By George Ashley, Hatfield Historical Commission and Hatfield Historical Society
Sophia Smith was the fourth of seven children born to Joseph Smith, Sr., and Lois White Smith of Hatfield, Massachusetts. Her ancestors had been among the founders of Hatfield four generations earlier and her great-great-grandfather Benjamin Waite was a local hero for having traveled on foot in the depths of winter to Canada to ransom residents of Hatfield who had been captured in King Philip’s War, including his wife Martha Leonard Waite and their children.
From her earliest years Sophia was very interested in learning and a very willing student. Unfortunately she was born at a poor time and place and into the wrong family for a girl with such a disposition. At the time, Hatfield had only a rudimentary public school. Most families sent their sons to school to learn reading and writing, but many parents did not bother to send their daughters to school, or merely sent them for a few months to a “dame school” where a woman would teach a few basic “female virtues” in her own home.
The limited educational offerings in Hatfield were compounded by the attitude of the men in the Smith family. Sophia’s father, Joseph Smith, had grown up in near poverty and had received little formal education, but had accumulated considerable wealth through farming and clever investments. Joseph, “having little education himself, placed a low estimate upon it for others. He gave his children very meager opportunities for mental culture, teaching them by his example that the chief object in life was to acquire property by industry and preserve it by economy” (Wells 271). Joseph’s brother Oliver, who accumulated an even greater fortune, was very outspoken about his conviction that the classical curriculum then offered in private academies and colleges was worthless and hopelessly impractical.
As a result of her family’s contempt for an advanced education, Sophia only briefly attended a “dame school” and, according to Hatfield legend, may sometimes have sat in the doorway of the public grammar school and listened to the boys reciting their lessons. Her only formal education consisted of 12 weeks she spent at a school in Hartford, Conn., when she was 14 and a few weeks she attended Hopkins Academy in Hadley, when she was 18.
Probably the greatest influence on her character during her early years came from her grandmother, Mary Morton Smith, who was left a widow with six young sons when her husband, Lt. Samuel Smith, died in 1767. Mary struggled in poverty to raise her sons, who ranged in age from infancy to 15 years. She acquired a considerable “reputation for her energy, thrift, and piety” (Wells 208). She took a particular interest in her granddaughter Sophia, who much later remembered that “she more than once put her hand on my head and said ‘I want you to grow up and be a good woman, and try to make the world a better place’ ” (Wells 208).
Sophia regretted her lack of a formal education and attempted to make up for it by reading books she borrowed from the small “social library” in Hatfield, and developing friendships with the few well-educated men who happened to live in the area – mostly Congregational ministers. One of the results of this was that she had a major conversion experience and felt herself a true Christian when she was about 16. Despite that, she did not formally join the Congregational Church in Hatfield until she was 38 due to the fact that her parents had Unitarian sentiments and she was reluctant to rile them by joining a different congregation.
Of Joseph and Lois Smith’s seven children, only Joseph Jr. married, and he had no children. Several of Sophia’s brothers and sisters died rather young. Sophia’s sister Harriet and her brother Austin lived their entire lives with Sophia in the house on Hatfield’s Main Street where they were born (what is now 22 Main St.). Austin inherited from his father and Uncle Oliver a sharp business sense and an outspoken opposition to liberal education. He invested his father’s money wisely in stocks and gradually developed a considerable fortune. Austin also developed a reputation as a miser and strong opponent of any kind of public expenditure. He was famous for speaking out at town meetings against spending money for educating children in anything except reading, writing, mathematics, and geography. He applied his penny-pinching ways to his family as well, refusing to pay to connect the Smith homestead to the public water system. As late as the 1850s Sophia and Harriet Smith, then in their 60s, could be seen using the well sweep to draw water from the well in their front yard and carrying the buckets indoors by hand.
Sophia herself developed a reputation as a bit of an oddball. Somewhat sickly and bookish and known for cultivating friendships with well-educated men, she acquired a reputation – perhaps undeservedly – as a snob in a town where most people were simple farmers. Her perceived isolation from her neighbors increased after she became quite deaf when she was about 40 years old. Thereafter, any conversation with her required shouting into her cumbersome ear trumpet (which today can be seen in the Hatfield Historical Museum). As a result, her small social circle narrowed even more.
The death of her brother Austin Smith in 1861dramatically changed Sophia’s life. Since her sister Harriet had died a few years earlier, Sophia alone inherited Austin’s fortune of more than $450,000 – a considerable fortune at that time. She spent the last nine years of her life deliberating about what to do with her sudden, unexpected wealth.
Sophia allowed herself to enjoy a few luxuries that had not been available when she was under the control of her tight-fisted brother Austin. She gave $500 to the local library and encouraged the purchase of many new books, which significantly broadened not only her reading but that of others as well. She also took a few trips to regional tourist destinations, including Saratoga Springs, NY. Most notably, she built a new and larger house next door in the Beaux Arts style, which was then popular. With its large rooms, high ceilings, running water, and marble fireplaces it was a major change from the late colonial house where she had lived all her previous years.
But the primary activity of her last years was clearly shaped by the charge she had been given by her grandmother and reinforced by Congregational ministers: to use what talents and resources she had to “make the world a better place.” It is not surprising that she turned for advice to the educated men in her circle of friends, but probably the greatest influence on her was the example set by her Uncle Oliver. Unmarried and having accumulated a large fortune, he spent years thinking about what to do with it. When he died he left two large bequests. One established the first public vocational school in the United States to teach the practical skills he thought boys and girls needed. The other bequest established the Smith Charities to offer grants to young men and women to help them begin careers and establish homes. Perhaps as a result of this example, Sophia decided that she wanted to endow some major charitable or educational institution. Her first inclination, not surprisingly, was to establish a school for the deaf, a plan she dropped when John Clarke founded The Clarke School for the Deaf in nearby Northampton in 1867. Thereafter her interests turned increasingly to the cause of women’s education.
She carefully sought out the advice of financiers about the best way to establish an endowment and asked Hatfield’s Congregational minister in the 1860s, John M. Greene, for advice on how to make available to women the same educational opportunities available to men. She wrote and rewrote detailed instructions about her intent and the way in which it should be fulfilled. She was still working on her plans when she died in 1870. She was buried in the Main St. cemetery next to her sister Harriet and brother Austin.
In the end, Sophia Smiths’s will established two large bequests that endowed two educational institutions – Smith College in Northampton and Smith Academy in Hatfield.
Her bequests were not simple grants of money. They included detailed instructions that shaped the institutions that bear her name. For example, Smith Academy was expressly required to offer a full range of high school subjects to both girls and boys and to have at least as many female teachers as male teachers. Part of the $75,000 left to found Smith Academy was used to build an elegant brick building at the corner of Main and School Streets in Hatfield in 1871. For four decades it served as a private academy educating tuition-paying male and female students from Hatfield and neighboring towns. In 1912 it was taken over by the Town of Hatfield and since then has served as the town’s public high school. The original building was torn down after the town built a replacement school in 1980, and to this day Hatfield retains its own independent middle and high school, and it is still called Smith Academy in honor of Sophia Smith.
Sophia’s endowment of Smith College has been an even greater success. Many historians recognize it as the first non-denominational college to offer a complete liberal arts education to women. By the early 20th century it was widely recognized as one of the prestigious “Seven Sisters” (a group of liberal arts women’s colleges in the Northeast) offering an outstanding education to young women. Sophia would have been pleased.
Source: A History of Hatfield, Massachusetts in Three Parts,by Daniel White Wells and Reuben Field Wells, published by F. C. H. Gibbons of Springfield, Mass., in 1910.