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Gerrit Smith Papers

An inventory of his papers at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: [Summit record]
Date: Feb 1996

Biographical History

Gerrit Smith (1797-1874) was an American social reformer, abolitionist, politician, and philanthropist. Born in Utica, New York, he spent much of his life in nearby Peterboro. Smith's grandfather, Colonel James Livingston, fought in the American Revolution and his first cousin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was a founder and leader of the women's suffrage movement. Smith was non-sectarian in his religious views, active in the temperance movement, an avid and outspoken abolitionist (he was a financial backer of John Brown of Kansas, whose raid on Harper's Ferry nearly led to Smith's prosecution), and three times ran for President of the United States. His philanthropic gifts are said to have exceeded $8 million over his lifetime. Although he rarely ventured far afield from his central New York village, and spent less than two years in elected public office, his biographer Ralph Volney Harrow says, "He and a few others like him furnished the oratory, the written propaganda, and the emotional fervor necessary to keep good causes constantly before the public" (Harlow, Ralph Volney, Gerrit Smith, Philanthropist and Reformer, New York, Henry Holt and Co., 1939, p.v.)

Gerrit Smith was born at Utica, New York, 1797, one of the six children of Peter and Elizabeth Livingston Smith. Peter was a successful businessman, a partner of John Jacob Astor in the fur trade, and owner of vast estates in New York State. These included 20,000 acres in the Mohawk Valley and a continuous tract of more than 60,000 acres in northern Madison County. In 1806 when Gerrit was nine years old, Peter moved his family to his Madison County preserves and named the village he established there Peterboro.

Gerrit entered Hamilton College in 1814 and graduated as valedictorian in 1818. In January of the following year he married Wealtha Ann Backus, daughter of Hamilton's president. Wealtha Ann died seven months after the wedding, and in 1822, Gerrit married Ann Carroll Fitzhugh of Rochester, New York. There were four children of this union: Elizabeth, born September 20, 1822; Fitzhugh, born October 18, 1824 and died July 1836; Ann, born July 7, 1830 and died April 1835; and Green, born April 14, 1842.

In 1818 Gerrit purchased 18,000 acres of land in Oneida County. The following year his father Peter turned over responsibility for the management of all his property to Gerrit and Gerrit's uncle, Daniel Cady. Gerrit moved into the "mansion house" in Peterboro, thus at age twenty-one assuming responsibility not only for the extensive lands in central New York, but also as "patron" for the village of Peterboro. By 1823 value of his purchase in Oneida County had increased and he took his first step in philanthropy, never ceasing from then until his death to provide funds generously for public causes, particularly those he considered "moral."

When Peter Smith died in 1837, he held some 556,000 acres of land in 43 counties of New York State. His will directed that the property should be sold and the proceeds divided among his son Peter Skenandoah, the children of his daughter Cornelia, and Gerrit. Gerrit gained the consent of the other heirs to maintain the property and bought out their shares for cash.

Gerrit Smith was something of a hypochondriac and imagined himself ill for most of his life. However, according to Harlow, "In the course of his life he had printed approximately two hundred circular letters, speeches, and pamphlets, dealing with the various questions, political, social, and theological, in which he happened to be interested. Then he kept a close oversight of his voluminous correspondence, both general and business, as the numerous notes and endorsements in his own hand show. He also wrote out drafts of replies for his clerks to copy. His land books carried about fifteen, hundred separate accounts, which ran on year after year. All these were in addition to the numerous transactions in which he bought or sold land for cash. Much of the routine work in connection with these accounts was done by his clerks, but Smith was always an observant employer.' (Harlow, pp.33, 35)

In addition to his land interests, in the 1830s Gerrit Smith was a director of the Utica branch of the Bank of the United States, held a franchise for the mail stage between Utica and Peterboro, and owned considerable stock in the Hudson and Mohawk Railroad, forerunner of the New York Central, During the 1840s, he helped to reorganize the Commercial Bank of Oswego and to promote the Syracuse and Oswego Railroad. One of his early ventures in business had been the purchase of 91 of the total 100 shares in the Oswego Canal Company, which proved to be one of his most profitable business investments, and during the 1840s, he also worked actively to prevent discriminatory rates on the Canal. Before he was fifty, then, he was a landholder of large estates, ¡r businessman, and a citizen of reputation as one ready to espouse business and commercial enterprises of public concern.

The record indicates, however, that Gerrit Smith's most significant contributions to his era were his efforts in the causes of social and moral reform. He used his powers of oratory and his ability to write on controversial issues on behalf of anti-slavery, anti-tobacco, and anti- Masonic movements; temperance, women's rights; religion; education; and international peace. His gifts to these causes were divided roughly into three categories: speaking, writing both for publication and privately, and providing funds.

One of Gerrit Smith's earliest concerns was religion, and he claimed its precepts as the basis of his reform efforts throughout his life. He was involved in the work of the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, the American Sunday School Union, and the American Home Missionary Society. After he became interested in abolition, he thought Protestant denominationalism was wrong because he believed the churches, as organizations, were not taking a "sufficient" stand against slavery. He was instrumental in forming non-denominational churches in Oswego and Peterboro.

Perhaps the first significant reform movement espoused by Smith was that of temperance. He was a member of the New York Temperance Society and spoke at its first annual meeting in January 1830, to the effect that alcohol was responsible for most of the crime and poverty in the world. He established a "temperance hotel" in Peterboro, where no liquor was sold or consumed, and had an interest in similar hostelries in Oswego and Utica. In 1833, he attended the National Temperance Convention of the American Temperance Society in Philadelphia, where he spoke at meetings, introduced resolutions, and wrote circular letters. He attacked with his oratory distilleries in Cazenovia and Eton, neighbors of Peterboro, and apparently "cleaned up" Peterboro, which "went dry" in 1846, following passage of the New York option law on the licensing of liquor sales.

As Smith's reputation as both reformer and philanthropist grew' he was besieged by founders of societies and organizations devoted to one or another of the social reforms, both for funds and for the support of his name. He either became a member of, wrote circular letters for, provided funds to--or all three--societies fighting the use of tobacco, vegetarian groups, societies to save the souls of canal workers, supporters of sexual purity' the American Peace Society, the Seamen's Friends Society, and organizations devoted to limiting the control of the federal government over canals, railroads' schools, and internal improvements. He supported women's rights movements, including Amelia Bloomer's drive for reform in women's dress, and responded with speeches, funds, and letters to requests for help from feminists Lucy Stone; Susan B. Anthony; his cousin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton; and his own wife and daughter Elizabeth, both of whom became active in the women's rights movement.

In December 1831, Benjamin Lundy, the Quaker publisher of the journal The Genius of Emancipation, visited Gerrit Smith in Peterboro, the first of many abolitionists to be entertained there over the ensuing years. For about four years, Smith remained more of an observer than active supporter of the more militant anti-slavery groups, but by the mid-thirties he had become an avowed abolitionist. He attended the convention in Utica In 1835 where the New York State Anti-Slavery Society was born, and from that time to the Civil War and beyond, he was a committed and articulate member of the country's anti- slavery forces. The Utica meeting was broken up by a mob of anti- abolitionists and Smith was appointed chairman of a committee to decide on the place and time of the next meeting; it reconvened in Peterboro the next day.

Gerrit Smith was elected president of the New York State Anti-Slavery Society in 1836, and began publication of approximately fifty essays on slavery printed in the form of circular letters. By the decade of the 1830s he also was helping slaves to escape and sheltering them at Peterboro before sending them on, usually to Canada. In some cases, he bought slaves and set them free.

The Liberty Party was born in Albany, New York, on April 1, 1840, on the basis of pledges by its members not to support pro-slavery candidates for office. Although he refused the party's nomination as a gubernatorial candidate in 1842, Gerrit Smith spoke at conventions, wrote his circular letters, gave his financial support, and seems to have had considerable influence in the party. He was nominated as a presidential candidate in 1848 by the National Liberty Party, the Liberty League, and the Industrial Congress. In New York State, Smith polled 2,545 votes out of more than 500,000, the moderate abolitionists of the state giving 120,510 votes to Martin Van Buren.

Combining his interests in land reform and in free labor as opposed to slavery, Gerrit Smith gave parcels of his lands, the greater part in the Adirondacks, to thousands of poor white and black families to give them a start as farmers. He also granted lands to 196 white families in Madison County, with an additional thousand grants going to other inhabitants of New York State.

In 1853 Gerrit Smith was elected to Congress, representing the 22nd New York District of Oswego and Madison counties. He was supported by anti- slavery Whigs, Democrats, Free Democrats, and other abolitionists. While an incumbent, he strongly advocated temperance, abolition, and peace, and fought the Kansas-Nebraska-Bill. But he resigned his seat in August 1854, giving as his reason "the pressure of my too extensive private business.

Gerrit Smith was caught up in the Kansas Aid movement, becoming its leader in Madison County and pledging more than $3000 to help pour anti-slavery settlers from the North into the-territory in order to secure a free state. He was active in supporting the "free soilers" of Kansas in their sometimes bloody battles with the Missouri slave-holders, who were determined to make Kansas a slave state.

John Brown had been a leader for free soil in Kansas, but by 1857 the Kansas troubles had lessened, and Brown turned his thoughts to an attack on Virginia and the colonization of free-soilers there. He traveled about from place to place seeking funds, and arrived in Peterboro in February 1858' where he discussed his plans with Gerrit Smith and others. Documents indicate that Smith understood perfectly what John Brown had in mind and that it would involve violence. The attack on Harper's Ferry began on 0ctober 16, 1859. Brown was captured; charged with conspiracy, murder and treason; found guilty; sentenced; and hanged in early December.

During this period, the New York Herald printed documents disclosing Smith's connection with John Brown and his plot, and accused Smith of being an accessory. Smith's fear and anxiety over the possible effects of his involvement resulted in a nervous breakdown. Five days after John Brown was sentenced, Gerrit Smith was taken to the New York State Lunatic Asylum in Utica, where he remained for about two months before he was returned to Peterboro. He consistently denied any more than the most superficial knowledge of Brown's plans and activities and brought libel suits against those who published attacks on him. However, he settled out of court in preference to having his close connection with John Brown publicized through the documents held by his accusers.

For a year after his breakdown, Smith withdrew from public life and lived in retirement; he then resumed his activities in defense of the slaves. He ran for the United States presidency on an abolitionist ticket in 1861 but, while voting for himself, supported Lincoln and gave the administration his full approval once the Civil War had begun. Although he sometimes criticized Lincoln's attitude toward slavery, he made speeches and wrote public letters upholding the government. He advocated Negro suffrage but was in favor of making literacy a prerequisite of the ballot. He advocated bail for Jefferson Davis and, with Horace Greeley and Cornelius Vanderbilt, signed Davis' bail bond.

Gerrit Smith emerged from the Civil War a Republican. By the 1870's he had become active in the party and a supporter of business enterprise. At age 75, he was a delegate to the National Republican convention in Philadelphia, and even supported Ulysses S. Grant in spite of Grant's indulgence in liquor and Smith's abhorrence of alcohol In his late years, Gerrit Smith continued to contribute funds liberally to any cause he thought worthwhile. He spent freely for his own village of Peterboro, providing for flagstone walks, swamp drainage, and the building of roads. He reopened the Peterboro Academy, providing a site for it in the village as well as a salary budget and free tuition for needy students. He gave money to Cornell University, Hampton Institute, Howard University, Alfred University, and finally, in the last year of his life, $10,000 to his alma mater, Hamilton College, although for many years he had disapproved of its policies and refused to have anything to do with it except to criticize.

Gerrit Smith died suddenly on December 28, 1874, in New York City, where he had gone to spend Christmas with his nephew, John Cochrane. He was buried in Peterboro. The New York Times of December 29 commented: "The history of the most important half century of our national life will be imperfectly written if it fails to place Gerrit Smith in the front rank of the men whose influence was most felt in the accomplishment of its results without official participation in politics, beyond a single session in Congress, he was active and powerful in forming the public sentiment that controlled politicians."

[Biography taken from the Guide to the Microfilm Edition of the Gerrit Smith Papers, Microfilming Corporation of America, 1974.]

A genealogy of the Smith family is available here (if online) or at the end of this finding aid (if in hard copy).

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The Gerrit Smith Papers contain business, family and general correspondence (1795-1897); business and land records (1775-1910); writings (1820-1924); miscellaneous files, and maps (1790-1827). Bound volumes have been numbered for ease of location. Oversize bound volumes are shelved separately at the end of the collection.

Correspondence is subdivided as follows:

Incoming correspondence, box 1-40, 1819-1892: This subseries, consisting of letters, notes and other material sent to Gerrit Smith during his lifetime and to survivors following his death, reflects Smith's concerns with and influence on political events and reforms of the day. Notable correspondents include Susan B. Anthony, John Jacob Astor, Henry Ward Beecher, Antoinette Blackwell, Caleb Calkins, Lydia Maria Child, Cassius Clay, Alfred Conkling, Roscoe Conkling, Charles A. Dana, Paulina W. Davis, Edward C. Delavan, Frederick Douglass, Albert G. Finney, Sarah Grimke, Elizabeth Cady and Henry B. Stanton, Louis Tappan, Sojourner Truth, and Theodore Weld. Other correspondents include Charles G. Finney, Abby Kelley Foster, Henry H. Garnet, William Lloyd Garrison, Horace Greeley, Beriah Green, Hinton R. Helper, Julia Ward Howe, S.G. Howe, DeWitt C. Littlejohn, Horace Mann, Samuel J. May, John H. Noyes, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, John Pierpont, Parker Pillsbury, Charles B. Ray, Henry R. Schoolcraft, Mary H. Schoolcraft, W.H. Seward, Elizabeth Smith, James M. Smith, Lucy Stone, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Sumner, Theodore Tilton, Martin Van Buren, Jacob Van Vechten, Thurlow Weed, Andrew D. White, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Victoria C. Woodhull.

Other letters contain appeals for money and assistance for living expenses, or the lending of the Smith name for other reforms. The inventory below lists major correspondents as well as those of lesser national importance but of long-term and/or copious correspondence.

Outgoing correspondence, box 41-42, 1815-1874, and oversize letter books: The oversize letter books cover part of the same period as the loose letters. Some of the letters are in Smith's hand, others in that of various secretaries, responding to some of the letters cited above.

Business correspondence, box 43-63, 1809-1899, and undated: This subseries contains both incoming letters and outgoing drafts. Topics of especial interest are Smith's financial dealings and the movement of lands owned in New York and other states.

Family correspondence, box 63-74, 1795-1807: This subseries includes incoming and outgoing correspondence of the members of the Smith family as well as cousins and relatives by marriage. Families represented include Backus, Cady, Cochrane, Fitzhugh, Livingston, Miller, and Smith.

Business and land files are subdivided as follows:

Financial documents, box 75-98, 1802-1903: This includes the debts, daily expenses, household and traveling expenses of Gerrit Smith, his relatives and business associates. Categories include, among others: charity, household, family, Oswego Hotel, Oswego Pier and Dock Co., estate of Peter Smith, bank account books, bills and receipts, cash books, cancelled checks and check stubs, income taxes and insurance policies.

Land documents, box 98-111, 1775-1910, supply detailed information on the purchase, rent or sale of Smith's land holdings. This includes descriptions of land and acreage, information on New York State tax sales, surveyors' records and New York State treasurer's receipts.

Legal documents, box 112-144, 1793-1882: This consists predominantly of agreements for land purchases. Also included are Cabel Calkins' legal files; deeds and indentures; papers relating to lawsuits; and a few wills and estate papers of family members.

Subject files, box 145-147, 1801-1873: This final subseries under "Business and land files" contains a number of records related to small Smith enterprises or interests, such as the Canastota and Morrisville Plank Road, gifts of land and money to blacks and poor whites, Oneida Turnpike Co., Oswego Canal Co., Peterboro Glass Co., and miscellaneous land interests.

Writings by and about Smith, boxes 147, [148-149 no longer exist], 150, 1832-1878 and undated: Aside from an autobiographical fragment and some of Smith's verse, the bulk of this section consists of printed letters, sermons and discourses. These are addressed to both friends and opponents of various reform movements, such as abolition, temperance and women's rights. Smith also published commentaries on and subject he thought to be of public interest. The majority of these writing have been removed from the collection and transferred to Rare Books for cataloging, such that boxes 148 and 149 no longer exist. Many of these items have also been digitized and are available online. Please see "Related Material" and "Other Formats Available" below for more information.

Writings of others are generally handwritten, although published broadsides are also present. The dominant subject is slavery.

Miscellaneous files, box 150-155, 1813-1962: A collection of handwritten and printed material, correspondence, legal records and clippings, falling into a number of interesting categories, yet with little depth in any area. Here will be found materials on the aftermath of Harper's Ferry, the Church of Peterboro, Peterboro Academy (also Evans Academy), Children's Home, Lunatic Asylum at Utica, the Jerry Rescue, reconstruction, and obituaries and printed portraits of Smith.

For a listing of Maps, see separate cartobibliography. (WARNING: This file is quite large and may take some time to download/open.)

Arrangement of the Collection

Incoming correspondence and family correspondence are arranged alphabetically by name of correspondent. Outgoing correspondence and business correspondence are is arranged chronologically, by year and month. Business and land files are subdivided into financial, land, legal and subject files; within these, material is arranged alphabetically by type. Writings are subdivided by type; many have been removed from the collection (see Related Material below).


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.

Some original documents are restricted for preservation purposes. Photocopies have been made and placed in the appropriate locations in the collection. Researchers are encouraged to use the microfilm version of the collection if at all possible.

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

More than 400 of Smith's writings on the subjects of abolitionism, suffrage, transportation, and the postal system have been removed from the collection and transferred to Rare Books for cataloging. Please refer to the Classic Catalog and search on "Smith, Gerrit, 1797-1874" as author for a complete listing and detailed descriptions.

The entire collection is also available on microfilm (Microfilm #3998). In addition, many of Smith's writings, comprising several hundred letters, pamphlets, broadsides, speeches and so on, have been digitized and are available online through the Gerrit Smith Pamphlets and Broadsides Collection.

For additional material related to Gerrit Smith, see the Gerrit Smith Collection and the Gerrit Smith Pamphlets and Broadsides Collection.

Special Collections Research Center has the papers of many members of the Smith family. See also the Gerrit Smith Miller Papers, the Peter Smith Papers, and the Greene Smith Papers.

The Madison County Historical Society (435 Main Street, Oneida, N. Y., 13421, has family correspondence, manuscripts, documents, published writings of and publications on Gerrit Smith, along with Smith family paintings, furniture etc. covering a period of over 100 years.

Subject Headings


Anthony, Susan B. (Susan Brownell), 1820-1906.
Astor, John Jacob, 1763-1848.
Beecher, Henry Ward, 1813-1887.
Blackwell, Antoinette Louisa Brown, 1825-1921.
Calkins, Caleb.
Child, Lydia Maria, 1802-1880.
Clay, Cassius Marcellus, 1810-1903.
Conkling, Alfred, 1789-1874.
Conkling, Roscoe, 1829-1888.
Dana, Charles A. (Charles Anderson), 1819-1897.
Davis, Paulina W. (Paulina Wright), 1813-1876.
Delavan, Edward C. (Edward Cornelius), 1793-1871.
Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895.
Finney, Charles G., 1792-1875.
Foster, Abby Kelley, 1811-1887.
Garnet, Henry Highland, 1815-1882.
Garrison, William Lloyd, 1805-1879.
Greeley, Horace, 1811-1872.
Green, Beriah, 1795-1874.
Grimké, Angelina Emily, 1805-1879.
Grimké, Sarah Moore, 1792-1873.
Helper, Hinton Rowan, 1829-1909.
Howe, Julia Ward, 1819-1910.
Howe, S. G. (Samuel Gridley), 1801-1876.
Littlejohn, De Witt Clinton, 1818-1892.
Mann, Horace, 1796-1859.
May, Samuel J. (Samuel Joseph), 1797-1871.
Noyes, John Humphrey, 1811-1886.
Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer, 1804-1894.
Pierpont, John, 1785-1866.
Pillsbury, Parker, 1809-1898.
Ray, Charles B.
Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe, 1793-1864.
Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe, Mrs.
Seward, William H. (William Henry), 1801-1872.
Smith, Elizabeth Oakes Prince, 1806-1893.
Smith, Gerrit, 1797-1874.
Smith, James McCune, 1813-1865.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, 1815-1902.
Stanton, Henry B. (Henry Brewster), 1805-1887.
Stone, Lucy, 1818-1893.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher, 1811-1896.
Sumner, Charles, 1811-1874.
Tappan, Lewis, 1788-1873.
Tilton, Theodore, 1835-1907.
Truth, Sojourner, 1799-1883.
Van Buren, Martin, 1782-1862.
Van Vechten, Jacob, 1788-1871.
Weed, Thurlow, 1797-1882.
Weld, Theodore Dwight, 1803-1895.
White, Andrew Dickson, 1832-1918.
Whittier, John Greenleaf, 1807-1892.
Woodhull, Victoria C. (Victoria Claflin), 1838-1927.

Corporate Bodies

Liberty Party (Madison County, N.Y.)
Liberty Party (U.S. : 1840-1848)


Abolitionists -- United States.
Antislavery movements -- United States.
Social reformers -- United States.
Women -- Suffrage -- United States.


Madison County (N.Y.) -- History.
New York (State) -- History -- 1775-1865.
Peterboro (N.Y.) -- History.
United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865.

Genres and Forms

Bank statements.
Bonds (negotiable instruments)
Broadsides (notices)
Check stubs.
Estate records.
Judicial records.
Land registers.
Land surveys.
Maps (documents)
Warrant books.


Social reformers.

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Gerrit 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 #3998). In addition, many of Smith's writings, comprising several hundred letters, pamphlets, broadsides, speeches and so on, have been digitized and are available online through the Gerrit Smith Pamphlets and Broadsides Collection.