The Legend Of "Bear River" Smith
Thomas "Bear River” Smith
Thomas "Bear River” Smith became marshal of the wild frontier cattle town of Abilene in June, 1870. Smith had previously worked as a lawman in New York City, Bear River, Wyoming and Kit Carson, Colorado, before arriving in Abilene.
He was born in New York City on June 12, 1840. Prior to joining that city’s police force he had become quite a proficient middle weight boxer. Smith resigned from the police force after being involved in an accidental death of a 14 year old boy. His next job found him working for the Union Pacific Railroad.
Working on the railroad he arrived in Bear City and became a Teamster. His boxing skills soon earned him a reputation as a hard case and earned him a job as the city marshal.
Troubles for the newly appointed marshal followed quickly thereafter. A mob of vigilantes hung a railroad worker who had been accused of murder.
It wasn’t long before friends of the accused gathered in protest of the vigilantes’ actions. The railroad workers torched the town setting off a frenzied gun battle.
Martial Law Imposed
Smith stood both sides off, until troops from Fort Bridger arrived and declared martial law. Martial law remained in effect until the railroad track layers had moved on. It was here Smith acquired his unique nickname.
Eventually Smith made his way to Abilene. Abilene's mayor, Theodore C. Henry, was desperately seeking someone tough enough to make an effective peace officer. However, the mayor wasn’t impressed with the 170 lb, red-headed fellow of Irish descent. Smith stood nearly 5' 11'' and was obviously physically fit. But he just didn't appear to be capable of handling the situation.
Several local volunteers found the job too difficult as did a pair of St. Louis policemen hired. However, they immediately tucked their tails between their legs and fled back to St. Louis. As a last resort the unimposing fellow from Colorado was hired as the police chief. Actually he would be the entire police force.
One of Smith’s first official acts was to ban all weapons within the city limit without a permit. Virtually everyone cooperated with the new law and turned in their weapons. However, two rowdies had to be subdued before they surrendered their weapons.
He gained a reputation for using his fists instead of a gun whenever possible. The ban on guns was an unpopular one and there were two assassination attempts on his life.
Horse-stealing was considered a severe offense throughout the Great Plains at that time because they were worth a tidy sum. Therefore, when "Buckskin Bill" and a man called Foster decided to rustle some local horses Smith immediately set out in hot pursuit to arrest them.
The Nebraska horse thieves sold some of them to Pawnee City buyers who were more than happy to take the stolen horses off their hands.
Smith rode into Pawnee City, to retrieve the stolen livestock. The Pawnee City residents didn’t take kindly to that idea. They threatened the Kansas lawman and attempted to run him out of town. However, Smith was undaunted by their blustering threats and retrieved most of the horses.
On November 2, 1870, Smith went to a small settlement near Abilene to arrest a man charged with murdering a local farmer. However, when he arrived he informed the suspect he had a warrant for his arrest and was shot in the chest. Smith then shot his assailant before falling to the ground. Another man, also linked to the original crime, struck Smith with his gun, took an axe and nearly decapitated him. Thomas "Bear River” Smith was interred in the Abilene Cemetery.
Without Marshal Smith the town resorted to its’ former state of a lawless cow town. His replacement in April, 1871 was none other than James Butler “Wild Bill Hickok.” Although Hickok cut a more dashing figure than Smith, it was said Smith did a lot better job.
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