Civil War Blog

A project of PA Historian

Stephen Smith – Merchant and Abolitionist

Posted By on July 24, 2012

Stephen Smith, an African American merchant and abolitionist, was born in slavery in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, around 1795, to Mary Smith.  The name of his father was never recorded and no evidence has yet been seen of the actual location of his birth, but it can be presumed that it was in or around Harrisburg.  Early in life, Stephen was able to purchase his freedom and establish businesses in Columbia, Pennsylvania, where he owned coal and lumber yards as well as land where these resources were obtained.  The real estate holdings were said to be mostly in Pennsylvania – north of Harrisburg as well as in Columbia on the Susquehanna River. It is not difficult to imagine that Smith was involved with the lumbering interests at Peter’s Mountain, Dauphin County and the Mahantongo in Northumberland County as well as the coal interests in the Lykens Valley.

In the years before the Civil War, the primary means of transporting coal and lumber from the source was the system of canals.  In Central Pennsylvania, the canal system associated with the Susquehanna River would have meant that Stephen Smith frequently traveled up and down the river to check on his holdings, to make purchases and schedule deliveries.  This was the same-traveled route made by African Americans who were escaping from slavery and heading north into Canada.  It was not until after the Civil War that Stephen Smith admitted that the lumber company he owned had helped transport many escapees to freedom, most likely on the canal network and later the railroad network that went up through the central part of the state and connected into Canada.  After the Fugitive Slave law was passed in 1850, Stephen Smith himself fled to Canada but soon returned and established himself in Philadelphia in the African American community along Lombard Street where he continued his business enterprises through the Civil War years.

The 1863 Philadelphia City Census gives the 70-year old Smith’s occupation as “merchant”.  The mark in the last column indicates that he was “colored.”

After the Civil War, Stephen Smith contributed $250,000 to establish the Stephen Smith Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons which at first had headquarters within center city Philadelphia but later moved to more spacious quarters at 4400 W. Girard Avenue.  It is at that site that today an historical marker honors Smith’s accomplishments with the following words:

An abolitionist, Smith bought his freedom and was one of America’s wealthiest Blacks with his coal, lumber, and real estate ventures.  He was the major benefactor of the Stephen Smith Home for the Aged , located here.

Stephen Smith died in Philadelphia on 28 November 1873.


For additional information about Stephen Smith, see Explore Pennsylvania and Preservation Alliance.  For previous blog posts on the Underground Railroad in the Lykens Valley area, click here.  The portrait of Stephen Smith, probably made in Philadelphia near the end of his life was adapted from a digital image of a portrait in the Blockston Afro-American Collection at Temple University and posted on the Explore Pennsylvania website.  The 1863 Philadelphia Census is from Ancestry.com.


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