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Dr. Willis S. Smith was a regionally significant teacher, sheriff, farmer, doctor, and writer in early southwestern Arkansas.
Willis Smith was born on August 10, 1810, in Todd County, Kentucky, a frontier community. He was the fifth of twelve children of Millington Smith and Barbara Barton Smith. He was the grandson and namesake of Revolutionary War soldier Willis S. Smith, who was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Smith had little opportunity for an education, and he could barely read or write even at twenty years of age. He left his home in Johnson County, Illinois, for Rock Springs Theological Seminary in Rock Springs, Illinois, where he received sufficient education to become a teacher at the school himself.
One of his students was from Okolona in Clark County, Arkansas Territory. Through him, Smith became interested in the region, and he arrived in the Okolona area by horseback on April 14, 1833, and taught at schools in the area. On the first Sunday in May 1833, he taught the first Sunday school class in Clark County. People were reported to be so impressed by young Smith that they came from miles around. At the age of twenty-six, he was elected sheriff, assessor, and collector of Clark County. The county seat was at Greenville (Clark County), near present-day Hollywood (Clark County).
During his years as sheriff, he began to study medicine under a brother who had graduated from medical college. After resigning as sheriff in 1844 to prevent a repetition of his unpleasant duty to apply a public lashing, he began the practice of medicine near Okolona (Clark County). In 1859, Smith graduated from a medical college in Memphis, Tennessee. He became a leader in his profession in southwestern Arkansas and became the first president of the Board of Medical Directors of Clark County.
In 1849, Smith moved to the Rawl’s Hill (sometimes spelled “Rowel’s”) plantation near Whelen Springs (Clark County) and developed a farm that eventually totaled 1,230 acres. His farming was interrupted from 1855 to 1857, when he was appointed probate judge in Montgomery County, although no record exists that he had received legal training.
Smith married Margaret Janes of Lawrence County on August 29, 1833. They had eight children. A son, James, served under Captain Harris Flanagin in the Civil War and died near Neosho, Missouri, in 1861. After the death of his first wife in 1855, Smith married Martha Harris, a widow. They had seven children.
Smith opposed secession and remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War. These years did not embitter him toward those loyal to the Confederacy, however. On November 8, 1883, he wrote to the editors of the Southern Standard at Arkadelphia, “I will pay $20 and $5 more toward assisting the widows, orphans, and men disabled by the late unpleasantness [the war] of my own money and more if necessary; nor will I cast my vote in the future for anyone who will not advocate the pensioning of disabled persons engaged in the late war by special act of the next legislature of Arkansas.”
Smith retired and began farming in 1876. He also wrote an extensive series of political and personal reminiscences that appeared in the Southern Standard and the Gurdon Advocate.
Smith died on May 20, 1891, and is buried in the family cemetery on his old plantation alongside Arkansas Highway 53, about three quarters of a mile northeast of the Little Missouri River bridge.
For additional information:Nelson, Grace Benton. “Builder of an Adopted State.” Arkansas Gazette, Sunday Magazine Section, August 13, 1939, p. 3.
Newberry, Farrar. “Man of Many Services.” Southern Standard, August 22, 1963, pp. 1, 8.
Willis S. Smith File. Riley-Hickingbotham Library Special Collections. Ouachita Baptist University, Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
“Death of Doctor Willis S. Smith.” Southern Standard, May 29, 1891, p. 3.
Robert B. Nelson Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 4/23/2015
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