William Smith: Early Years on the Pennsylvania Frontier: 1728 – 1761

William Smith was born on April 12, 1728 in Donegal Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He was the only son of parents James and Mary Smith. James Smith immigrated to Pennsylvania from Ireland around 1722 (Bolton 1910). James appears to be the first of his family to immigrate to Pennsylvania with his brother Samuel arriving six years later in 1728.

James was one of several dozen Irish Presbyterians who upon their arrival in Pennsylvania traveled west to the Susquehanna River and established the settlement of Donegal in Lancaster County (Table 4). Over the next several years, the settlers surveyed and patented numerous tracts along the east bank of the Susquehanna River in present-day townships of Conoy and Donegal (Evans 1897). In 1737, James Smith surveyed a 469-acre tract he claimed on the border of present-day Conoy and East Donegal Townships (Figure 14). He likely took up residence on the parcel upon his arrival in 1722 and during that time initiated a warrant for the property. The warrant was an official certificate issued by the proprietors that gave Smith basic title to the property but did not convey all rights to the tract. Upon receiving the warrant, Smith was required to have the tract surveyed and upon completion, a patent would be issued. Since the survey did not occur until 1737, it appears it took Smith some time to save enough capital to afford the fees involved.

Table 4

James Smith
Figure 14: Location of James Smith’s 1737 Land Patent

Many of James Smith’s fellow settlers established farms along the Susquehanna River. Others found started industries or established commercial establishments that supported the growing community. John Galbraith, whose land bordered the east bank of the Susquehanna River, established the community’s first grist and sawmills on the Conoy Creek (Evans 1897). He was followed by James Roddy who also established a mill on Chicques Creek which ran through his property. In addition to milling, the Gilbraiths also established one of Donegal’s first ordinaries. Patrick Campbell also built an ordinary on his property which was located just north of James Smith’s land.

By the time of William Smith’s birth in 1728, Donegal was considered Pennsylvania’s frontier. The majority of Pennsylvania’s European settlements were located east of the Susquehanna River. Beyond the river’s west bank lay thousands of acres of wilderness populated by hundreds of Native American villages. Some of the closest Native American villages lie just to the west and north of Donegal. To many of the new Irish residents of the river valley, their proximity to Native American communities was seen as an economic advantage. William Smith’s father was one of several inhabitants of Donegal whose primary occupation involved trade with native inhabitants of Pennsylvania. James Smith and his fellow traders crossed the Susquehanna River and blazed trails over the Blue Ridge and Allegany Mountains to trade with Native American Villages along the Ohio River. Others traveled north to engage with tribes on the upper Susquehanna River.

James Smith died around the time of William’s ninth birthday. His will was proved on June 30, 1739 (Figure 15). According to the document, William requested his personal estate be sold in order to pay his outstanding debits and funeral costs. Once his debits settled, a third of his remaining goods, chattel, and personal estate was to be devised to his wife, Mary. He also indicated that Mary would be permitted to reside on plantation on where she now lives for as long as she remained a widow and that half the profits from the plantation be used for her upkeep. In addition to making provisions for the care of his wife, James also provided detailed instructions to care for the future welfare of his son, William. James instructed his executors, Samuel Smith and John Allison, to sell the remainder of his personal estate in order to pay the proprietors and procure a patent in William’s name for the land on which his family dwells (see Figure 14). In addition, James requested that his executors sell another parcel of land James purchased in order to pay the expense of the patent. Finally, James ordered the other half of his plantation’s profits used for the benefit and education of William until he reaches 21 years of age, at which point ownership and management of the property becomes his responsibility.

Figure 15: The Will of James Smith (Lancaster County Pennsylvania Will Books Liber A, folio 34)

Shortly after the death of James Smith, William’s mother remarried. William’s step-father was Patrick Campbell, a trader and ordinary keeper in Donegal. Mary and William likely relocated to Campbell’s estate and their former home farm was rented out to in order to pay for William’s education. Patrick Campbell’s land and ordinary was located upon land he purchased from Samuel Smith on May 1, 1743. The 160-acre tract was located north of James Smith’s plantation and was bound by Conoy Creek. The Old Peters Road ran through his property and served as a major thoroughfare between Philadelphia and James Logan’s ferry in present-day Bainbridge (Ellis and Evans 1883). The first tavern on the property was built by Samuel Smith and Patrick Campbell continued its operation after purchasing the property in 1743. While William’s father made arrangements in his will for his son’s formal education, he likely received an equally valuable education growing up in his step-father’s ordinary and that experience likely served as a foundation for his later successes in life as a prominent merchant in the City of Baltimore.

As per his father’s wishes, William received sole ownership of James Smith 469-acre plantation on April 12, 1749, his 21st birthday. It is uncertain whether he relocated to the property at that time or remained to help his step-father manage his plantation and ordinary. Regardless, the substantial holdings he inherited guaranteed his standing as a gentleman within the Donegal community at the young age of 21. His newly claimed inheritance and his step-father’s land were located on a major thoroughfare to Philadelphia as well as adjacent to a primary ferry port that crossed the Susquehanna River. By the mid-eighteenth century thousands of Irish, Scottish, and German immigrants were flooding into Pennsylvania, many of which traveled west to settle in Lancaster County and the territories west of the Susquehanna River. For many of these new farmers, the markets were far removed and bringing their goods to sale likely was seen as a hardship. Recognizing the situation, William Smith likely saw an opportunity. Together with another local Donegal resident, James Sterrett, the two established a mercantile business. Serving as middlemen, Smith and Sterrett likely purchased goods from these western farmers and transported them to the markets in Philadelphia, Lancaster, and Baltimore for a profit.

On March 20, 1751, William Smith married Elizabeth Buchanan, the daughter of Robert and Janet Buchanan. Elizabeth’s brother was fellow Lancaster County merchant, William Buchanan. Buchanan would eventually relocate to Baltimore with William and Elizabeth to pursue his own business ventures in Maryland. William and Elizabeth remained in Donegal Township for another 10 years. The year after their marriage, the couple welcomed their first child, Janet. Over the next six years, four additional children were welcomed into the family.

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Bolton, Charles Knowles

1910 Scotch Irish Pioneers in Ulster and America. Bacon and Brown, Boston, Massachusetts.

Ellis, Franklin and Samuel Evans

1883 History of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Evert & Peck, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Evans, Samuel

1897 Scotch-Irish Settlement of Donegal, Lancaster County, PA. In The Scotch-Irish in America. Proceedings and Addresses of the Eight Congress at Harrisburg, PA. Barbee & Smith, Nashville, Tennessee.