named McDonald provided no help and fled from the scene while the senior officer was being overpowered. After Tom Smith's demise, the nighttime atmosphere of Abilene's south side reverted to its former raucous disorder even through the next year, when James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok assumed the office once held by Smith.
On a beautiful springtime Monday, May 30, 1904, the citizens of Abilene posted an enduring reminder of their gratitude for the exemplary service of the martyred marshal after his body was exhumed for re-burial in a more prominent place in Abilene's cemetery on the north edge of town.
Glowing words of tribute were belatedly stamped upon a plaque attached to the huge gravestone of "Bear River" Smith. A red granite rock weighing about 2 1/4 tons had been brought up from Oklahoma and donated to mark the newer gravesite. The bronze plate was affixed facing skyward upon the very topside next to where the inscription Thomas J. Smith was carved into the unpolished stone. The large marker, which resembles something like a huge misshapen bread loaf, had naturally weathered through a millennium of time into a somewhat unusual and symmetrical roundness.
In early afternoon of that same Memorial Day, just over a third of a century since Smith's brief tenure, respectful citizens of the progressive Kansas town gathered at the Seelye theater and listened to the stirring testimonial speeches of W. S. Stambaugh, an early-day Abilene lawyer, and "wheat king" Theodore Henry, the former Abilene mayor who was presently living in Denver.
Years later, Dwight David Eisenhower held the memory of "Bear River" Smith in much higher esteem than that of "Wild Bill" Hickok. He considered Smith to be a personal hero, describing him in this manner:
"According to the legends of my hometown he was anything but dull. While he almost never carried a pistol he...subdued the lawless by the force of his personality and his tremendous capability as an athlete. One blow of his fist was apparently enough to knock out the ordinary 'tough' cowboy. He was murdered by treachery."
Throughout his own celebrated lifetime, Eisenhower reportedly visited Smith's grave at least once during every return to the town he loved most. During the 8-year period when Ike was the nation's chief executive, he visited the Abilene cemetery on three separate occasions: in 1954, 1958, and 1959. The admired leader who headed the Allied forces to a WWII victory as a great general of the army, and demonstrated integrity as a decent and honest two-term president of his country, took inspiration from reading these simple earnest words:
Marshall of Abilene, 1870,
Died, a Martyr to Duty, Nov. 2, 1870.
A Fearless Hero of Frontier Days
Who in Cowboy Chaos
Established the Supremacy of Law.
A. T. Andreas, History of the State of Nebraska (Chicago:The Western Historical Company, 1882) -p. 1249 "Jay-Hawking" in Pawnee County, NE.
Author unknown, Brought Order to Abilene (Kansas City:Kansas City Star, 1899)
The New International Encyclopedia (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1912), Vol. XVIII, p. 511.
Author unknown, (Abilene:Abilene Daily Reflector, 1931)
H. L. Humphrey, The Death of Tom Smith as told by Walter D. Nichols (1931)
Dwight Eisenhower's undated letter of correspondence to Frederic Fox of Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, concerning a New York Times book review comparing Hickok and Smith.
Nyle H. Miller and Joseph W. Snell, Great Gunfighters of the Kansas Cowtowns, 1867-1886 (Lincoln:Bison Book, University of Nebraska Press, 1967)
Craig Allison, Thomas James Smith, Abilene's Old West Hero (1989)
Thomas J. Smith gravesite, Abilene Cemetery (1994)
Frank Swathel, Abilene Convention and Visitor's Bureau, Abilene, KS (1994, 1995)
David J. Haight, Archivist, Eisenhower Museum, Abilene, KS (1995)
Sandy Wilson, Able Marshal of Abilene (Leesburg, VA:WILD WEST magazine, February 1995 issue.)