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Matamoras Minute: The Smith family

Photo provided by John Miller. Franklin Dye, whose ancestors were acquainted with the Smith family, is shown in 2000 at one of the few markers found on the grounds of the Smith Cemetery.

The Mid-Ohio Valley has the history of the underground railroad threading through its past and the Matamoras area is no exception. A small ex-slave family was to be found on Dye Ridge with the last surviving member, Mary Smith, passing away on Dec. 16, 1920.

The Smiths were accounted for in the 1850 census of Jolly Township which is now a part of Grandview Township. Alexander, age 26, was the oldest of the males. Priscilla, age 43, was likely his mother. There was also Hannah, 22, Michael, 21, and Jane, 17. Emily, Daniel, and William were children under the age of 16. Those older than Emily were listed in the census as being born in Virginia. According to history passed down from the neighbors the family had separated from the underground railroad at Stafford, Ohio choosing not to travel farther north as many of the escaped slaves did before the Civil War. From Stafford they found their way south to the rural area of Dye Ridge. Mary was born sometime about 1852 after they had settled in their adopted home. A brother named Jim, born after Mary, moved to Cambridge, Ohio circa 1904.

I personally recall my maternal grandfather and his neighbor, both of whom grew up on Dye Ridge, speaking of the Smith family and of their relationships to the surrounding farms. A strong Christian group, the Smiths were a gospel-singing ensemble that was popular in the small churches scattered in the area. The family was faithful in attending services at the Salem Hall Methodist Church.

To supplement their farming income the Smiths would regularly hire on with neighbors as seasonal work became available. Mary developed butter and egg routes and would walk all the way to Matamoras. Other routes took her to houses scattered in the rural countryside.

As the rest of the family died or left the farm Mary turned to helping children. There was a small Black girl in the children’s home that she brought home to raise. The girl attended the one-room school in the area until she was a young adult. Mary then turned her attention to caring for other children who were abandoned.

About 1910 the single room cabin where she lived burned down. Neighbors gathered and built a three-room house for her. This home would serve for ten more years. In December, 1920 two orphan children living with her, upon their arrival at school, told the teacher, “There’s something wrong. Mary won’t get up.”

Her death certificate reads, “No physician in attendance. Supposed to be heart failure.” She was buried in the nearby family graveyard and the two children were thought to be taken in by some of the adult children Mary had raised.

On October 25, 2003, 41 members of the Matamoras Area Historical Society held a ceremony in the small wooded cemetery of the Smith family. A white metal cross constructed by Sam Howard was erected and memories of the Smiths were shared by descendants of families who were reared on Dye Ridge. Few stones stand in the graveyard and they are without any writing. Sunken ground reveals the location of most graves.

John Miller is president of the Matamoras Area Historical Society. Membership dues are $15 per year single/couple. Life membership is $150. Contact the society at P.O. Box 1846, New Matamoras, Ohio 45767. Much of this column is built on the work of Matamoras’ historian, the late Diana McMahan.

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