John E. Smith, a noted pioneer of Seneca, Kan., has been intimately identified with almost every phase of the growth and development of Seneca and Nemaha county, and is one of those energetic descendants of old New England families who, by their talents and character, have contributed so largely to the commercial and industrial growth of Kansas. A halo of interest always centers about the first things in the history of any community. Captain Smith is one of three surviving pioneers who came to Nemaha county in 1857. In 1858 he sawed the lumber for and built the first frame house in Seneca, as well as the second house erected on the town site, the first building erected having been a double log house, built for Finley Lappin. In the fall of 1858, in the "living room" of Mr. Smith's house, Miss Smith, a sister, taught the first school in Seneca.
Captain Smith is a native of the Old Bay state, having been born at Saugus, Mass., Oct. 29, 1829. His parents were Stephen and Angeline (Cummings) Smith, descended from ancestors who were among the first settlers in America and among whose descendants appear the name of the founder of Wellesley College and other of the most distinguished names in American history. Moses Flether, one of the signers of the compact on the Mayflower, was an ancestor, and Miss Grace Fletcher, who became the wife of Daniel Webster, was a descendant of his as were also John and John Quincy Adams, the second and sixth presidents of the United States. Joseph Smith, the great-grandfather of Captain Smith, was born in Haverhill, Mass., Jan. 22, 1740. He was a soldier in the Revolution, under General Reid, and died Jan. 28, 1816. He was married three times. His first marriage was to Hannah Harriman, on May 16, 1762, and by her he had eleven children, of whom Timothy Smith, the grandfather of Captain Smith, was the seventh in order of birth. His wife, Hannah, having passed away May 6, 1782, Joseph Smith chose as his second wife, Mary Sawyer, who bore him five sons: Samuel, Jesse, James, Isaac and John. Capt. John E. Smith was named for this uncle, who was an officer in the Colonial wars. Timothy Smith, the grandfather, was born at Plaistow, N. H., Jan. 10, 1773, and died in Hampstead, N. H., March 13, 1845. Captain Smith attended the funeral. Timothy Smith married Betsey Clark, in May, 1796, and to them were born eight children, of whom Stephen Smith, the father of Capt. John E., was born at Hampstead, N. H., April 19, 1803, and married Angeline Cummings, of Westford, Mass., on Feb. 4, 1827. They moved to Derry, N. H., in 1837, and there Stephen Smith died, June 23, 1859. He was a mechanical genius and invented many useful articles to aid him in his milling operations. His wife, who was born at Westford, Mass., Jan. 18, 1802, died Feb. 10, 1882. Stephen and Angeline (Cummings) Smith were the parents of nine children: Julia A. M.; John E., of this review; George W.; Hannah E.; Stephen F.; Mary A., who married W. G. Williams and was killed in a cyclone at Irving, Kan.; she was the first white woman to climb to the top of Pike's Peak; Joseph W.; Charles W.; and Hattie M., the only surviving daughter, who is now matron of the Old People's Home at Haverhill, Mass.
Early in life John E. Smith accompanied his parents on their removal to Derry, N. H., where he grew to young manhood, receiving a limited education in the common schools. At the age of eighteen he went to Lowell, Mass., and became apprenticed to learn the machinist's trade, which he mastered by the time he was twenty-one. He then went to Salem, Mass., and began working as a machinist with a firm that had the contract to manufacture a lot of machinery for the navy yard at Memphis, Tenn. In 1855 he was placed in charge of several locomotives, with instructions to deliver part of them to the Mississippi Central Railroad Company, at Memphis, Tenn., and the remainder to what is now the Missouri-Pacific railroad, at St. Louis, Mo. After completing his work he returned to New Hampshire and engaged in the saw milling business until 1857, when he was sent to St. Louis to look after a consignment of portable mill machinery shipped to a St. Louis firm from the manufacturer in New Hampshire. It was while on that trip to St. Louis that he met Samuel Lappin, one of the Seneca townsite company men. As Lappin had bought a sawmill outfit for a site he had selected in Seneca and proposed to Mr. Smith that he accompany him to Kansas and set up the engine for him, he accepted, and together they arrived on the present town site of Seneca, on Oct. 14, 1857. He set up the engine and in January, 1858, returned to New Hampshire, with a full determination to make Kansas his future home. In April, 1858, he returned to Seneca and replaced the first sawmill engine with a more powerful one. Still determined to locate there, he bought a half interest in the sawmill and at once began sawing out lumber for a house. In August, 1858, his family, consisting of a wife and two sons, William H. and Frank E., arrived in Seneca, and the family took possession of their new western home. As one of the most essential things needed in a new town is a hotel, Mr. Smith opened the first hostelry in the place and for the next twenty years Smith's Hotel was known to the trans-continental travelers as one of the best between the Missouri river and the Pacific coast. Soon the direct stage route between Atchison and Denver, and then on to San Francisco, was established through Seneca, with a daily service, and the Smith Tavern was hailed by the overland traveler as a haven of rest and hospitality. Mr. Smith almost at once took up as a homestead, the quarter section directly west of the city of Seneca, which he still owns, together with the adjoining quarter section on the west, which his brother, Stephen, had taken up at the same time. There Mr. Smith now has a beautiful country home, built on an eminence commanding a view of the surrounding country, where he and his wife, an estimable Southern lady, are spending a retired life.
When Captain Smith arrived at Seneca he had $20 in his pocket, was the master of a good trade, and being endowed with a rugged constitution and the proverbial Yankee shrewdness to take advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves to make money, he succeeded financially from the start. He operated his hotel at a time when his patrons spent money freely and without complaint at the high rates charged. He was very successful in handling his capital during the Civil war, and the years immediately following, when gold was at a premium as high as $1.63 and took his pay out of many a twenty-dollar gold piece from a Californian returning home, giving him back his change in currency and then turning his twenty-dollar gold piece into $52.60 currency. He donated half the land for the town site of Centralia to secure the location of the railroad depot at that point, and was one of the three commissioners appointed to appraise the value of the right-of-way and to assess the damages when the central branch of the Union Pacific railroad was located through Nemaha county. It was through his efforts and tactics as much or more than that of any other man that in the fifth election to decide the location of a county seat that Seneca secured that honor. Richmond had been designated the county seat by the territorial legislature and in the four previous elections had secured a good vote. The town of Richmond was located two miles and a half north of Seneca and on the regular trail from Atchison, St. Joseph and Leavenworth to Denver. Mr. Smith and others decided that it was necessary to divert the travel from that route to the one passing through Seneca in order to secure any advantage in the coming election for the county seat. They accordingly built five bridges over the creeks and graded up a very fair road. About one mile east of Seneca, at the top of the ridge, the road west forked, the north fork being the regularly traveled road on to Richmond; the south fork, the new road to Seneca. About the middle of April Mr. Smith made a trip to Atchison and while there he spied about a half bushel of millet seed. A thought came to him and he bought it. When he got to Seneca he added about as much more of oats and rye and with this mixture he proceeded to sow it and harrow it in for three-quarters of a mile west from the forks of the road on the Richmond fork. Nature seemed to favor the scheme for it began raining and ere long the mud roads of that day were impassable. Through wagon trains arrived at the forks of the road, but halted for them to settle. Captain Smith decided to bribe the wagon masters to drive west by the way of Seneca, and did so by allowing a quart of whiskey for each man in the train. In the meantime the millet, oats and rye were making rapid growth on the Richmond fork, which indicated to strangers that it was vacated. From that day on the travel passed through Seneca and in the election in August, 1858, it received a majority of the votes of the company and was declared the county seat.
While Mr. Smith had been born and reared a Democrat and was pronounced in his views, yet he was ever loyal to the Union cause, and on May 13, 1864, Governor Carney issued him a commission as assistant adjutant-general, with the rank of captain in the state militia, and it was under that commission that he served on the staff of General Shirley and directed the forwarding of troops and supplies in repelling Price on his raid and in driving out the marauding Indian bands of that day. It was while scouting in search of Indians that he saw countless numbers of wild buffalo and other game. Ever a judicious and energetic business man, Captain Smith has secured a competency during his long and active career, and not only owns some of the most valuable realty in Nemaha county, but also in Kansas City, Mo., and has large holdings in California, near Los Angeles, where he has a ranch with 150 acres of English walnut trees and 10 acres of the seedless raisin grape vineyards. He visits his California ranch annually and also aims to visit his old New Hampshire home once a year. While he has given his attention to agricultural pursuits since 1874, his greatest accomplishment has been as a stockman. His homestead near Seneca is known as the "Hiawatha Ranch."
He has been interested in mining more or less all of his life and has owned and operated valuable phosphate mines, both in Canada and Mexico. He is an expert in determining the value of prospective mine property and frequently has been employed by capitalists to investigate for prospective purchasers of mine property, often receiving very remunerative returns for the information he could give. He at one time was also a director in the Northern Kansas railroad, now the St. Joseph & Grand Island railroad.
Captain Smith married Miss Agnes Williams, of Burlington, Vt., and two sons blessed their union: William H. Smith, born March 20, 1854, is now a prominent farmer and stockraiser on a farm adjoining the old homestead near Seneca; and Frank E. Smith, a graduate of the Columbia Law School of New York City, is now a leading banker of St. Joseph, Mo. Agnes (Williams) Smith died on the homestead near Seneca on July 24, 1894. Captain Smith's second marriage was in 1899, when Mrs. Julia L. Frye, of Memphis, Tenn., became his wife. Mrs. Smith was a Miss Lehneir prior to her first marriage, and was a member of one of the oldest and best families of Memphis. Reared in the atmosphere of Southern delicacy and refinement, she has all the pleasing grace and charm of Southern manners. Her education was acquired under the direction of a private tutor.
Notwithstanding that Captain Smith is past four score, his health is robust and his faculties all seem as perfect as at any time in his life. Remarkably active for one of his years, he keeps in close touch with every phase of his large and varied interests. By energy and splendid business discernment he has accumulated a comfortable fortune, a goodly portion of which he desires to use in endowing an educational institution in Seneca. This very laudable ambition is in emulation of ancestors distinguished for their noble and useful lives, one of whom has been mentioned, Henry Fowle Durant, of Boston, the founder of Wellesley College. The influence upon the growth and development of Nemaha county, which the many and useful activities of Captain Smith have already made, will be thus strengthened and made enduring. Such are the men who have made Kansas.Pages 1433-1437 from volume III, part 2 of Kansas: a cyclopedia of state history, embracing events, institutions, industries, counties, cities, towns, prominent persons, etc. ... / with a supplementary volume devoted to selected personal history and reminiscence. Standard Pub. Co. Chicago : 1912. 3 v. in 4. : front., ill., ports.; 28 cm. Vols. I-II edited by Frank W. Blackmar. Transcribed December 2002 by Carolyn Ward. This volume is identified at the Kansas State Historical Society as microfilm LM195. It is a two-part volume 3.
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