James Newton Smithee (1842–1902)
James Newton Smithee, the founder of the Arkansas Democrat, was a prominent figure in the history of Arkansas journalism. Smithee was also an important Democrat during the years after Reconstruction and an advocate of the silver movement in Arkansas.
J. N. Smithee was born in 1842 in what would become Sharp County into a poor Scottish-Irish farming family; his parents were Samuel Harris Smithee and Edna Elizabeth (Woodrome) Smithee. His formal education consisted of three months in a country school. When he was twelve years old, he became an apprentice to the Des Arc Citizen, where he learned the printing trade. When Smithee was eighteen, he bought into the Prairie County Democrat and used it to support the Southern Democratic presidential ticket in 1860. When South Carolina seceded from the Union in December of that year, Smithee became a devoted advocate for secession.
Following Arkansas’s secession in 1861, Smithee enlisted as a corporal in the Pulaski Artillery, which fought as a unit in the Arkansas state troops at the 1861 Battle of Wilson’s Creek. He rose to the rank of first lieutenant in the Confederate army, serving in the field artillery battalion, commanded by Major William E. Woodruff Jr. and later by Major William D. Blocher, in the Department of the Trans-Mississippi. Smithee also served for a time as the battalion’s adjutant. Smithee was wounded in the 1863 Battle of Helena.
After the Civil War, he worked as a typesetter in Memphis, Tennessee, and then moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1866 to serve as a foreman at the Arkansas Gazette’s printing office, eventually becoming the city editor, managing editor, and then owner of the newspaper. In 1873, he became the charter president of the Arkansas Press Association and served as such for three terms. In 1874, Smithee sold the Gazette to assume public office.
Smithee married Annie E. Cowgill, a great-granddaughter of Benjamin Harrison, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, on January 1, 1867. They had six sons.
Smithee was a colonel in the forces of Elisha Baxter in the Brooks-Baxter War. For this service, Smithee was appointed Commissioner of Immigration and State Lands. He was elected to that position in both 1874 and 1876.
In 1878, he founded the Arkansas Democrat and, in 1879, sold it to enter a new career in real estate. On May 5, 1878, Smithee fought a duel with Arkansas Gazette co-owner John Adams over allegations against Smithee’s honor that Adams had published in the Gazette. He was reportedly injured during the duel.
Smithee became chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party in 1878, a position he held for four years. In 1880, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
In 1885, Smithee was appointed by President Grover Cleveland as a special federal agent of the general land office for both Colorado and New Mexico. In the West, he became acquainted with the pro-silver wing of the Democratic Party. Upon returning to Arkansas, he became a silver advocate and helped organize the silver wing of the Arkansas Democratic Party. Following the purchase of the Arkansas Gazette by a New York investor, Smithee became its editor in 1896. He changed the Gazette’s stance to that of pro-silver and helped William Jennings Bryan carry Arkansas in the presidential election of 1896. In 1897, R. D. McMullen, a state senator from Yell County whom Smithee had attacked in an editorial, shot at him but missed.
In early 1899, Smithee resigned as editor of the Gazette. On July 4, 1902, facing several health issues, he committed suicide.
For additional information:
Obituary of J. N. Smithee. Arkansas Gazette. July 6, 1902, pp. 1–2.
Teske, Steven. “Legacies & Lunch: J. N. Smithee.” April 4, 2012. Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock, Arkansas. Audio online at Butler Center AV/AR Audio Video Collection: Steven Teske Lecture (accessed April 5, 2022).
———. Unvarnished Arkansas: The Naked Truth about Nine Famous Arkansans. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2012.
Woodruff, William E. With the Light Guns in 61–65: Reminiscences of Eleven Arkansas, Missouri and Texas Light Batteries, in the Civil War. Little Rock: Central Printing, 1903.
According to marriage licenses and other documents, James Newton Smithee’s parents were Samuel Harrison Smithee b. 4-25-1814 and Edna M. Woodrome b. 1821. They were married in Lawrence Co., Ar., on 11-6-1839.
[Editor’s note: Spellings of names often vary in nineteenth-century documents; the names in the entry are spelled as the Arkansas Gazette spelled them in the 1902 obituary of J. N. Smithee.]
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