Hugh N. Smith, attorney and pivotal political player, arrived in New Mexico in 1846 with the conquering US Army. His life ended abruptly in 1859, before his 40th birthday. What do the records suggested here reveal about his personality?
In 1849, after the Mexican-American War, the people of New Mexico chose Smith to represent them in Congress. But Congress refused to seat him because of his anti-slavery stance. Newspapers across the country chronicled Hugh’s camp out on the steps of the Capitol. Many articles agreed with the Philadelphia Freeman, which praised Smith’s “fidelity and eminent services to New Mexico” March 20, 1851. “Nobody could doubt his entire competence,” reported the National Era March 13.
I haven’t discovered letters or diaries of Smith’s, but others refer to him. Teenager John Watts’ diary notes several encounters with Smith in 1859. Once, Watts and a friend were calling on two sisters when Smith and the local doctor showed up. Watts wrote that he and his friend left, unable to compete with a lawyer and a doctor. (The emphasis is Watts’ own.) When Smith died a few weeks later, Watts described the “excellent” crowd of at least 300 at the funeral—more than he’d ever seen at one in New Mexico. Another acquaintance, James Webb, mentioned Smith’s sudden death in a letter to his business partner). Smith had “drunk hard for a long time,” and Webb wasn’t surprised by the untimely death.
Smith’s 1850s expenditures fill nearly 12 pages of a Santa Fe general store ledger. He bought at least a dozen pairs of ladies’ shoes—not the only curious purchase for this lifelong bachelor. He also bought a “fancy silk dress” for $33 (equal to a cool $870 today), hundreds of yards of fabric, and thread, needles, buttons, scissors and thimbles. Was he a tailor on the side? Doubtful, but he made sure some lady was well dressed. These purchases tapered off toward the end of his life, but his increasing acquisition of whiskey and wine supports Webb’s words.
More than 20 years after Smith’s death, a friend described him as a “good, industrious, careful lawyer” and an “affable” person. Though the photograph at right has no props, the hint of a smile seems to make “affable” fit perfectly.
From the records, I can surmise Hugh Smith was intelligent and principled. He was respected in his community. He had affection for a woman (or women) and appears to have given her many gifts. Yet Smith was flawed. Something drove him to drink excessively, cutting his life short. Was it the woman? Political failures? A Type-A personality? More research may answer those questions. By examining records for personality, Smith’s memory—his life’s imprint—can be more than a name followed by birth and death dates.
From the September 2009 Family Tree Magazine