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James Smith, York County’s Signer of the Declaration of Independence

Drawing of James Smith by Lewis Miller, who would have known Smith when Miller was a child
Drawing of James Smith by Lewis Miller, who would have known Smith when Miller was a child

In honor of those brave patriots who put their life on the line signing the Declaration of Independence, my previous York Sunday News column on “our signer,” James Smith, is repeated below:

Who Was James Smith?

You might know that James Smith was York County’s signer of the Declaration of Independence, but what else do we know about this patriot that put his life on the line for freedom? The answer is–not a lot. Printed sources on Smith have sometimes been proven to be inaccurate. They usually have some grain of truth, but inaccuracies keep getting repeated. Having such a common name compounds the confusion.

James Smith was supposedly born in northern Ireland in 1713. (Some sources say 1719.) The 1713 date comes from his marker at First Presbyterian Church in York, which says that he died at 93 in1806.

The family reportedly immigrated in 1729, first to Chester County, where father John Smith had relatives, and later to Chanceford Township, York County. James’ brother, George, a young attorney, may have drowned in the Susquehanna around 1740. There may have been another brother, Arthur, perhaps born on the voyage, who settled in western Pennsylvania after he was grown. The mother of James hasn’t been yet identified.

James is said to have studied with Presbyterian minister and educator Francis Alison, perhaps at his New London academy in Chester County, founded in 1739. He then supposedly studied law with his brother George, but if George died around 1740, James would hardly had time to fit in all those studies.

Then James may have been both a surveyor and attorney in Carlisle before being admitted to the York County bar in 1752. That is also tricky, as there was another James Smith in Cumberland County at that time. What’s more, both eventually had the title of Colonel. Our James did attend court in both counties, but may or may not have been a surveyor.

James Smith of York married Eleanor Armor (1739-1818) of New Castle, Del. around 1760. Her uncle, Thomas Armor, already lived here. James and Eleanor had at least four children: Margaret (1761-1838), who married James Johnson; Elizabeth (1765?-1793), who married James Kelly; James, Jr. (1767?-1812) and George (1769?-1802). Another supposed daughter, Mary (c.1763-1840) married James Kelly as his second wife and was the only one of James Smith’s children to have children. Of Mary’s five children, all born between 1803 and 1810, only two married and none had children. That means that there can be no direct descendants of James Smith. I’m not entirely convinced, however, that Mary Kelly was a daughter. There are at least five existing letters James wrote home to Eleanor during the 1770s that mention the children: Peggy, Betsy, George, and Jem. None refer to a Mary. Elizabeth’s obituary and Margaret’s gravestone refer to them as daughters of James Smith. Mary’s do not.

Smith’s political and military career is better documented. He attended the provincial council in Philadelphia in 1774, advocating a boycott of British goods because of laws oppressing trade and manufacture in the American colonies. He also chaired the York County Committee of Safety in 1774 and was one of the organizers of the York County Blues, the county’s first militia unit in 1775. That militia, with other companies, marched off to support General Washington at Boston in July 1775.

In the spring of 1776, Smith was a member of the Pennsylvania Constitutional convention at Philadelphia and supposedly brought the news of independence back to York. He was named a delegate to Continental Congress on July 10, 1776, in time to sign the engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence, with most of the other members, August 2. He served in Congress on and off the next several years, his term of December 16, 1777 to September 30, 1778 covering much of the time (September 30, 1777-June 27, 1778) Congress met here in York.

After the war, Smith carried on his law practice and served a term in the Pennsylvania legislature. He declined an appointment as Judge of Court of Appeals of Pennsylvania in 1780 because he was already in the state government.

Smith died on July 11, 1806 and was buried at First Presbyterian Church in York. By the time Adam Glossbrenner published his history of York County in 1834, he was already decrying the lack of information on Smith. Over the years researchers have found more, but not a lot. Robert Torrence pointed out errors in some respected biographical dictionaries. Grier Hersh and Henry Young obtained copies of Smith correspondence from other areas. In a paper written for the Historical Society of York County, Donald Yost pointed out that more research could be done on Smith by using known sources. He used the example of Smith losing money while he owned Codorus Furnace from 1771 to 1788. By examining the available documents, you can see that Smith ended up with the furnace as part of a bad debt, and that it was nearly impossible not to lose money as an iron maker after the British law of 1750 prohibited the manufacture of all but pig and bar iron in the colonies.

Smith’s likeness is even in question. One sometimes used of a young man with dark hair is probably of another James Smith from the Carolinas. Two popular engravings show two different people, one with a longer face. That one may be the more accurate, closer to a Lewis Miller drawing of an older Smith. The other may trace its roots back to another Lewis Miller drawing of James Smith, Jr., which a copier perhaps confused with his father.

Various reasons have been offered for the relative scant documentation of Smith, but as more Revolutionary War era papers are indexed and made available to researchers, many via the internet, I have hopes that we can still learn more about the elusive Mr. Smith.