Richard Smith joins 172-year family history of Old Town flag-waving

By PAULINE REPARD | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: June 24, 2018


SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — When 71-year-old Richard Smith tugged on the cord that raised an American flag high over Old Town on Saturday, no one was shooting at him.

The same could not be said for Smith’s great-great-grandfather, Albert Benjamin Smith, during the Mexican-American War back in 1846.

That storied Smith ancestor is recalled for climbing a similar flag pole in the middle of the Old Town plaza and raising an American flag while Mexican soldiers fired at him from a hillside. The act marked the American re-occupation of San Diego during the struggle for control over California.

Albert Smith — untouched by the soldiers’ potshots — survived to found a modest dynasty of Smiths who have periodically honored his memory with Old Town flag-raisings.

Richard Smith’s cousin, Linda Jacobo, secretary of a 400-member club called Descendants of Early San Diego, organized the short Saturday morning ceremony with Old Town San Diego State Historic Park staff.

A park aide helped Smith hook the large flag to a rope and draw it up the giant pole, where it fluttered over about 20 members of his extended family.

“It’s a proud moment to know that Albert B. Smith had raised the United States flag in Old Town,” Smith said after the ceremony.

He and his wife, Lydia, who married at Immaculate Heart Catholic Church in Old Town, as his parents did, moved from Santee to Hemet in 2005. He is retired from work creating forms and labels used by businesses.

He said his father, Carl Smith, talked often about their legendary ancestor’s exploits as a volunteer with the California Battalion that took part in the Mexican-American War 172 years ago. He has passed the stories on to son Joseph Smith, and now grandson Cooper Smith wants to be a history teacher, he said.

His grandfather was Louis Native Smith and his great-grandfather was Albert Henry Smith, one of Albert Benjamin Smith’s many children.

That first Smith came to San Diego from New York in the 1830s, most historians have concluded from records of his marriage and baptism at an Old Town Catholic church. He shipped cattle hides from the La Playa area of Point Loma and married Maria Guadalupe Yldefonsa Machado Wilder.

According to a report called “Albert B. Smith and the Americanization of San Diego 1830-1869,” by public historian Charles Hughes in 2012, Smith served terms as county assessor, grand juror, judge, road overseer and school superintendent. He became fairly wealthy as a rancher, but his fortune declined with San Diego’s rocky economy. He committed suicide in 1867.

His gravestone, bearing a plaque commemorating his daring flag exploits, lies at Fort Rosecrans.

In a 2009 San Diego Union-Tribune article, Richard Crawford said Smith’s actions came as American sailors and Marines were skirmishing with Mexican locals, called Californios, over possession of the state. Capt. John Fremont’s California Battalion took San Diego in July 1846, but after they left for Los Angeles, control reverted to the Californios.

Residents of San Diego, including Albert Smith, took refuge from the Californios by boarding the whaling ship Cyane, anchored offshore. Worried that cannon on Presidio Hill could fire on the ship, Smith sneaked ashore in the night and disabled the cannon.

The Californios began retreating from San Diego and a sister of Smith’s future wife took down the Mexican flag in Old Town to preserve it. Smith then climbed the flagpole, fastened on an American flag, and reportedly waved his hat in defiance as some gunshots whizzed past him.


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