Western history

Alias Soapy Smith

Recently, I was contacted by Jeff Smith, the descendant of a well-known colorful Western pioneer, who went by the name of “Soapy Smith”. In plain terms, Soapy was a con-artist who found creative ways to secure an income while dodging the law in the Western United States and Alaska. His name evolved from a scheme in which currency was hidden in cakes of soap and sold to gullible customers willing to gamble on its placement. Jeff Smith’s biography of his great-grandfather is an impressive collection of material regarding his ancestor. It is a hefty volume, which provides a remarkable resource and account of a character of questionable repute, who appeared in many incidents throughout Western history in general, and Colorado in particular.

My interest in Soapy Smith pertains to an episode which took place in Creede, Colorado in 1892. Squatters took over parcels of state school land. Led by Smith and his Soap gang, the squatters would not budge when an auction was organized to sell the properties. Violence was threatened under the leadership of Smith’s gang. Governor John L. Routt arrived from Denver to bring order to the situation.

At this point, Smith’s biography of Soapy Smith, and my biography of Governor Routt, provide differing versions of the incident’s conclusion. I attribute this to varying resources and different outlooks, as each biography champions the position of its main character. In the Smith version, Governor Routt, intimidated and bamboozled, never left his train car (Rocky Mtn. News, 2/26/1892). In my biography of the Routts, the aging governor came to town by wagon during a blizzard. When the sheriff sent an appeal to Denver to send in the national guard, Routt responded, “To hell with the troops. I’ll go myself.” Cursing and stomping, the aging governor entered a room full of disgruntled citizens, and took charge of the situation, thus diffusing a violent confrontation. The lots were then sold at auction to benefit the state school fund. (Denver Times, 10/12/1899; Pioneers and Politicians, Richard D. Lamm, 1984.)

Although these two versions of the same incident vary somewhat, the truth no doubt lies somewhere between them. Most importantly, both biographers acted diligently according to the resources at hand, and pursued these topics with interest and curiosity. Both biographies are a tribute to their subjects by author’s who care deeply about them, and provide a  foundation for researchers to pursue when referring to them. Biographies not only preserve personal stories, but rich pieces of history which might otherwise be lost forever.

To learn more about Jeff Smith’s great-grandfather Soapy, see:
Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of A Scoundrel, Klondike Research, 2009
Jeff Smith’s web site: http://www.soapysmith.net

To learn more about Governor John Routt and his wife, my cousin Eliza, see:
First Governor, First Lady: John & Eliza Routt of Colorado, Filter Press, 2002
Joyce Lohse’s web site: http://www.lohseworks.com

Joyce B. Lohse, 4/14/2010