As I peruse the stories pertaining to the early history of the Miami Valley, and the northern Miami Valley, in particular, I am often struck with how people made a good living or established themselves as prosperous individuals and families. Many times it was through hard work and an industrious life; other times they ‘made their fortune’ through ingenuity and creativity. Some simply speculated and invested. All of these avenues of security and independence carried risk in a time when there was little to fall back on, except for the assistance of family and friends.
Some tales are ones of failure; others are of individuals trying and trying again, until they succeed.
John Smith of Cincinnati was a man who had succeeded in many ways, but later experienced some ‘rough roads.’ He had come from Virginia as an early settler; opened a store which prospered; speculated on land for investment and income, and was a highly regarded Baptist preacher in the region.
Smith, as well as another man by the name of Hunt, were land speculators in the northern valley, especially in Miami County. At one time, it was estimated he owned a few thousand acres in what would become Miami County. Rev. Smith’s agent in the area was his son-in-law Fielding Lowry. From time-to-time, John Smith even visited here and was one of the presiding ministers when the Staunton Baptist Church was organized in 1804.
It seemed for a time that everything Smith did was successful. But, as Job of old, Smith was eventually tested in life.
After Ohio was organized as a state (1803), Thomas Worthington and Rev. Smith were chosen to be the first senators to represent Ohio in Washington. Thomas Jefferson was president and Aaron Burr was vice president, and was also president of the Senate. Naturally, through work and associations, Smith and Burr became acquainted with one another and may have become friends in some common interests. Burr even visited Smith in his home in Cincinnati when he came through the area.
In 1807 Burr was charged with treason and made to stand trial. He was later found not guilty for a lack of evidence. But, as is often the case, those close to an accused individual are also held under suspicion, too.
Senator Smith’s reputation and character were plunged into and run through the mud. It did not matter that there was no hint of foul play, dishonesty or disloyalty to the country prior to this; he was Aaron Burr’s friend.
Eventually, Smith faced a vote of censure in the U.S. Senate, although there was no evidence of wrong doing. When the vote was tallied, the censure fell short by one vote. Although somewhat exonerated, Smith resigned believing he could no longer serve with those who believed he was guilty.
Moreover, while the whole ordeal was taking place, Senator Smith’s business dealings began to dwindle and disappear, as no one wanted to be connected to him for fear of the same fate. The whole scenario brought him to financial ruin.
Afterward, John Smith moved to Louisiana and returned to a simple life. There is evidence that he, following some penitence, was accepted again as a preacher in good standing and was able to live out his remaining days in honor. In fact, there is a letter in the collection of the Filson Historical Society in Louisville from a lady who knew Rev. Smith that seems to infer that like Job, Smith’s later years were more fulfilling than his earlier ones.
For some, this might be a cautionary tale for a minister taking up public office; for others it may represent the complexities of politics and its entanglements; and still others may see a warning of choosing your friends and associates wisely. It might be one or, perhaps, all.
Life is full of decisions to be made. It was that way 200 years ago, and still is today. John Smith faced many trials; ruined financially; reputation destroyed; even loss of family. But he kept going. History really can teach us lessons about life.
Patrick D. Kennedy is archivist at the Troy-Miami County Public Library’s Local History Library, 100 W. Main St., Troy. He may be contacted by calling (937) 335-4082 or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org