James Smith, soldier, planter, and politician, was born in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, on September 10, 1792, the son of David and Bersheba (Harrington) Smith. He volunteered in the War of 1812 and fought in the Creek Indian wars and as a lieutenant under Andrew Jackson at the battle of New Orleans. After the war he returned to South Carolina, where in 1816 he married Hannah Parker. The couple became the parents of eleven children. In 1819 the Smiths moved to Lincoln County, Tennessee, where Smith led a vigilance committee against the Indians. He and Sam Houston were both colonels in the Tennessee militia in 1835. Smith came to Texas in March 1835, settled in Nacogdoches, and established an extensive plantation. On April 9, 1835, Gen. Sam Houston introduced him, by letter, to business associates in New York as Colonel Smith. He wrote from New York to Sam Houston on November 28, 1835, that he was shipping 100 first-rate rifles to Natchitoches, Louisiana, and planning to bring well-equipped troops to Texas from Tennessee to fight against Mexico. Smith's wife and children arrived in Nacogdoches on January 1, 1836, along with his sister and brother-in-law, Andrew Hamilton. Smith arrived with his troops and entered the service of the revolutionary army as captain of cavalry of the Nacogdoches Mounted Volunteers on April 11. After the victory at San Jacinto, he went immediately to army headquarters there and, on May 4, 1836, was appointed inspector general with the rank of colonel by Gen. Thomas J. Rusk. He served with Rusk from headquarters at Victoria until September 5, 1836. On September 8, 1836, he was appointed by Sam Houston to raise companies to build forts and protect settlers west of Nacogdoches. During 1837–38, when relationships with Indians were particularly troublesome, the Smith plantation at Nacogdoches became a refuge for the harried settlers of the surrounding counties.
Smith commanded the second battalion of Rusk's regiments at the battle of the Neches, in which Chief Bowl was slain, in July 1839. On March 7, 1840, he was elected a brigadier general and took command of the Third Brigade on the northwest frontier with Mexico. He remained there until August 19, 1844, when he was ordered by President Sam Houston to command the troops detached to suppress the Regulator-Moderator War in Shelby County. Smith represented Rusk County in the Texas House of Representatives from February 16, 1846, until December 13, 1847. Smith County, organized in April 1846, was named in his honor. The city of Henderson, named for his friend James Pinckney Henderson, was built on land given to Smith for his services to the Republic of Texas. He died on December 25, 1854, and was buried with military honors in a brick vault in Smith Park at Henderson. In an address of 1873 Guy M. Bryan attributed the Lone Star emblem to Smith: "A half century since, overcoats were ornamented with large brass buttons. It happened that the buttons on the coat of General Smith had the impress of a five pointed star. For want of a seal, one of these buttons was cut off and used."