Robert Walter Smith

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ROBERT WALTER SMITH* Robert Walter Smith was born at Litchfield, New Hampshire, June 16, 1816, at the residence of his grandfather (on the maternal side), Judge Parker. His great-grandfather, Capt. Ebenezer Smith, was an officer throughout the whole of the revolutionary war, and was appointed captain of the guard over Maj. Andre the night before his execution. His grandfather, the Rev. David Smith, D. D., was at the time of his death in his ninety-fifth year, probably the oldest Yale College graduate in the United States. His father, the late Rev. David M. Smith, was also a graduate of Yale College, being a member of the class of 1811. He studied theology at Andover, Massachusetts, and was ordained a minister in the Presbyterian church. For many years he was the stated missionary to the Tuscarora Indians. He settled at Lewiston, and in connection with his duties he presided for twelve years over a large school. It was there that Robert Walter Smith laid the foundation for his future course. He was a very resolute, methodical and active boy.

After leaving Lewiston, his father removed to Clinton, Oneida county, New York, and after preaching a year or so at Little Falls he removed to Stockbridge, in the same county; took charge of a very flourishing academy and also officiated as pastor of the Presbyterian church. At this place the subject of our sketch was very thoroughly prepared for Hamilton College, from which he graduated in 1837. He afterward read law in the office of Hon. Darius Pecet, a noted lawyer of Warsaw, New York. After leaving there he was for a while principal of the Red Hood seminary. From there he found his way to Saugerties, New York, but not being satisfied there he soon removed. He next went to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and from that place came to Kittanning.

The time of Mr. Smith's location in Kittanning, where it was destined he was to pass the remainder of his days, was the year 1846. Soon after his arrival he was associated with Judge Buffington, and remained with him for several years, afterward practicing alone. He was the first county superintendent of schools, being appointed to fill that position by the governor of the state in 1856. He served until 1860; was elected to the same office in 1863, and altogether occupied it over six years. During that period he devoted himself very conscientiously to the duties of the office, and made an admirable superintendent. From 1863 to 1876 he was editor of the Union Free Press, and performed his newspaper labors with the same care and thoroughness for which he was noted in other lines of employment. He was mayor or burgess of the town for two terms, and held other municipal offices as well as many positions of private trust.

He was a man of studious habits and literary tastes. Very naturally, therefore, he was the chief promoter of the several fine lecture courses which the people of Kittanning enjoyed during the seventies. Appropriately and by common consent the duty of introducing the lecturers was assigned to him, and it was one which he well performed. He was also frequently called upon to address the people upon various subjects, and his history of Armstrong county in reality grew out of one of these addresses -- the one delivered upon the centennial anniversary of independence at Cherry Run, in Plum Creek township. Conceiving the idea of writing an elaborate history of the county, he entered upon his arduous, self-imposed task with the determination of making it thorough and reliable. Toward this end he toiled patiently for full five years. How minute and painstaking was his research, and how devotedly he followed the tedious labor of collecting and collating facts, can be in some measure appreciated by whoever reads even a small portion of the volume, but the full measure of difficulty attending the work can only be understood by one who has attempted a similar production.

Mr. Smith labored with conscientiousness and zeal. How deeply he was absorbed in his work (and also a glimpse of his method in writing the history and the regard which at least one man entertained for it) is shown by a paragraph from a letter written by him to the editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, under date of April 5, 1880. Mr. Smith says:

I hope to finish my manuscript, if not too much interrupted, in a few months. I have maps of all the original surveys of tracts of land in this county, and have become much interested in tracing up whatever of interest has occurred on each one and locating the same on it, so that every original tract is touched more or less minutely, according to what has transpired on it. You may readily conclude that I occasionally get on to a sticking place which detains me for a considerable time. It is encouraging to know that the facts which I have collected deeply interest people from different parts of the county, to whom I have read a few pages here and there of what I have written. For instance, a farmer to whom I read a few pages one day, respecting a different locality from his own, became so deeply interested in the facts that he told another person that he meant to have a copy of the work if it should cost him $25. So you see there are some very interesting facts connected with the history of this county.

Sadly enough the author was not permitted the quiet satisfaction of seeing the book on which he had so long toiled come from the press. He could not have been fully recompensed for his labor had he lived, but he might have been in some measure rewarded by the knowledge that its results were placed before the people. He worked without expectation of adequate pecuniary return, but whether wittingly or not reared for himself a monument which will ever perpetuate his name among the people of the county in which he spent the last half of his life.

Robert W. Smith, Esq., died December 6, 1881, at the home of his brother at Bronxville, New York, aged sixty-four years. He had been in poor health for about two years prior to that time, and for a much briefer period so ill as to be incapacitated for his duties. He had gone to his brother's upon a visit, thinking that change of scenery and air would restore his health, and his death was not expected by his friends.

A meeting of the bar of Armstrong county was held upon the 9th of December, over which Edward S. Golden, Esq., presided, to take action upon the death of their deceased brother. Appropriate remarks were made and tributes of respect paid to Mr. Smith's memory by Judge James B. Neale and others, and a committee was appointed to draft suitable resolutions to be engrossed upon the journal.

Mr. Smith never attained a large law practice. He had not that kind of eloquence or art of speaking which is effective in the court-room, but he possessed a good knowledge of the law, and it was generally conceded was an able counselor. His character was untarnished, and he held the respect of all with whom he was associated, whether professionally or otherwise.

Footnote *It is a matter of regret to the publishers that they cannot present in this volume a portrait of the author. The only one extant is not suitable for production, being a daguerrotype taken when Mr. Smith was about thirty years of age.

Source: Page(s) 594-595, History of Armstrong County, Pennsylvania by Robert Walker Smith, Esq. Chicago: Waterman, Watkins & Co., 1883.
June 2000 by James R. Hindman for the Armstrong County Smith Project.
Contributed by James R. Hindman for use by the Armstrong County Genealogy Project (

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