Smith, Henry (1788–1851)

By: Ralph W. Steen

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: March 24, 2017

Henry Smith, known as the first American governor of Texas, tenth and last child of James and Magdalen (Woods) Smith, was born in Kentucky on May 20, 1788. He was married three times and was the father of nine children. The wives were sisters, Harriet, Elizabeth, and Sarah Gillett. Smith came to Texas in 1827 and settled in what is now Brazoria County. In addition to working his lands, he taught school for a while and later did some surveying. Almost from the day of his arrival in Texas he took an active part in public affairs. On occasion he moved beyond the sphere of politics, as in 1832 when he took part in the battle of Velasco and was severely wounded. There is evidence that at this early date he was thinking in terms of independence for Texas. In 1833 Smith was elected alcalde of the jurisdiction of Brazoria and a few months later was chosen a delegate to the Convention of 1833. In 1834 the governor of Coahuila and Texas appointed Smith political chief of the newly established department of the Brazos. His appointment to this position indicates that the Mexican officials considered him an outstanding citizen. As the country moved toward revolution, Smith became one of the leaders of the independence party. In the summer of 1835 he was chosen to serve on the Columbia committee of safety and correspondence and later in the same year was elected one of the delegates from his district to the Consultation. Smith urged an immediate declaration of independence and was keenly disappointed when that body decided instead to pledge its support to the Mexican federal Constitution of 1824. Smith had a part in preparing the organic law that served as the constitution of the provisional government.

In establishing the provisional government the Consultation made an attempt to satisfy all factions. A majority of the members of the General Council were in favor of the Declaration of November 7, 1835, and were known as members of the peace party. Smith, one of the leaders of the independence, or war, party, was named governor and has come to be known as the first American governor of Texas. Governor Smith did not believe in compromise and did not know the language of diplomacy. Within a short while the government was torn by strife; this condition was due, at least in part, to Smith's assumption that Texas was already a free and independent state. There were numerous other points of disagreement, including some of a personal nature, and in January 1836 the gulf between the two branches of government became so wide that cooperation was no longer possible. Governor Smith attempted to dissolve the council, and the council retaliated by impeaching the governor. In their original form, the articles of impeachment charged the governor with violation of the organic law, with failure to support the Declaration of November 7, with "official perjury," and with slandering and libeling members of the General Council. The Convention of 1836 had no time to devote to such petty squabbles, and the governor was never called upon to answer the charges made against him.

Smith was not a member of the Convention of 1836 and had no place in the ad interim government organized by that body. His political eclipse, however, was of short duration. His friends entered his name as a candidate for the presidency in the election of 1836 and, in spite of the fact that he asked that his name be withdrawn and announced his support of Gen. Sam Houston, he received some votes. He served as secretary of the treasury during the first Houston administration. He was, of course, unable either to balance the budget or to give value to the currency of the republic. His work, however, met with the approval of Houston and of Congress. In the late 1830s, with his partner James Power, Smith promoted development along the Texas Gulf Coast in the area of present Aransas County, where he had purchased land and built a home on Live Oak Peninsula. In 1840 Smith was elected to Congress and served one term in the House of Representatives. He was made chairman of the committee on finance and is credited with introducing several measures of importance. After serving this term in Congress, Smith retired to his home with no intention of leaving it again. He sought no other public office and lived in retirement until 1849, when he succumbed to gold fever and set out for California. He reached California but found no gold. He died in a mining camp in Los Angeles County on March 4, 1851.

William Allen and Sue Hastings Taylor, Aransas: The Life of a Texas Coastal County (Austin: Eakin Press, 1997). John Henry Brown, Life and Times of Henry Smith, the First American Governor of Texas (Dallas: Aldridge, 1887). James T. DeShields, They Sat in High Places: The Presidents and Governors of Texas (San Antonio: Naylor, 1940). Norman Kittrell, Governors Who Have Been and Other Public Men of Texas (Houston: Dealy-Adey-Elgin, 1921). Ross Phares, The Governors of Texas (Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican, 1976). Henry Smith, "Reminiscences of Henry Smith," Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 14 (July 1910). W. Roy Smith, "The Quarrel between Governor Smith and the Council of the Provisional Government of the Republic," Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 5 (April 1902). Ralph W. Steen, "Analysis of the Work of the General Council, Provisional Government of Texas, 1835–1836," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 40–42 (April 1937, January-July 1938).

Time Periods:

  • Texas Revolution
  • Republic of Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ralph W. Steen, “Smith, Henry,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 17, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

March 24, 2017