Justice William Smith

William Smith was a farmer, a grist mill and trading post owner, roads commissioner and Magistrate of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania.  He was also the master mind of Smith’s Rebellion in 1765.

Smith’s Rebellion was the first armed resistance against British Rule in America where Smith skillfully used the law as a  weapon against British Military Authority and Governor Penn to lead a rebellion based on legal principals much as his ancestors had against the Royalists in the English Civil War.

Very little is known about William Smith’s early life.  He married his cousin Mary Smith who was sister to James Smith also known as James Black Boy Jimmy, leader of the Black Boys Rebellion, so called because they painted their faces black to avoid identification.

There is some debate about the year Smith purchased the mill and trading post from James Black who was the first settler in the area.  According to Wilbur S. Nye author of James Smith Early Cumberland Valley Patriot William Smith bought the property in 1751 while another source states 1759.  Nye noted that shortly after obtaining the property Smith began building a stone one story Ulster style house that remains standing today.  It is known as the Justice William Smith House and is located in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.  In 1765 the house served as the meeting place for the Black Boys.

William Smith’s trading post was once a busy and popular place where people came to buy goods and get the latest news.  The Delaware Indians who came to trade were seen as peaceful and non threatening.  This perception of the Indians changed after the French and Indian War.

In 1755 William Smith and James Burd were appointed as roads commissioners by Governor Robert Morris.  They were supervised by George Croghan future deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs.  Smith and Burd built a road to connect to General Braddock’s army at Fort Cumberland.  It was during construction of this road that James Smith was captured by Indians and taken into captivity for five years.

In 1757 William Smith was appointed as a Magistrate for Cumberland County by Governor Morris at which time he also served as president of the Magistrates.  In 1763 Pontiac’s Rebellion brought a new war to the frontier.  After Col. Henry Bouquet forced the Indians to seek a peace treaty he requested that they release all white captives; however, the Indians were  unable to meet his request and the treaty was not signed.  This left the Proclamation of 1763 that forbid trade of war-like goods with the Indians still in force.  The stage was set for the Sideling Hill affair on March 6, 1765 when an eighty one pack horse train carrying illegal trade goods bound for Fort Pitt was stopped by James Smith and ten men who burned the illegal goods.

This event began when George Croghan now deputy Superintendent of Indian affairs saw an opportunity to become wealthy by capturing trade with the Indians.  He used a military pass issued him by Col. Henry Bouquet to purchase legal trade goods that Bouquet believed would aid him in treaty negotiations.  He planned to use this pass to conceal his illegal trade goods that he planned to transport to Illinois in hopes of securing huge tracks of land for speculative deals in which he was involved.  In William Smith’s deposition of April 3rd, 1765 to fellow Magistrate Col. John Armstrong, Smith noted that the pass the pack horse drivers carried was a forgery because he was familiar with Croghan’s handwriting after having worked with him as roads commissioner.

The contents of Croghan’s pack train included ammunition, gun powder, tomahawks, scalping knives, and rum.  These items Smith pointed out were still illegal since no treaty had been signed with the Indians.  William Smith also pointed out in his April 3rd, 1765 deposition that the illegal trade goods belonged to private individuals and not the British Military so they had no authority in the matter.

The legal battle between Smith, the British Military and Governor John Penn began almost immediately after the Sideling Hill affair when Lt. Charles Grant ordered Sgt. Leonard McGlashan and twelve men to recover all of the trade goods that were undamaged and to arrest anyone who they suspected of being involved in this crime.  Because the civil law had not been suspended and Grant had not sought authorization from a local magistrate he had no legal authority for his orders.  When McGlashan captured eight men and five Pennsylvania rifles and four smooth bore muskets he broke the law.  This led to the first siege of Fort Loudoun on March 9th, 1765 when James Smith captured sixteen members of the Black Watch and demanded a prisoner exchange and a release of the rifles.  Lt. Grant released the men but continued to illegally hold the nine rifles.  Over the next nine months the rebellion continued over the confiscation of fire arms.

William Smith used the civil law as a far more effective weapon than any gun.  He created a system for inspecting traders for contraband and issued itemized passes that specified transported goods.  Passes were signed by either James or William Smith.  When Captain Robert Callender and Joseph Spear attempted to take another pack train load of illegal goods west from Fort Loudoun on May 10th, 1765 they were apprehended and tied up and flogged by the Black Boys in a manner that General Gage himself had prescribed for the punishment of traders carrying illegal goods.  This incident ended with a shoot out between the Black Watch and the Black Boys at the Widow Barr’s property near present day Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.  Although no one was killed one of the Black Boys, James Brown was shot in the leg.  He became the first causality of the American Revolution.

Upon hearing about this event Gen. Thomas Gage wrote to Gov. John Penn and demanded that he do something to put an end to Smith’s Rebellion.  Penn responded by ordering William Smith to appear before him on July 30th, 1765.  Penn also ordered fellow Magistrate William Maxwell and Lt. Charles Grant to attend the hearing and testify against Smith.

At this hearing Smith used every legal defense at his disposal including the Remonstrance of the Inhabitants of Cumberland County that laid out the classic contract law argument for the right of self defense when government failed to uphold its responsibility to provide order and protection.  Ultimately, William Smith declared himself to be the civil law.

When the July 30th hearing concluded William Smith not only escaped a prison sentence, he was held in higher esteem by Governor Penn than he was before the hearing.  It was Lt. Grant who now had a warrant out for his arrest because of allegations that he had taken monetary bribes from Captain Robert Callender.

The climax of Smith’s Rebellion is the second two day siege of Fort Loudoun that did not end until Magistrate William McDowell agreed to take possession of the nine fire arms that were taken by Sgt. Leonard McGlashan on March 7th, 1765.  The date on McDowell’s receipt for the guns was November 10th, 1765.   The Treaty of Fort Loudoun called for the 42nd Regiment of Foote to abandon Fort Loudoun for Fort Bedford.  Fort Loudoun was never garrisoned again.  In January 1766 Governor Penn removed Justice William Smith as a magistrate because of allegations that stemmed from the siege of Fort Loudoun and a warrant was issued for James Smith who had left Pennsylvania for Kentucky.  This concluded Smith’s legal Rebellion.  William Smith died in 1775.


Pennslyvania Archives Volume IV. edited by Samuel Hazard.  Joseph Ceverns & Company Philadelphia, Pa.  1853

The Papers of Henry Bouquet Volume VI Selected Documents November 1761 – July 1765. edited by Louis M. Waddell.  The Pennslyvania Historical and Museum Commission.  Harrisburg, Pa.  1994

James Smith Early Cumberland Valley Patriot. Nye, Wilbur S. Caxton Company, Gettysburg, Pennsylania.  1969

American Leviathan: Empire, Nation, and Revolution Frontier.  Griffin, Patrick. Hill and Wang A division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY.  2007

Chapter V:  Race:  The Permanent Pennslyvania Frontier, 1763 – 1768 in Creating Pennsylvania:  The Politics of the Frontier and the State, 1682 – 1800. Spero, Patrick.  Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.  2009

Taming Democracy:  “The People”, the Founders and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution. Bouton, Terry.  Oxford University Press, New York, NY.  10016

Peaceable Kingdom Lost:  The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment. Kenny, Kevin. Oxford University Press, New York, NY.  10016