Events Leading to the Hanging of Bighorn Smith
Bonham Daily Favorite, September 27, 1992
Considering the tumult of the Texas frontier in the first decade of Independence, one might easily suppose that for every moral law-abiding citizen there were at least three persons of questionable background, suspect character, and experiences criminal influence. Not every immigrant from the United States came to Texas for free land or the excitement of being a part of a new emerging nation.
The east Texas no-man's land was rampant with crime ranging from counterfeiting to murder. Arguments were settled with bullet or blade. No questions were asked and no responses were expected.
After the senseless murder of the peaceful Delaware Indians in the spring of 1844, an uneasy calm settled over the Sulphur River valley. After the summary executions of the murderers and the banishment of their cohorts, Fannin County authorities began a county-side protection program to prevent further outbreaks of criminal activity.
The county was divided into eight sections or beats with able bodied men of each beat assigned to patrol duties. Acting under the direction of the Sheriff's office these patrols were responsible enforcing the law in their particular area. Each group was organized along the line of a militia much like the original Fannin Guards with their appointed/elected commanders. One such commander was a leading citizen of the valley named Captain John Nail.
Nail, along with many of his neighbors, had probably been party to the shade-tree court jury who sentenced the murderers of the Delawares. He strongly suspected that one resident of the area was more involved in the criminal activity, perpetrated by that gang, than there was evidence enough to charge him.
The man was Rice Smith. Smith's physical appearance was probably enough to arouse suspicion. Charles Demorse, publisher of The Northern Standard newspaper described him as "a perfect wild man of the words, having no occupation but that of a hunter." Smith was described as being very tall, always dressed in buckskin, and most often called "Bighorn Smith" for the extraordinarily large powder horn he always carried.
Captain Nail may have accused Smith of criminal intent, or at least made his suspicions known, for strong words were exchanged by the two on several occasions. Smith's background was unknown and remains so to this day. He settled in the river valley early 1840.
Having declared himself to be married and head of a family, he received Fannin County Land Grant #78, Third Class for 640 acres. The tract he located was north of present Ladonia near the North Sulphur River. Rex Strickland in his early studies on Fannin County stated that shortly after the hanging of Andy Jones, Smith married the widow. No such marriage record exists in Fannin County possibly because of the disappearance of those earliest records.
Shortly after Smith's death his widow filed probate petitions which mentioned the existence of a son and two daughters, evidently children of the first marriage. A group of men led by Nail confronted Smith and ordered him to leave the area without any delay. Smith refused declaring that he had done nothing to warrant such action. From that point, the animosity between the two men grew and culminated in a chance meeting between the two just south of Bonham near Bois d'Arc Creek.
Nail was returning to his home after attending to business in Bonham. When he saw Smith, he surmised that he intended to harm him.
Nail leaped from his wagon and attempted to wrest Smith's rifle from him. Smith fired one time, the ball penetrating Nail's brain killing him instantly. Smith fled toward Wild Cat Thicket in the southern part of the county.
A boy who had been riding with Nail fled to Bonham with news of the incident. Sheriff Thomas Dagley organized a posse who scoured the area looking for some signs of Smith.
Able to call on his skills as a trapper and hunter, Smith eluded the pursuers. Some weeks later he was spotted by a young man who attempted to arrest him. Smith shot him in the arm and again made his escape. The man died some weeks later from effects of the wound.
Smith then fled t the vicinity of Yeuga Creek, near Austin. He had not been in the area long when he was spotted by Lamar County Sheriff Bourland who affected his arrest and returned him to the custody of Fannin County authorities.
The fall term of the district court had just recessed when Smith was returned. Rather than face several months in jail, until the spring term, Smith petitioned Judge John Mills for a special trail. Mills set the trail date for the first of December.
Smith hired William Sharp and Alfred Arrington for his defense attorneys. Arrington had less than a spotless reputation which led some to believe that he could resort to most any kind of deviousness for his client. Extreme weather conditions prevented assembling a venire in time for the session.
Arrlington immediately left town, a tactic that was viewed as a deliberate and calculated delay on this part.
An inflamed populace became convinced that the attorneys were attempting to prevent immediate prosecution of the case. Under the cover of darkness, Smith was taken from a room in which he had been imprisoned, carried a short distance from the court house to a grove of trees and hanged by an unidentified group of men.
W. A. Carter later reported that among those at the lynching were several men who made it convenient to hunt secluded woods each time grand juries were convened. The final disposition of the case of Bighorn Smith can be found in one terse sentence in the records of the District Clerk. The State of Texas vs. Rice Smith, Monday November 16, 1846. "This case is abated by the death of the defendant."
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas