Dorothy Farnham Smith Diary
The travel diary of Dorothy Farnham Smith (1753-1801) of Newburyport, Massachusetts, a small but well-preserved manuscript residing within in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, has now been transcribed and edited for the first time by Dr. Timothy Whelan, Professor of English, Georgia Southern University. Dorothy Smith spent the months of February through July 1793 traveling down the east coast on her husband's merchant ship to Savannah, where she stayed for about three months before heading back to Newburyport via Charleston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, leaving the ship at Baltimore and taking a stagecoach along the Old Post Road the rest of the way. Her diary provides rare first-hand details through the lens of a woman writer on important people, places, and events from 1793. She names some 60 individuals in her diary. Many are from prominent families in Savannah in the early 1790s, including the Houstouns at White Bluff, reflective of her husband's stature as a prominent sea merchant who had previously made extensive business connections in the South. Upon her return to Boston, she meets many of the leading citizens in the various cities the Smiths visit along the way, including a chance meeting with George and Martha Washington in Philadelphia. This website includes the full text of the diary, with ample annotations, a biographical index of more than 40 individuals who appear in the diary, and an extensive Introduction to the Farnham and Smith families of Newburyport. The diary of Dorothy Smith is the only extant diary by a woman living for a period of time in Savannah in the 1790s, and is consequently of great historical significance to scholars, students, and the general public of life in a Southern city in the early 1790s as seen through the eyes of a woman from Massachusetts.
Opening page of Dorothy Smith's Diary, as she departed for Savannah, Georgia, in February 1793 (courtesy of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University).
Overview of the Diary
Dorothy and Josiah Smith departed from Newburyport for Savannah on board the Caroline on February 3, 1793, arriving along the coast outside Savannah on February 18. The ship finally docked at Savannah on February 26, but Dorothy Smith did not leave the ship and enter the town until March 4. The Smiths did not take rooms in Savannah until March 10, having spent five weeks living on the ship. During her time on board, Dorothy Smith was visited by several important townspeople, including the son of the Revolutionary War hero, Nathaniel Greene, whose Mulberry Grove plantation (where Eli Whitney was living and working at the time) was not far up the river from Savannah. From the boat she also caught her first glimpses of what is present-day River Street, where she could see “the Sons of Slavery half naked . . . rolling up Hogsheads of Rum upon the Bluff which is so steep and Sandy as to be difficult to ascend others carrying Stove ballast out of Ships,” her feelings already “wounded at hearing of the treatment to these unfortunate Blacks.”
Though she complains at one point about “spending so much time at a place that affords so little of the Curious or Elegant to amuse me,” a place not conducive to “the display of much taste or Art” or “for the Cardinal virtues to flourish in,” the Smiths socialize constantly during their visit. Josiah attends dinners of the Savannah Ugly Club (there was a club in Charleston as well) and introduces his wife to most of the leading civic and merchant families in Savannah. These included the Vanderlochts, Ingersolls, Putnams, Montfords, Belchers, Sheftalls, Orricks, Bryans, Houstouns, Charltons, and the McCalls. Dorothy, meanwhile, when not engaged in long, gossipy afternoon teas with members of these families, enjoyed carriage rides along the Ogeechee River, or trips to White Bluff (where the Houstouns’ plantation was located) and Thunderbolt, basking in vistas of Spanish moss, magnolias, cabbage palms, pomegranates, and rice plantations. She also witnessed exhilarating horse races and hot-air balloon launches, explored Whitefield’s Bethesda Orphanage for children, attended Nathaniel Greene’s funeral procession, and participated in religious services at the fledgling Catholic and Jewish congregations (still meeting in rented houses in town), the Episcopalians at Christ Church, and the overflowing meeting house in Yamacraw of freed and bound enslaved persons during the celebrated ministry of the black Baptist preacher, Andrew Bryan.
Besides her busy social life during her travels, Dorothy Smith found time to read and maintain her diary each day, even adding selections from her reading to her diary, much like she might have added to a commonplace book. Her diary for the most part is a typical daily journal of activities, with many entries comprised of only one sentence, but with the usual accounts of weather, the status of her health as she entered her 40th year, and visitors entertained or visits made outside her quarters. Many entries, however, are more diverse and detailed, recording events and locations of peculiar interest to her, especially church services. Though a Congregationalist, Smith was surprisingly ecumenical in her religious activities during her time away from Newburyport. In Savannah and Charleston she attends services among Catholics (both American and French), Jews, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and a large congregation of black Baptists.
Having moved for some time within New England's abolitionist circles, Smith was keenly aware of the plight of enslaved persons on the surrounding plantations, though she had never seen their living conditions and experiences first hand prior to her visit to Savannah. In one entry she recorded a startling scene she witnessed in which a husband begged to be sold to a Jamaica plantation so he could be near his wife who had been taken to Jamaica a few weeks earlier. Sadly, he was told by the plantation owner that it would make no difference because he would never be able to find his wife on the island anyway, a startling declaration that struck Smith so poignantly that she had to leave the room. She wrote in her diary later that night, “Is it possible that there are beings who are made after the image of their Creator so destitute of Humanity,” vowing that if she were ever “to possess Power and Wealth the first exercise of it should be to join this affectionate Husband to his Wife.” Her description of the funeral procession of Nathaniel Greene’s son may be the most detailed first-hand account of such an event to survive from this period. Similarly, her descriptions of four visits to the First African Baptist Church under the leadership of Andrew Bryan are just as detailed, suggesting those in attendance have “more appearance of ^devotion^ in them than in the Whites.” Many white Savannians attended the church’s baptismal services in the river, more out of curiosity, she suspected, than devotion. Nevertheless, Dorothy Smith was struck by “the performances” from the pulpit by “Andrew,”as she calls him, the “good looking Man dressd in black.” She adds that his “delivery was good and [he was] quite ^the^ Orator.”
The Smiths boarded their sloop for Charleston in Savannah on May 14, but ill winds delayed their actual departure from Savannah and Tybee until May 21. In Charleston, as they were in Savannah, the Smiths were active socializers, attending church, the theatre, and several other sites of interest before setting sail on June 3, arriving in Baltimore on June 10. After a few days of respite, sightseeing, and socializing, the Smiths set out for Newburyport by coach along the Old Post Road (current day US Route 1) by way of Philadelphia (June 18–24), New York (June 27–July 2), and Boston, where they arrived on July 8. Josiah Smith left for Newburyport on July 10, but Dorothy Smith remained behind with her sister, Katherine Hay, her diary closing on July 11, with her still in Boston. As they traveled the Old Post Road, the Smiths spent several nights in taverns and lodging houses in Havre de Grace, Maryland; Christiana, Delaware; Chester, Pennsylvania; Princeton, New Brunswick, and Elizabethtown (New Jersey); Newport and Warren, Rhode Island; and Attleborough, Massachusetts.
In Philadelphia and New York, they were accompanied on sight-seeing excursions by wealthy and influential people, such as Tristram Dalton (1738–1817), Lewis D. Deblois, and William Bingham (1752–1804). During their stay they visited the High Street Market, John Bill Ricketts’ Equestrian Circus, the museum of Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), and Daniel Bowen’s wax-works museum, as well as the State House, Independence Hall, and the Philadelphia Library, not to mention an unexpected encounter with George and Martha Washington after a Sunday service at Christ Church. In New York they visited the State House and Court of Justice, strolled the Battery and nearby Broad Street, enjoyed a coach ride to Bellevue (prior to the construction of the hospital), attended Trinity Episcopal Church and St. Paul’s Chapel, and took tea with the artist Walter Robertson.
By the time she arrived at her sister’s home in Boston, Dorothy Smith had been on her extended vacation for 130 days, traveling some 2000 miles by sea and land with extended stays in five of the largest cities in America and short visits in another 18 towns and villages. Along the way she engaged with nearly 60 named individuals -- more than 30 in Savannah alone -- during her travels. Her voice, silent for more than two centuries, can now be heard in this edition of her diary.