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Alias Soapy Smith

14 Apr

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

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10 Comments

Posted by on April 14, 2010 in Western history

 

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10 responses to “Alias Soapy Smith

  1. Jeff Smith

    April 14, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    Hello, Joyce.

    Thank you very much for the fine post regarding my new book. I am honored and thrilled that such an esteemed Colorado author such as yourself would wish to discuss it. I have read your book, First Governor, First Lady: John & Eliza Routt of Colorado, and enjoyed it as well. I agree the only place we disagree with one another is about what took place in Creede during Routt’s visit in 1892. I believe it is just a matter of differing sources.

    If I might explain my views just a tad.

    Creede had no newspaper at the time however the major newspapers in Denver had sent reporters to cover the auction because of the controversy surrounding it. Coverage by the Rocky Mountain News is what I based most of my information on.

    At the onset of the new silver camp of Creede, V. B. Wason had leased land from the state that had been designated as school land. He argued that the state did not have the right of owning the land and subleased the property to others. The state contested Wason’s subleases by canceling his. The state then held an auction to sell the lots which were already in the hands of others whom the state considered “squatters,” illegally holding the land. Those “squatters” honestly felt they were the rightful leasers of the land. They were now told that they would have to pay twice for the land. Once to Wason and once again to the state. Soapy opted to side with the “squatters,” who threatened trouble if forced off land they felt was already theirs. Through intimidation and peer-scare tactics most of the “squatters” were able to bid and successfully hold onto their land and Soapy and his associates were able to invest in lots as well.

    According to the NEWS reporters on the scene in 1892 Governor Routt never entered the tent. Seven years later the Denver Times states that not only did he enter the tent but seems to have taken control of calming the crowd. I can’t say Routt absolutely did not enter the tent, but one would thing that other reporters there on the scene would have noted his entry.

     
    • joyce4boo

      April 15, 2010 at 8:37 am

      Hello Jeff — Thank you so much for your comments. Perhaps we will get to the heart of the matter. I considered that journalistic politics might be in play. However, the RMN would have been pro-Routt, although he was not necessarily conservative in his views. Although Routts appearance before the mob would have been in character for him, that would not be considered proof. I always wondered how he arrived by wagon from Denver in a blizzard to the remote mining camp at Creede. The train certainly makes more sense, unless he rode by wagon from a train station.

      Perhaps you can answer some questions about Soapy Smith for the next blog entry. He is a fascinating character and an important part of the fabric of Western history. I would like to learn more. Thank you again for sharing your expertise!
      Best wishes — Joyce

       
      • Jeff Smith

        April 15, 2010 at 11:23 am

        It is my pleasure to be involved with you here on your blog. I am happy to answer any questions you or your readers might entertain.

        To answer a few questions, the RMN was a democrat newspaper and Routt was a Republican so I agree that the NEWS probably exaggerated the part about Routt fearing to come out of his train car. In my book I do not make any judgment calls about Routt or his actions but rather only quoted what the newspaper had written. There were threats of violence so I do tend to believe that Routt stayed inside his train car for safety reasons, but not fear.

        At the time of the Creede auction the Denver and Rio Grande line reached the camp. There seems to be no reason why Routt would have taken a wagon.

         
  2. Mary Trimble

    April 15, 2010 at 8:31 am

    Joyce, what an interesting example of different views of the same incident. And what a fun connection you have with Soapy Smith’s decendent. You have real skill in making history come to life.

     
    • joyce4books

      April 15, 2010 at 8:48 am

      Hello Mary — Thank you for coming by as I always value your opinions. This situation reminds me a little of a game played as a kid. We sat in a circle and whispered a message to the person next to us, then they passed it on. By the time it made it around the circle, it was totally different. The Creede story might have been transformed before it made it back to Denver. How fortunate to have comments from Jeff Smith here. — Joyce

       
  3. Cynthia Becker

    April 15, 2010 at 9:34 am

    What an interesting exchange between two researchers considering the same event. Thank you Joyce and Jeff. Perhaps there will be a future post on “the rest of the story.”

     
  4. joyce4books

    April 15, 2010 at 9:56 am

    Thank you for your comments, Cynthia. It could happen. This certainly provides interesting food for thought. It also points out the responsibility of the biographer in the quest for truth in these matters. I am considering adding a page to my web site similar to one used by author, Linda Hasselstrom. She provides corrections to her South Dakota Roadside History, which were never included in a revision. I could see doing the same for my books, as well as posing conundrums such as this one. It could be a model for other writers. The adventures just keep happening! — Joyce

     
    • Jeff Smith

      April 15, 2010 at 11:08 am

      Hi, Joyce.
      Your thoughts regarding the “responsibility of the biographer in the quest for truth” are perfect, as is your idea of an added page for addendum’s and corrections to your books. My blog is an extension of my book and that’s where I place everything new to me, including corrections. Like you, I’m not afraid to discover I am wrong. I made up a nice little quote plaque of something I once said on a forum. It reads, “I’d rather be found wrong and learn the truth than thought right and never know.”

       
  5. joyce4books

    April 15, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    Thanks again, Jeff, for your insights. At some point, the Rocky Mtn. News became quite conservative. Interesting to know that they did not start out that way. I hope to visit Denver Public Library sometime soon to retrieve that article.

    Another item: According to Athearn’s Rebel of the Rockies, the D&RG did not connect to Creede until March 1892. David Moffat completed the last nine miles of track over rugged, snowy terrain from Wagon Wheel Gap, then sold it to the D&RG. Perhaps the governor’s train was parked at Wagon Wheel Gap, and he rode by wagon through the snow for nine miles. Pure speculation on my part. I suppose we will never know, but again, it is interesting to share ideas on this. I’ve never visited Creede, and I would like to.

    Thanks again, and yes, I love your quotation! I also like your idea of using the blog for an appendix. You are way ahead of me! Best wishes — Joyce

     
    • Jeff Smith

      April 16, 2010 at 11:28 am

      You are correct that the line was not a D&RG line until 1892, however trains were arriving in Upper Creede on rails laid in late 1891 (Creede Historical Society).

       

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