Thursday, September 6, 2018

Preacher Henry Weston Smith

Henry Weston Smith was born on January 10th, 1827, in the town of Ellington, Connecticut. He was mysteriously murdered on August 20th, 1876, between Deadwood and Crook City, South Dakota. He was 49 years old when he was killed. He's buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota.

Who was he? Well, I can't find a lot of what he did for work before he married Ruth Yeomans at the age of 20 in 1847. Sadly, his wife and infant son died a year later.

I can't find what he did for a living, but he did become a Methodist preacher when he was 23 years old while still in Connecticut. 

While still in Connecticut, he married his second wife Lydia Ann Joselyn on February 23rd, 1858. They had four children together. About three years later, he moved his family to Massachusetts. Then, a year after the Civil War broke out, in 1862, he joined the Massachusetts 52nd Infantry. He spent the rest of the Civil War, a soldier. Some say that's where he learned whatever he knew about medicine. A skill that he used later.

After his enlistment was over with, he became a doctor. He returned home to Massachusetts for almost 10 year before leaving his wife and children and heading to the goldfields of South Dakota. He is known to have walked beside a wagon train from Cheyenne, Wyoming into the Black Hills to become the first preacher on any denomination to enter the Black Hills.

On May 7th, 1876, Smith is known to have held the first church services ever had in Custer City, South Dakota. His small congregation was made up of 29 men and 5 women. He was there only a week when he again walked beside a wagon train. This time he headed for Deadwood. 

While prospecting for gold, he is said to have helped take care of those with illnesses all while ministering the Bible to miners. When not prospecting to make ends meet, and trying to send money home to support his wife and children, he could be found on the streets of Deadwood preaching in front of one of the stores and the saloons.

There are tales of him going into saloon and gambling halls, but in reality, it was in front of the saloons that he was known to preach against the evils of alcohol, sinful women, and gambling. It's said the prostitutes used to jeer at him from upstairs windows, and saloon and casino owners would have their bouncers run him off to preach somewhere else. And yes, he would move on and do just that.
After preaching a sermon on August 20, 1876, he placed a note on his cabin door and left. The note read, "Gone to Crook City to preach, and if God is willing, will be back at three o'clock." 

"Preacher Smith" had many friends in that area. His friends were concerned about Smith walking alone and unarmed to Crook City. They tried to warn him, even trying to persuade him to arm himself for his own safety. The area was known to be ripe with bandits hostile to folks traveling alone. And of course, Indians were not happy with all of those flooding into the Black Hill. 

He is remembered for telling them, "The Bible is my protection. It has never failed me yet." 

His murdered body was discovered alongside the road to Crook City. While some sources say he was robbed, others say he wasn't robbed. And of course, there are those who immediately blamed his murder on Indians. Even his 1914 monument attributes his death to Indians when no one knew for certain that it was Indians. Besides, the Indians were always an easy target when looking for someone to blame for crimes being committed in the Black Hills.

As we all know, Indians were used as scapegoats for a lot of things that took place back in the day. And while there may have been those who believed that the Indians did kill him, there were more folks there who simply found that story to hard to swallow for a number of reasons. One is the way he was killed.

Smith was shot at very close range with a single bullet to the heart. It was as if whoever killed him simply walked up to him and shot him. It was too clean, and not the way Indian warriors killed back in the day. They were known to mutilate their victims as a warning. Smith's body was not mutilated at all.

There was talk at the time that his killer was some thief who didn't care if he were a preacher or not. Since there was a lot of scum in Deadwood who preyed on others, it wouldn't be that hard for folks to believe that someone killed him for whatever they could find on him -- no matter how little.  

A great deal of talk started to go around saying that Deadwood's saloon owners didn't like his preaching right outside their establishments and had him killed to get rid of him. Some say those saloon owners, and those running the gambling in town may have hired someone to kill him so that Smith would stop hurting their business. It wouldn't have been too outlandish to think that a saloon-owner, the owner of a gambling hall, or even some madam of a whorehouse, would have wanted to kill an effective preacher like Smith. A preacher who they saw as cutting into their income. 

Sheriff Seth Bullock described Preacher Smith’s death in an August 21st, 1876, letter to Reverend J. S. Chadwick:

"It becomes my painful duty to inform you that Rev. H. Weston Smith was killed by the Indians yesterday (Sunday) a short distance from this place. He had an appointment to preach here in the afternoon, and was on his way from Crook City when a band of Indians overtook him and shot him. His body was not mutilated in any way, and was found in the road a short time after the hellish deed had been done. His death was instantaneous as he was shot through the heart. His funeral occurred today from his home in this town. Everything was done by kind hands, that was possible under the circumstances, and a Christian burial given him. I was not personally acquainted with Mr. Smith, but knew him by reputation, as an earnest worker in his Master’s Vineyard. He has preached here on several occasions, and was the only minister in the Hills. He died in the harness and his memory will be always with those who knew him. A letter from you which I found in his home causes me to convey this sad intelligence to you."

Henry Weston Smith's body was returned to Deadwood to be buried there. A member of Smith’s congregation, C. E. Hawley, conducted the service in the absence of another clergy. While Smith was initially buried in Deadwood's old graveyard, like Wild Bill Hickok, he was later relocated to the Mount Mariah Cemetery.

In 1914, a group of citizens raised money for a monument to be erected in his honor. The monument was dedicated and placed on the very site where he was found murdered. Yes, right there alongside that road on the way to Crook City from Deadwood.

In either 1994 or '95, a South Dakota state highway improvement project needed to have Smith's monument moved. When it was moved, the workers found a copper time capsule that had been buried under it in 1914. When opened, researchers found period artifacts along with a newspaper. After examining the items, they were taken to a museum for safekeeping. Researchers then made another time capsule with a few contemporary items from the 1990s and reburied it under the new monument. That monument is located three miles south of Deadwood on Highway 85.

The new monument was set into place to honor Smith on August 20th, 1995, which was exactly 119 years from the day he was found dead. During the dedication Smith's new monument, someone found and read the actual sermon that Smith had planned to preach in Crook City on the day that he was murdered. Some folks there said it was a sermon that was simply postponed until later.

Henry Weston Smith was a Civil War Union soldier and a miner in the Black Hill of South Dakota. But most of all, Smith was a preacher pretty much all his adult life. And though his death was attributed to Indians, who really killed him and why is truly a mystery that remains unsolved. We may never know who really killed him. What we do know is that even though he was in the Black Hills only a short while during its toughest days, he did make his presence known. All for the good.

Tom Correa


  1. Well, it wasn't Al Swearingen who did it, or he would have had the Chink feed him to his pigs!

  2. Interesting story. Sad he never got back to his family.

  3. I always thought that a drunken cowboy murdered Henry Weston Smith. The cowboy must have gotten sick and tired of Smith preaching and warned him that if he kept on, he'd be sorry. He beat Smith to Crook City by 10 minutes and ordered a couple of Native Americans to take cover behind some rocks. The cowboy was probably friends with these Indians and so he knew that they do the job. It is said that Smith had taken a pistol with him but that it was empty at the time. Smith had concealed the pistol in his Bible in case he had to use it. But if he was indeed unarmed, then why did some newspapers later say that Smith had taken an empty pistol with him before he left? And what tribe of Indians actually killed Smith if it was actually Indians who killed him at all? I think Smith could have died in the three following ways. 1.He could have been killed and robbed by an outlaw. 2. The drunken cowboy I mentioned early DID have a problem with his sermon and shot him dead. Or 3. Smith was not murdered at all but instead took his own life. Remember, for now, we are saying that he was mysteriously murdered. So we believe that someone did indeed kill Smith. But whoever it was might have had a reason. Smith didn't have many enemies. At least none that he knew of. And anybody could have killed Smith. Or he could have killed himself. Who knows/ This "mysterious" murder remains unsolved and today most people in Deadwood either don't believe he was murdered or they do but they don't know or they won't say. Henry Weston Smith was a true Old West character. But one question still remains. Was he murdered? And if so, was it Indians? For now, we are saying that he was mysteriously murdered. But that might change should new evidence come along. But either way, rest in peace Reverend Smith. We hardly knew ya.

  4. I wanna create a TV show in the near future called, "Law And Order:Redemption" that takes place in the Old West. My character's name will be Edgar Browning and he will be a bounty hunter. I hope to have Dick Wolf's permission to do so. Wish me luck.


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