Wild West History Association Dedicated to the history and lore of the American West
Wild West History Association Dedicated to the history and lore of the American West

"Bear River" Tom Smith


(1830 - November 2, 1870)


Tom Smith's beginnings are not known. It is said he was once a policeman in New York City and/or he was a bare knuckle boxer. Documentation supporting these stories has never surfaced.


The first documented account attributed to Tom Smith was in 1868 in the town of Bear River, WY. Here Smith worked for the Union Pacific Railroad. The town was rowdy with the railroad workers getting drunk and causing problems from time to time. The local citizens formed a vigilante committee in an attempt to make the town respectable. This enforcement group hung three railroad workers and made random arrests. The railroad workers revolted and started to burn the jail. During the invasion the vigilantes hid in a log cabin and began to take sniper shots at the crowd. A bullet hit one of Tom Smith's friends. The enraged Smith pulled his gun (some versions say he had two guns) and charged the log cabin. Firing as he ran bullets from the vigilantes tore into Tom, but he maintained pursuit. After the battle ended, Smith walked to a friend's cabin and collapsed. He nearly died from the wounds. It was this incident which earned Tom the moniker "Bear River".


In 1870 Smith headed to Abilene, KS where a town marshal position was available. The soft spoken quiet Tom Smith did not impress the city council members. Instead they sent for a former cavalry man known for the use of his guns. This former militia took a tour of the town and saw the bullet holes in the posters stating no guns were allowed. This hopeful turned down the job. The cattle season brought cowboys blowing off steam and the town now turned to Tom Smith.


Smith mounted his tall gray horse - Silverheels. He rode to the "Texas Town" section of Abilene and encountered a burly Texan named Big Hank. Tom walked up to Hank and stated he was here to enforce the gun ordinance. Big Hank stated he would not give them up. Calmly Smith ask a second time and when expletives exited the mouth of Big Hank, Tom threw a devastating punch. While the fallen Hank was shaking off the daze, Smith took the gun from his holster. When Hank finally recovered and got to his feet, Tom told him to leave town and never return. Big Hank was not seen again.


The next opponent was Wyoming Frank. Frank was determined to get rid of this upstart lawman and return the town to its rowdy self. Frank approached Smith trying to start a gunfight. Tom moved in close and Frank backed up to leave enough room to draw and fire. With each of Frank's backward gesture, Tom moved in rhythm. When Frank backed through the saloon doors, Smith made his second request. Frank's refusal resulted in two quick thundering punches sending him to the floor. As Frank fell Tom pulled the gun from the holster. The order to get out of town and never return was issued.


One member of saloon crowd offered his gun to the marshal. Smith simply stated "Just check'em with the bartender boys, and pick'em up when you're ready to leave town." He didn't want to shut the town down rather he just wanted to keep things peaceful.


Word spread down the trail of bruises, broken ribs and one man who almost bit off his tongue when a blow to the jaw was delivered by the lawman. One violator did a flip when the horse riding Smith landed one of his patented right crosses on the forehead.


In November of 1870 Smith accompanied a deputy sheriff in the arrest of a local farmer. The exact details of the arrest vary based on the source. Basically Tom walked up to the farmer and stated he was under arrest. The farmer pulled his gun and fired twice. Despite the wounds Smith wrestled the farmer to the ground and handcuffed him. At the same moment a friend of the farmer appeared wielding an axe splitting Tom's skull. The deputy sheriff had bolted at the sound of the first bullet and returned with a posse. Tom Smith was dead and his head was nearly decapitated.


A large procession by the citizens of Abilene laid Tom Smith on a hill with a wooden marker. In 1904, "Bear River" Tom Smith was exhumed and moved to the Abilene Cemetery and a large granite bolder was placed over his grave.


The metal plaque on his headstone reads:


Thomas J Smith

Marshal of Abilene, 1870

Died a Martyr To Duty Nov. 2, 1870

A Fearless Hero Of Frontier Days

Who In The Cowboy Chaos

Established The Supremacy Of Law



Gravesite Map


Information compiled by Steve Grimm


© Wild West History Association - a non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation


© Wild West History Association - a non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation