William Smith Goes To Baltimore: 1761 – 1774

Owing to the success of their mercantile enterprise in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, William Smith and James Sterrett relocated to Baltimore in 1761 in an effort to expand their shipping business. On June 27, 1761, the partners acquired a lease from Benjamin and George Swoope on part of Lots 62 and 63 just west of the Jones Falls on S. Gay Street (MSA 1761). Two years later, William Smith leased half of Lot 47 at the corner of Calvert and Baltimore Streets (MSA 1763a). Smith and his family promptly built a home on the property which served as William’s primary residence and business office for the remainder of his life (Figure 16).

Smith's Home and Warehouse
Figure 16: Location of William Smith’s Calvert Street Home and William Smith and James Sterrett’s Warehouse

William Smith’s family was one of a growing number Irish Pennsylvanian families who relocated from Lancaster County to Baltimore during the mid-eighteenth century. Two years prior to his arrival, William’s cousin, John Smith, relocated to the Chesapeake where he established the mercantile firm Smith and Buchanan with his partner William Buchanan, who incidentally was also William Smith’s brother-in-law. Together, William and John Smith along with James Sterrett and William Buchanan joined a growing community of Irish Presbyterians in the burgeoning town of Baltimore. In December of 1763, the four merchants joined John Stevenson, William Lyon and Jonathan Plowman to establish the First Presbyterian Church of Baltimore (MSA 1763b). Together the seven trustees purchased Lots 72 and 73 located on the west side of N. Gay Street for the purpose of erecting a church for the first Presbyterian congregation in Baltimore (Figure 17).

First Pres. Church
Figure 17: The First Two Locations of Baltimore’s First Presbyterian Church

It appears the two small lots Smith and the other church elders acquired in 1763 quickly became too small to accommodate growing congregation. Within two years, Smith was one of several elders who together purchased two larger lots at the corner of present-day E. Fayette Street and Guilford Avenue (MSA 1765). Today the property is the home of Courthouse East for the Circuit County of Maryland for Baltimore City. According to the 1765 deed, a parsonage house would be built on Lots 7 and 136 for the use of the minister, who at that time was Reverend Patrick Allison. Following the construction of the parsonage, the remainder of the parcels would be for the use of constructing a new church and burying ground for the congregation. The First Presbyterian Church on E. Fayette Street would remain the congregation’s house of worship until 1859, although by 1787 a new cemetery was established several block west on the corner of W. Fayette and N. Green Street (Figure 18). Today, the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground serves as the final resting place for many of Baltimore’s early residents, including William Smith. However, today it is likely best known for the one of the city’s most famous former residents, Edgar Allan Poe.

Westminster catacombs
Figure 18: Westminster Hall and Burying Ground.  Source: http://darkroom.baltimoresun.com/2014/10/westminster-hall-the-spookyist-place-in-baltimore/#1

Very little detail is known about the life of William Smith and his family in the decade or so following their relocation to Baltimore. Like his cousin, John Smith, William’s primary source of income was derived through the wholesale shipment of wheat and sundry products through the port of Baltimore. Historical accounts of his and his family’s life during this period are sparse and are largely derived through his involvement with the First Presbyterian Church or through the various land transactions he was involved in and were recorded in the land records of Baltimore County.

While the land records are typically succinct documents detailing the size and location of the properties discussed and the amount and form of payment agreed to between the grantor and grantee, a close reading of the documents can occasionally provide some insight into other details about the lives of those involved in the transactions.

The most striking revelation to occur from the review of Smith’s land records has largely to do with the sheer quantity that existed. In the 18 years that spanned his arrival in Baltimore until the purchase of Broad’s Improvement from Abraham Larsh in 1779, William Smith was involved in the purchase of 22 properties in and around Baltimore City. In the years that followed, Smith purchased over 50 additional properties before his death in 1814. While several of the properties were purchased in conjunction with Smith’s business partner, James Sterrett, or on behalf of the Presbyterian congregation, the vast majority were sole investments of William Smith. Given the capital necessary to invest in so much real estate, it appears the establishment of a mercantile firm in Baltimore resulted in great financial success for Smith.

Many of the properties Smith acquired during his lifetime were investments which he quickly resold at a profit or leased out to tenants over the decades. Others he purchased as a means to expand his shipping capabilities or as new businesses to diversify or supplement his income. In the late 1760s, Smith began to invest in several properties at Fell’s Point and west of the Jones Falls with the intention of constructing warehouses. In 1770, William Smith expanded into the liquor business. On April 12th of that year, Smith and several business partners purchased two lots on the original north bank of the inner harbor for the purpose of establishing a distillery. The lots (Lots 55 and 56) were owned by another local businessman and distiller, Samuel Purviance, who over the years fell into debit with several creditors in Annapolis (MSA 1770). In an effort to pay off the debts, Purviance agreed to sell the lots as well as the distillery and storehouses on the property to Smith and his partners.

By 1774, William Smith began investing in larger parcels of land in countryside surrounding the City of Baltimore, likely for the purpose of establishing himself in the position as a gentleman farmer. The first parcel he acquired to this end was 791 acres of land known as parts of Eslington Northstead and Buck Range, located in present-day Baltimore County, in the vicinity of I-70 and Patapsco State Park. The property originally belonged to William Ottey; however following his death, his estate possessed insufficient funds for his wife to pay his outstanding debits. As a result, Smith purchased the 791-acre farm at a public sale for the sum of £700. The purchase of Eslington Northstead and Buck Range was just the start of a series of agricultural acquisitions that spanned the next five years and including tracts located in what is present-day Reservoir Hill, Washington Hill, and Towson as well as what would become Smith’s Eutaw Farm along the Herring Run in present-day Lauraville.

While the decade or so since Smith’s arrival appeared to be filled with continuous commercial success, sadly the wealth and influence he acquired in Baltimore could not save he and his family from the personal tragedies that were all too common families during this time period regardless of their social class. Over the course of William and Elizabeth’s marriage, the couple had welcomed 11 children into their family. Their three daughters, Janet, Mary and Margaret, would all survive into adulthood and eventually have families of their own. The couple’s remaining children were all boys and as of 1774, only four of their sons, James, Robert, Campbell and Samuel, were still alive. John died a month after his birth in March of 1757 and their first of several sons named Campbell passed at the age of four in 1762. That same year, William and Elizabeth welcomed the birth of another son which they also named Campbell, but he died during childbirth. In the years that followed, William would lose several more of his children and his wife, Elizabeth. Robert and Samuel would die less than a year apart in 1782-1783, and the following year William buried his wife of 33 years. In 1788, William’s first born son, James, would pass at the age of 34 and sadly would not be the last of his children to predecease him.


Maryland State Archives (MSA)

1761    Baltimore County Court Land Records Liber B I, folio 225. On file at the Maryland State Archives, Annapolis, Maryland.

1763a    Baltimore County Court Land Records Liber B L, folio 477. On file at the Maryland State Archives, Annapolis, Maryland.

1763b    Baltimore County Court Land Records Liber B M, folio 160. On file at the Maryland State Archives, Annapolis, Maryland.

1765    Baltimore County Court Land Records Liber B O, folio 668. On file at the Maryland State Archives, Annapolis, Maryland.

1770    Baltimore County Court Land Records Liber AL B, folio 453. On file at the Maryland State Archives, Annapolis, Maryland.