Because of Peter Smith's birthdate of November 15, 1768, he had little to do with the social reform movements for human rights that blossomed in the mid-nineteenth century. But it was because of his work at building a land sales business that the members of his son Gerrit Smith's family had the opportunity to become powerful reformers.
Born and reared near Tappan in Rockland County, NY, Peter developed an early interest in stage acting. As a young actor, he developed a friendship with another like-minded young man named John Jacob Astor. In their mutual effort to become wealthy, they got involved in the fur trade with Native American people in upstate New York. In 1787, Peter made his residence in what is now the Utica area, learned the native Oneida language, and traded dry goods for furs with the Oneida people.
As the fur trade diminished in the 1790s, Peter Smith and John Jacob Astor turned their business interests to land speculation with the Native Americans. Through the use of intentionally deceptive practices, they acquired via lease approximately 50,000 acres of land in central New York from the natives. When in 1795 the State of New York illegally purchased that same land from the Native Americans, Peter purchased it back from the state. This illegal purchase by New York State is the basis of Native American land claims presently.
In his effort to stay economically solvent during frequent recessions, Peter diversified his business endeavors. While continuing to buy and sell land, he developed businesses in grindstone manufacture and sales, glass manufacture and sales, timber harvest and lumber sales, farm products, and retail store sales.
Peter Smith and Elizabeth Livingston married in 1792, and had four children when they moved to Peterboro in January of 1807. Cornelia (1792-1825) had eight children when she died at age 33. Gerrit and Ann Smith cared for those children for three years after Cornelia's death. Peter Skenandoah Smith (1795-1858) struggled to become successful at several businesses, but was hindered by alcoholism. Adolphus Smith (1800-1844) lived a short life due to probable mental retardation. Gerrit Smith (1797-1874) purchased Peter's land sale business after Elizabeth Livingston Smith's death in 1818, and became a powerful social reformer.
In a depressed state after his wife's death, Peter left Peterboro, settling eventually in Schenectady, NY near to his latest large land purchase. He remarried in 1793 to Sarah Pogson, an elite literary person from South Carolina. That marriage was unsuccessful.
Peter fulfilled a number of civic roles. In 1795, he was appointed Sheriff of Herkimer County; in 1806 when Madison County was formed from Herkimer County, Peter was one of five judges. His title was "First Judge." In 1807 when the Township of Smithfield was created, Peter was its first Town Supervisor. Both Smithfield and Peterboro were named in honor of Peter Smith.
The Smith Mansion House, built in 1806 and destroyed by fire in 1936
On the personal side, Peter Smith was self-centered, arrogant, and pessimistic. Few people liked him, and most found him difficult to deal with. He called himself a Christian, but used religion to benefit himself rather than as a vehicle to help others. He worried constantly over the state of his own moral and physical health, and built for himself a delusional system of pessimistic self-victimization amid intense hypochondria.
Peter Smith's positive legacy rests in the social reform work done by the Gerrit Smith family. Peter's business acumen resulted in a stable source of income for future generations that was used philanthropically to help secure equity in social treatment for all persons. Without the financial resource base established originally by Peter Smith, Gerrit Smith could not have been a powerful abolitionist, and his consistent monetary support of front-line activists like journalist Frederick Douglass, agitator John Brown, and underground railroad conductor Harriet Tubman would not have been available,
The sad reality of Peter Smith's life is that he was a classically tragic figure. Although poised at the vortex of nation-founding forces with huge financial resources and potential influence, he failed to be a significant player in the formation of a democratic union at either national or local levels due to his self-centeredness, pessimism, and hypochondria. The task of developing for him a positive legacy rested with future generations.
Norman K. Dann PhD, Author