Saturday, May 16, 2015

William Smoot - Bringing boat building to a new level in America

1596 – 1670

1 William Smoot, 2 Thomas Smoot, 3 Elizabeth Barton Smoot, 4 John Jacob Philpott, 5 Charles Philpott,  6 David Philpott,  7 Enos Philpott,  8 Rebecca Philpott,  9 Lula Jane Johnson,  10 Charles Thomas Copeland, Sr, 11 Charles Thomas Copeland, Jr.

Even though the life of William Smoot and his role in the early years of our country has  been researched throughout the centuries, there are still questions about the man, such as: the year of his birth (1596 or 1597), where he was born (Scotland or England), the correct spelling of his last name (Smoot, Smaut, Smute, etc.) and the name of his first wife (who had at least one child before dying in England). We do know that his roots were planted in the seafaring Dutch "House of Smoot" before they spread their branches into Scotland and England.

What is also known is the road he had to travel in order to eventually attain recognition and honors in his chosen profession.  He lived in a time when there were no trade schools and the only way for a young man to learn a trade was to serve as an unpaid servant and errand boy for an expert craftsman and whose parents had signed a contract in which they gave up control of their son.  In return,  the apprentice received food, clothing and training in the chosen trade from the ground up, so that - after a number of years - he would be able to earn a living as an expert himself.  

Apprenticeship was the accepted educational system for transferring the knowledge and experience gained by one generation of tradesmen to the next, and was not a new concept. 4,000 year old records found in Egypt, Greece and Rome reveal that trade skills had been passed on in this fashion even then; and it was only after the students had finally achieved the status of craft workers that they became respected members of society. 

Coming from the family he did, it's no surprise that young William Smoot became an apprentice in the boat building industry.  During those formative years, he was taught the intricacies of design and construction of strong, sea-worthy boats, and was probably in his 20s before he could qualify for membership in the Boatwright Guild as a certified  professional boatwright.

By 1633,  this 37 year old man  had earned a reputation for quality workmanship and received an offer to work for 50 days in Virginia for Colonel Thomas Burbage, an officer in the local militia.  He readily accepted the proposal, especially since a terrible king, Charles I,  had just been crowned and life in England was tumultuous at best. The contract with Colonel Burbage might not have been of long duration, but it definitely was life-changing for William, who never lived or worked in England again. 

As a side note, 20 years later, Colonel Burbage sued William in a Maryland court, claiming he had not fulfilled the requirements of the 1633 contract.  William, who was now 56 years old and well known for his expert craftsmanship, defended himself, stating that he had discharged all conditions of the contract. He must have been convincing! The case was dismissed and he was awarded 150 pounds of tobacco for his trouble and expense in having to travel 40 miles to appear in court!
Shortly after completing his contract with the Colonel, William had married a widow, Grace Wood, who had come to America with her late husband and daughter.  But he couldn't consider his family complete until he could bring all of his children to his side. It took nine years to fulfill that dream, during which time he and Grace lived in Hampton (now Elizabeth County City), Virginia, where he continued to build his reputation as a top-tier boat designer and builder.

Finally, in 1642, he had earned enough money to achieve his goal. The timing was good because settlers and laborers were badly needed to work on rapidly growing plantations.  In response to this need, a “head rights”program was instituted which promised that anyone paying the fares of immigrants would be granted a specific acreage per head.  It was a good deal for William, who paid the fares for 8 travelers  (who were probably his family and servants) and was granted 400 acres in York County, Virginia, where he built his home and continued to pursue his trade.

It must have been a surprise for new immigrants, who thought they had left violence behind, to discover that life in Virginia wasn't all that peaceful either.  Only the enemy was different.  A bloody war broke out when a large population of Pamunky and Chickahominy Indians took exception to being moved out of the land which had been theirs for more than 12,000 years.  As a result, in 1644, they banded together to fight the pesky intruders. Tribe

Finally, after two years of violence and destruction,  the Indian tribes admitted that these “white men” were tough fighters and weren't going to slink away.  As a result, a peace treaty was signed in 1646, setting aside land for Virginia's Indians in the Pamunkey Neck area of present-day King William County. The treaty remained in effect until the Indians, recovering their swagger in 1677, made new demands, and another, more generous, treaty was signed,

Another note of interest: Thanks to his participation in those early Indian wars, all of his proven male descendants who maintain the position today of “gentlemen" are eligible for membership in the Society of Colonial Wars in America. 
Shortly before that first treaty was finalized in 1646 -  and perhaps because of his experiences during those wars - a disenchanted William decided that he didn't want to live in Virginia anymore. So he transferred his 400 acre estate to his neighbor, Ashwell Batten, in payment of a debt, and left for Maryland in the hope of finding a more peaceful setting to pursue his career and raise his family. 

Lord Baltimore
One of his first duties upon arriving in Maryland was to pledge his allegiance to Lord Baltimore.  In return for his pledge of loyalty, he was  awarded 300 acres of land on the Potomac River (good property but not exactly where he wanted to be). 

Wicomico River today
He finally found the perfect location to ply his trade on the 24 mile long Wicomico River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay on the eastern shore of Maryland. Later that year, he made arrangements to transport his wife, children and a maid from Virginia where they had been biding their time.

Josiah Fendal
It may have been his personality - or just the times - but even after settling in Wicomico, he found himself embroiled in conflict when, in 1655, he openly supported - and tried to rescue by force - Josias Fendal, the former Governor of the Province (Annapolis today) and his secretary, who had been jailed after instigating an attack on the Puritan settlers in the area. This had come about because,
surprisingly, those very Puritans who had been victims themselves of religious persecution, supported the Old World theory that religion needed to be uniform throughout the territory, and were even willing to impose capital punishment on anyone who insisted on worshiping in their own way., a lifelong member of the Church of England, was also in trouble with the Puritans because of his religious beliefs, which made the cause more personal for him).

The result for all this religious animosity became known as the “Battle of the Severn” and was the first battle ever fought  between American soldiers on American soil; as well as the first time  "dum-dum" bullets were ever used. Even after the fighting was over, William  almost lost his life when he and  twelve others were arraigned and sentenced to death for:
“mutinously, seditiously and at the instigation of the Devil . . . assembled at the house of Josias Fendal and attempted by force to rescue Josias Fendall and his secretary.”. 
Lucky for him, only four of the leaders were actually executed, while  the rest were saved after 200 members of the Puritan community presented a strong defense for the prisoners, saying that a judgment of guilty of treason would make their Puritan community just as guilty because the same accusations had been wrongly made against them in Virginia. The War Council responded to this argument, reversed the sentences and the prisoners were released.

William continued to design and construct many of the early vessels used in the inter-colonial trade between Maryland and Virginia and he was often called upon to appraise various vessels.  His wife, Grace, died on January 14, 1666 and he died a couple of years later. It's amazing that, despite having bought and sold many large tracts of land during his years in America, he seems to have died intestate, leaving his heirs having to fight/work it out.