The post-war life of Alexander Lawson Smith, a “Harford Man”

Parts of a 1878 map of Harford County with specific emphasis on the areas of Alexander’s lands along Swan Creek (left), near Rumney Creek (middle), and on Gunpowder Neck (right). Map is courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Where we left off, the specifics of the Maryland’s Extra Regiment were outlined, with some focus on Alexander Lawson Smith, the commander of this regiment who had served in the Maryland Line since 1776. He had fought at the Battle of Fort Washington but did not proceed to Fort Pitt with riflemen in 1779, staying behind with the 4th Maryland Regiment until his resignation as a captain, was accepted by Continental Congress the same year.

In the 1790s

In the post-war period, Alexander became a co-founder of the Society of the Cincinnati. In 1792, he married Martha Griffith. Martha came from a family that descended from Wales, owning hundreds of acres and numerous enslaved Blacks and living across the state, but with strong roots in Anne Arundel County, and contributed more soldiers to revolutionary cause than any other family in the state of Maryland. [1] This is confirmed by the Assessment of 1783 showing those within the Griffith family owning over two thousand acres within Harford County, including an area named “Rumney Royal,” which would be kept in the Griffith family, a land which, would, in the coming years, be part of the story of Alexander Smith, a “Harford Man.” Reportedly, Alexander and Martha would have three children, Samuel (b. 1794), Francina Francis (1797-1860), and Martia Matilida (1799-1860)

As Alexander was settling in Harford County after the war, he began to acquire land. In February 1795, he paid a man named Michael Allen, living in the town of “William Michael,” 45 pounds to buy a parcel of land named “Duch Point,” which sat on Swan Creek, which is near present-day Havre De Grace. [2] As part of the agreement, Alexander had to defend the “tract and premises” against all claiming a part of the land. Later that month, the wife of Michael, named Elizabeth, appeared before local Justices of the Peace, with both Michael and Alexander present, relinquishing her right to the land and premises, saying that she was not coerced to do so, but did so “freely and willingly” since Michael had no “displeasure” in parting with the land, it seemed.. This is is interesting because it implies that some women were coerced, but also may indicate that Elizabeth had a degree of autonomy.

The location of “Duch Point” cannot be currently found within Harford County. Since this parcel of land sat on Swan Creek, which has a few “points” (High Point, Cedar Point, Plum Point, and Swan Creek Point), it cannot be the same as historical Dutch Island. Even with the exact location unknown, the contours of this story can be filled out. For one, Swan Creek, a “branch of Chesapeake Bay, mouth (2) miles north of Cole,” with a village of the same name less than a two miles northeast of Aberdeen, with warehouses there, and a place of much activity during the revolutionary war, to not be confused with other areas named Swan Creek across the state.

In later years, Marta, Alexander, and the rest of the family lived in Swansbury at the house of her widowed mother, a frame dwelling of some type. It is also worth mentioning that George Washington saw Alexander as a “personal friend,” making him an original member of the Society of Cincinnati.

In 1798, he would own 463 acres in Harford Lower & Spesutia Lower Hundreds which was worth almost $2,500 dollars on first valuation, and over $2,800 as analyzed by the commissioner. Additionally he would own 2 acres which contained six out houses and one dwelling house worth a total of $500. This specific land would be described in more detail on the page for the specific hundred, which would say the following:

Another page lists Smith as owning 370 acres in Gunpowder Lower Hundred called Tapley’s Neck. There he had one dwelling house, one mory, one 16 x 16 kitchen, one 14 x 12 x 11 house, and other specifications which cannot be read due to the nature of the original record. For all this land, he only paid $16.63 in tax, a small amount. This means that minus taxes, he would have $3283.37 worth of property, the relative value of which would be $65,300 in current U.S. dollars.

Into the 1800s

Five years later, in 1800, Alexander headed a household in Harford County’s District 2 or Halls Cross Roads. Apart from his son under age 10, daughter aged 16-25, his two daughters ages 16-25, and his wife, Martha, he owned twenty-one enslaved Blacks. [3] This made him a well-off slaveowner and part of the region’s politics, with the Chesapeake Bay a major region for slavery, even into the 19th century, as slavery began to expand into indigenous homelands and other areas in the Deep South. This undoubtedly reinforced his standing as a “gentleman” among the Maryland social elite, which he had gained not only as a clerk of the Harford County court but through his military career, famous from the battle at Fort Washington in 1776. Even so, the “respectability” he gained should not mask the brutalities inherent to slavery in the Americas and elsewhere.

The same year, Alexander, and Martha, his wife, along with two of her sisters, Frances and Sarah, sold a tract of land in the same county. For 1,060 pounds, they sold a tract of 370 acres named Tapley/Tapley’s Neck, that sat along Gunpowder (River) Neck, to a Baltimore City revolutionary war veteran and slaveowner named George Presbury, later a local political figure in Harford County. [4] This region of the county consists of an area south of Edgewood, Maryland. By August, the transaction was complete, making the Smith-Griffith families much wealthier. To find the equivalent in today’s money requires some calculations. [5] After going through many calculations, it is clear they would be garnering $134,489 in US dollars from George, which by today’s standards would put them (and likely George) within the top ten percent of income earners. Back then they still would have been well-off landowners, but in a different way as only select people owned land rather than a vast majority.

The 1941 Gazetteer of Maryland describes Gunpowder Neck as a neck “in Harford County; lying between Bush River, Chesapeake Bay and Gunpowder River.” While the area, but the 1830s, would have road-building to and from “Belle Air” (present-day Belair, Maryland), in the time that Tapley Neck was sold, there was a “small plantation” in the region, possibly one that sat on the land that was sold to George, with Maryland militiamen stationed on the neck during the Revolutionary War. The region, includes a 19-mile long tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, Bush River, has a “lower end” near the bay and an “upper end” and is still south of Edgewood. Currently, this whole region is part of Aberdeen Proving Ground, a 75,000 acre military base which was created in 1917, where chemical (and biological) weapons and agents have been tested, meaning that people who “accidentally ingest or come in direct contact with contaminated ground water, surface water, soil, or sediments may be at risk.”

One year later, in June 1801, Alexander, Elijah Davis, Samuel Griffith, and  Frances Garretson (likely related to Aquila Nelson), all were executors of the will of Samuel Griffith, the father of Alexander’s wife, Martha, agreed on an indenture with other members of the Griffith family (Lewis Griffith and Avarella Maria Hynson of Kent County). In this agreement, the executors of Samuel Griffith’s gave the Griffith family 100 acres of land called “Rummy Royal”/Rumney Royal which sat in the county at the head of Rummy Creek between Williams Swamp and “long Bridge,” while being bound by other lands, such as Spring Garden. [6] This land is along Little Romney Creek, which sits within the county to this day, or “Romney Creek,” to be more broad. Furthermore, there is an area named “Romney Royal,” where a farm used to exist, so this use of words is clearly just another spelling of something that already exists. [7] He would die very shortly, so this property was likely distributed after his death to related family members and claimants to his estate.

The date of his death is of some dispute. Some sources claim he was buried on January 26, 1802, while his gravestone seems to say he died on Jan. 24, 1801. In this case, the gravestone should be believed over the other claims. Numerous issues of the Maryland Gazette in late January and early February 1801 and in 1802 turned up no results on Alexander. All that we have is an inscription on his tombstone as noted by one site

In memory of Col. Alexander Lawson Smith, who departed this life on the 24th of Jan. 1801, in the 48th year of his age.

While this pegs his birth in 1753, it is strange that he had no obituary within the Maryland Gazette considering his role in the war, not even in the January 29th issue. No other information is known.

After his death

In 1801, the House of Delegates reported that Alexander had been part of a petition to reopen a case between his wife and other petitioners in the Maryland Court of Appeals. It was first considered (as noted at the top of the page) and then later read and order to “lie on the table” (bottom of page). Hence, one could say that this law did not pass. Martha, his wife, was a part of numerous cases after that point, but it not known if any of them involved him, since he cannot be found within this page.

Thirty five years later, in 1836, Martha, who had remarried to a man named Samuel Jay, would petition the Maryland General Assembly for redress, and would be paid the half-pay of a captain “during her widowhood,” a time period which was not defined in the legislation:

Many years later, Alexander’s heirs would petition the US House of Representatives for additional redress, asking for pension payments.

Other than this, some would mention Alexander in their petition to public officials such as Henry Clay, and within the pension of William Elkins.

In later years, the Griffith family would go on to live in Arkansas. To this day, they are buried in Perryman’s Spesutia churchyard, within Harford County. [8] As for Alexander’s ancestors, they would later be living in Illinois, reportedly.

More information would have been added to this article but online searchings only brought up the above information, as did some other searches on the topic. Regardless, this a good start to future historical research on the topic.

Notes

[1] R. R. Griffith, Genealogy of the Griffith family: the descendants of William and Sarah Maccubbin Griffith (Baltimore, William K. Boyle, 1892), 282, 286, 288-290,  292. In Anne Arundel County there is a Griffith Family Cemetery. The claim about contributions of soldiers comes from William Neal Hurley’s The Griffith Families. The Griffith Family is also mentioned on numerous pages within Thomas Joseph Peterman‘s Catholics in Colonial Delmarva along with mentions in the Harford Historical Bulletin Subject Index. The Maryland Genealogical Society also reports that in Vol. 18, no. 3 there is a “Griffith Family Register” by Nettie Leitsch Major.

[2] Deed sold to Alexander Lawson Smith by Michael Allen, 1795, Harford County Court, Land Records, Liber JLG L, p. 365-366 [MSA CE113-11]. Courtesy of mdlandrec.net.

[3] Second Census of the United States, 1800, District 2, Harford, Maryland, National Archives, NARA M32, Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, Roll 11, Page 46. Courtesy of Ancestry.com and HeritageQuest.

[4] Mariana L.R. Dantas, Black Townsmen: Urban Slavery and Freedom in the Eighteenth-Century Americas (New York: Palgrave MacMillian, 2008), 176; Walter Wilkes Preston, History of Harford County, Maryland (Baltimore: Press of Sun Book Office, 1901), 89, 106, 271; Laws Made And Passed By The General Assembly of the State of Maryland in 1816 (Annapolis: Jonas Green, 1817), 94, 159; Harford County Court, Certificates of Freedom, 1806-1811 and 1818-1842, Archives of Maryland Online vol. 857, 46; Laying out vacant land for George Presbury of William, December 22, 1803, Harford County Circuit Court, Certificates, Unpatented, HA, Unpatented Certificate 111 [MSA S1222-111]. Courtesy of Plats.Net; Deed sold to George Presbury by Alexander L. Smith, Martha Smith, Frances Griffith, and Sarah Griffith, 1800, Harford County Court, Land Records, Liber JLG P, p. 104-105 [MSA CE113-15]. Courtesy of mdlandrec.net. The land deed confirms that Martha’s father was Samuel Griffith, but was dead by this time, and that Martha’s last name was Griffith. As for the plat, it shows that Mr. Presbury owned a two-acre tract of land in Gunpowder Neck called Hugh’s Fortune, which just happened to border Tapley’s Neck, which he had owned after 1760. He may have also had royal ancestry while his family would have deep roots in Harford County for years to come as noted in William B. Marye’s “Place Names of Baltimore and Harford Counties” within Vol. 53, No. 3 of Maryland Historical Magazine, specifically focusing on pages 246-247, 249-252.

[5] If we are to take this conversion seriously, with 1.333 Maryland Pounds (pcm) equaling one pound sterling, then that would be about 795 pounds sterling. Using Measuring Worth, the relative real price is £58,910.00 in pounds, as of 2016. If you multiple this times the inflation rate of 2016-2017, 1.76, you get 103,681.6. In order to make a more even number, let’s round this to 103,682. Using XE Currency Converter, converting British pounds sterling into US dollars, it shows that this amount of British Pounds equals 134,489.42 or to round to a more even number, 134,489.

[6] Preston, History of Harford County, Maryland, 203; Richard D. Sears, Ancestors of Rev. John Gregg Fee, Matilda (Hamilton) Fee, and John Gregg Hanson (US: Lulu.com, 2007), 143. Indenture of executors of Samuel Griffith’s will to members of the Griffith family, Harford County Court, Land Records, Liber JLG P, p. 457-460 [MSA CE113-15]. Courtesy of mdlandrec.net. More information about the Smith family can likely be found from resources available from FamilySearch. While only a snippet of Sears’s book can be found on Google Books, one phrase from that section shows that Mr. Smith, Ms. Griffith, and Ms. Garretson are connected: “…Alexander Lawson Smith, his wife Martha Griffith, and his sister-in-law Frances Garretson

[7] William Bose Marye, “The Place Names of Baltimore and Harford Counties,” Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol. 25, No. 4, Dec. 1930, p. 338, 358. Also, in the Archives Vertical Files Documents of the Harford County Historical Society, there is a cross-reference to Romney Royal within the “Aberdeen Proving Ground – Michaelsville & various tracts” folder as noted in page 221 of this PDF.

[8] Helen West Ridgely, Historic Graves of Maryland and the District of Columbia (New York: The Grafton Press, 1908), 95-97, 180-181. This book lists a number of Griffiths: Martha, Alexander L., Cordelia, John H., Hannah Emily, Emily, and Samuel. Even Col. Alexander Lawson Smith is buried there, described as dying on Jan 24, 1801 at 48 years old! two others are buried in Montgomery County: Capt. Samuel Griffith (May 7, 1752-May 12, 1833), H. Griffith (d. 1794, aged 73 years), E. Griffith (d. Oct. 1797, aged 33 years), Ruth Griffith (died 49 years old), and many others not listed here.

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