Henry Smith: The Eastern Shore’s Meanest Man
It was in the late 1660s that the law and the public first became aware of Mr. Henry Smith. Up until that time there was little to distinguish him from many other citizens of his time and locale. He had patented or purchased land in both Eastern Shore counties. He had paid for the transportation of many headrights for which he was granted the rights to many acres of land. He had acted as an appraiser for estate of a deceased neighbor. He was a juror when required. He owned two plantations. The main one was at "Oaken Hall" and he had another near Occahannock in the southern part of the Accomack County.
No one knows what drove him to earn his reputation as being so mean but the evidence was there for any interested person to see. His servants and headrights bore the brunt of his fury. Nothing they did could satisfy him. He demanded more and more work with less and less food and clothing for them.
The laws of those days required that the servants and headrights be treated with a certain amount of respect and kindness. They were servants and workers, not slaves, with a finite period of service pledged, This was called an indenture after which the servants were to be released with "corn and clothes" and were free to go their merry way. Upon completion of their period of servitude they could then do what their masters had done. If they had saved their money they could import headrights of their own and become landowners that way or they could become some type of tradesman. They were the masters of their own destiny. Some even signed up for additional periods provided their masters taught them a trade.
But, for his people, being a servant to Henry Smith was far out of the ordinary. He was accused of killing two men servants and whipping others, beating his wife, raping and impregnating his female servants, He was charged with providing starvation diets and little/no clothes or shoes for his workers even in the worst or coldest weather. He tried to keep his niece in servitude by hiding her on an island far from the authorities
He did all this with relative impunity because he was thought to be a friend of the Governor. The local authorities would not go up against him until he went much too far in his cruelties. The authorities had told Smith that he did not have the right to administer physical punishment. That was their job. Smith could report his servants for various transgressions and the authorities could level the proper punishment. But his cruel streak did not end as they had hoped. Repeated warnings were ignored
Smith had one servant named Old John who was the butt of much of his cruelties. There was no way that Old John could work hard enough or long enough to satisfy Smith. His assignments increased in magnitude and duration while Smith cut his rations and beat him repeatedly. Old John was nearly starved to death. He was once beaten unmercifully while tied to a mulberry tree.
Old John had one possession in which he took great pride. That was a magnificent head of gray hair. One time during his many mistreatments, Smith cut off the hair from half his head. There were times when the other servants did part of Old John’s assignments but Smith was relentless. Old John tried to run away from Smith but was forced to return and was beaten again. Old John eventually died from a combination of beatings and starvation. His bony lice-eaten body was wrapped in a sail cloth and placed in a grave which Smith prevented from being completely filled. Even in death, Old John could not satisfy Smith.
Smith was also accused of killing another of his servants through mistreatment and starvation.
While in London, he had married Joanna Matrum, a widow with several children. She had lost her husband in the plague which had devastated the city in the mid -1660s. He brought them back to Virginia where he continued his mean ways. It was not long before he started the same mistreatment he had been giving his servants. The new wife complained about beatings and lack of adequate housing and food. The authorities finally interceded by making Smith set her up at his southern plantation where he was prevented from visiting. That place was far from adequate. The roof leaked, the windows were broken or gone, the fireplace was smoky and had holes. The house just was too old and decrepit. She stood it as long as she could but finally in complete desperation, she assigned her children to others and got charitable transportation back to England. Smith had taken her health, her marriage and her fortune and reduced her to abject poverty and humility.
Several of his women servants were before the justices at one time or another to accuse him of cruelty, rape, beatings, abuse, inhumane treatment, failing to provide adequate clothing, food and shoes and generally heaping indignities on their person.
Several attempts were made to bring his cruelties to the attention of the Governor but they never amounted to much for one reason or another. Capt Edmund Bowman was his ally on the council and often prevented justice being done. The other justices were able to eventually convince the Governor that Smith deserved some sort of punishment for his many transgressions. He had flouted their authority too many times to escape discipline.
Finally Smith realized that his habits had gotten him into too much trouble. He had at last found that it was not easy to extricate himself from his problems. His solution was to leave Accomack County. He gradually moved much of his property and belongings to Maryland, which was beyond the legal reach of his enemies and detractors. In July 1671 he sold his Oak Hall plantation to Col. Wm. Kendall and three days later sold his Occahannock plantation to William Stevens and moved to Somerset County, Md
The old Accomack records were not clear what eventually happened
to Smith but at least he was gone from there. No one grieved his loss.
Robert L. Mears, Author