The Smiths of Nassau. - John Smith, Rock
by Martha Bockee Flint
In Persian legend, the leathern apron of Gaveh, the mighty
blacksmith, encrusted with gold and gems, the gift of successive monarchs, became the
royal banner. In every stage of civilization, the ironworker,the smith, or ferrier, is the
ruling artisan, and it is not strange that so many families derive their names from this
ancestral craft. Smith, Schmidt, Le Fevre are the commonest surnames of three great
nations, and Farrar, Ferrier, and their variations, although rarer, are a frequent
survival of the age when the farrier, a literal rendering, was the iron-smith. "Every
true knight must be his own good farrier," says an old chronicle. The name of John
Smith is surely an honorable one in America. None of her early explorers and
"adventurers" were more single-hearted, none judged more wisely of the needs of
the embryo nation, than the heroic captain so-called. His blood flows in no American
veins, his character is but, of late, justly
To the several English colonies came Smiths of diverse lineage, but among the many families genealogical interest centres in a few. To differentiate the Smiths of Long Island is not an easy matter, although there are four or five families which may be plainly traced in distinct lines of descent. Of these, the Tangier Smiths and the Bull Smiths have published records sufficiently full to prevent their descendants being confounded with any other stock. Planted in the recently stolen Nieuw Nederlandt by men of mark, their children making noteworthy alliances, the lines of Colonel William Smith of the Manor of Saint George, Chief Justice of the Province, sometime Governor of Tangier, and of Major Richard Smith - Richard the Bull-rider - a soldier under Cromwell, and the founder of Smithtown, these lines are clearly distinguishable in the dim maze of tradition, and of incomplete or missing documents.
But at the west of the island in Queens, and more particularly in the newly erected county of Nassau, were earlier established other worthy families of Smith, whose limits are not as clearly defined, Among them are the Smiths of-Herricks (naming them from their first farmstead on the Hempstead Plains), which, in the elder branch, intermarried with Elizabeth, daughter of Captain John Underhill, whose mother was the granddaughter of Anne Winthrop, and, in the next generation, with Freelove Jones, eldest daughter of Major Thomas Jones - "Pirate Jones" - and of his wife, Freelove Townsend, whose dower was the six thousand acres of land at Fort Neck, bought from the Massapequa Indians in 1688. Some writers give as distinct families,"the Weight Smiths'~ and the "Blue Smiths," names referring to the ownership of the public scales, and to the habitual wearing of a blue coat by the founders of the respective families But genealogy' is not mythology, and one may well distrust such legends. With this several John Smiths, some pseudonym, or discriminating mark, was necessary, and thus it was that one, a cordwainer at Hempstead, wrote himself "John Smith Blue" another, "John Smith, na.," "nan," or "nantz," and often, for greater exactness, "Mr. Gildersleeve's son-in-law," and still another, John Smith, Rock, who was, in familiar parlance, "Rock John."
The above suffix "nan," as usually abbreviated, has long puzzled the students of Long Island records, but is not this, at least, a reasonable hypothesis? "Nantz1' is an old English word applied to precipitous hills, particularly to the cliffs of Snowdon and other mountains in Wales. As the two Long Island men from Halifax and from Oakham wrote their names, "Jonas Wood, Hal.," and Jonas Wood, Oak.," may not this John Smith by "nan" have indicated his own birthplace?
In "Weight Smith," the weight is a modern. and false reading of the Puritan forename "Wait," in full, "Wait-still-for-the-grace-of-God," used in several generations of the descendants of John Smith, of Mespat, earliest known of the name on Long Island, and killed in the Indian massacre of 1648. He was the brother of Mr. Richard Smith, of Taunton, "a most acceptable Inhabitant and prime leading man" thereof, who, says Roger Williams, "for his conscience to God left fair estates in Gloucestershire and adventured with his relations and estates in New England." There is strong presumptive evidence that William Smith "of Glochestershire," founder of the family at Herricks," was their brother.
But John Smith, Rock, was a man of character so marked, of influence so tar-reaching, that not only his descendants, men and women, for several generations, thus wrote their names, but the family is still proud to call themselves the Rock-Smiths. The adoption, although not the meaning of the name he himself, explains in a deposition made in 1675, wherein "John Smith, Junior," gives his age as sixty, and says that while living in Stamford he "was called Rock John, for distinction." This disposes of the assumption that the name arose from living beside the great boulder of Manhasset - not proved as a fact, or that, during his service as a justice, the name was suggested by his inflexible nature.
The mention of Stanford leads one along the paths of early New England settlement, tracing thereby the several removals of the band of English Puritans who finally found opportunity for freedom of thought within the bounds of the liberal Nieuw Nedertandt In the year 1630, when the ship Arabella dropped anchor in Massachusetts Bay, there was with Winthrop, Sir Richard Saltonstall, whose company settled a few miles up the Charles River, founding Watertown. In 1631, a John Smith was there made Freeman, and eight years later, his wife Isabel died, aged sixty. They had a son John and it is probable, but by no means here asserted as a fact, that it was he who joined the dissentient band as they fared westward. The course of empire waited not for Bishop Berkeley's prophetic verse. Allured by the richer lands of the Connecticut Valley, "Heering of the fame of the Conighticute river, they had a hankering mind after it," and impelled by the theological disputes which were the true animus of nearly every New England movement, this little party, "the civil and religious founders of Connecticut," journeyed through the forest, and a part of their number founded Wethersfield, at first called Watertown. It was May 29, 1635, that they had been dismissed from the Church of Watertown, on the Charles, "to form a newe Church covenant in this River of Connecticot." It was these men, at Windsor, at Hartford, and at Weathersfield, who nursed the germ of federal government, and, in 1639, gave to America - indeed, to the world - the first written constitution which, by its own power, established a government. But it was not long before the new church at Weathersfield "fell into unhappie Contentions and animosities." Quinnipiack on the Sound had already become the site where New Haven was establishing her austere theocracy. By the advice of Mr. Davenport, the seceding part of the Church of Weathersfield was induced to move southward, obtaining from New Haven the lands which that colony had bought of the Indians at Rippowam, now Stamford. The next spring, some of the men came to begin a clearing and to break ground for planting the corn essential as a food-supply. When the grain "had grown like wampum, hard and yellow," when the tupelo had dropped its crimson cloak and the oaks were shivering in their garb of russet and maroon, thirty families were there, warmly housed for the winter in their well-banked log cabins. There, in the division of land which was made in December, 1641, "John Smith, Sen., and son John" each received "'a house-lotte" - and "a wood-lotte." The son, John Smith, Rock, was then twenty-six, and may easily have been the grandson of John and Isabel Smith, of Watertown.
The early records of Stamford are faded and crumbling, and the history of these undaunted men is not written there. They came to Stamford to repeat the experience of Wethersfield. But this time, at least, the discord arouse from no theological hair-splitting. it was a manly protest against the government of New Haven, which limited suffrage to church members. In 1643, Mr. Richard Denton, the pastor who had come with them from Watertown, with a few adherents, resolved once more to adventure for a new home and a more liberal polity Land was bought of the Indians o~ the north side of Long Island, and the next spring a few families crossed the Sound and penetrated to the inland plantations the Dutch had already named Heenstede. There, on condition that one hundred families should be settled within three years, the Director-General, Kiefe, granted a generous patent to the Stanford incomers. The tract was held in common for three years, until a division of land was made among the sixty-two original owners.
Among these are the names of John Smith, Sen., and of John Smith, Jun., Rock. From that time, in the Town Books of Hempstead wherein are written, "the most motorial things relating to the Publick," a rich quarry for the foundation stones of local history, occurs often the name of John Smith, Rock. It may be in transfers of land, or in service as a townsman, or, as in 1657, when the license for an inn - licenses were given only to the leading men, men of sober deportment and established character - was granted to bin in this wise - "To keep an ordinarie and to sell meat and drink and lodging for strangers and their retinue, both for horse and man, and to keep such good order that it may not be offensive to the lawes of God and of this place." in 1687, perhaps earlier, Rock John wrote his own name as Senior. His signature oftenest appears as "John Smith, Sen., Rock, yeoman, of Hempstead.' His sons not infrequently sign themselves as " - Smith, Rock Gentleman." In that simple pastoral life there was no sharp dividing line between the yeoman and the gentleman. The plain planter upon his few acres was often the scion of a knightly race. For a hundred years and more, the sons and daughters are recorded with the added "Rock," and the old house at Merricks, on the south side, built by Rock-John's son Joseph, the birthplace of seven successive generations, is still known as the Rock-Smith House. John Smith, Jun., receiving a house-lot at Stamford, was doubtless already married. His wife was a daughter of Lieutenant John Strickland, who was one of Saltonstall's party, a freeman of Watertown, the grantee of the "Homestall, 16, A," a justice, and a sergeant in the militia. He was one of those who went from Watertown to Wethersfield, to Stamford, and finally to Hempstead, leaving his name meanwhile on Strickland's Plain. Too little remains of the personal history of these men. It is probably impossible to learn any definite details of their lives, or even to establish a complete record of their descendants, but in the too rapid disintegration of American families, it is wise to preserve every stray thread of tradition and of written fact, until they may be woven into the strong cable binding the Present to the receding Past.
About the Name, "Rock" Smith
From Long Island Antiquities by
Upon this island, and especially in the central portions of it are very many families of the name Smith, and so numerous did they become at an early period of this settlement, that it was thought necessary to distinguish the various original families by some particular name. thus we have the Black Smiths; the Blue Smiths; the Bull Smiths; the Weight Smiths, and the Tangier Smiths. Of the Rock Smiths there are two distinct families. One originally settled between Rockaway and Hempstead, some ten or fifteen years before the settlement of the first white inhabitant in Setauket, who derived their name from the contiguity to Rockaway. The other located themselves in Brookhaven and obtained their appellation from their ancestor erecting his dwelling against a large rock which still remains in the highway of that town.
The Blue Smiths were settled in Queens county and obtained their peculiar designation from a blue cloth coat worn by their ancestor; whether because a cloth coat was then an uncommon thing in the neighborhood, or that he always dressed in a coat of that color, does not appear.
The Bull Smiths of Suffolk County are the most numerous of all the families of the name of Smith upon this island. It is said there are now at least one thousand males of that branch on this island. The ancestor of this branch of the Smith family was Major Richard Smith who came from England to New England with his father Richard in the early part of the seventeenth century; and afterwards came to this island, and became the patentee of Smithtown. The sobriquet of this class of Smiths is said to have arisen from the circumstance of the ancestor having trained and used a Bull in place of a horse for riding.
The Weight Smiths derived their name from being possessed of the only set of scales and weights in the neighborhood of their residence, to which all the farmers of the country around resorted for the purpose of weighing anything they wished to sell or buy; at least so says the tradition.
The Tangier Smiths owe their origin to Colonel William Smith, who had been the English Governor of Tangier, in the reign of Charles the Second, and emigrated to this colony in the summer of the year 1686, where he settled in the town of Brookhaven on the Neck known as Little Neck and afterwards as Strong's Neck, which together with his other purchases, were erected into a manor by the name of St. George's Manor, by a patent granted to him in 1693, by Governor Fletcher. Most of the Tangier Smiths are now in that town, scattered through it from the north to the south side of the island. (Tangier, in Africa, was about that period an English colony, having come to the British Crown as part of the dowry of Queen Catherine of Portugal; and was, in 1683, abandoned by the English to the Moors, in consequence of the great expense and small value of the colony.)
These different appellations of the families of the Smiths became as firmly settled as if they were regular family names, so that when any inquiry was made of any person on the road, man, woman or child, for any particular Smith, they would at once ask whether he was of the Rock breed, or the Bull breed, etc. And if the person desiring the information could say which breed, he at once was told of his residence. In truth, there are so many of the same name in that most numerous family of the Smiths upon this island, that without adopting some such plan it would be almost impossible to distinguish one from the other.
Among these Smiths, and at Smithtown, upon this island, have occurred two of the most marked instances of longevity known in this country.
Richard Smith, the patentee of Smithtown, of the Bull breed, purchased at New York a Negro man named Harry who lived with him, with his son, with his grandson, and died at Smithtown in the month of December 1758, aged at least one hundred and twenty years. This remarkable individual said he could remember when there were but very few houses in the city of New York. His memory must have extended back to the administration of the Dutch Governor Kieft. His health and strength of body continued almost unimpaired until very near his death, and he could do a good day's work when he had passed one hundred years.
There appears to have been another Negro man in the same town, who even exceeded him in the point of age. In a note to Moulton's History of New York, it is stated that an obituary article appeared in a newspaper, printed in 1739, of the death of a Negro man at Smithtown, on Long Island, reputed to have been one hundred and forty years old, who declared that he well remembered when there were but three houses in New York. The memory of this man must therefore have extended back to the founding of New Amsterdam, in the year 1626, as New York as then called, and he must have come into this country with some of the first Dutch settlers.
(Note from Sue: In my own data pertaining to our Denton and Smith ancestors, I have Rock Smith, Black Smith and Nan Smith! This article was sent to me some years ago. I do not know the origin or the date of the publication.)