I mentioned a few weeks ago that I have been working on transcribing emancipation papers that were recorded in the Clerk of Courts and Recorder’s records. These records begin to tell the stories of African Americans who had lived a life of slavery in the south and whose “owners” brought them to Greene County, Ohio and released them from the bondage of slavery. The names that are recorded on these documents were not always those of individuals, but in some cases entire families who were being granted their freedom. One such story is about Laura Smith and her children.
In 1810, William F. Smith was born in Kentucky. It is not clear from the records whether William moved to Mississippi with his family or ventured out on his own. By the 1830s, William F. Smith was becoming established in the state of Mississippi. According to the Memoirs of Henry Tillinghast Ireys: Papers of the Washington County Historical Society, 1910-1915, William F. Smith was “…a merchant at Clinton, Mississippi, where he bankrupted in 1837 for half a million dollars (p. 269).” That was a considerable amount of money for the period. Today that would be the equivalent of $9.9 million! The biography indicates that Smith was primarily a real estate speculator and was known to frequent government sales.
By 1840, Smith purchased property in Washington County, Mississippi which was at the time, nothing but wilderness. Smith built a large plantation. Washington County records do not indicate what type of plantation this was, but court records from his earlier bankruptcy case indicate that he grew cotton. One might infer that after he moved to Washington County, he continued to grow cotton. In the south, at this time, where you have a cotton plantation, you also have slaves. According to the 1840 federal census, Smith owned thirty-nine slaves. According to the 1850 census, William F. Smith is listed as a planter, along with a John E. Smith who is listed as the overseer. Based on the close age of William and John, it is possible that they may have been brothers. In 1850, Smith now has ninety slaves working his plantation. Among these unnamed slaves that appear on the slave schedule is a woman by the name of Laura and her children.
Not much is known about William F. Smith or Laura until 1858. At this time, it seems that Smith brought Laura and her seven children to Greene County, Ohio. On July 22, 1858, Emancipation papers were filed with the Greene County Recorder’s Office. This is an excerpt from that record:
Whereas William F. Smith of Washington County Mississippi, has this day at the County of Greene and State of Ohio, by his own voluntary act and by bringing the persons hereinafter named into the said State of Ohio, manumitted, let free, enfranchised, and liberated from all service and Servitude to the said Smith, the following named persons, who were heretofore his Servants or Slaves for life by the laws of the said State of Mississippi viz [namely]: Laura Smith aged 32 years Mother of the following named children, said Laura is a mulatto woman three fourths white, mole on right cheek and scar on the left forehead about five feet 2 inches high. William Smith aged eighteen years light complected, black hair, and high cheek bones. James Dick Smith, aged sixteen, very light complected, hair dark brown. Marginia Smith, aged 13 years, very light complection hair dark auburn. Robert Smith, aged 9 years, very light complected, hair auburn. Edward Smith, aged Seven years, very light complection. Clark Smith aged 5 yrs fair complection, hair light. Joseph Smith aged eighteen months, quite fair…..
One has to wonder if these children listed in this emancipation paper were Williams. Hallie Q. Brown seems to have answered this question in her book Pen Pictures of Pioneers of Wilberforce, “To this famous spot [an old roadside inn] came,with his family, Captain Smith, owner of an immense former slave plantation, from Mississippi. This family consisted of several sons, two daughters and their mother. The inn was converted into a residence and the surrounding land purchased as a farm and the Smith family comfortably settled. Soon after, the Captain returned to his plantation, taking with him his eldest sons…” (p. 38). So it appears that this was a case of a southern planter bringing his slave family north to set them free and give them an opportunity of a brighter future.
By now I’m sure you’re asking what this has to do with Yellow Springs. William F. and Laura Smith purchased several pieces of property in Greene County. One such property was in Miami Township. William Smith gave Laura $18,824 (approximately $474,000 by today’s standards) to purchase the following property: all of the North East quarter of Section Number one, all of the North East quarter of Section Number thirty-two, and all of the North East quarter of section Number thirty one. Much of the property that you see in the aerial photograph in this post was once owned by Laura Smith. Can you imagine spending $18,000 on a piece of property in 1859? The records do not indicate exactly what this land was used for. Perhaps Laura rented it out in order to ensure an income for her and her children. Since this land was in Miami Township and so close to Yellow Springs, it is very possible that Laura, and her children, may have spent some time in Yellow Springs. Again, the records do not indicate this so we may never know. Unfortunately, due to a legal technicality, Laura lost this piece of land several years later.
Laura and her children continue to live in Wilberforce until her death on April 16, 1871. Her obituary was published in April 12th edition of the Xenia Torch, “SMITH-In Xenia Tp., April 16, 1871, of cancer of the womb, Mrs. Laura Smith, aged 47 years.” Sadly, Laura lived a very short life, but at least she was able to find freedom for herself and her children.