Smith, George R., founder of Sedalia, and conspicuous in the development of central and western Missouri through his great services in the establishment of the Missouri Pacific Railway, and his connection with other great enterprises, was born in Powhatan County, Virginia, in 1804, the son of George and Sarah Hayden (Heydon) Smith. The father was a Baptist minister, a native of Virginia, who removed to Kentucky in 1804. He was a noted clergyman, a man of strong character and positive convictions. He was an ardent admirer of Henry Clay, and holding the same sentiments with him as to emancipation, liberated his slaves. The mother was native of Virginia, in which State their marriage occurred.
The son, George R., was sixteen years of age when his father died. He was a pupil of Barton W. Stone, a clergyman in the Christian Church in Kentucky. When twenty-one years of age he removed to Scott County, Kentucky, where he served for a time as deputy sheriff, and read law. In 1833, in company with his father-in-law, General David Thomson, he removed to Pettis County, Missouri, where he practiced his profession for a time. For four years, beginning in 1848, he managed government freighting from Fort Leavenworth to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
When the Pacific Railway (now the Missouri Pacific Railway) was projected, he became at once one of its most earnest advocates, and to his effort was finally due its present location, and the development of central Missouri. The original intention was to follow the course of the Missouri River its entire length from St. Louis to Kansas City. He conceived the plan of diverting it from that course at Jefferson City, through Pettis County, and overcame almost insurmountable opposition in accomplishment of his purpose. He rode on horseback over all the country which he sought to benefit, addressing public meetings, and arguing the case personally with men of influence and wealth. He was derided and abused, and the greater number of newspapers in the State united in a crusade of opposition.
In January, 1852, he called a public meeting at Georgetown, where a resolution favoring an appropriation of $10,000 by the county was defeated. He took the stand and his argument was so convincing that the same meeting committed itself in favor of stock subscriptions to the amount of $100,000, and this measure was successful at the election in August following. In December, 1852, the General Assembly passed an act providing for the location upon what was termed the inland route, as distinguished from the river route, conditioned upon subscriptions amounting to $400,000 by the counties interested. In March, 1853, he assembled at Georgetown thirty representative men from inland route counties, and at this meeting was formed a committee consisting of two from each county, who were to endeavor to accomplish the end sought. The amount required was apportioned among the various counties, and the project was defeated in all save Pettis County.
General Smith redoubled his effort, re-traversed all the territory, and as a result, on the re-assembling of the committee, the necessary amount was pledged, and an excess of $12,000. In 1854 he was elected to the Legislature. An act to lend the credit of the State to the railways, in the amount of $7,000,000. $3,000,000 being the apportionment of the inland route, was stoutly contested. He led the element favoring the appropriation, and the measure was passed by a small majority. Governor Sterling Price interposed his veto, but the act was finally adopted. In 1856 General Smith bought the land upon which Sedalia now stands, and founded the city. The name was derived from that of his daughter Sarah, familiarly known as "Sed." He remarked that he had previously named a flatboat for her elder sister, Martha. The name he chose was that of Sedville. He changed this to Sedalia, following the suggestion of a friend, Josiah Dent, of St. Louis, who proposed Sedalia, closely resembling the Latin work Sedilia, meaning a seat, at the same time remarking that the change would be desirable for the reason the "General Smith designed the removal of the county seat to the new town." The slight change from the proposed word was made for the sake of euphony.
General Smith gave his best effort, and used his means liberally for the up building of the place. He gave to the Pacific Railway every fourth lot touching their tracks, and made large donations to various business enterprises, and to religious and educational institutions. He was for years a director in the railway company, and occupied various other high positions; with all these urgent claims upon his attention, he held the interests of the town as of first importance, and cared from them industriously until the close of his life. In politics he grew up in the school of Henry Clay. In 1843 he was appointed receiver of the United States land office at Springfield, from which he retired with the change of administration. When the Kansas troubles arose he was solicited to join the pro-slavery forces, and was offered political preferment. He refused all overtures, and stoutly denounced the aggressions of the slave forces upon territory which he claimed should be preserved to freedom. On this account he became the object of bitter condemnation and threats were made of personal violence, but he persisted in his course.
In 1861 Governor Gamble appointed him adjutant general of Missouri, and he organized the first troops contributed by Missouri to the defense of the Union. At a later day he served as paymaster general of the State, but resigned the position on account of differences with the Governor. In 1863 he sat in mass convention of the Radical Republicans of Missouri, and presented a resolution under which a committee of one from each county was sent to Washington to urge upon President Lincoln a more aggressive war policy. In 1864 he was an elector upon the Republican ticket, and made an active canvas. In 1864 he was an unsuccessful candidate before the Republican convention for the nomination for Governor. He was elected to the State Senate the same year, and was chosen president pro tempore of that body. He was appointed by President Johnson to be assessor of the United States internal revenue for the Fourth and Fifth Districts of Missouri, not being in harmony with the administration he soon retired. In 1870 he affiliated with the liberal wing of the Republican Party, advocating the repeal of the proscriptive measures of the Drake constitution. In religion he was a member of the Christian Church.
In 1827, before leaving Kentucky he married Melita Ann Thomson. Her father was David Thomson, who was a major in a Kentucky regiment during the War of 1812; when his kinsman, Colonel Richard Johnson, fell in the battle of the Thames, he succeeded to command. For twenty years he served in the State Senate of Kentucky. He removed to Missouri in 1833. A son, Manlius V. Thomson, became Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky when thirty-eight years of age, and was commander of a regiment during the Mexican War. Another son, Mentor Thomson, became a distinguished citizen of Pettis County, Missouri. Mrs. Smith died April 22, 1861. The first-born child of General Smith died at the age of nine months. Their other children, Martha Elizabeth Smith and Sarah Elvira, widow of Henry S. Cotton, are yet living in the parental homestead at Sedalia. Their home is adorned with the fine library of the father, and a remarkably large and valuable collection of paintings, engravings, photographic views and statuary acquired by the family during their visits abroad. The sisters design that these art treasures shall ultimately pass into the possession of the city for the benefit of the public. Their beneficences to public causes, and to individuals in need, are repeated and liberal.
General Smith died July 11, 1879, leaving a memory honored for all those noble traits which mark the liberal public benefactor, sagacious man of affairs, kind neighbor and model citizen. His vigorous intellect comprehended all conditions, enabling him to readily meet the most serious emergencies, while his tenacity of purpose dismayed opposition and compelled acquiescence in his designs. He was of large and vigorous frame, and commanding mien. His strength of character and deep immersion in important enterprises at times gave him an air of austerity, which had no real existence. Great-hearted in all the meaning of the word, his personal interest in his fellows was as earnest as was his devotion to public concerns, and his aid and sympathy was freely extended at the call of the suffering and needy.
Source: Conrad, Howard L., Editory, Encyclopedia of the History of Missouri (New York: Southern History Company, 1901)
Submitter: Velma Sippie