Samuel L. S. Smith, early San Angelo physician, son of Isaac Parcell Smith and Abby Halstead (Campbell) Smith was born in New Albany, Indiana, on August 27, 1844. He enrolled in the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1867 and graduated with his M. D. in 1873. While in medical school he spent his summers at the Marine Hospital of Louisville where he also completed his internship. Smith’s entry into the role of post surgeon came in fall 1873 when he learned of an outbreak of cholera in Lancaster, Kentucky, where Company E of the Sixteenth United States Infantry was stationed. Through his connections at the Marine Hospital, Smith offered his services to the medical director of the District of the South, Dr. William J. Sloan, who appointed him to acting assistant post surgeon. Smith remained at Fort Lancaster three years before being posted to Aiken, South Carolina, with the troops sent to quell racial violence during the November 1876 elections. The following February Smith transferred to Camp Cook at Ellijay, Georgia, with two companies of the Second United States Infantry engaged in breaking up illegal distilleries. The army’s withdrawal from the South that spring gave Smith the opportunity to return to civilian life and begin private practice. He moved to Indianapolis in May 1877, and his first foray into private practice proved a low point in his medical career. The absence of licensure regulations glutted the field with poorly-skilled quacks and equally distrustful patients. Smith’s medical training exceeded that of other local physicians, but he struggled to find paying patients. When the opportunity to return to military service came in January 1878, he did not let it escape. Smith left Indianapolis for the Military Department of Texas headquarters in San Antonio and an assignment from its commander Gen. Edward O. C. Ord.
General Ord assigned Smith to Fort Concho, the newly-established headquarters of the Military District of the Pecos, under the command of Col. Benjamin Henry Grierson. The creation of the District of Pecos arose from the pressing need to gain control over the Apaches along the frontier. Upon Smith’s arrival in late March 1878, Grierson appointed him acting assistant surgeon under Post Surgeon Jean Victor DeHanne. Smith’s daily responsibilities included patient visits, writing prescriptions, overseeing treatment, sanitary inspections, and record keeping.
As a contract surgeon Smith held no rank, but he could be assigned to field service if a regular army surgeon was unavailable. While posted at Fort Concho, Smith accompanied several expeditions into the field. In the summer of 1878 he traveled with Company M of the all-black Tenth United States Cavalry into the Guadalupe Mountains to patrol the stagecoach route to El Paso. He joined Company M again in April 1879 on an expedition to Camp Charlotte and stayed through the summer until he had to accompany a soldier needing hospitalization back to Fort Concho. In less than a month he returned to the field with Colonel Grierson as part of a short inspection tour of the Big Bend and Fort Stockton. In October 1879 Smith was sent to Grierson’s Spring to serve as the medical officer for Maj. Napoleon McLaughlin and the Tenth Cavalry. After a year and a half of field service out of Fort Concho, Smith received a two-month leave of absence.
Tensions with the Apaches escalated during the winter of 1879–80, and Grierson was ordered to the Mescalero Reservation near Fort Stanton, New Mexico, to assist Col. Edward Hatch with disarming the Indians. Grierson’s Victorio Campaign left from Fort Concho on March 23, 1880, and included Smith as the medical officer for five companies of the Tenth Cavalry and one detachment from the Twenty-fifth United States Infantry (also composed of African Americans). They joined up with Hatch at the Apache Indian Agency to assist with the disarming of sympathizers encamped along the Tularosa River in New Mexico. Despite the number of troops, a skirmish between the Tenth Cavalry and the Apaches resulted in the death of fourteen Indians and the capture of 250 noncombatants. Smith returned to Fort Concho in May after traveling more than 1,500 miles with Greirson, and his involvement in the campaign ended. The defeat of Victorio in October marked the end of one of the last major Indian campaigns on the Texas frontier.
Smith’s final year of military service involved more contact with American Indians than all of his previous years at Fort Concho. In May 1881 he received orders to travel to the Indian Territory with a battalion under the command of Maj. Anson Mills. The expedition’s purpose focused on preventing Indian uprisings spurred by widespread disgruntlement over the poor quality and quantity of food provided to the reservations. Smith was dispatched to the Washita Indian Agency and Fort Sill over the summer. The experience allowed him the opportunity to interact with and closely observe American Indian culture. He even befriended an elderly Kiowa chief named Walking Bird and recorded in his letters much about the humanity of the people he met. When he returned to Fort Concho in October 1881, he decided to accept an offer to buy out a practice in the adjacent town of San Angela. His military contract ended on November 30, 1881.
The community that the grew up around Fort Concho was called San Angela until 1883 when the U.S. Postal Service compelled the citizens to correct their Spanish and name the town Santa Angela or San Angelo. Smith’s letters describe early San Angelo as a rough frontier town of little virtue and an abundance of vice. However, Smith developed an affinity for the community during his time at Fort Concho and decided to make it his home. The small drugstore Smith purchased from Dr. W.S. Laton had been originally owned by the community’s first civilian physician, Dr. Knoblock. Smith made arrangements with Laton to stay long enough to allow him a trip home to see his friends and family. Smith traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, and married Elizabeth Ray Potter, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, on April 5, 1882. The couple borrowed $1,000 from one of Elizabeth’s relatives to finalize the purchase of the Pioneer Drug Store. A son was born two years later and a daughter in 1887.
Smith played an important role in development of San Angelo and became one of its leading citizens. The Pioneer Drug Store served as a hub for local projects and a gathering place for local leaders. From his drugstore Smith traveled across the region to deliver babies, treat gunshot wounds and rattlesnake bites, set broken bones, tend the sick, and perform emergency operations. His practice was extensive, but not lucrative. Smith’s records suggest that he collected only about 50 percent of the fees owed to him, but he would not turn away a patient unable to pay. When a bill could not be paid, he recorded, “Charge it to the Lord.” Outside of his busy practice Smith served as postmaster, board of education trustee, president of the Citizens National Bank, and a member of the volunteer fire department. He helped raise funds to build San Angelo’s first permanent public school and purchased books and Christmas presents for the children of the poor. As the local medical profession grew, he helped organize the San Angelo District Medical Society (Tom Green County Medical Society) and served as its first president in 1901. At the end of his presidency, his report to the membership included a detailed summary of San Angelo’s public health needs and an appeal for his colleagues to extend the purpose of their professional organization to include advocating reforms to benefit the community’s health and well-being. Smith challenged his colleagues to be useful. Smith was sixty years old in 1904 when he learned that his son Isaac, a medical student at the University of Louisville, had died of pneumonia. His son’s death was recorded in his logbook along with all of his other patients. As a member of the San Angelo Businessmen’s Club he helped raise donations for the construction of the city’s first modern hospital, St. John’s Sanitarium, and served on its medical staff when it opened in 1910. Smith continued to see a small number of patients into his seventies but developed pneumonia during the influenza pandemic of 1918. Although he survived, he never fully recovered his strength and could no longer practice medicine. He died in San Angelo on July 7, 1925, at the age of eighty. He was buried in Fairmount Cemetery in San Angelo.
Throughout his life Smith was a prolific letter-writer and diarist. His keen observations of the world around him and his descriptions of daily life on the Texas frontier provide an invaluable resource to the study of the American West. Smith’s daughter, Elizabeth Smith Williams, recognized the need to preserve her father’s papers and collected as many of his letters as she could recover from friends and family. The S. L. S. Smith papers are archived in the research library of Fort Concho National Historic Landmark and the West Texas Collection at Angelo State University.