JOHN Y. SMITH


From History of Dane County, Wisconsin, publ. by Western Historical Company, Chicago, 1880, page 537-543

JOHN Y. SMITH was born near Evan's Mills, a small village in the town of Le Ray, Jefferson Co., N.Y., February 10, 1807. His father was Peter SMITH, an Irishman by birth, who came to this country as a soldier in the army of Gen. Burgoyne, and after his captivity, determined to remain and become a resident of the country. He was married twice, his second wife being a niece of Gen Ethan ALLEN. She died, when her son, the subject of this sketch, was about six years of age. A year afterward, his father removed to New Hartford, Oneida Co., N.Y. His circumstances were such that he decided to find places for his children, and break up housekeeping. He himself went to live with his oldest son, Edward, then about twenty-four years of age. His son, John Y., was sent to work in the cotton factory established in the place. He soon after went to live with a farmer, with whom he remained four years, and while with him and about eight years of age, he was kicked by a horse, which fractured his skull and displaced one eye. This injury nearly cost him his life. His employer was a tyrant, and the lad while with him was the victim of much ill usage. after this he learned the carpenter's trade, reaching his majority and completing his apprenticeship about the same time. From these circumstances it will be apparent that his advantages for education were very limited. He literary training was not received at the schools to any considerable extent, but chiefly in a struggle for life, and under the influence of comparatively few books and he read; but the training was none the less real, as he made it a practice to study and patiently digest what engaged his attention, eschewing all lights and frivolous publications. The writings of Milton, Young, Thompson and Wordsworth in poetry, Edwards and Butler in theology, Isaac Taylor in the field of speculative thought, and Say, Mill and De Quincey in political economy, were his favorite authors. Grammar he never studied, and he used to say that the only rule of it he knew was the one laid down in the book of Job, xxxiv, 3, "For the ear trieth words as the mouth tasteth meat." Soon after finishing his apprenticeship, he made preparations to move to the West. He engaged himself to go with a missionary to the Stockbridge Indians, near Green Bay, to erect or work upon the mission buildings. His employer paid his passage, and advanced him $20 to purchase a set of bench tools. He left Utica, N.Y., on a line boat on the Erie Canal, with $1.25 in his pocket. In about eight days, he arrived at Buffalo, then a village of limited pretensions and took passage on a small schooner, the "Lady of the Lake," of seventy tons burthen, and in about four weeks landed safely at Green Bay, on May 18, 1828. His first employment was on the mission house near that place, and afterward at Kaukauna, among the Stockbridges. He built the second frame house and the first flouring-mill in Wisconsin. After passing a year at Green Bay, he determined to return homeward. He was as far as Mackinaw, but after staying there three months, decided to return to Wisconsin - or Michigan Territory, as it was then called - intending to make Green Bay his permanent home. On September 27, 1832, while residing at the Bay, he married Anna Weed KELLOGG, daughter of James and Martha C. KELLOGG, of Northfield, Conn., who was at that time a missionary teacher to the Stockbridges. This lady died March 3, 1847, leaving one son, Hayden K. SMITH.

In the year 1833 and the year following, in company with Asa SHERMAN, he erected a mill on the public lands near the present city of Green Bay, and a dwelling-house, occupied by them until the Government sale of 1835. Under the pre-emption law of 1834, they selected the quarter-section thus occupied, and each party was allowed a "float," as it was called - the right to enter at Government price, eighty acres anywhere in the land district. Mr. SHERMAN's "float" was purchased by Morgan L. MARTIN, and located in what now is the center of the city of Milwaukee. The court house stands upon its site. Mr. SMITH located his "float" in Milwaukee, west of the river and north of Spring street, and it embraced parts of what are now the Second and Fourth Wards. He retained for a long time an undivided half-interest, having disposed of the remainder. The rise of property soon after, greatly improved his pecuniary circumstances.

In 1837, he removed to that city, where he remained nearly three years; a portion of the time working at his trade, and also in cultivating a small farm in the vicinity. In 1839, he removed to a farm about three miles from Waukesha, then known as Prairieville. In the winter of 1840-41, he fell, while chopping in the woods, and sustained an injury in the back which confined him to his house for a number of weeks. His recovery was slow; it was several years before he could perform hard physical labor. It was supposed his spine was permanently injured. This accident strongly influenced his subsequent career, and seemed to render it necessary for him to engage in a somewhat less laborious occupation.

He first visited Madison early in 1842, in company with Rev. J. E. QUAW, a Dutch Reformed clergyman. The Legislature of the Territory in joint convention, February 18, elected him Commissioner of Public Buildings; and at the succeeding session, in 1843, he was, on the 24th of March, elected Superintendent of Public Property, the former office of Commissionership having been abolished. The old capitol was completed, or nearly so, under his superintendence, he doing much of the finer work with his own hands.

In July of that year, he removed his family to Madison, and, in 1846, erected a dwelling-house, still standing, on the corner of Carroll and Clymer streets, where he made his home until he removed to his farm, two miles and a half south of the city.

The Wisconsin Argus was established at Madison, and the first number issued April 22, 1844. The members of the firm were Simeon MILLS, Benjamin HOLT and John Y. SMITH - the latter having entire control of the editorial department. It was Democratic in politics, and was in favor of free trade and a hard-money currency, and ranked high as an exponent of those measures. Mr. SMITH remained connected with the paper, with some business changes, until April 1851, when he retired from it.

While engaged in his editorial labors, he was chosen to represent part of Dane County in the First Constitutional Convention, that met in October 1846. It does not appear that Mr. SMITH made any elaborate speeches, or took a very active part in the work of the convention, except on a proposed section to abolish the death penalty, when he made a speech against such action, which was published in the Argus at the time. The constitution as framed, as is well known, was rejected by the vote of the people. It is believed he was not in favor of its adoption. Mr. SMITH married the second time, July 5, 1847, at Madison, Harriet, daughter of John and Abigail WRIGHT, of East Hampton, Mass. She died September 7, 1851. The children by this marriage were two; both are now deceased. He married again, on the 18th of March, 1852, at Brookfield, Wis. His third wife is Sarah Ann, daughter of Jonathan C. and Achsa D. WARNER, of Amherst, Mass., by which marriage he had two sons now living.

Mr. SMITH soon became known as a writer of ability. The first of his publications that attracted attention, was a mock message, written by him as the first "Peoples' Governor," or Governor of the Sovereigns, delivered in the Assembly Hall in 1842. This was the commencement of a series of similar messages delivered at the opening of the sessions of the Legislature. It was the means of introducing him to the favorable notice of C. C. SHOLES, who engaged him to report legislative proceedings for his paper. This was his first connection with the press, and from this time until 1851 he was steadily engaged in editorial labors.

In 1861, Mr. SMITH purchased the interest of E. A. CALKINS in the Argus and Democrat, a daily and weekly newspaper, and the publican was continued by the firm name of SMITH & CULLATON, H. K. SMITH being an associate editor. The daily issue was continued to January 4, 1862, and the weekly until June 10 of that year, when the publication was discontinued. During the war he wrote some army letters to the Chicago Tribune, and other papers, but did not devote himself to the work of a correspondent. In the winter of 1866-67, he wrote for the Milwaukee Sentinel, during the illness of his son, who was engaged on the editorial force of that paper. He was the editorial writer for the Western Farmer in 1867-68, and a part of the winter of 1868-69 for the Sentinel. For about three months in the summer of 1870, he was the editor of the Peoria (Ill.) Transcript, when he ceased his connection with the press.

On the 24th of April 1874, while on his farm near the city of Madison, he had his left leg severely fractured from the kick of a horse he was endeavoring to train to service. He remained in a critical condition, with but slight hopes of his recovery, and for several days reason had left him to such a degree that he hardly recognized his friends. His sufferings were intense, and he lingered until the 5th day of May, when death came to his relief. He was in the sixty-eighth years of his age.

Mr. SMITH's tastes were inclined towards economic subjects, though he wrote readily on other topics; and of his letters, whose particularly descriptive of scenery, were graphic and entertaining.

As a public economist he was thorough; he was uncompromisingly opposed to protection, to paper-money or to usury laws.

As a thinker he was logical, untiring and conscientious rather than rapid. He was usually clear, because he always thought out his subject patiently and thoroughly before writing.

"It is our boast, indeed," says one who knew him well,"that, in its infancy, Wisconsin had connected with her press, as its most prominent figure, a master mind, deeply versed in the very elements of fundamental law, with sagacity to forecast the future; who would make men think, and of consequence make them studious and thoughtful."

"His mind, it can be truthfully said," continued the writer, "was the Miltonic east. He had carefully read and deeply pondered almost every branch of human learning, but his specialties were logical and metaphysical authors. No writer was so subtle or acute as to confound his clear judgment, confuse his understanding or elude his grasp of mind. He examined every problem with severe minuteness; traced it to its fundamental principles, and subjected it to an analysis and critical test that left little or no residuum for error. He commenced to question just where other men accept without examination. He spent hours and days in profoundest thought upon propositions the world accepted as standard truth. He was a hard and tireless student, and every production of his pen bore the impress of deep reflection and closest examination." In his religious belief Mr. SMITH was a Presbyterian, and took an active part in the organization of the church of that denomination in Madison, in October 1851; and was for a long period identified in its management, holding for a number of years the office of Ruling Elder, nearly a quarter of a century. While not conspicuous in late years in the daily walks of business life, he was universally esteemed for the uprightness of his character, as well as for distinguished ability.

Mr. SMITH was one of those men that pass a long life's thoroughfare, in a quiet, peaceful way. Under the surface of an unpretending and somewhat rough exterior, there was a deep and over flowing fountain of kindness, and a fund of humor that sometimes sparkled with peculiar brilliancy - of the "clear, sharp kind that was full of point."

Among his principal literary efforts were --
1. A series of articles on the power of Congress over the Territories.
2. Two papers against usury laws, published in the Democratic Review, in 1850.
3. A paper on the Agriculture of Dane County, published in the Transactions of the State Agricultural Society of Wisconsin, in 1851.
4. A paper on the Adaptation of crops to Soil and Climate, published in the same work for 1852.
5. An address before the Madison Institute, 1855, on the Rank of the Human Race Among the Rational Orders of the Universe.
6. A series of articles against taxing evidences for debt, written about 1856.
7. A paper on the Origin of the American Indians, read as the annual address before the State Historical Society, January 1859.
8. A speech delivered at Madison, March 14, 1861, on the state of the country.
9. A series of articles published in the Argus, in 1861, advocating the doctrine that States by revolving lapsed into the Territorial condition.
10. A pamphlet on the Depreciation of the Currency, published in 1865.
11. A review of Senator Doolittle's speech at Madison, September 30, 1865, on Reconstruction, published in that year.
12. A paper on Eleazer Williams and the Lost Prince, read before the State Historical Society, March 10, 1870.
13. A paper read before the Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Sciences and Letters, February 15, 1870, on the Laws which Govern the Configuration of Comets.
14. A paper before the same institution, in 1874, on the Effect of Duties on Imports upon the Value of Gold.

Mr. SMITH began in the year 1851 collecting materials for a work on "Currency." He spent several months in the libraries of New York and Washington, and subsequently wrote a few chapters, but never completed the work.


Transcribed and contributed to this site by Carol

 

 

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