The Man Who Inspired Father’s Day Was a Single Dad and a Civil War Vet
William Jackson Smart was a twice-married, twice-widowed Civil War veteran and father of 14 children, one of whom dedicated her life to the creation of Father’s Day in honour of her devoted and selfless dad.
The story goes that William’s daughter, Sonora Smart Dodd, was attending one of the first official Mother’s Day services in 1909 at her church in Spokane, Washington, when she had an epiphany—if mothers deserved a day in honour of their loving service, why not fathers?
When Sonora was 16, her mother Ellen died, leaving William as a single father to Sonora and her five younger brothers. And by Sonora’s account, he performed brilliantly. “I remember everything about him,” Sonora said many years later to the Spokane Daily Chronicle. “He was both father and mother to me and my brothers and sisters.”
Sonora’s mother Ellen, herself a widow, had three children from a previous marriage. On top of that, William had also been married and widowed before he met Sonora’s mother. William had five children with his first wife, Elizabeth, who were already grown when William became a widower for the second time.
In 1910, Sonora brought a petition before the Spokane Ministerial Alliance to recognize the courage and devotion of all fathers like William on June 5, her dad’s birthday. The local clergy liked the idea of a special Father’s Day service, but couldn’t pull something together so quickly, so they settled for June 19, the third Sunday in June.
On that first Father’s Day in 1910, church sermons across Spokane were dedicated to dear old dad, red and white roses were passed out in honour of living and deceased fathers, the mayor of Spokane and governor of Washington issued proclamations, and Sonora found her calling. She would spend much of the next 60 years pushing for the official recognition of Father’s Day as a national holiday.
William Jackson Smart, the original inspiration for Father’s Day, was born in Arkansas in 1842 and records show that he enlisted as a Union soldier there in 1863. That was odd, because Arkansas was a Confederate state. Spokane resident, Jerry Numbers, who owned what had been Sonora’s home, researched the Smart family history for Spokane’s Father’s Day Centennial Celebration in 2010. Numbers says that William, in fact, fought for both sides in the Civil War.
Driving a supply wagon for Confederate troops, William was captured in the Battle of Pea Ridge, a decisive Union victory in Arkansas in 1862. Rather than languish in a prisoner of war camp, he opted to join the northern cause. As an indication that William was a “Reb” before he was a “Yank,” Sonora was a member of both the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Daughters of Union Veterans.
When Sonora was born in 1882, William and his second wife Ellen were living on a “coal ranch” in Jenny Lind, Arkansas. Instead of mining for coal, William and the family “farmed” it, collecting chunks of coal from the surface and carting it to town for sale. William and Ellen sold the property in 1887 for $5,000—a handsome sum at the time —and the family travelled by train to a new homestead outside of Spokane. (The farm in Arkansas would turn out to be one of the most productive coalfields in the entire nation.)
It was on the Smart’s family farm near Creston, Washington, where William’s second wife died and he became a widower again at the age of 56. His youngest son was seven or eight and Sonora, his oldest child still living at home, was 16. In Sonora’s memories of this difficult time, she recalls her father as a “great home person,” a man who exemplified fatherly love and protection.
That first Father’s Day celebration in Spokane might have remained a local tradition if not for the perseverance of Sonora Smart Dodd. Following the 1910 Father’s Day observance, William Jennings Bryan, one of the most famous politicians of the time, sent Sonora a congratulatory letter, which sparked a rush of national media attention on Sonora and Spokane.
Sonora won the support of her congressmen, who began to lobby for the creation of a national holiday. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson celebrated Father’s Day in
Spokane during a visit to Washington. We don’t know if William Jackson Smart was there to shake the president’s hand, but it would have been one of his last Father’s Days. William died in 1919.
Much more than a Father’s Day booster, Sonora Smart Dodd was an accomplished artist, poet, children’s book author, funeral home director, and founding member of just about every civic organization in Spokane. But she never let go of her determination to give fathers like hers the recognition they deserved.
It wasn’t until 1972, six years before Sonora’s death at the age of 96, that President Richard Nixon finally signed a Congressional resolution declaring the third Sunday in June to be Father’s Day. Her dad, no doubt, would have been proud.