The Father Who Inspired Father’s Day

William Jackson Smart (1842-1919) the inspiration behind Father’s Day, set the bar mighty high as far as Dads go.

On March 21, 1863, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, William Jackson Smart enlisted as a sergeant to fight for the Union with the 1st Arkansas Light Artillery Battery. Arkansas may have been part of the Confederacy, but, as in all the southern states, Unionists rallied together and made the difficult decision to fight against their brethren.

The state saw a surge of enlistments in the Union Army after Union forces captured the capital of Little Rock in September 1863, placing most of eastern Arkansas in Union hands.

Sergeant Smart and his comrades who enlisted in Fayetteville were a bit ahead of the curve, forming one of the first Union units organized in Arkansas, several months before Little Rock was captured. Located in the northwest corner of the state, Fayetteville was a stronghold of Unionism. The representatives they sent to the Arkansas Secession Convention in March 1861 voted against secession. In February 1862, Confederate forces retreating from Missouri burned much of Fayetteville to prevent supplies from falling into Union hands. No doubt this strengthened Unionist sentiments in Fayetteville. By 1863, with the Union Army advancing into northern and eastern Arkansas, would-be Union soldiers from throughout the state converged on Fayetteville to enlist in the Union Army.

Smart was born and raised in Marion, Arkansas in the eastern part of the state on the Mississippi River, across from Memphis, Tennessee and was apparently still living there during the early part of the war. 1863 found him in Fayetteville, drilling with the 1st Arkansas Battery. The unit spent much of 1863 in minor actions against Confederate guerrillas in northern Arkansas and Missouri. In 1864, as part of the Union Seventh Corps, they were part of the ill-fated Camden Campaign, an effort to push through southwestern Arkansas and into Texas. The campaign failed and the Seventh Corps retreated back to Little Rock. Thereafter, the unit was employed in garrison duty on the frontier in western Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Just after the war, Smart married Elizabeth Harris. They had five children (one of whom died as an infant). Elizabeth passed away sometime around 1875 and Smart then married Ellen Victoria Cheek around 1879. She was apparently a young widow and had three children by a previous marriage. Plus, Smart had also taken in his widowed sister and her young daughter. So, by 1880, William Smart, a farmer still living in his hometown of Marion, Arkansas was father to 5, step father to 3 and uncle/father figure to one more.

And the family would continue to grow. Over the next ten or so years, William and Ellen had six children of their own. So that by 1891, Smart had 4 children by his first marriage, 3 step children, and 6 children by his second marriage. His older children were grown and off on their own by the 1890’s, but still, it was a large family for William and Ellen to manage and care for.

In 1889, Smart and his family moved from Arkansas to Wilbur, Washington (near Spokane). Quite a move. The Central Washington Railroad had been built that year, and towns like Wilbur were springing up out of nothing in 1889. So it was the railroad that landed him Wilbur, by why Smart thought it might be a good idea to take his family to that far-flung frontier, I can only wonder.

Sadly, in 1891, Ellen Victoria Smart died in childbirth. This left William Smart to care for the nine children in his household ranging in age from newborn Fred to nineteen year-old James (one of his step-sons). No doubt caring for these young children on the Washington frontier was no small challenge.

One of his children, Sonora Smart (sometimes Lonora) was born in 1882. She apparently idolized her father and his dedication as a single-parent. In 1909, she was 27 and married to John Dodd of Spokane, Washington when she heard about the declaration of the first Mother’s Day in West Virginia. Inspired by the example set by her father, Sonora felt that fathers, too, should have their own day of recongition. She therefore began to press local authorities in Spokane to declare the first official Father’s Day. It was some time before anyone would pay her much attention.

But by the spring of 1910, her idea was beginning to gain traction. Sonora first wanted the date to take place on June 5, William Jackson Smart’s birthday, but the date was coming up too soon by the time officials got behind the idea, so the date was instead set for the third Sunday in June for the celebration.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson attended the Father’s Day observances in Spokane. I can only assume that William Smart, the Civil War veteran and dedicated father who inspired the holiday, had a chance to meet the President. I hope he did.

William Jackson Smart died in 1919, in the home of Sonora Smart Dodd, surrounded by his children, at age 77.

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, and quondam Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

7 responses to “The Father Who Inspired Father’s Day

  • Jeff H

    A sincere thank you for providing a rich and detailed history of William Jackson Smart. I’m just wondering, however, if you meant to say “Ellen” instead of “Elizabeth” in the paragraphs after Elizabeth’s death. The story line seems to make more sense if that is the case.

  • Karen

    Awesome inspiring story, thank you. Our father raised 4 Kids in the early 1960s by himself after divorce. I will share this story with him today, Father’s Day 2016. He is 88 years old. Thanks again.

  • Kevin Daily

    Hi Patrick. This story is amazing. My wife pointed me to it because it is part of the “lore” of her family. My wife’s grandmother claims that they are related to Selina (sp?) Smart, who is somehow related to Senora, but we don’t know how. Your article has so much more information than we’ve ever been able to dig up. Do you have more information on the family tree?

    • Patrick Browne

      Hi Kevin. Very glad you and your wife enjoyed the article. It’s always exciting to hear from folks who are related to the historical figures I’ve written about. I did a quick search of the census records and Ancestry.com family trees and I could not find a Selina Smart. But I only did the most preliminary of searches. I’ll look into it a bit further. She is not one of his immediate children, but I’m thinking there’s a possibility she may have been a daughter-in-law or a grandchild. I’ll let you know if I turn anything up.
      Best,
      Patrick

      • kdaily01

        Thanks for looking. We’ve been able to trace backwards to my wife’s great grandmother, Velma Fulwiler née Cook. Also, the connected name may be spelled Selena.

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