The Long Island Smiths: looking to a more inclusive view

Caleb Smith State Park main house: Wikimedia Commons (creative common license)

I am fortunate to live in the neighborhood of Smithtown, NY, on Long Island. It is the home of Caleb Smith State Park. The park features 543 acres of nature preserves with hiking trails, bird watching, a pond stocked with fish, and the main house and museum. It was home to Caleb Smith (1724-1800), a Yale educated farmer, judge, and state assembly member whose ancestor Richard Smith is credited with the founding of Smithtown in 1663. Caleb built the original house (part of the current main building) in 1753.

On a recent trip to the park, my husband and I hiked through some of the grounds, thoroughly enjoying the beautiful fall foliage, the pond and creeks, along with the main house and a number of out-buildings. The trails are marked along the way with helpful signs that provide natural and historical details.

One of the signs we stopped to read was about the labor involved with growing and harvesting food in the mid to late 1700s in Smithtown. I was struck by part of the text that stated

“By the end of the 18th century, settlers and British soldiers had ‘clear-cut’ most of the woods around this area to make their fields, build their homes, shops and ships, burn to cook and to keep warm at night.”

My immediate thought was that, while the explanation was no doubt accurate as to people who did the back breaking work of clearing the rocks and trees in original growth forest, it seemed incomplete. There was a sizable population of people at that time who provided labor in Smithtown, and Long Island as a whole, that weren’t settlers or British soldiers. Although today we don’t tend to think about this part of the history of the northeast region of the United States, there were hundreds of enslaved people of African descent held on Long Island, including by Caleb Smith. Long Island had more enslaved individuals than any other region of the northern American colonies. I don’t think there can be much doubt that the Smiths would have used enslaved people for the clearing work, even if they themselves were working along side them.

What do historic records actually tell us about the extent of the system of slavery in the late 1700s and early 1800s in Smithtown? Slavery was certainly practiced legally in the northern United States at that time. There was an act passed in NY State in 1799 called the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. As the name implies, it didn’t call for the freeing of all enslaved people in the state at once. Instead, it provided for the freedom of enslaved children born after 1799, but only in their adulthood (men when they turned 28 years old, and women at age 25). All enslaved people born before July 4, 1799 remained in bondage. This led to a slow decrease in the number of enslaved people in NY, over the course of decades. The gradual abolition was somewhat accelerated by another act in 1817 which declared that the enslaved born before 1799 would all become free in 1827, and shortened the enslavement age for men and women born after 1799 to 21 years old.

The United States federal census for Smithtown lists these numbers:

  • 1790 census: 743 free white people, 166 slaves, 113 “all other free people”
  • 1800 census: 165 slaves
  • 1810 census: 74 slaves

The “all other free people” category could include free people of color. There were also people of Native American ancestry held in slavery into the 1700s in NY State, but the numbers are thought to be considerably lower.

Last page of 1790 United States Federal Census for Smithtown, NY with town-wide totals

Caleb Smith was no different than many of his townspeople with the enslavement of African Americans. While on a much smaller scale than plantations in the American south that could hold hundreds of the enslaved, many Smithtown residents held individuals used for domestic and agricultural labor. The census data for Caleb shows that in 1790 he held 4 people, while in 1800 he held 2. Other residents with the surname Smith held anywhere from 1 to 10 enslaved people in 1790.

There are other places to find documentation of slavery in Smithtown. As part of recording and tracking children born to enslaved people for the gradual abolition act, the town kept a registry book for the years 1799 to 1819. The entries give the names and occupation of the owner as well as the name and gender of the newborn child, with the child’s date of birth. Another fascinating book is a compilation of various types of early town records from Smithtown, transcribed from the town clerk’s office. A good illustration of the continuing influence of the Smith family even at the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries, the first pages of the book lists the two town supervisors in 1898 (both named Smith), the two town clerks (one named Smith), and six justices of the peace (two named Smith).

A town record from 1688 was transcribed that describes land conveyed from Richard Smith to his son Richard junior, along with “…all his four negro slaves, by name Harry, Robbin, Bess, and Nan.” The 1764 will of Richard junior lists 6 enslaved people he was transferring to his children.

Starting in 1799, a number of emancipations of the enslaved are listed, with some records stating the gradual abolition law as a reason. These included:

  • “Philetus Smith manumits his slave Mike, commonly known by the name Mike Hunter
  • Manumission of Simon, slave of Jesse Smith, Jan. 27 1801
  • Manumission of James, a negro slave, by Nathaniel Smith and Jonas Smith, executors of Micah Smith, April 1 1803
  • Also of Zophar, of Caleb Smith
  • Also of Margaret, slave of Caleb Smith”

From these and other sources, it seems clear that enslaved African Americans labored in the houses and fields of Smithtown, including on the farm of Caleb Smith. With a growing desire to accurately include everyone in historic accounts, this state preserve has a perfect opportunity to educate us all in a historically complete way.

Sources

  1. Caleb Smith State Park Preserve, NY Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
  2. Friends of Caleb Smith Preserve, History
  3. WHSU public radio, Slavery on Long Island: The History That We Forget to Remember, 2020
  4. Plain Sight Project, East Hampton NY
  5. NY State Archives Partnership Trust, An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, 1799
  6. Native Heritage Project, Indian Slavery in New York, 2013
  7. A Record of Children Born of Slaves 1799-1819
  8. Early Records of Smithtown NY, Town of Smithtown, 1898

2 Comments

  1. BJ said:

    I enjoyed reading your article about the Smith family of Smithtown. When I was young, my family moved from Queens (NYC) to western side Smithtown bordering on Kings Park in the early 1960s and resided there until 1980. Years later, while researching my family’s history, I discovered that I’m a descendant of the Van Tassels and Catoneras of the Long Island Matinecock tribe. The Matinecocks once resided on the lands from northwestern Queens to the western side of Smithtown. During your research of the Smith Family did you come across the controversy of the ownership of the land (Huntington to Western Smithtown) challenged by Catoneras’ son, and Van Tassel descendants, against the Smith Family and others ? If not, you might be interested in the research article published about Catoneras in the past by John A. Strong, James Van Tassel and Rick Van Tassel. https://lihj.cc.stonybrook.edu/2010/articles/in-search-of-catoneras-long-islands-pocahontas/

    BTW, I was very surprised, smiled, and laughed when I , ironically, learned that I grew up on land in western Smithtown originally owned by my ancestors tribe.

    April 15, 2024
    Reply
    • dreamer said:

      This is a new story to me, but fascinating! The history of the native tribes of Long Island definitely needs more attention. Thanks for the information.

      April 15, 2024
      Reply

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