March 12, 2011

Police officer in Skagway, Alaska related to Soapy Smith?

(Click image to enlarge)

Believe it or not, a police officer, in Skagway, Alaska may be a descendant of Soapy! Officer Ken Jennings contacted me about this possibility in hopes we might be able to solve this case.

Ken writes,

My name is Kenneth Jefferson Jennings. I am a 22-year police veteran, having retired from the Juneau Police Department (AK) in 2006 as the Departmental Senior Officer and Senior Detective. I am now working as a Police Officer in Skagway, Alaska.

My grandmother is Helen Smith…aka Helen Jennings. She married Boyce Jefferson Jennings of Fort Smith, Arkansas…and they later moved to Augusta in Woodruff County, Arkansas. My Grandfather Boyce died in Augusta, Arkansas in 1963. My grandmother Helen died in Augusta, Arkansas (1995?). My father (Kenneth Lane Jennings, born October 8th 1933 in Fort Smith, Arkansas – died at the age of 73 on June 14th 2008 in Eagle, Idaho) had always claimed we were related to Jefferson R. “Soapy” Smith through bloodline on his mother’s side. My father also claimed we were related to the founding Smith Family of “Fort Smith”, Arkansas.

Additionally, I recall my older father and his brother Billy Ray Jennings (of Little Rock, Arkansas…my uncle) retelling “Soapy Smith stories” they had heard from my grandmother Helen and her brother (my grand-uncle) Robert “Uncle Bob” Smith (who died in Anchorage, Alaska circa 1959). I have family in Arkansas who remember stories of “Uncle J.R.” (Smith) and how he had “turned bad” and “gone up to Alaska and got himself killed”. My father told me stories he recalled of family get-togethers in Arkansas where family history was discussed, remembered, laughed at, and mourned. He recalled how the “older folks” in our family had always used “Uncle J.R.” as an example of what NOT to be when you grow up, and why you should attend church regularly.

Do you have any information regarding Smith’s family and his/their descendants? He (“Soapy” Smith) certainly has a strong physical resemblance to many male relatives on my Grandmother’s side…but that – and the recollections of my family, though honest and sincere they may be – are not reliable sources.

I ask because of this: A notorious “Bunko Man” and criminal who plied his illegal trade(s) in Alaska – specifically between Juneau and Skagway – may have a descendant who was born in Alaska, is a highly decorated Lawman from Juneau, and is currently a Lawman in Skagway. (If the stories are true . . . then Destiny has a peculiar sense of irony).

Officer Kenneth J. Jennings
Skagway Police Department
Skagway, Alaska 99840

In another email Officer Ken wrote,

Hi Jeff…

I don’t recall my grandmother (Helen Smith – ne Jennings) as having a middle name. However, as she was born in the deep south, and as EVERYONE in the south has a middle name (Jimmy Dale, Billy Bob, etc – haha) it is certainly plausible. I also had an Aunt named Helen, who married a man named Robert. Robert died and was buried in Anchorage, Alaska circa 1968. I believe Aunt Helen’s maiden name was Worthington, and she worked for British Petroleum in Anchorage as a very senior secretary. As a child (early 1960’s) I recall I was afraid of her because she had one of her legs removed just above the knee. I don’t remember what caused this. She has – in all likelihood – passed away by now.

In the late 50’s (1958?) my father (Kenneth Lane Jennings) traveled to Anchorage, Alaska with a cousin named Billy Ray Smith (from Arkansas – now living in Texas) Billy Ray Smith was a professional football player who used to play for either the Miami Dolphins or the Baltimore Colts - - or both. His son, Billy Ray Smith Jr., also plays/played football (for the Arkansas Razorbacks and I believe went on to play professionally…though I don’t recall the team).

According to my father, their uncle (my great uncle?) named Robert “uncle Bob” Smith lived in Anchorage in the 50’s. “Uncle Bob” may have had other male family members living in Anchorage, as my father used to tell stories about how “Uncle Bob” and his brothers couldn’t walk down the same side of the street together as the police would instantly know who they were and run them in on “general principles” (apparently he – and many of my Smith and Jennings clan – were a bunch of hard drinkers and hard fighters. Seems to run in the family from WAY back….). Anyway, “Uncle Bob” used to get himself embroiled in one barroom fiasco after another, and would continually call my father and Billy Ray to either “back him up” or “bail him out”.

Uncle Bob died in Alaska in the 1950’s…probably from drowning. As best I can recall the story told by my father, Uncle Bob was on board a boat in waters in or around Anchorage, Alaska (not sure why, but apparently he might have been working as a fisherman). Apparently there was a pretty violent storm. In the middle of all this, Uncle Bob (and those aboard the boat he was on) located a fully loaded barge. The barge was adrift in the storm, and no tug or other vessel in sight. My father says Uncle Bob declared he was going to claim the barge for “Salvage” (Maritime Law says an abandoned vessel in International waters can be claimed thus). As the story goes, Uncle Bob grabbed his 30-30 lever action Winchester rifle and managed to board the barge during the storm in order to claim salvage rights. That was the last anyone saw of Uncle Bob. However, my father and many others walked the shorelines looking for Uncle Bob. The beaten-up barge and damaged cargo was found on the shoreline. About 3” of the barrel of his rifle was sticking out of the sand on a beach not far from the barge. The rifle was recovered, but the body never was.

I spoke to my mother, who says she remembers a few stories about how we are related to Soapy Smith. She is going to send me an Email today or tomorrow about what she remembers. I’ll forward that along. (As a side-note…she also claims we are related to Captain James Cook (British naval officer & explorer who discovered areas of the Pacific including parts of Alaska, Hawaii, and the Cook Islands). I don’t know about that, but that is another story for some other time.

I have also contacted several other family members, and will keep you posted if I learn anything further. And thank you very much for everything you are doing. Truly, I didn’t expect such an effort. It is greatly appreciated.

Officer Kenneth J. Jennings
Skagway Police Department

Dear, Officer Jennings.

As you write, Destiny would have a peculiar sense of irony, —or perhaps even a bizarre since of humor. You certainly have a number of family members who firmly believe Helen Smith is a descendant of Soapy’s. That’s a positive sign, but as you state, it’s not a reliable source (of provenance).

As promised, I looked in my personal family tree and did not find Helen. However, do not close this case yet. The genealogy of my family is a huge tree with many branches each having ever sprouting twigs flowing in all directions.

Here’s one of the issues: When Soapy was born in Georgia; his family was one of good standing in Coweta County. When the pillars of the family (his grand-parents) passed away Soapy’s parents moved to Texas. When Soapy’s mother passed away in 1877 Round Rock, Texas the father dove headfast into a state of alcoholism and eventually ended up in an asylum (where they used to put alcoholics). Contact with the main family in Georgia waned, and ceased with Soapy reaching manhood. Once becoming a known bad man, the Georgia branch of the family erased acknowledgement of his existence, as well as his name from the family bible. Except for what they read in the newspapers, there was little, if any connection between the families outside of Soapy’s cousin, Edwin Bobo Smith. Up until the 1960s the Georgia clan did not know of my side of the family. Even the plots at the Newnan cemetery were “lost” as far as location. In the 50s my father and his siblings began searching for the old family and today, thanks to their efforts, many were found and connections were made. However, over the decades since Soapy moved to Texas, many family tree branches had uprooted and left Georgia, knowing they were related to Soapy, but not much more. I believe this is possibly your families’ case.

On top of all that uprooting there were family members who were very shamed that Soapy was in their bloodline. They chose to pretend that he did not exist; hence, there are many families, like yours, with only a few hints of a relation.

I contacted my friend, Gay Mathis, who is a professional genealogist to look into your search. I am also hopeful someone else in my branch of the family knows of yours.

Here’s what Gay found. Note: These Smith’s are not currently listed in my personal family tree but may very well be candidates for admission if anyone can connect them. Without going into the detail that Gay so kindly sent me here is what we have thus far.

(1880 census)
James Smith and Elizabeth Willingham aka Cumire E. married in Tennessee 1868. They had 9 children, including son, John D. Smith, born about 1875-1880.

John D. Smith and Pearl Killchrist married in Tennessee 1903. They had 3 children including Helen Smith. Born: August 15, 1908 in Arkansas.

Helen Smith and Boyce Jefferson Jennings married in Augusta, Woodruff, Arkansas. Helen Smith died May 18, 1996.

I will send Officer Ken the details Gay found in hopes he might be able to solve this case. I also need my family’s help in seeking out clues.


Please check your trees for Helen Smith, born: August 15, 1908. Died: May 18, 1996. Married to Boyce Jefferson Jennings, Augusta, Woodruff, Arkansas.

1898: Soapy posts “answer to warning” handbills in Skagway for the Committee of 101. The handbills are signed from the Committee of 317.

Special thanks to Gay Mathis, genealogist extraordinaire!


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Thank you for leaving your comment and/or question on my blog. I always read, and will answer all questions left here. Please know that they are greatly appreciated. -Jeff Smith