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Smithville MO Historical Society is on a mission to preserve our past for appreciation in the future.
The Story of the Smith Family: Our Founders

In August 1821 the U.S. Congress approved the admission of part of the Louisiana Purchase as the state of Missouri.  The next year our first permanent settlers, Humphrey and Nancy Smith purchased land here to establish their new home.  Our town was on the western border of the United States at that time. This site was on the fur traders trail between the Chouteau trading posts (later Kansas City) and Council Bluffs, Iowa.  In 1824 he built a flutter wheel mill on the Little Platte River and engaged in trade with travelers and government Indian agencies. By 1827 he had laid out lots for a small town, then made a trip of over 1,000 miles back east by foot and boat to secure supplies to build a water-powered grist mill that was better able to grind corn meal and wheat flour.  A store was later established and run by his son Calvin Smith at the corner of Main and Commercial. Judge Paxton wrote that one hundred people turned out for three days to raise the mill in 1827. People would come to the mill from all parts of the county and would frequently wait three or four days for their grinding. “ If they had to stay longer than their grub lasted, Old Yank did not let them live on parched corn; his generous nature always gave them something to eat.”


Humphrey Smith was born in 1774 in Bergen County, New Jersey, a third generation descendant of the Schmidt family of Baden-Wurttemberg who came to American around 1710.  After the American Revolution, his family moved to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and then to the Finger Lakes in central New York. His maternal relatives, the Davenports, included several generations of mill operators. Humphrey built his first mill under the tutelage of his Uncle Cornelius by 1803 on Seneca Lake, north of Ithaca. That year Humphrey married Nancy Walker in Cayuga County, New York.  She was born in Connecticut in 1783, the daughter of a captured British soldier and an American colonist. In 1806 Humphrey and his father purchased land on Cazenovia Creek south of Buffalo and built another mill. Calvin Smith says that “his (father’s) passion was mill building and milling.  He could make or mend anything, as was at that time necessary in the West. He was also a moderate scholar and had kept school.”

In December 1813 turmoil erupted as the British and their Mohawk allies invaded the Niagara frontier. Humphrey served in the militia and secured a land bounty for his service. Missouri was a territory where military bounties could be used to purchase federal public land. In 1816 Humphrey, Nancy and several children made the arduous trip by ox cart, canoe, and keel boat to St. Louis, intending to settle in the city.  Nancy was pregnant on the trip and gave birth to a daughter they named Missouri Smith shortly after their arrival. The couple would eventually have eight children. Unable to secure good title to land in St. Louis, the Smiths purchased land further west in Franklin, Howard County.


Humphrey had strong religious and anti-slavery beliefs, often voicing his opinion, to the consternation of his neighbors, many of whom came from Kentucky where slavery was acceptable.  He came to be known as “Yankee Smith.” During this period the issue of whether Missouri could be admitted to the United States as a free or slave state was being hotly debated. Calvin recalled ”in Howard County hell was turned loose for a season.”  One night in 1819 he was attacked in his home by fifteen or more men. Nancy tried to come to his defense and suffered a severe injury that blinded her in one eye. Nancy and the children moved west to Carroll County while Humphrey went exploring for a permanent home on the western frontier.  The site selected became Smithville.


Clashes over the slavery issue continued for the remainder of Humphrey’s life.  Over time he learned not to respond in kind to men who confronted him with fisticuffs and would simply remark “and what has that proved?” Smithville was a lively town in those days filled with taverns and hell-raisers. In 1843 Humphrey and Nancy decided to move to Iowa. Their son Calvin stayed in Smithville to run the mill and store. They acquired 100 acres and another mill. Nancy became a midwife and sought-after physician (no license being required in those days). After Nancy died in 1853, Humphrey returned to Smithville.  He died from smallpox on May 5, 1857 and was buried on the farm of his son Hiram.  Prior to his death, Humphrey told his children not to mark gravesite until Missouri was a free state.  After the Civil War ended the family erected a grave marker with this epitaph: “Here lies Humphrey Smith, who was in favor of human rights, universal liberty equal and exact justice no union with slave holders, free states, free people, union of states and one and universal republic.”

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