Born on March 8, 1860, when his mother was 42 years old, Franklin Smith Henderson was the ninth and last child of William Lee and Eleanor Ann Selina Shelby Henderson. He arrived in Perry County, Alabama, to a large and close family. His oldest sister, Mary Amanda, was 19 years old, had been married for almost four years, and had two babies—Margaret Selina and William Kelsey—when her baby brother was born.
Franklin Smith was a birthday present for his second sister, Martha Elizabeth; he arrived on her 18th birthday. There were three more older sisters and three older brothers—Margaret Isabelle, Joseph Asmon, Harriet Caroline, Sarah Jane, John Madison, and William Daniel.
The family lived near today's small village of Heiberger in Perry County, Alabama, where the baby was born. The center of both their spiritual and their social life was Bethesda Presbyterian Church, which the family had founded shortly after they arrived in Alabama from North Carolina.
Smith Henderson, as the child was known, was born a year before the outbreak of the Civil War. He was five years old when the war ended, and he spent his early years in the unstable conditions of reconstruction following that war. There is no way of conjecturing how the war and its subsequent unstable conditions affected the young boy, but it is almost certain that his parents, siblings, and numerous other relatives made the child’s life as stable and loving as possible.
From records in the journals of his brother John Madison, it is clear that Smith was a much-loved and somewhat protected member of the family.
Smith was 17 years old when the Hendersons left Alabama for Texas. He might, or might not, have been a part of the five-caravan wagon train that made the journey from Perry County, Alabama, to Smith County, Texas. His brother Will does not mention Smith in any of the references he makes of the trip. It is likely that he was persuaded by his parents to make the journey by train with them and the women and children in the family.
Almost as soon as the families had settled in Saline Community near Lindale, not far from the Sabine River, they established a place of worship, which became Bethesda Presbyterian Church, so named for their previous church in Alabama. Smith Henderson, at such a young age, played a prevalent part in its founding. After a building was erected and dedicated and the first officers were elected, F. S. Henderson was named a deacon. He was not quite 20 years old.
The entire family put its financial backing and its personal labor toward the church’s founding. There is, in John Madison Henderson’s journals, a list of the individuals who contributed to the building of the church, together with the amount they gave. There is also a list of the people who worked to erect the sanctuary and of those who hand-hewed pews for the church.
It is almost prophetic, judging by the chain of events that followed, that Franklin Smith Henderson prevailed on his father, older brothers, and other relatives to lay out a cemetery as a sacrament to the Henderson pioneers who settled in the area. They were receptive to the idea, but slow in responding. Family stories, passed down through the years, give a glimpse of Smith as an almost saintly young man. John Madison often mentions going with his brother Smith to hear a sermon or to listen to singing. They undoubtedly were very close.
On February 15, 1881, John’s journal reveals:
“On this beautiful and serene morn, Bro. Franklin Smith departed this life at five a.m. of hecterrhoid feaver. His suffering was great. He commenced yesterday eave at 4 o’clock. Oh, how lonely to think of doing without his company. Yet, I was glad to see the end of his suffering. Oh! For grave that I may be resigned nor ever murmur or complain. Yet, how hard indeed when I think of all the future plans together. All things work together for good to them that love the Lord. Oh, may I be resigned.”
Funeral services the next day were equally traumatic for the grieving family. Franklin Smith Henderson was three weeks shy of being 21 years old. He was buried on family property in a lone grave that his brothers fenced and tended. John has told us,
“There was good behavior during the sermon [funeral service]. There was a large funeral procession. This is the first grave on the grounds given for the purpose of the erection of a Presbyterian Church. It may be the door to enable us to erect the house at an early date.”
And, indeed, it was. Shortly after the death of its young and beloved member, the cemetery was marked off and a new church sanctuary completed.
In his death, Franklin Smith Henderson challenged countless generations to follow, even those who do not remember his name or his contributions, to live magnanimous lives. Of those who came after, the most significant who followed in his footsteps was a nephew, Franklin Smith Henderson II. (See 2-4, Joe’s son Franklin Smith Henderson II.) The younger Franklin was born to Smith’s older brother Joseph Asmon and his wife, Samantha Jane LaGrone Henderson, on December 26, 1883, almost three years after Smith’s death. It was almost as if this child inherited the dreams and vision of his deceased namesake uncle, for he became a prominent Presbyterian minister.
Smith Henderson’s lone grave, fenced, protected from grazing livestock, and tenderly cared for, became the nucleus of Bethesda Cemetery where his parents, all except two of his siblings, and countless aunts, uncles, and cousins rest in eternal peace.