First in a five-part series
Few people have had a greater influence on Baytown history than Ashbel Smith.
In his review of Elizabeth Silverthorne’s biography Harry P. Hewett described Ashbel as “a man of many interests - the Yankee rebel, the hot-tempered diplomat, the gregarious loner, the idealistic politician, the home loving rover, the bachelor father, the slave-owning humanitarian, and the peace-loving soldier.”
He was born on Aug. 13, 1805 in Hartford, Connecticut and graduated from Yale University at the age of 19 where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa honor society. In 1837 he was persuaded to move to Texas by his friend, Attorney General of the Republic J. Pinckney Henderson for the purpose of becoming Surgeon-in-Chief to the Republic of Texas Army. Ashbel bought a lot at today’s 1103 Congress St. in Houston in August 1837 from the Allen Brothers and set up his medical practice across the street from the county courthouse. He also bought the hospital in Houston at the same time.
Ashbel Smith was active in politics and known to be strong-willed and irascible. President pro tem of the Senate Stephen Everitt (also a doctor) called him a liar while the two were in the Senate chamber. Ashbel responded by beating Everitt with a horsewhip, right there in the chamber! The feud continued and Ashbel finally resigned from his post as Surgeon General but not from politics. Shortly afterward, he traveled to Europe as the ambassador of Texas to England and France, a position he held from 1842 to 1844. The Texas Legation was located on an upper floor of the Berry Bros & Rudd wine merchants building in London. The business is still in operation today and displays a historical marker. Ashbel was recalled in November 1844 to become Secretary of State to President Anson Jones and was immediately sent on a secret mission to persuade the English government to recognize the Republic of Texas and to secure a loan to pay off Texas debt in return for refusing annexation into the United States. England ultimately declined to recognize the Republic of Texas over the issue of slavery, which the Texas government was not willing to abandon.
Sometime before 1840, Ashbel had begun purchasing land in the Baytown area settling first in the area between today’s South Main Street and Goose Creek stream on a plantation he called Headquarters. From 1844 through 1849 elections in the Goose Creek Precinct which stretched from the San Jacinto River to Cedar Bayou were held at his house at Headquarters with at various times John Shea, John L. Bauer, R.P. Boyce, and Harvey Whiting serving as Election Judge, or Presiding Officer as they were called. He served several terms in the Texas State Legislature and retired from elected office for the first time in 1857. That year the Austin Southern Intelligencer wrote “We have always regretted that our friend Ashbel ever showed any disposition to enter the beggardly elements of public life. As a savant and an independent citizen, he had won a reputation broad as the United States. As a scholar and writer, he had few peers. In the political struggles he is destined to continual defeats by the smallest intellectual specimens. Be advised by a friend, Doctor. Knowledge is power, office hunting and office holding is galling slavery to a bold thinking mind. Stand aloof, Doctor; and leave office to those who want factitious greatness.”
When Ashbel Smith ran for governor of Texas in 1865 he lost but he did go on the serve two more terms in the state legislature.
Although not an engineer by training, Ashbel Smith had a keen understanding of how to plan and execute civil projects. He was a vocal proponent of dredging Clopper’s Bar, an obstruction at the mouth of Cedar Bayou which prevented all but shallow draft boats from entering the stream. This was important because it opened up the bayou for agricultural and brick products which would be a mainstay of the area in the forthcoming years.
He was appointed to lead several county road and bridge building projects over the years and in 1866 he was appointed to lay out all public roads in east Harris County, including the road from Lynchburg to Goose Creek (today’s Bayway Drive and Missouri Street), and continuing on to Ilfrey’s Store at Cedar Bayou. His last project built the road from Durain’s Ferry to Cedar Bayou in 1878 when he was 73 years old. A couple of these roads have since been abandoned, but most have since been improved and paved over and we still use them today.
Next week, Ashbel Smith the physician
Baytown resident Chuck Chandler is retired from the Exxon Refinery and serves as Vice President of Baytown Historical Preservation Association. Contact him at email@example.com