The unknowable Widow Smith
“Oh, you write about history?” It’s a comment I get a lot, this or some variation on it. “That’s cool. Hey, do you know who you should talk to?”
People mean well. I get that. And I’m always happy to listen to input and take suggestions. But when people suggest I sit down and do an interview with someone, my usual thinking is: Nobody. I should talk to nobody.
The thing is, people are often not as provably accurate as I’d like. Give me a good document any day — documents are proof. People forget things, people misremember. I’ve seen people deliberately distort their stories to make their families look better.
So what I like to do is research the documents. The closer to the original source, the better.
Which brings me to the Widow Smith.
A lot of people are fascinated by Catherine Smith, widow from the Revolutionary War era. It is said that in 1774 she had a place in present-day McElhattan where she made guns for the soldiers, often without pay. It’s said that she walked to Philadelphia barefoot 13 times to testify in court. So why is she not better known? Why are there no monuments to her in the area? Why have I not written about Catherine Smith more often?
Because here’s what we can prove: A woman by that name existed. Probably.
Widow Smith was said to be a small woman with short, dark hair, bad teeth, and 10 sons. The widow of Peter Smith, she settled in, maybe, Wayne Township and manufactured guns for the Revolutionary War. (Some sources have her living in present-day Wayne Township, some in present-day Union County, and some in present-day Northumberland County.) When her land was repossessed, she was said to have walked to Philadelphia 13 times to attend court, barefoot so as not to wear out her only pair of shoes.
The problem with Widow Smith is the lack of documentation. Some of this information comes from an anonymous paper at the library, typed in all capital letters. If you want to convince people you know what you’re talking about, learn to use the shift key.
Some information comes from a work by Henry Shoemaker. And I love the guy, but he was known to repeat some untrue stories. (For the record, I don’t believe Shoemaker made them up. I believe other people made up stories and told them to him.) In this case, Shoemaker credits a lot of his information as coming from McElhattan citizen John Dyce, who was known to tell tall tales. He once told a story of a Civil War unit that fought a battle on a certain date, in spite of the fact that the unit wasn’t formed until after that date. An oral history from Dyce is about as reliable as banking with a Nigerian prince.
There’s a piece on Widow Smith from Dr. Lewis Theiss, who seems to come closer than anyone else to actually researching the subject. But even Theiss is working from a lot of oral histories here. In his essay, he admits that the records were sketchy, and that he didn’t find a lot of information — or he didn’t have time to check.
Much of the interest in Catherine Smith comes from 1924, when the state of Pennsylvania named a mountain after her. Again, this is literally150 years after the fact, and it’s not like a lot of provable evidence turned up at the time. The state, like everyone else, was just going on word of mouth.
There is, in fact, a historic marker in Union County that tells some of her story. But this contains no proof that she ever set foot in McElhattan.
So what happened to Catherine Smith? According to some sources, she was buried in the Old Pioneer Cemetery in McElhattan, then later dug up and moved — the gathered bystanders recognized her by her bad teeth. Some sources say she was moved to Union-Throne Cemetery, where, of course, there is no record of her. A Catherine Smith is buried in the nearby Stamm Cemetery, but this one is listed as having been born in 1811, making her unlikely to have had a gun factory in 1774.
I’m actually even a little iffy on the Old Pioneer Cemetery. It’s supposedly on land in present-day McElhattan, but the only knowledge of it comes from stories told by people who heard the stories and never saw the cemetery themselves. One guy claimed to have found it with dowsing rods once, and again, he pretty much expected people to take his word for it.
So what we have is a woman who may have existed, who lived somewhere but we’re not sure where, buried in a cemetery that we can’t prove existed. It’s not exactly hard evidence on any level. Did Catherine Smith exist? Well, probably. But if you want to convince me of any more than that, bring me proof — not just what people say.
Lou Bernard is a Lock Haven resident with a keen interest in the history of this area. He is adult services coordinator at Ross Library and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 570-748-3321.