The 1830s brought significant changes to Great Lakes vessels and in the lives of Captain Henry Smith and his family. In the late 1830’s and early 1840’s, steamboats established routes between the Maumee River and many Lake Erie ports, including Buffalo, Cleveland, Sandusky, and Monroe. Eventually they expanded beyond Detroit to ports on the upper lakes like Chicago and Milwaukee. Geographically blessed by its location along the River Raisin and Lake Erie’s shore, Monroe and the River Raisin mirrored maritime potential.
Rising from its source in Hillsdale County, Michigan, the River Raisin flows for about 125 miles easterly through lush countryside, furnishing ready water power for mills and transportation for the small towns and villages dotting its banks. The Raisin had contributed to the growth of Monroe, situated about three and a half miles from its mouth, by attracting farmers, fishermen, tradesmen, and others who depended on water access. Many of its nearly 3,000 inhabitants depended on the Raisin and nearby Lake Erie for their livelihoods.
Monroe grew into a bustling port and the citizens of Monroe grew accustomed to steam engine whistles and the hustle bustle of unloading, transporting, and delivering cargoes from other lake ports. Some of the captains of the growing list of great lakes steamers chose Monroe as their home port and several of the new lake steamships were either built at Monroe or owned and financed by Monroe entrepreneurs. Monroe played an important part in firmly establishing steam boat traffic and prosperity on Lake Erie and Captain Smith played a pivotal role in building safe harbors for both the new and old lake vessels.
A Few Steamers Stopping at Monroe, 1830s, 1840s
DeWitt Clinton. Stolham Wing from Monroe and Carlos Colton owners. Captains Brown and Ludlow commanded her.
Griffith. William V. Studdiford owned her and Captain Roby was master.
James Wolcott. Governeur Morris and Selah Dustin commanded her.
General Macomb. Captains Choate and Atwood commanded her.
Arrow. Captain A.D. Perkins and Ira Davis commanded her.
General Brady. Captain Burtis, master.
Indian Chief. J.J. Godfroy
John Owen. Ira Davis, captain.
John Hollister. Selah Dustin, captain.
Captain Smith, La Plaisance Bay and Monroe Harbor Engineer
The increased steamboat and other vessel traffic on Lake Erie increased the importance of plentiful and safe harbors for them to anchor to load and unload their freight and passengers. The Army recognized Captain Smith as a skilled engineer as well as a brave soldier, and sent him to Monroe to facilitate the building of the vital waterworks on La Plaisance Bay. After several years of living in Army posts scattered across the country, Captain Henry and Elvira Smith and their three children, Winfield, Harriette, and Elvira Pamelia arrived in Monroe in late 1832. Four more children: Katherine Lydia, Evaline, Josephine, and William would be born in Monroe.
La Plaisance Bay is located about two miles south of the entrance to Monroe harbor and its location presented an engineering and commercial problem for Lake Erie shipping. Broad but shallow at a maximum depth of ten feet, La Plaisance Bay is surrounded by Lake Erie and a mile-wide marsh. Monroe is located on the banks of the River Raisin which connects with La Plaisance Bay near its head, but extensive shoals separate the navigable waters of the River Raisin and La Plaisance Bay which is connected to Monroe by a four-mile-long railroad. Captain Maurice of the United States Army Corps of Engineers recommended building a harbor of refuge complete with a breakwater of stone filled cribs. By September 1828, 1,050 linear feet of breakwater had been completed. Captain Maurice recommended that the breakwater connect La Plaisance Bay with the River Raisin using parallel piers and dredging.
By 1830, workers had completed a 1,290 feet breakwater costing $6,261.85. The breakwater protected vessels that drew from eight to nine feet of water, but the engineer in charge pointed out that ordinary vessels navigating the lake still could not connect with the River Raisin and La Plaisance Bay. The engineer presented a plan and estimates of its costs to connect the bay and river, but on October 4, 1831, a violent windstorm destroyed almost all of the 1828 breakwater, and the engineer in charge instead asked for $7,841 for the necessary repairs.
On July 3, 1832, the federal government appropriated $8,000 for the repairs and in September 1832, Captain Henry Smith of the United States Army, successor of Captain Maurice, arrived in Monroe to supervise the repair and the harbor. After carefully examining the damages, Captain Smith concluded that during the fall and winter of 1831, all but 200 feet of the breakwater had been washed away. The weather had destroyed the contracted part of the breakwater, leaving just a few stones to mark where it had been.
Captain Smith proposed a different harbor approach, and in November 1834, he submitted a plan to the chief engineer for straightening the River Raisin and connecting it to Lake Erie by digging a canal, and avoiding a shallow channel in the river. In his report to the engineer, Captain Smith stressed the vital importance of a direct connection between the lake and river and he proposed to directly connect the lake and the River Raisin by cutting a canal about 4,000 feet long and 1,000 feet wide through the peninsula called “River Raisin Point” from the river directly north of House Island to Lake Erie. He purposed protecting the entrance to Lake Erie with parallel piers measuring 726 feet long and 20 feet wide and descending to a depth of 10 feet. At the point the canal crossed Sandy Creek, Captain Smith proposed to close the south side and to turn the creek into the canal. He estimated that the cost of the project minus the dredging machine to be $55,885. Work on the canal began in May, 1835, with Captain Smith in charge.
Talcott Wing explored the building of the Monroe Harbor in his History of Monroe County, Michigan, noting that “the improvement of this harbor was commenced in 1827 at La Plaisance Bay, abandoned there in 1835, and begun in that year on the present harbor. The policy of the General Government in regard to internal improvements was changed four years after the work was commenced, and with the exception of the appropriations in 1844 and 1852, which were devoted to repairs and dredging, no further funds were available until the year 1866.”
Captain Smith oversaw the work on La Plaisance Bay and spearheaded the construction of a solid foundation for Monroe Harbor and its gradual completion and growth. He resigned from the Army on November 13, 1836 and settled permanently in Monroe. From 1836 to 1840, Captain Smith was the Civil Engineer Superintendent of U.S. Harbor Improvements in Ohio and Michigan, which included all government harbors on Lake Erie.
In his annual report for 1837, Captain Smith, General Superintendent of Public Works for Lake Erie, described conditions of some of the harbors on Lake Erie. “Until the commencement of the system of improvement of the lake harbors by the Government of the United States, the immense extent of country occupying the south shore of Lake Erie, or dependent on it for commercial facilities, was a wilderness. The navigation of the lake was attended with the utmost delay, difficulty and danger. The mouths of several streams emptying themselves into the lake were uniformly obstructed by sand and vegetable matter, creating stagnant bodies of water, which overflowed the lowlands for miles, generating an atmosphere which rendered the country nearly uninhabitable from disease, at the same time that the streams themselves were entirely in accessible as a refuge for vessels, and in all respects an evil rather than a benefit to the surrounding country.
It is almost unnecessary to say that the judicious improvements made under the Acts of Congress have entirely changed all this, and many millions of acres of land of the most fertile description, embracing the western portion of the State of New York, the northern part of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois and the whole of Michigan, owe their present settlement and improvement in a very great degree to this cause. The mouths of the Huron, Black river, Cuyahoga, Grand river, Ashtabula and Conneaut (across the sand), and of the Raisin, in Michigan, were opened and kept open by piers and other improvements. Beacon lighthouses have been erected, and these streams, as well as other works at the east end of the lake, now afford secure harbors, accessible at all times to vessels navigating the lakes.
These works, originally but experiments, were built of perishable material. Unless this work is made permanent, the elements will speedily render useless all that has been found of such vast benefit to the commerce of the West. This has been done at Buffalo heretofore, and is fairly commenced at Cleveland. By using the old work as a foundation, permanent works may be erected at comparatively small cost, sufficient to delay the action of the elements for ages; but I beg leave to urge again that the commencement should not be delayed a moment.”
Captain Smith served as Civil Engineer Superintendent of U.S. Harbor Improvements in Ohio and Michigan from 1836 until 1840.
Building a Home and Life in Monroe, Michigan
After he moved to Monroe, Captain Smith built a Greek Revival home at 62 East Elm Street. While living in Monroe the Smiths had four more children: William Henry, Evaline, Katherine, and Josephine.
Sometime after 1833, Judge Jabez Foster came to Monroe to live with his daughter Elvira and her family at the mansion on Elm Avenue that Major Smith built. He died in Monroe on December 10, 1847, five months after the death of his son in law, Major Henry Smith. Judge Foster is buried in Woodland Cemetery in Monroe.
Over the next decade, besides building a house and caring for his family, Captain Smith continued his military career and ventured into local and state politics.
At War in Michigan
The Toledo War – 1835-1836 and the Patriot War, 1837-1838
Toledo is a northwestern Ohio city situated at the western end of Lake Erie close to the Michigan border. In 1833, pioneers established Toledo on the west bank of the Maumee River and it was incorporated as part of Monroe County, Michigan Territory. Both states claimed ownership of the Toledo Strip, an area that included Toledo. Ohio governor Robert Lucas and Michigan governor Stevens T. Mason called out militias to bolster their claims, sparking the 1835-1836 “Toledo War.”
When Michigan Territory applied for statehood in 1835, it attempted to include the Toledo strip in its boundaries, and the Ohio Congressional delegation stalled Michigan’s admission to the United States. Congress proposed a compromise where Michigan would relinquish its claim to the Toledo Strip in exchange for statehood and more than three-quarters of the Upper Peninsula. In December 1836, Michigan accepted the compromise and the Toledo War issues were resolved. In 1837, Toledo was incorporated into Ohio.
Captain Smith participated in the battlefield part of the Toledo War, serving as inspector under General Joseph Brown, whose forces were estimated to be between 800 and 1,200 men. Captain Smith and General Brown were previous comrades at arms. General Brown had commanded the Michigan forces in the Black Hawk War and “he had acquitted himself to the entire satisfaction of the territorial and national authorities. As commander of the Toledo expedition, he performed his duties equally well and secured all that was desired of the expedition, which was to prevent the Executive of Ohio from trampling upon the rights of the people of Michigan. It is suggested that General Brown’s “moderation and good sense helped prevent possible bloodshed.” His aide, Captain Smith possessed the same moderation and good sense.
Michigan became a state, on January 26, 1837, and by the end of the year Captain Smith fought in another war. the Patriot War, a short conflict between mostly Irish insurgents from upper Canada and American citizens who had moved to Canada or sympathized with the Patriots from across the border and the Canadian and British governments. The Patriots believed that Canada should be free from Great Britain, but most Canadians and British were satisfied with the status quo.
Plotting to detach the peninsula between Michigan and the Niagara border from Canada and annex it to the United States, the Patriots organized into secret groups known as Hunters Lodges and they chose Fort Gratiot or Port Huron, Mount Clemens, Detroit, and Gibraltar as their headquarters. In the final weeks of December 1837, a group of Patriots crossed the Detroit River into Canada, landing a short distance above Windsor. They marched to Windsor and fought “The Battle of ‘Windsor.” Many men on both sides of the issue were killed or wounded and The Patriots scattered into the woods.
The Patriots also plotted to capture the United States Arsenal at Dearborn and confiscate the arms stored at the arsenal. A Michigan Militia company guarded the arsenal and thwarted the Patriot plan. The Battle of Windsor effectively ended the Patriot War, although skirmishes continued throughout 1838.
According to Monroe historian John McClellan Bulkley, Michigan Governor Stevens T. Mason appointed Colonel Henry Smith, a retired officer of the United States Army, to organize a company of volunteers in Monroe County which joined an existing regiment of about 500 men. Colonel Smith and company marched to Gibraltar which served as the headquarters of the Patriot forces to be ready for the next episode in the Patriot War. After several weeks of occupying Gibraltar, the Colonel and his men were discharged. When the Patriot War ended, Lucius Knapp and Walton W. Murphy presided over a public meeting and adopted a resolution.
The resolution said, “Resolved, that the thanks of the Monroe volunteers called out by Colonel Henry Smith, upon the requisition of Governor Stevens T. Mason to preserve the neutrality of the government between the United States and Great Britain, be presented to Colonel Henry Smith for his generous treatment of the volunteers, while on duty at Gibralter.”
He served as major general in the Michigan Militia from 1841-1846.
At Peace in Michigan
As well as representing Michigan in war, Henry Smith, lieutenant, captain, colonel, major general, also excelled in peacetime pursuits. In 1837, the Michigan State Historical Society elected him as a member and his fellow citizens elected him as a Democratic member of the Michigan House of Representatives in 1837 and again in 1840. In 1838, he served as Disbursing Agent in the Indian Department. In 1846, he was Monroe’s mayor.
Fighting in the Mexican War
War between the United States and Mexico broke out in 1846, and when Henry Smith offered his services to the United States Army, President James Knox Polk appointed him as quartermaster with the rank of major in the early spring of 1847. Major Smith helped organize and transport Michigan troops to fight in the War. On May 10, 1847, he left for Mexico to join General Winfield Scott’s Army, arriving in Vera Cruz in late June.
His son Winfield Smith described Major Smith’s journey from Monroe to join General Scott’s Army. Winfield and his brother William accompanied their father on a steamer to Toledo and then to Cincinnati where they joined two companies of Wisconsin troops. After a few days in Cincinnati, Major Smith received orders to go to New Orleans and then to Vera Cruz to join General Scott’s Army.
Major Smith said goodbye to his wife Elvira, as well as his two sons at the canal wharf in Cincinnati, because she had found out about his orders back in Monroe and hurried to join him in Cincinnati to say goodbye. The Smiths were aware of the devastating effects of yellow fever which swept through Ver Cruz and Major Smith in his son Winfield’s words “deemed the probability to be great that he would not survive the season’s exposure, going from the north in the height of summer.”
As well as being an excellent soldier, public servant, and family man, Major Smith proved to be an accurate prophet. Arriving in Vera Cruz in the last part of June, Major Smith worked from the hour of his arrival. The officer before him had died of Yellow Fever, and the combination of heat, overwork, and living in the midst of the disease also proved fatal to Major Smith. He died on July 24, 1847 at age 48, two weeks after his arrival in Vera Cruz. After he died, three officers were assigned to perform the duties that he managed by himself. His family brought Major Smith home to Monroe and buried him in Woodland Cemetery.
Less than a month after Major Smith’s death, his younger brother Joseph Rowe Smith, Sr., also a graduate of West Point, sustained a severe wound in the left arm at the Battle of Churubasco on August 20, 1847. He continued his military career and became a brigadier general during the Civil War. Henry Winfield Smith, the son of Brigadier General Joseph Roe Smith, Sr. and his wife Juliet, served as Assistant Adjutant General during the Civil War and was appointed a Lieutenant in the 3rd Cavalry. Both of the General Smiths are buried in the family plot in Woodland Cemetery, Monroe.
Joseph Sr. and Juliet’s son Joseph Rowe Smith, Jr. graduated from the University of Michigan in 1848 and he earned an A.B. and a M.A. and a degree in medicine from the University of Buffalo. In 1854 he joined the Army, serving as a surgeon in the Civil War. Captured by Confederate troops while working at an army hospital in May 1861, Smith, Jr. was later released. Eventually he was promoted to Surgeon General and Medical Director of the U.S. Army in 1865. He is buried in St. James the Less Episcopal Churchyard in Philadelphia.
Tiffany Windows at Trinity in Monroe
In 1868, General Joseph Smith, Jr., along with the family of his deceased brother, Major Henry Smith, donated the original Tiffany Windows located in the Nave of the Trinity Episcopal Church in Monroe.
 Winfield Smith died in London on November 8, 1899. Elvira Parmelia Smith Goodale died on November 13, 1878, and she is buried in Brookside Cemetery, Watertown, New York. Katherine Lydia died as a young child and she is buried in Woodland Cemetery, Monroe. Henry’s brother Joseph Rowe Smith, Sr. also enjoyed a distinguished military career and he is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Monroe. Joseph’s son Henry Smith oversaw the arrest and imprisonment of the conspirators in the Abraham Lincoln assassination.
 Talcott Wing in his History of Monroe County Michigan traces the story of the proposed harbors at La Plaisance Bay and on the River Raisin north of House Island including the costs and construction sagas of each of them. p, 187.
 John Mclellan Bulkley History of Monroe County, Michigan: a narrative account of its historical progress, its people, and its principal interests. (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1913) p. 166
 Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections, Vol 37 p. 360
 Talcott E. Wing, History of Monroe County, Michigan (New York, Munsell & Company Publishers, 1890) p, 298.
 Tomaszewski, Elisa. “Monroe Countians also answered call for war with Mexico”, Monroe Evening News, May 8, 1994; “Unveiling Ceremonies of Smith Memorial Windows at Trinity Episcopal Church”, The Record Commercial, September 22, 1910.