Page of Bible from WHS's collection

Curator’s Corner: Smith Family Bible

Appeared in the Gazette, Fall/Winter 2019
By Rachel Ramirez

A recent research request came to us from someone in New Hampshire who found a reference in a 1984 genealogical publication. The researcher, hoping to learn about a captain named David Smith, saw a notation describing a “Smith Family Bible” in the Winnetka library. I had never heard of such a bible in our collection, so I was expecting to have to give him bad news.

History lovers know, though, how obscure references can lead down interesting avenues.

We have a few family bibles in our collection, including what we call “the Otis family bible.” Since I knew that the Otis family was related to the seafaring Shackfords from Maine, I thought this would be a good place to start. As I opened the well-worn book, its binding having seen better days, I was greeted by the familiar handwriting (always in pencil) of Samuel Shackford Otis.

Many longtime followers of WHS will have heard of the Otis family, who were some of the earliest Winnetka residents. Our own collection owes a lot to Sam Otis. He collected and shared his family’s treasures, including 19th century scrapbooks, correspondence, and, of course, the Otis family bible.

I turned the page and found more writing, much older. There was a list of names in beautiful script. At the top, I saw David Smith, born August 10, 1742, died July 30, 1822.

Captain Smith, I discovered, had many adventures in his 80 years of life. He lived in Nova Scotia, Massachusetts, and Maine. He sailed trade ships from the east coast to the West Indies. During the Revolutionary War, he got around the British blockade, sneaking his ship into Boston. Later, he was caught by British privateers and spent a year in Mill Prison in Plymouth, England. He had eight children, but outlived six of them (and one of his two wives). Eventually, thanks to Sam Otis, his family relic was passed down to us, and I’m honored to share his story.

This artifact, like so many I encounter, reminds me of the connections historical research allows us all to make, not just through time but also across continents and down through families. Let’s keep making these connections and sharing our stories. And, if you’re ever in Portland, Maine, pass by the Eastern Cemetery, where you can still visit Captain Smith’s grave. 

Among many adventures in his 80 years, Captain David Smith circumnavigated a British blockade during the Revolutionary War and snuck his ship into Boston. His name was discovered here in a family bible in the WHS collection.

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