The celebration of Columbia’s bicentennial seems to be off to a slow start. Maybe that’s because we’re trying to commemorate the wrong birthday. Possibly even the wrong name.
Let me try to explain.
The Daughters of the American Revolution erected in 1913 a modest stone marker on Broadway just a block west of the public library that recalls two seldom-noticed pieces of our community’s history.
The top line reads “Boone’s Lick Road.” That’s what Broadway was before it was Broadway. Boone’s Lick — yes, it’s the same family name the library bears — was a salt lick, or spring, a few miles west in Howard County. In the first decades of the 19th century, the road led travelers, including Daniel Boone’s sons, from St. Charles to the source of an essential condiment and preservative.
The marker’s second line reads “Smithton 1818.” That’s what Columbia was before it was Columbia. That’s when our town was really founded.
The name was changed in 1821 when the two dozen or so settlers moved their village from the wooded ridge near what is now Garth and Walnut streets down to the Flat Branch, where water was more easily accessible.
I’m not sure anyone knows why the name changed. Perhaps Smith was thought too common a name, though in fact there are a lot more towns, and even some institutions of higher learning, carrying this derivative of the name Christopher Columbus than there are places named for Thomas Adams Smith.
And who, you may be asking, was that guy? Well, he was a retired brigadier general in the U.S. Army, the federal officer responsible for selling off the unclaimed land in this segment of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase — and my mother’s great-grandfather.
No, he never lived here. But then, neither did Columbus. At least, the General, as we usually call him in the family, passed through on Boone’s Lick Road on his way to his headquarters in Franklin, which was on the Missouri River and a much bigger deal in those days than Smithton/Columbia.
A few years later, the river ran wild and washed away most of Franklin. It was partly rebuilt and survives, barely, as New Franklin. The Flat Branch still rises in wet weather, but it does no real damage.
We all know all about old Chris, but I suspect that unless you’re a descendant, Gen. Smith is a stranger.
So let me tell you. He was born to plantation- and slave-owning parents in Virginia and entered the Army, probably at least in part to escape the shadow of a notorious older brother, as a teenager. The highlight of his military career came early, when he was the courier who carried word of Aaron Burr’s infamy from Gen. James Wilkinson to then-President Thomas Jefferson.
Later, he commanded the Army’s Rifle Regiment on the border with Spanish-owned Florida in the minor “Patriots’ War” and in upstate New York in the War of 1812.
But what the general really wanted was to follow his father into farming. So after Napoleon sold an ill-defined expanse of land taken from the decaying Spanish empire, and Jefferson sought to encourage settlement by land-hungry emigrants, T.A. Smith took early retirement from the Army and finagled appointment as land agent for what became known as Little Dixie.
He kept that position long enough to locate and purchase for a bargain price several thousand acres of prime prairie in what is now Saline County. Yes, there were salt licks there, too. The creek that flows through what was Smith’s land is named Salt Fork.
Leaving his name on Smithton and, more permanently, Fort Smith, Arkansas, he moved his wife and children, Mama’s grandfather and five siblings, and the slaves west to the farm he named “Experiment.” Family lore has it that the experiment was whether a soldier could make a living off the land.
That older brother I mentioned? I won’t bore you with details, but the biography published in 2000 by the University of Missouri Press was titled “Frontier Swashbuckler.” He was a land speculator and a duelist, among other things.
Perhaps if the general had been more of a swashbuckler, we’d be celebrating instead this year the 203rd birthday of Smithton. I’ve bought a fifth of Dogmaster’s finest in case anyone wants to offer a toast.
George Kennedy is professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.