William Ellsworth Smythe (1861-1922)

William Ellsworth Smythe (1861-1922)

William Ellsworth Smythe was born December 24, 1861, in Worcester Mass. His father was William Augustus Smythe, a wealthy shoe manufacturer, his mother Mrs. Abbie Bailey Smythe. Young Smythe was editor of his high school newspaper. In 1881 he established a book publishing business which failed. In 1882 he married Harriet Bridge of Haverford and became the father of three children.

A land development company sent him to Kearney, Neb., where he became editor of the daily newspaper, the Enterprise. During his editorship, Smythe visited New Mexico and saw an irrigation project taking shape. The message he got was dormant for a while, but within a year it sprang to life.

In 1889 Col Edward Rosewater made him editor of the Omaha Bee. The next year a terrible draught gripped the Great plains. Smythe saw farmers abandoning their land and, within sight of creeks that had carried water a year before, shoot their livestock because they couldn't prevent the beasts from dying of thirst.

Smythe went to Colonel Rosewater with an idea for a series of editorials about irrigation. Studying the history of irrigation from ancient Egypt, researching day and night, Smythe hammered home his theme daily in the Bee. Smythe spoke frequently at meetings and became chairman of the National Irrigation Congress. A movement that would have profound effect on the future of the arid American West was under way. William Ellsworth Smythe was its spokesman and he became one of the most polished orators of his day, travelling from coast to coast on speaking tours. He told thousands of Americans:

The spectacle of the manless land and the landless man is enough to make the angels weep.

A little land and a living, surely, is better than a desperate struggle and wealth, possibly.

He founded the magazine Irrigation Age in 1891 and edited it until 1896. He published articles in national magazines -- Atlantic, Harper's, Century. His first book The Conquest of Arid America was published in 1899.

Smythe directed the founding of a cooperative land development called New Plymouth in Idaho, advised developers near Sacramento and Lassen County. He founded the town of Standish. He arrived in San Diego in 1902 and ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Democrat. Some campaign dreams of Smythe became the works of congressmen William Kettner and Phil Swing.

From 1902 until 1907, Smythe wrote--first Constructive Democracy; then History of San Diego.

In 1908, Smythe organized the "Little Landers". Utopia was at hand. The Little Landers set up a community in the Tia Juana River Valley, now San Ysidro. At one time there were 300 families. Water for irrigation came from wells. Each family was to produce a living from its tract. They opened a market on 6th Street in San Diego and sold their surplus crops. Smythe lived in the colony in San Ysidro from 1909-1911 and served as vice-president and president.

In 1912, Smythe was back in the newspaper business, writing editorials for the Scripps papers from a San Diego office. He continued to tour the West, speaking for irrigation, reclamation, big dams, water for the West. He was publishing a Little Landers magazine. He helped organize a community near Glendale, which is now Tujunga, and a Little Lander poultry colony called Runnymede.

Immediately after WWI, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of Interior for veteran's land settlement. His last book, City Homes on Country Lanes was published in 1921. On Oct. 6, 1922, Smythe died in his apartment on 5th Avenue in New York.

[The above is from a 1959 newspaper article in the Tribune by Joe Stone.]


  • Smythe's History of San Diego is still regarded as an important and largely accurate record of early San Diego history. He reported that "it is wholly devoid of paid biographies and commercial writeups". Many of the biographies on this website are taken directly from that 2-volume work.
  • Read more about Smythe and the Little Landers in the Journal of San Diego History article Inventing Agriculture in Southern California.
  • The entire text of Smythe's The Conquest of Arid America is now available in digitized form from the American Memories website of the Library of Congress.