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Lou Smart Pioneer Woman of West Routt County

By Laurel Watson

 Working at the Museum I have learned so much about the fascinating history of the area and how early the area of Hayden and West Routt County was settled, and that prior to 1911 included all of what is now Moffat County. Settlement started in the early 1870’s, and by 1875 there were over 23 families spread out in the area. Information from this period is fairly scant as many of these early settlers left the area in 1879, after the Meeker incident, never to return. One of these families was the Smart family. Porter Smart and his sons: Albert and Gordy were the men who organized some of the first speculative development of the area they called Bear River. Albert’s wife Lou also made the journey with her husband and a small  group of preemptive settlers to tame their corner of  Northwest Colorado by establishing a homestead and post office near what is now the Town of Hayden.

 Lou Smart played an important role in preserving the history of West Routt County- although she was unaware of it- through the simple act of writing a letter to family in 1879. As a historian her letter is very important as a ‘first hand’ account, or primary source, for piecing together a better picture of the area’s early history. Lou was one of the first women in the area and her letter written to her family gives us a unique look into her life on the rugged frontier of Northwest Colorado.  This includes details regarding the events leading up to the fateful Meeker incident in 1879 from the perspective of a woman and an early settler.  Her letter also is important for the various clues she gives regarding  the early settlers of West Routt County, whom we have very little information on due to the fact that many of the first settlers left in 1879 never to return to the area.

Lou, as she was commonly known, was born Maria Louisa Richardson on November 24, 1840 in Godalming, England.  She was one of five children born to Sophia Boxall and Charles Richardson, a geologist and surveyor.  Lou grew up in a highly mobile upper middle class family and was well educated.  Sometime between 1851 and 1860 Charles and Sophie brought their family to the United States, and settled in Kanawha, Virginia.   The United States was expanding rapidly during this period and wanted to exploit the mineral and ore deposits of its newly acquired territories. This required geologists and surveyors, an opportunity that prompted the family’s move to America.  Charles wrote numerous letters to his brother in Australia telling of his travels surveying mine sites for various speculative entities and mining companies.  One such letter talks of the riches that lay in wait in Colorado, where a man could easily make his fortune.  This most likely was why he relocated his family once again in the early 1870-1871 to Colorado. 

Before the family moved, twenty four year old Lou married another English transplant, Thomas Swinburn, who was a Sergeant in the U.S. 7th Cavalry in 1864.  They had two children Mabel and Charles before they divorced in 1867. Lou, divorced with two young children, headed west  with her parents when they moved.

 Lou’s parents moved to Alma, Colorado, a busy mining center initially known as the Mosquito Mining District of almost 10,000 people with two large smelting companies. Lou’s father Charles was working as a geologist and ran a lumber yard important for the large coke ovens which required large amounts of timber in the process of refining the ores.  Two of Lou’s brothers are also living with them, both working as mining engineers, as well as Lou’s eldest child Mabel who was attending school.  At some point, it was here that Lou met Albert Smart.

Above: Porter Smart ca 1860's

Albert was the son of Porter Smart. Porter Smart was a leading citizen of Gilpin County with investments in mining and land speculation. He served on the Governors Colorado Territory Commission of Immigration which sought to promote settlement of the remote western slope areas of the Colorado Territory in order to secure statehood. Porter had explored Middle Park and Western Colorado as early as 1862 for his Commission reports. He made several trips though Middle and Egeria Parks to the Grand River area and as far west as the Salt Lake Basin noting the opportunities of the area as well as the impediments to settlement. Porter’s sons, Gordy and Albert shared his enthusiasm for western settlement and partnered with their father on his business ventures including the Western Improvement and the Bear River Road Companies.

 Albert and Lou were married November 16, 1871 in Central City, Colorado.  Interestingly some of the Swinburn family attended the wedding- so Lou’s earlier divorce must have been somewhat amicable.  The newlyweds Lou and Albert lived briefly in Georgetown, Colorado where Lou gave birth to their daughter Clara in 1872. 

  Albert brought his young family to the proposed Bear River Colony site near present day Hayden sometime in the later part of 1874.   Information regarding the Shirts Colony confirms this, as does the family birth record of Albert Smart Jr. who was born in ‘Bear River- March of 1875’. It is very unlikely that the young family traveled over the Gore pass in the early spring of 1875 with two young children and Lou so late in her pregnancy.  Lou talks about driving through their old campsite which was where they  lived while their cabin was being built.  So far, no letters from this early period of Lou’s arrival have turned up yet but we are always on the lookout.  It is not until the letter of 1879 that we get a real glimpse of Lou’s life as a frontier woman.

  Lou’s life during this period had to be quite difficult for someone who was well educated, yet her letter leaves no impression of a woman disillusioned or despondent but rather one who is resilient and who stated the events in her life in a matter of fact way.  Lou’s last year in Hayden was filled with long periods alone with her three small children dealing with unexpected visits from the Utes, prairie fires, a miscarriage, and hard work.  Albert & Lou Smart’s cabin was fairly close to Major Thompson who had a cabin and trading post set in a grove of trees on the River near present day Hayden.  Major Thompson’s wife Eliza was close in age to Lou and had five small children. For a time, the two women and children were close companions and heavily relied upon each other.

The situation at the White River Reservation had been slowly deteriorating. Although the Utes had made some progress during the administration of Agent Danford, they were continually plagued by the failure of the U.S. Government to provide necessary rations promised to them, which led to many of the men to go off the reservation to hunt to provide food for their families. To further complicate the situation, the resistance of many of the younger men to convert to an agricultural lifestyle was a problem that caused tension. To make things worse, by the late 1870’s white settlers were encroaching on lands close to the reservation. However even with tensions rising there were few incidents of violence and the Bear River settlers traded peacefully with the neighboring Utes. Things seemed to improve for a short period of time after the appointment of Nathan Meeker as Reservation Agent in 1878, but it was short lived and eventually Meeker’s inexperience and overbearing idealism led to problems escalating.

The situation was not considered too threatening by the Bear River settlers in the summer of 1879. Albert felt comfortable enough to leave his family on a number of occasions for long periods to conduct business. Major Thompson also felt it safe enough to leave his wife and children behind as he went to Washington D.C. to seek an appointment to an office as a Land Agent in Arizona.

Lou writes about her experiences that last summer of 1879 in a letter she wrote to her family:

            November 2nd, 1879

Dear Friends All,--

I see you will never get a letter unless I write one.  The boys told me they had both written so I felt satisfied that your minds were relieved.  I know what it is to be in such dreadful suspense.  I have had enough of it in the last summer, alone most of the time with three little children and the big dog Colonel.

Lou had a few uncomfortable visits alone while her husband was away on business.

….The day he [Albert] left three Utes came to the house and came in.  One sat down on Charlie’s bed…I was afraid of them and did not dare leave the room.  They asked for Smart and how many men there were about the place, when the mail carrier would come and a great many other things which I pretended not to understand…. Little Bertie always was afraid of them, and when one came about he always clings to my skirts so there I sat with Bertie on one side and Clara on the other.  Charlie had gone. I worked myself into a nervous fever until I could not stand it any longer so I jumped up and told him to get out I wanted to shut the door, as I was going over to Mrs. Thompsons.  He looked at me and said, “Where you go?” I told him none of your business, if he did not get out I would set the dog on him.  Colonel lay in the door turning up the whites of his eyes at him.  He looked at the dog and then at me and concluded it was best to go…

Lou had a companion in Major Thompson’s wife, Eliza, who lived close by and like Lou was left alone from time to time with a number of small children.

Somewhere about the first of June, Major Thompson went to Washington D.C. to get an appointment as an agent for some Indian Reservation in Arizona, but there was some trouble with his Religion (he not having any) and someone trying for the plan that had so he didn’t get the appointment, and after staying there until away in July he got appointed to the land office.  About a week after he left, Albert [went to Hot Sulfur Springs] to attend court in the cattle case and we, Mrs. T. and myself were left entirely alone, our nearest neighbor being 15 miles either way down or up river.

Together the two women alone had to deal with a prairie fire that threatened to burn them out.

…The next day was Sunday, and about eleven o’clock the wind blew down the river and here came the fire before the wind.  If you have ever seen a prairie fire you may imagine how it looked, everything burnt like matches, it was blowing straight for the Majors house.  I ran over there and we tried to back fire, but the grass would not burn as the wind blew so hard. I saw that there was no time to lose, so we must save what we could….So we went to work and carried the beds and clothes first.  We set the boys to work.  The first thing they took was the guns and fishing rods…we worked until about 4 o’clock until our strength was exhausted…If ever a fervent prayer went up to heaven for help they did then from two helpless women.  The wind blew harder as the fire came nearer we could feel the heat, it seemed that it must reach the woods in a few moments.  We gave up and sat down to watch the fire, when the wind turned completely around and blew a perfect gale right up the river. This checked the fire and, in a few hours, it died out or only burnt in places where a stump had caught.  I had never saw anything like it….

After Major Thompson was appointed as an agent, he moved his family back to Denver in early July while Albert was still away on business.  This left Lou without her one companion and friend.

Major Thompson wrote to say he was coming with two teams to take them out.  That he could only stay one night, that she must be ready…I went to work to help get her ready.  Washed some of the children’s clothes and baked meat and bread and cookies for them to eat on the road.  That night I was taken very sick and the next day I could scarcely get around….I have had many friends and parted with them with regret, but I never in my life felt so utterly desolate so miserably alone as when they drove out of sight.

Albert came home within a few days of the Thompsons departure but Lou’s happiness was short lived. 

He brought a span of young horses- fine big fellows.  Rondy and Frank only five years old- a splendid team- cost two hundred dollars… So now we had a team at last and one worth having…  The next day [Albert] worked on the well all day.  I went out to watch him and pull up the ladder when he wanted it out of the way.  In doing so I slipped and fell.  For an hour or so I was very sick and when it passed off, I went about my work, got supper and put it on the table when I was taken very ill and grew worse and worse.  That was 4 o’clock and until half past one next morning I was in most dreadful agony.  How I begged for chloroform but he was afraid to give it to me.  It was another dreadful miscarriage, worse than the last.  For ten days I could not sit up even while he made my bed…

Conditions at the nearby White River Agency were heating up between the Utes and the Agent Nathan Meeker over a disagreement over the plowing up of land which resulted in an argument between Meeker and one of the tribe members.  Major Thornburg and troops from Rawlins were on their way to the agency to check on the situation when they stopped to tell Albert what was going on.  Thornburg did not expect anything to come of it and reassured Albert that the local homesteaders were in no immediate danger. The violence that ensued came as a surprise requiring the settlers in the area to leave quickly- leaving most of their possessions and livestock behind.

Mr. Reed had ridden up the river and Jimmie was talking to Albert when a man rode up at full speed, jumped down and said you must leave quick.  Major Thornburg is killed and the soldiers on the retreat.  He went to warn the people, had ridden all night.  Albert came running into the house calling Lou.  He said pack up quick, we must go. I don’t generally lose my presence of mind in danger, but I was still weak from my recent sickness and for a moment I did not know what to do…

The rest of Lou’s letter talks of their hasty exodus in their wagon in which they had to hammer the wagon tires back on every few minutes.  They picked up another family and a few others on the way and, after a wet trek through the canyon, made their way to Steamboat Springs.  Once in Steamboat, the men gathered what people there were and they fortified themselves inside the Crawford home.

 Lou mentions that Mrs. Crawford was none too pleased to accommodate the Smarts, although she was pleasant to their faces.  Lou had overheard Mrs. Crawford talking to another that the Indians were more likely to kill them since the Smarts were there.  After a week of cramped conditions and feeling like an intruder the Smarts gladly reloaded their wagon with only their beds and a number of other families and headed for Hot Sulfur Springs with twelve armed men riding in front and behind the wagon.  They left almost everything behind in order to travel quickly. When they finally reached Hot Sulfur Springs 10 days had passed since their departure from their homestead.

The Smarts were one of the families that never returned to the Yampa Valley.  They remained in Hot Sulfur Springs most likely due to Lou’s deteriorating health.  Near the close of her letter, Lou briefly tells of how her hair had turned gray from spells of neuralgia which at times caused her vision to be quite impaired making it hard for her to get around, however her greatest concern was that the children were not getting any schooling. 

 Sadly, the hard life finally caught up with Lou and in 1893, at the age of 53, Lou quietly passed away in Hot Sulfur Springs, Co. where she is buried.

Learn more: Visit the Hayden Heritage Center Museum

Photo of Porter Smart courtesy Nancy Hewins

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