Peterboro

 

This quaint little village located just east of Syracuse, New York was a center of anti-slavery activity prior to and during the Civil War.   Home to Gerrit Smith, American reformer and philanthropist, Peterboro became a station on the "underground railroad". It was Smith ( along with others) who financially supported John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry in 1859. Each year in June, the town of Smithfield hosts a Civil War Weekend with reenactors and exhibits. Not to be missed is the tiny Peterboro cemetery just east to the village.

 

Gerrit Smith (1797 - 1874) Born in Utica, N.Y., he was a wealthy land speculator who spent much of his time and fortune on social reform. Among the causes he supported were: temperance, women's rights, voting rights, and religious freedom. He was a zealous abolitionist. Smith was an unsuccessful candidate for the Presidency of the United States in 1848, 1852 and 1856. In 1853, he was elected to the House of Representative. Smith lived all of his life in the Peterboro estate built by his father. His home became a refuge for fugitive slaves and an important stop on the "underground railroad." In 1846, Smith along with John Brown, attempted to establish a community of freed slaves in North Elba, N.Y. by donating 50-acre farms to indigent families. He died in New York City 1874. He, along with family members, is buried in the Peterboro Cemetery. His modest gravestone is a testament to the asceticism of his lifestyle.

 

At one time, the Gerrit Smith estate consisted of some 30 acres and over 30 buildings in the village of Peterboro. Today, less than six of the original structures remains. The Smith mansion was destroyed by fire in 1936; but the original land office where Smith, and his father Peter Smith before him, managed their vast land holdings remains as it was in 1804. In the photo to the left, the open field just east of the land office is where the mansion once stood*. Here, Smith was host to such notables as, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and John Brown. His cousin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and William Lloyd Garrison were frequent visitors also. The mansion was also a refuge for the many escaped slaves who received food and comfort on their journey to freedom. Smiths fierce opposition to slavery prompted Henry Garnet to say, "There are yet two places where slave holders cannot come, Heaven and Peterboro."

*This composite "ghost photo" shows how the mansion was located.

 

This small brick building known as the Land Office was built in 1804. Inside is a single 24' by 48' room with barely enough space for a work desk, stove and shelves for record storage. To the right of the north wall, a four foot high iron door leads to a small vault. The vault is protected by dual locks, a brick ceiling and iron bars. It was from this building that Gerrit Smith, and his father (Peter Smith) before him, managed the family's huge real estate holdings and other business ventures. From this building, nearly 1 million acres of land were transferred or, in many cases, given away over the course Smith's lifetime. According to Smith biographer, Norman Dann*, Gerrit Smith donated some $650 million (in today's money) to support his many causes. Some of that money undoubtedly went to John Brown to finance his raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859.

* Dann, Norman K. Practical Dreamer, Log Cabin Books, `2009, pg.69

 

Within walking distance, east of the village of Peterboro, lies the Peterboro Cemetery. Here you will find the grave markers of the Smith Family - Gerrit and his wife Ann, his father, Peter, as well as other members of the Smith family. Many of the escaped slaves that found their way to the safety of Peterboro remained there for the rest of their lives and are also interred here . Also buried here are the remains of many African-American Civil War soldiers. One of those was John Hall. His tombstone reads: Company B, 26th. Regiment Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops. Few people realize that "more than 180,000 African American men - a staggering 74% of all free blacks of military age (18-45) -- fought for their country, forming more than 160 units (60 of which engaged in direct combat that numbered more than 250 engagements)."*

* Thomas McCarthy, NYCHS

 

 One of the more touching markers in the Peterboro cemetery is that of John West. His tombstone reads: Born a slave. Dec. 25, 1816. Died a freeman. Dec. 25, 1868. Near the bottom of the stone it reads: Deformed in body, but beautiful in Spirit. According to John Woodbury,* West was a hunchback who came to Peterboro via the Underground Railroad and remained to run a grocery store on the Smith Estate grounds. John also was a choir director at Smith's Free Church. It was for this reason that he was called "the Dominie", a term of honor similar to today's use of the term "professor".

* Peterboro resident, Madison County Clerk in 1878

 

 Each year, in early June, the Smithfield Community Association of Peterboro in conjunction with the Town of Smithfield sponsors a Civil War Weekend. Reenactors from across the country come to Peterboro to "set up camp" on the Village Green and Smith Estate grounds. Blue and Gray camps stage mock battles, complete with cannon firing and cavalry charges. Hardcore reenactors including men, women and children take pride in the total authenticity of uniform clothing, diet, and even speech patterns of the 1860's. The "mission" of reeenactors, beside just having fun, is to preserve the battle experiences of the common soldier, North and South.

[For more: Read "Confederates in the Attic", by Tony Horwitz.]