News of Long Ago by Bradley Harris, Smithtown Historian
(This article begins the story of John Lawrence Smith, 1816-1889, a remarkable man who had a profound impact upon the development of Smithtown Branch and left an incredible legacy to the people of Smithtown. That legacy included his son James Clinch Smith and his five sisters, the house at 205 Middle Country Road that we know as the Smith family ‘Homestead,’ the book entitled The History of Smithtown that the Judge authored in 1883, and an incredible quantity of documents, photographs, law books, paintings, artifacts, and memorabilia from his life.)
“Judge John Lawrence Smith, pillar of the community of Smithtown Branch…”
John Lawrence Smith was an extraordinary man who had a remarkable career as a lawyer and judge in Suffolk County. A native of Smithtown, born in Nissequogue on September 20, 1816, John Lawrence Smith rose from humble beginnings to establish himself as one of the finest legal minds in Suffolk County and he proved to be one of the ablest of politicians. He eventually moved his family to Smithtown Branch after purchasing the old Blydenburgh residence at 205 Middle Country Road. He became a pillar of the local community and certainly one of the most illustrious members of the Smith family.
John Lawrence Smith was the third son and fifth child born to Richard and Eliza Willett (Nicoll) Smith. Richard Smith was a fifth generation descendant of Richard Smythe, the founder and patentee of Smithtown, and so shared in the proprietary land rights of Smithtown. He inherited a 400 acre farm in Nissequogue and here he raised his family of three sons and five daughters. When John Lawrence was born in September of 1816, he was welcomed into this world by his three siblings, his brother Edward Henry who was seven at the time, his sister Ann Eliza who was five, and his brother Richard Bull who was also five. Unfortunately Richard Bull did not survive another year and with his death John Lawrence became the second oldest son of the Smiths. Another Smith daughter, Marcia Augusta, died as an infant in December of 1815, a year before John Lawrence was born. I mention this because it points out the position that John Lawrence held in the family. (Frederick Kinsman Smith, The Family of Richard Smith of Smithtown, L.I., Smithtown Historical Society, 1967, p. 188-189.)
His older brother, Edward Henry attended school to the age of 12 when his schooling entirely ceased and he became the manager of his father’s farm in Nissequogue. He proved to be a very capable and industrious farmer and eventually he inherited the family farm in Nissequogue. John Lawrence must also have attended school locally but showed such promise that his family sent him to Clinton Academy in East Hampton. When he completed Clinton Academy, his family found the means to send him on to Yale where he became a “classmate of Samuel J. Tilden, William W. Evarts, Edward Pierrepont, Morrison R. Waite, William W. Eaton, Benjamin Silliman, John P. Putnam, and other men of note and ability.” For some reason, he left Yale in 1833, at the age of 17, and transferred to Princeton where he graduated in 1837. He then came back to New York City where he studied law in the office of John L. Lawrence. In 1840, he was admitted to the bar. As a young lawyer, he set up practice in New York City for the next several years. (J. Lawrence Smith, The History of Smithtown, Smithtown Historical Society, Smithtown, 1961, p. 31.)
It was at this time that he met his future bride, Sarah Nicoll Clinch, who he married in 1845. Sarah Nicoll Clinch was the daughter of James and Ann Taylor (Nicoll) Clinch of New York City. She was a city girl from a socially prominent family and the marriage took place on February 4, 1845 in St. Mark’s Church. Not long after their marriage, John Lawrence Smith gave up his law practice in New York City and moved back to Smithtown with his new bride. About the same time he relocated to Smithtown, John Lawrence Smith became involved in local politics. He ran for the New York State Assembly on the Democratic ticket and was elected in 1846 as an Assemblyman from Suffolk County.
It may have been his involvement in local politics that drew him back to Smithtown and country living, but it is interesting that his daughter, Bessie Smith White, believed that he moved back to Smithtown because of his failing eyesight. In a manuscript she prepared in May of 1926 entitled “Memories’” Bessie wrote: “Soon after his marriage, he gave up his law practice, in New York, and went to live in the country because of his eyesight. He had been told that he had ruined his eyes with too much smoking; so he had a horror of tobacco smoking – in any form – and all around his offices at Smithtown, there were huge signs ‘No Smoking’ and he would never allow my brothers and their friends to smoke, even a cigarette, in the house.”
In the same manuscript, Bessie also commented about the first residence that her father and mother established in Nissequogue: “When she (Sarah) and Father were first married, they lived in a white, wooden house, on a hill at Nissequogue – not far from the old stone house, where Father was born and brought up, and where many of the descendants of Richard Bull Smith lived. Nissequogue was, however, very remote – ‘six miles from a lemon,’ as Mother used to say, and after the births of their first three children (in N.Y.C.), they decided to buy the Blydenburgh house on the village street in Smithtown. That is where all the rest of the children were born and brought up.” Certainly the fact that Nissequogue was so far from the heart of the village of Smithtown, led the Smiths to relocate in Smithtown Branch. Assemblyman John Lawrence Smith needed a prominent location in town to match his new political status.
In 1850, John Lawrence Smith ran for the office of District Attorney of Suffolk County. Again he ran on the Democratic ticket and again he was elected. He served with such distinction in this office that the Democratic Party nominated him for Suffolk County Judge. He won election in spite of the 600 vote margin that the Republicans enjoyed over Democrats in Suffolk County. “So fitted did he show himself to perform judicial duties that he was renominated as County Judge and Surrogate in 1862, and … he was again elected, by 1,100 vote majority, upon the Democratic ticket. (J. Lawrence Smith, The History of Smithtown, Smithtown Historical Society, 1961, p. 31.)
Judge J. Lawrence Smith became such a respected jurist in Suffolk County that he won election again and again to the office of Suffolk County Judge and Surrogate. He continued to serve as a Suffolk County Judge until his death in 1889. The fact that such a prominent and respected jurist lived in the middle of the little community of Smithtown Branch, and had his office there, gave a measure of importance to the village. This fact became even more significant when the Judge’s Office later became the site of trials in Suffolk County. According to his daughter Bessie, her father was “Judge of Suffolk County and ‘Judge Smith’s Office’ was the real judgement seat for the Townspeople, a place to be feared and revered! All the disputes of the Town were brought to my father, and later, when he was too ill to go to hold Court at Riverhead, the Court was brought to the office in Smithtown.” Here in offices built off the west side of the Homestead, the Judge held court and dispensed justice to the people of Suffolk County. The Judge’s presence in the community put the little village of Smithtown Branch on the map.
The Homestead of Judge John Lawrence Smith shown above is still standing today at 205 Middle Country Road in the heart of the historic district of the Village of the Branch. This photograph shows the tall shipmast locust trees that were planted along Middle Country Road by the Judge in the 1850’s. Although the house is standing, many of the trees are now gone and those that remain will soon be gone.
Judge John Lawrence Smith, c. 1880.