The earliest Native Americans inhabiting what is now Smith County, Texas, were Caddo (or Tejas) Indians. The Spanish explorers knew these Indians as Tejas, for whom they named the present Texas. Although Texas was a province of Spain until Mexico 1821, few European settlers inhabited the area to become Smith County until after the Texas Revolution.
Surprisingly, the first immigrants into the Smith County region from across the Mississippi River were Cherokee and Kickapoo Indians moving in front of the westward movement of European settlement from the East. Their leader, Chief Bowles, cooperated with the Mexican government and secured a land grant like the other settlers arriving from the United States. Sam Houston negotiated a treaty with Chief Bowles for the infant Republic of Texas during the Texas War for Independence. This treaty was never ratified by the Republic, and the second president of Texas, Mirabeau B. Lamar, sent troops into East Texas to expel those Indians who refused to leave voluntarily in 1839. The campaign concluded with two battles, the death of Bowles, and the retreat of the Indians in East Texas to north of the Red River into what is now Oklahoma.
County Established. The forced removal of the Indians from East Texas in 1839 opened the area for Anglo settlement. At first, a few entrepreneurs moved in to take over the numerous salines, or salt works, formerly operated by the Indians. Later, settlers began clearing farms during the last years of the Republic of Texas, when the entire area comprised part of Nacogdoches County. Smith County was one of several new counties formed by the new Texas State Legislature in April of 1846. The new county was named for General James Smith, who came to Texas in 1816, fought for Texas' independence and served during the Indian Wars. Five commissioners- John Dewberry, William B. Duncan, James C. Hill, John Loller and Elisha Lott- were appointed by the Texas Legislature to select the boundaries of Smith County. The 939 square miles enclosed within the boundaries they selected have not changed to this day.
The Texas State Legislature required county seats be located within three miles of the geographical center of the new counties. The commissioners selected three hundred acres on a hilltop near the center of Smith County as the new county seat, to be named after President John Tyler. President Tyler was honored for his support for the annexation of Texas into the Union in 1845.
Agriculture remained dominant in Smith County throughout the nineteenth century, with cotton and other products reaching markets by flatboat down the Sabine River from Belzora or by ox-wagon to Jefferson and Shreveport. The first brick stores in Tyler were five two story buildings on the North side of the square built by Major A. Ferguson. Light frontier industries were established, including several flour and grist mills, and shops for making wagons, spinning wheels, cabinets, and guns.
Following the Civil War, Smith County began another period of rapid agricultural growth that continued through the turn of the century. Though hundreds of Smith County soldiers lost their lives of bullets or disease during the war, the conflict brought economic development without the wholesale destruction common throughout much of the South. Railroads arrived in Smith County in the 1870's, including the "Tyler Tap Railroad" which granted access to the Texas and Pacific Railway in 1877.
The agricultural boom in Smith County included the introduction of the rose-growing industry. Through much of the Twentieth Century, approximately half of all the rose bushes purchased in the country had been planted within fifty miles of Tyler. The rose grower's carriages and floats in local parades developed into the Texas Rose Festival in 1933, a tradition carried annually, excepting the World War II years. A civic rose garden and museum are open to the public year-round.
Smith County provided several military units to serve in the Spanish American War and World War I. Both conflicts ended relatively quickly before many new industries were established locally to support the war effort. The Tyler area, like much of East Texas, continued to prosper throughout the 1920's.
The Depression and World War II. There was literally no Great Depression in Smith County in the 1930's as a result of the discovery of the great East Texas Oil Field in 1930. Thousands of workers and developers set up drilling rigs and work camps in the area. The population of Tyler and Smith County swelled as jobs became available in oil and other service industries. The construction of the "Big Inch" pipeline from East Texas to the East Coast in World War II constituted a major contribution to the Allied war effort.
The postwar years brought renewed prosperity to Smith County. In addition to the expanding oil industry, many other businesses opened plants in Smith County.
David Scott Stieghan
Graduate Assistant, Center for East Texas Studies - SFASU