Lydia Hamilton Smith

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Lydia Hamilton Smith Lydia Hamilton Smith.jpg
Lydia Hamilton Smith

Lydia Hamilton Smith (February 14, 1813 – February 14, 1884) was the long-time housekeeper of Thaddeus Stevens and a prominent African-American businesswoman after his death.

Thaddeus Stevens American politician

Thaddeus Stevens was a member of the United States House of Representatives from Pennsylvania and one of the leaders of the Radical Republican faction of the Republican Party during the 1860s. A fierce opponent of slavery and discrimination against African-Americans, Stevens sought to secure their rights during Reconstruction, in opposition to U.S. President Andrew Johnson. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee during the American Civil War, he played a leading role, focusing his attention on defeating the Confederacy, financing the war with new taxes and borrowing, crushing the power of slave owners, ending slavery, and securing equal rights for the Freedmen.


Early life

Lydia Hamilton was born at Russell Tavern near Gettysburg in Adams County, Pennsylvania, US. She was one quarter African American in that her mother was a free biracial woman of white and African American descent, and her father was Irish. Smith married a free black man, Jacob Smith (died 1852), with whom she had two sons.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania Borough in Pennsylvania, United States

Gettysburg is a borough and the county seat of Adams County in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. The Battle of Gettysburg (1863) and President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address are named for this town. The town hosts visitors to the Gettysburg National Battlefield in the Gettysburg National Military Park. As of the 2010 census, the borough had a population of 7,620 people.

Adams County, Pennsylvania U.S. county in Pennsylvania

Adams County is a county in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. As of the 2010 census, the population was 101,407. Its county seat is Gettysburg. The county was created on January 22, 1800, from part of York County, and was named for the second President of the United States, John Adams. On July 1–3, 1863, the area around Gettysburg was the site of the pivotal battle of the American Civil War, and as a result is a center for Civil War tourism.

Career with Stevens

Separated from her husband, Smith moved to Lancaster with her mother and sons in 1847 and accepted a position as housekeeper to prominent lawyer and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who had moved from Gettysburg five years earlier but practiced law and had business interest in several counties in the Susquehanna River basin. Stevens was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives the following year, and Smith continued to keep the bachelor's house (including his house in Washington, D.C.) until Stevens died in 1868. [1] [2]

Susquehanna River river in the northeastern United States

The Susquehanna River is a major river located in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic United States. At 444 miles (715 km) long, it is the longest river on the East Coast of the United States that drains into the Chesapeake Bay. With its watershed, it is the 16th-largest river in the United States, and the longest river in the early 21st-century continental United States without commercial boat traffic.

Smith was described as "giving great attention to her appearance," and in later years she had her clothes made to resemble those of Mary Lincoln. [3] Carl Sandburg described Smith as "a comely quadroon with Caucasian features and a skin of light-gold tint, a Roman Catholic communicant with Irish eyes ... quiet, discreet, retiring, reputed for poise and personal dignity." [4]

Carl Sandburg American writer and editor

Carl August Sandburg was an American poet, biographer, journalist, and editor. He won three Pulitzer Prizes: two for his poetry and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln. During his lifetime, Sandburg was widely regarded as "a major figure in contemporary literature", especially for volumes of his collected verse, including Chicago Poems (1916), Cornhuskers (1918), and Smoke and Steel (1920). He enjoyed "unrivaled appeal as a poet in his day, perhaps because the breadth of his experiences connected him with so many strands of American life", and at his death in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson observed that "Carl Sandburg was more than the voice of America, more than the poet of its strength and genius. He was America."

Quadroon a person with one quarter African and three quarters European ancestry

Historically in the context of slave societies of the Americas, a quadroon or quarteron was a person with one quarter African and three quarters European ancestry.

Caucasian race grouping of human beings

The Caucasian race is a grouping of human beings historically regarded as a biological taxon, which, depending on which of the historical race classifications is used, has usually included ancient and modern populations from Europe, Western Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa.

Smith had two sons, William and Isaac, by her late husband, Jacob Smith. She and Stevens also raised the latter's nephews, whom he adopted in the 1840s. [5] On April 2, 1861 Smith's oldest son, William Smith, fatally shot himself while handling a pistol at Stevens' home, as his mother watched. William Smith was 26 years old and worked as a shoemaker in Lancaster. [6] Her other son, Isaac Smith, a banjo player and barber, enlisted in the 6th United States Colored Infantry Regiment in 1863 and served in Virginia.

The 6th United States Colored Infantry Regiment was an African American unit of the Union Army during the American Civil War. A part of the United States Colored Troops, the regiment saw action in Virginia as part of the Richmond–Petersburg Campaign and in North Carolina, where it participated in the attacks on Fort Fisher and Wilmington and the Carolinas Campaign.

No evidence exists as to the exact nature of the relationship between Stevens and Smith. In the one brief surviving letter from Stevens to her, he addresses her as "Mrs. Smith," unusual deference to an African-American servant in that era. Family members also asked Stevens to be remembered to "Mrs. Smith." [7] Nonetheless, during her time with Stevens, neighbors considered her his common law wife. [3] [8] Smith not only handled social functions for the politician, she also mingled with Stevens' guests, who were instructed to address her as "Madame" or "Mrs. Smith." [9] Opposition newspapers (for Stevens' views concerning racial equality were quite controversial) claimed she was frequently called "Mrs. Stevens" by people who knew her. [10]

Common-law marriage, also known as sui iuris marriage, informal marriage, marriage by habit and repute, or marriage in fact, is a legal framework in a limited number of jurisdictions where a couple is legally considered married, without that couple having formally registered their relation as a civil or religious marriage.

Smith was at Stevens's bedside when he died in Washington, D.C. on August 11, 1868, along with his friend Simon Stevens and surviving nephew (Thaddeus Stevens Jr.), two African American nuns, and several other people. [11] Under Stevens' will, Smith was allowed to choose between a lump sum of $5,000 or a $500 annual allowance; she was also allowed to take any furniture in his house. [12] With the inheritance, Smith purchased Stevens' house and the adjoining lot. [13]


Exterior of Lydia Hamilton Smith house in Lancaster Lydia Hamilton Smith house, Lancaster, PA.jpg
Exterior of Lydia Hamilton Smith house in Lancaster

Stevens and Smith were active in the Underground Railroad, which led to the burning of his ironworks, Caledonia Furnace, during the Civil War. Recent excavation of their house in Lancaster unearthed a cistern with a passageway to a nearby tavern, as well as a spittoon inside, which some historians think was used to shelter escaping slaves. [14] [15] Smith bought her house in Lancaster next to Stevens' house in 1860. During and after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, Smith hired a horse and wagon, and collected food and supplies for the wounded of both sides from neighbors in Adams, York and Lancaster counties and delivered them to the makeshift hospitals. After Stevens' death in 1868, in addition to buying his house in Lancaster, Smith operated a prosperous boarding house across from the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., as well as invested in real estate and other business ventures. [16]

Death and legacy

In the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, Representative Austin Stoneman (played by Ralph Lewis) and his housekeeper Lydia Brown (played by Mary Alden) are considered as standing for, respectively, Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith. Stoneman and Brown.jpg
In the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation , Representative Austin Stoneman (played by Ralph Lewis) and his housekeeper Lydia Brown (played by Mary Alden) are considered as standing for, respectively, Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith.

Lydia Hamilton Smith died in Washington on her 71st birthday in 1884, and per her wishes was buried in St. Mary's Catholic cemetery in Lancaster, [16] although she also left money for the continued upkeep of Stevens' grave at the Shreiner-Concord cemetery. [17]

In Steven Spielberg's 2012 film Lincoln , Smith was portrayed by actress S. Epatha Merkerson.

Notes and references

  1. John B. Sanford, A Book of American Women (University of Illinois, 1995), pages 48
  2. "". Archived from the original on February 6, 2010. Retrieved 2014-04-05.CS1 maint: unfit url (link)
  3. 1 2 Thomas Frederick Woodley, The Great Leveler: Thaddeus Stevens. Stackpole Sons; (1937), pages 149
  4. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), page 274
  5. Zeitz, Joshua (November 12, 2012). "Fact-Checking 'Lincoln': Lincoln's Mostly Realistic; His Advisers Aren't". The Atlantic. Retrieved November 12, 2012.
  6. Brubaker, Jack (March 15, 2013). "Lydia Smith's son shot himself". Intelligencer Journal Lancaster New Era. Retrieved April 1, 2013.
  7. Beverly Wilson Palmer, ed., Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens, 1997, page 219
  8. Richard Nelson Current, Thaddeus Stevens: The Man and the Politician (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1939), page 122
  9. "In Lancaster, restoring image of an unlikely Civil War pair White leader, black woman shared cause - and home". philly-archives. Retrieved 7 September 2015.
  10. Woodley, p. 149
  11. James Albert Woodburn, The Life of Thaddeus Stevens (The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1913), page 584
  12. Hans Louis Trefousse, Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (University of North Carolina Press, 1997), page 244
  13. Sherene Baugher and Suzanne M. Spencer-Wood, editors, Archaeology and Preservation of Gendered Landscapes (Springer, 2010), pages 120–121
  14. Levine, Mary Ann, Kelly M. Britt, and James A. Delle (2005). "Heritage Tourism and Community Outreach: Public Archaeology at the Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith Site in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA." International Journal of Heritage Studies, vol. 11, no. 5, p. 406.
  15. Harris, Bernard (April 7, 2011). "Historical Ties Proven: Stevens Home Was on Underground Railroad." . Retrieved October 6, 2019.
  16. 1 2 "Lydia Hamilton Smith (1815 - 1884) - Find A Grave Memorial". Retrieved 7 September 2015.
  17. Brodie, Fawn (1966 or 1959), Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.) p. 92 per Stevens article

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