Gerrit Smith’s father, Peter Smith (for whom Peterboro was named), established his homestead here in 1804. Upon his father’s death, the younger Smith inherited a fortune that he greatly expanded through shrewd business dealings. He erected various buildings, including a mansion. He also made his estate a regional center for reform agitation in such areas as abolition, temperance, and woman suffrage (nineteenth-century practice was to use the singular, woman or woman's, when referring to women as a class; later practice was to use the plural, women or women's). From this homestead, Gerrit Smith and his wife Ann Carroll Fitzhugh Smith over their lives donated an estimated eight million dollars (more than $250 million in current dollars) to a spectrum of reform causes.
Abolition Work. Smith resided here when he invited some 600 delegates to Peterboro to complete the first meeting of the reconstituted New York State Antislavery Society at the village’s Presbyterian Church on October 22, 1835.The site of that meeting now houses the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum. In January 1840, he hosted fellow abolitionists abolitionists William Goodell and James G. Birney at his estate to plan the establishment of the Liberty Party, the nation's first political party devoted solely to abolition. The party and its offshoots never elected a candidate, but nonetheless played modest roles in the presidential elections of 1840 and 1844, and helped shift Northern public opinion in the direction of antislavery. Smith also resided here when he was one of the "Secret Six" northern philanthropists who bankrolled John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.
So active was Smith in the abolition movement and the Underground Railroad that African American abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet wrote: “There are yet two places where slaveholders cannot come, Heaven and Peterboro.” Frederick Douglass published this comment on the front page of his Rochester-based abolition paper The North Star on December 8, 1848.
Garnet was not exaggerating; Smith spent heavily to flood he Peterboro area with abolitionist literature and speakers, hoping to demonstrate how profound the impact of intense local campaigning could be. One measure of Smith's success: voters in Madison County, New York (in which Peterboro is located) supported antislavery candidates, whenever on the ballot, by larger margins than anywhere else in the country. To Smith's disappointment, abolitionists in other areas (to be fair, few of whom had remotely similar financial resources) failed to follow his lead.
The Next Generation. Smith’s daughter Elizabeth Smith Miller resided on the estate with her husband, Charles Dudley Miller, between 1846 and late 1850. Prior to that the Millers resided as newlyweds in a small house in Cazenovia; after their four-year sojourn on the Estate, the Millers moved across the street to the House on the Green in Peterboro, one of two homes Gerrit Smith would give to the couple.
1850 Event. Late in August of 1850, Gerrit Smith conducted a two-day convention opposing the Fugitive Slave Act at Peterboro. The event featured a lecture by Frederick Douglass. (The two men had just attended a larger anti-Fugitive Slave Act convention held at Cazenovia on August 21 and 22.) The first day of convention programming took place at Peterboro Baptist Church, now long demolished. (Douglass spoke there.) The second day's program was held outdoors in a "fine grove" presumed to be the formal garden just east of the Smith mansion. This was during the period when the Millers occupied the mansion.
The Buildings and Site. The Gerrit Smith Estate contains several buildings, though not the Smith mansion, which burned down in 1936. The Estate was named a National Historic Landmark in 2001. Self-guided tours of the grounds are permitted during daylight hours; an informative visitor’s center is open Sundays from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Additional information on the Gerrit Smith Estate is available here. Additional information on the Gerrit Smith Estate and other historical attractions in Peterboro is available here and here.
October 21–22, 1835
Late August, 1850