1748 – A Bad Year for the Smith Family


The late summer and early fall of 1748 was apparently a difficult period for the Smith family, who lived at the Smith’s St. Leonard archaeological site. Between August 28th and October 22nd of that year 3, possibly 4, members of the family died from unknown causes. At least, causes unknown to us.

Walter Smith Jr., son of Walter who owned Smith’s St. Leonard, died first in 1748. It is possible to assume that whatever afflicted him was sudden and severe. His short will was written on the 28th of August, and while it wasn’t proven until October 22 information in his father’s will suggests he had died by the time Walter Sr.’s was written, only 3 days later. Interestingly Walter Jr.’s will makes provisions for his “dear wife” who was “now Big with Child” to inherit all of his personal estate and pass it on to his child, or children if her baby survived.

Apparently not feeling well himself, Walter Sr. writes his will on September 1, 1748. “Being in great weakness of body but of sound and disposing mind and memory”, he divides up his belongings and lands between his remaining children, and grandson Walter. Whatever was afflicting him must also have been relatively sudden since he was present during the Maryland General Assembly meetings only a few months before. By the 21st of September Walter Sr. had passed away leaving the use of his dwelling house and plantation in the hands of his widow Alethea Dare Smith (soon to be Cooke-a very interesting story for another day).

Walter Sr.’s third eldest son, Richard inherits lands that fall within the bounds of his father’s plantation and writes up his own will on the 21st of September. Having no family of his own Richard unsurprisingly leaves his lands and belongings to his other siblings. What is interesting is that he states the care of his deceased brother’s children should be left to his eldest brother John Smith. This is interesting because it suggests that Walter Jr.’s widow apparently did give birth to her baby, but appears not to have survived herself. Presumably Walter Jr.’s widow was no longer around to care for her own children, since in Walter Jr.’s will she was obviously able to provide for her son. Whether or not she is alive during this time and unable to care for her children is unknown. If she died in childbirth, then Walter Jr.’s widow also did not survive that season, and died sometime between the writing of Walter Sr.’s and Richard’s wills.

Sadly, Richard did not live much longer after writing his own will. Both his and his brother’s wills were proved in court on the 22nd of October leaving much of the plantation lands in the care of eldest brother John Smith for the young Walter and his baby sister once they reached a certain age.

So what caused the rapid demise of the Smith family? Illness? Natural causes? Coincidence? A combination of those three? According to the Maryland Health Department records the Maryland General Assembly suspended meetings in 1747, and the Virginia General Assembly did likewise in 1748 due to Smallpox outbreaks. Aside from the possible smallpox outbreaks we know very little of what happened in 1748. Unfortunately, it is possible we may never know what exactly happened during 1748, but it is interesting to speculate what might have caused 3, possibly 4, seemingly healthy family members to die within a 2 month period.

The wills for Walter Sr., Walter Jr. and Richard Smith are available online at the Maryland State Archives website. http://guide.mdsa.net/series.cfm?action=viewSeries&ID=s538 Wills Liber 25, folios 464, 477, 491.

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