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Peter Smith Papers

An inventory of his papers at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: MLB
Date: 1972

Biographical History

Peter Gerrit Smith (1768-1837), landowner and father of reformer Gerrit Smith, was a man of significant influence during the first quarter of the nineteenth century in Madison County, New York, where he was active in business, politics, and land transactions, and owner of a large portion of the central and northern sections of the country. In some of his ventures he was the partner of John Jacob Astor. The town of Peterboro, New York is named for him.

Peter Smith was born in Greenbush, Rockland County, New York, on November 15, 1768, the son of Gerrit P. and Wyntje Lent Smith, both of Dutch extraction. In 1784 he entered the counting house of Abraham Herring & Co. in New York City as a clerk. When he was nineteen, he opened a store at Fall Hill, near Little Falls, New York. During these years he went into partnership with John Jacob Astor in the fur trade, and although the parternship lasted only about a year, Smith and Astor continued for many years in the joint business of buying and selling land. Smith acquired a large fortune over the years by shrewd procedures in land transactions, both with Astor and alone, handling about a half a million acres in sum.

In 1789, Peter Smith moved to Old Fort Schuyler, now Utica, where he established a store and continued his speculations in land. In 1794, Astor and William Laight bought the Charlotte River and Byrne's Patent of 37,200 acres in the Mohawk Valley; Astor lent Smith the money to purchase half of the tract. In 1829 Smith bought out his two partners and became owner of the entire patent.

Smith obtained another large tract, this time 50,000 acres, from the Oneida Indians in 1793. He had established friendly relations with them, among whom he seems to have exerted some influence, and had become a close friend of the Oneida Chief Skenandoah, for whom he named his first son, Peter Skenandoah Smith. This "New Petersburgh Tract" comprised the town of Augusta in Oneida County, and the towns of Stockbridge, Smithfield, Fenner and northern Cazenovia in Madison County. Federal law forbade the Indians to sell their land, so Smith leased it for 21 years. In 1795 the state purchased a large part of the Oneida Reservation, including Smith's tract. He had leased portions of it to white settlers; now he and they had to pay the state about $3.50 per acre to obtain their patents. Smith emerged from this transaction with about 22,300 acres.

By 1806 Smith had established the town of Smithfield and, within it, the village of Peterboro. The village consisted of ten buildings including Smith's own house, which became known as the Mansion House in later years after it was enlarged by Peter's son Gerrit.

In 1807 the first officers of Madison County were elected and Peter Smith, a confirmed Federalist, was elected supervisor of the town of Smithfield at its first town meeting. That same year he was appointed judge of the Madison County Court. Smith began publication of the Madison Freeholder, of which he was the "proprietor," in 1808 in Peterboro. This and another publication started simultaneously in another town in Madison County were the first news and literary papers in the area.

On February 5, 1792 Peter Smith married Elizabeth Livingston, daughter of revolutionary army Colonel James Livingston. The records indicate that at least three of their children grew to adulthood: Cornelia, Peter Skenandoah, and Gerrit. Elizabeth died in 1818, and in 1823 Smith married his second wife, Sarah Pogson of Charleston, South Carolina. This marriage was unsuccessful and short-lived, ending in a separation and Sarah's return to Charleston.

Smith lived in Peterboro until 1819, carrying out his public duties, managing his lands and related businesses, and raising his family. In 1819 he turned over the management of his estates and businesses to his son Gerrit, retaining the income of $125,000 for his own use and spending much of his time in traveling. For many years he had been concerned about the state of his soul, and after the death of his first wife his religious concerns grew to a near obsession. He was active in the Madison County Bible Society and American Tract Society, and as he traveled he made it his business to distribute religious tracts in every community he visited.

Smith finally settled in Schenectady in 1825. He had been a man of personal as well as religious peculiarities for much of his life, and despite his financial successes he grew morose at the end, claiming that he was "a trouble to himself and a vexation to those about him." He died at Schenectady on April 14, 1837.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The Peter Smith Papers are divided into correspondence, business and land files, and writings.

Correspondence, 1791-1837, includes incoming letters and drafts of outgoing letters. There are approximately 1,580 incoming letters. The correspondence is concerned primarily with Smith's business and land interests, although there is reference to politics, religion and family affairs. Notable correspondents include John Jacob Astor, Daniel Cady, William E. Dodge, Abraham Herring, Elbert Herring, Thomas Herring, Samuel Hoard, Nehemiah Huntington, Elisha Kane, John Kiersted, William Laight, William Lamont, Robert Lenox, John Lincklaen, Samuel McNeil, Morris S. Miller, Stephen Parkhurst, Samuel H. Payne, Jonas Platt, Harmon Pumpelly, Zebulon Shipherd, Gerrit Smith, Ezra Stiles, David Tomlinson, Lawrence Vrooman, Nathan Ward, and Elisha Williams.

A revised index to the correspondence, prepared by Special Collections Research Center staff, indexes all incoming, outgoing and other letters. Correspondents are listed alphabetically by last name and then chronologically under each name. If there is more than one letter from the same person on the same day, each letter is listed individually. Unidentified correspondence are listed at the end. This index may be found at the end of this inventory (if viewing the paper copy), or in PDF form (if viewing online; file is large and may take several seconds to load).

Outgoing letters are primarily drafts prepared by Smith himself, usually in pencil, for his clerk to copy. The earliest separate draft is dated 1800. Notes concerning Smith's replies begin to appear on some letters around 1813, and complete drafts on the incoming letter begin around 1816. Drafts of Smith's correspondence to John Jacob Astor date from 1808 to 1829. All told there are approximately 180 separate drafts of Smith's replies; in the index mentioned above, incoming letters that carry complete drafts of replies are indicated by asterisks (*). A few other letters that were not written to or by Smith are also included in the index.

Business and land files (1763-1850) contains SMith's extensive business, legal and financial papers relating to his large land holdings in central New York. A detailed listing of this material, subdivided into financial documents, land documents, legal documents, and subject files, is given in the inventory below. In organizing these subseries, loose papers were interfiled with bound volumes to preserve chronological continuity. In the inventory below, brackets are used to indicate supplied titles (that is, the volume had no title so one was given to it by Special Collections Research Center staff). It should be noted that the terms "Blotter" and "Day Book" were used synonymously.

Financial documents (1771-1850) include Smith's miscellaneous account books, as well as account books for the Old Fort Schuyler store,the Oriskany Creek store, and the Peterboro store. Also included in this subseries are bank deposit and withdrawal records, bills and receipts, lists of outstanding loans, orders drawn, and miscellaneous material.

Land documents (1767-1850) include descriptions of lots and acreage, lists of land holdings, and the names and maps of military tract grantees. Also included are records of land purchases and sales, primarily relating to the New Petersburgh tract (formerly part of the Oneida Indian Reservation), lands purchased from New York State at tax sales, the Charlotte River and Byrne's Patent, and the Old Military Tract; this section includes surveyors' documents and some maps relating to these lands.

Legal documents (1772-1840) relate primarily to Smith's extensive land holdings and his position as county judge. Included in this subseries are land purchase agreements, bonds, charges to the grand jury, contracts for land sales, deeds and indentures, leases, mortgages, powers of attorney, promissory notes, legal suits, summonses and complaints, and miscellaneous legal documents.

Subject files (1793-1837) includes financial papers regarding Smith's grindstone business; his lease with the Oneida Indians for a portion of their reservation; financial, land and legal records relating to his partnership with John Jacob Astor and William Laight for the purchase of Charlotte's River and Byrne's Patent; and a copy of the will of Sir William Johnson and assorted related papers resulting from the struggles of Astor, Laight and Smith to get clear title to the Charlotte's River and Byrne's Patent.

Writings (1798-1821) contains Smith's miscellaneous prose and verse, and a journal of a trip from Albany to Johnstown in 1822.

After about 1818 Gerrit Smith assumed more and more of his father's business obligations; researchers interested in this later period should consult the Gerrit Smith Papers.

Arrangement of the Collection

Correspondence is arranged chronologically by year, month and day. Letters dated only to the year are placed at the beginning of that year. All undated correspondence is placed at the end of the series and arranged alphabetically by author's last name.

Business and land files are subdivided as described above, and within each subseries arranged roughly chronologically. Writings are in alphabetical order by subject or title.

Other Related Finding Aids

A complete index to the correspondence is available at the end of this inventory (if viewing the hard copy) or in PDF form (if viewing online). The file is large and may take several seconds to load.

A cartobibliography, containing a list of maps and plans in the Peter and Gerrit Smith Papers, and an index of place names, was compiled by library staff in 1989. For each map or plan listed, the guide gives date, author (surveyor), title, dimensions, scale, place names, personal names, and notes. (WARNING: This file is quite large and may take some time to download/open.)


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Related Material

The entire collection is also available on microfilm (Microfilm #3997).

Special Collections Research Center has the papers of many members of the Smith family. See also the Gerrit Smith Miller Papers, the Gerrit Smith Papers, and the Greene Smith Papers . In addition, many monographs, pamphlets and other printed material by or about the Smith family have been cataloged. Please refer to the SCRC Subject Index to locate related manuscript collections, and to the Classic Catalog to locate cataloged printed material.

Subject Headings


Astor, John Jacob, 1763-1848.
Cady, Daniel, 1773-1859.
Dodge, William E. (William Earl), 1805-1883.
Herring, Abraham.
Herring, E. (Elbert), 1777-1876.
Herring, Thomas.
Hoard, Samuel.
Huntington, Nehemiah, 1776-1855.
Kane, Elisha.
Kiersted, John.
Laight, William.
Lamont, William.
Lenox, Robert, 1759-1839.
Lincklaen, John, 1768-1822.
McNeil, Samuel.
Miller, Morris S. (Morris Smith), 1779-1824.
Parkhurst, Stephen.
Payne, Samuel H.
Platt, Jonas, 1769-1834.
Pumpelly, Harmon.
Shipherd, Zebulon Rudd, d. 1841.
Smith, Gerrit, 1797-1874.
Smith, Peter, 1768-1837.
Stiles, Ezra.
Tomlinson, David, Esq.
Vrooman, Lawrence.
Ward, Nathan.
Williams, E. (Elisha), 1757-1845.


Land grants -- New York (State)
Land titles -- New York (State)
Landowners -- New York (State)
Oneida Indians.


Madison County (N.Y.) -- History.
New York (State) -- History -- 1775-1865.
Peterboro (N.Y.)

Genres and Forms

Account books.
Bills of sale.
Land surveys.
Legal documents.
Promissory notes.



Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Peter Smith Papers
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Gift of Gerrit Smith Miller, 1928.

Table of Contents


Business and land files




Note on alternate formats:

The entire collection is also available on microfilm (Microfilm #3997).