Samuel Smith Downey papers, 1762-1965

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Downey, Samuel Smith, d. 1851
Samuel Smith Downey (1792-1851) was an Irish American, plantation owner, and enslaver of Granville County, N.C. The early portion of this collection is made up of the papers of Ephraim Macquillen, a merchant of Richmond, Va., containing letters, bills, and receipts from business firms in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston to which he sold flour and tobacco and from which he bought supplies. The papers of Samuel S. Downey, which also contain the papers of James Webb Alexander, John Granville Smith, Thomas Downey, James Downey, and son-in-law Isaac H. Davis, concern S. S. Downey's administration of the estate of John G. Smith and the many suits involving the estate; management of plantations in Mississippi and North Carolina including correspondence and legal papers dealing with hiring enslaved people to build a railroad from Natchez to Jackson, Miss., in the 1830s; letters from factories in Richmond, Va., concerning Downey's tobacco; and the Civil War letters of Downey's sons, for the most part describing the effects of the war on civilians.
20 Linear Feet
Material in English
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Scope and content:

Although predominantly the papers of Samuel Smith Downey, this collection also contains materials from Ephraim Macquillen, a Richmond, Va. merchant, and Isaac H. Davis, the son-in-law of S.S. Downey.

The Macquillen manuscripts are letters, bills, and receipts from business firms in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston to which he sold his tobacco and flour and from which he bought supplies. Many of the letters contain reports of the state of the market for flour, tobacco, and other commodities, and of the condition of Macquillen's flour and tobacco upon their arrival in those cities. Papers concern the loss of the Fox, attempts to collect insurance on its lost cargo, and the bankruptcy of Thomas Hooper.

Ephraim Macquillen's wife and children came over from Ireland in 1801. News reached New York on the evening of November 20, 1801, that the preliminaries of peace were signed on October 1 in London between England and France. Samuel Hicks in 1803 wrote that war would be resumed between England and France and that every preparation possible was being made in London for it. The collection also contains a copy of a letter from Thomas Jefferson, with his views on Christianity.

The portion of the collection that is principally S.S. Downey's correspondence also includes papers of James Webb Alexander, John Granville Smith, and Thomas and James Downey. S.S. Downey was John G. Smith's favorite nephew and executor. John G., unmarried, left considerable property over which there was lengthy litigation, and a great many of the Downey manuscripts deal with suits by Smith's heirs.

Samuel Smith Downey, who had moved to Mississippi, returned to Granville County, N.C., but he continued to hold his plantation in Mississippi. He owned a large amount of enslaved people, 27 of whom he hired out to work on the construction of a railroad from Natchez to Jackson. These enslaved people, along with those of three other Granville County men -- Dr. John R. Hicks and Joseph Amis (d. Aug. 3, 1840), brothers-in-law of Downey, as well as Flemming Beasley -- were under the supervision of Dr. Joseph Hicks, the brother of John Hicks and the agent of Downey.

The letters of Joseph Hicks to Downey and John R. Hicks contain accounts of illness and a few deaths among the enslaved workers. After a contract between Downey and Welman and Mills expired, Hicks worked the enslaved people for a short time near Jackson, then for a little while with Judge Jack of Pa. in partnership with Major Arnold. The enslaved people worked on the Natchez to Jackson railroad. Hicks and Arnold became deeply indebted to Downey for the hire of the enslaved people he owned; and after the death of Hicks, Downey instituted suits against the executors of Hicks and against Arnold.

Overseers were in charge of Downey's Mississippi plantation until his son James went out to take it over. Both Downey and his two sons made a number of trips to Mississippi to look after affairs before James settled there. Letters to Downey from his overseers and his lawyer, A. Burwell of Vicksburg, report on conditions on his plantation. While Downey was in Mississippi in the spring of 1837, he wrote from Jackson that the people he enslaved were not paying expenses. Since the legislature of Mississippi had passed a law prohibiting the introduction of enslaved people into the state for hire or sale, he did not know what to do with them. Also in May 1837, Joseph Hicks wrote that he had received orders to discontinue work on the railroad in Hinds Co., Mississippi, and that the people of that county had deposed their sheriff.

Letters in 1837 and 1838 reveal some effects of the depression: one by Samuel Smith Downey from Mississippi in 1837 comments on the scarcity of money there and about the advisability of re-chartering the U.S. Bank. The next year, William Ford referred in one of his letters to the plight of commercial men in Richmond, and Joseph Hicks listed in one of his letters several types of Mississippi bank notes that were no good. The bank of the Natchez R.R. Company became insolvent, and S.S. Downey instituted a suit against it to collect the money due him.

S.S. Downey sent his tobacco produced in Granville County by wagon to merchants in Petersburg, where it was re-shipped to William Ford in Richmond. Letters from Ford and factories in Petersburg relate to the marketing of Downey's tobacco and to goods which they purchased for him. In 1848, Downey correspondence with merchants in Charleston, S.C., about selling manufactured tobacco in that city.

The collection also contains land deeds and other legal papers of Granville County; deeds for the purchase of enslaved people; a brief diary from a boat trip made by John G. Smith in 1827 from Nashville to New Orleans and back; papers concerned with the estate of Alexander Smith; will of John G. Smith of Granville County and papers concerning the selling of the estate; will of James Downey; contract between S.S. Downey and Robert D. Wade of Hinds County, Mississippi, providing that the latter would take charge of Downey's plantation and enslaved workers; letters relative to the Southern Temperance Convention to be held in Fayetteville, N.C., in November 1835; the N.C. Mutual Insurance Company; contract for hiring the enslaved people owned by Downey to work on the Natchez to Jackson railroad; and numerous other broadsides and legal papers.

Some other topics treated in the manuscript collection are: a project for clearing the Roanoke River; racism towards Black people; Methodists and Episcopalians in Jackson County, Tennessee; a camp meeting in Kentucky; religious matters at Union Theological Seminary, Va.; runaway slaves; purchase of enslaved people for gold mining in Granville County; victory of the Whigs in that county; depredations of Confederates.

There are 2 bound volumes: A ledger of John G. Smith of Granville County, 1798-1803, which includes a daybook of Ann A. Davis, 1887-1901; a ledger of S.S. Downey, 1828-1874; and a journal of Jane E. Downey, 1841-1843.

Biographical / historical:

Samuel Smith Downey (1792-1851) was the son of James and Elizabeth (Smith) Downey. His grandfather, Samuel Smith, migrated from Essex County, Virginia, in the early 1760s to occupy a grant of land from the Earl of Granville County, N.C. James Downey, father of Samuel S., was born in Essex County, Va. S.S. Downey owned plantations in Mississippi and Granville County, N.C. He hired out enslaved people for the building of a Mississippi railroad, and also sold tobacco throughout the mid-Atlantic. Downey served as deputy sheriff in 1812, became justice of the peace, and was postmaster of Abram's Plains from 1841 until at least 1847. He died in 1851.

Samuel Smith Downey married Jane Harrison in 1812. She died in 1827, at the age of 36, after bearing him three children: John Alexander (A.B., University of North Carolina, 1836 and M.D. from University of Pennsylvania Medical School, 1839); James Webb (A.B., University of North Carolina, 1843), and Jane E. (in school in Chapel Hill in 1843).

In 1829, Downey married his second wife, Sarah (Sally) Pomfret Smith, his first cousin and the daughter of Alexander Smith. Their only child was Anne (1830-1914). Ann attended Salem Female Academy.

In 1845, John was in the Wisconsin Territory. By 1862 he had moved to Hardeman County, Tenn., but he also owned property in Floyd County, Ga. which Lewis D. Burwell supervised. In February 1863, John Downey became disillusioned and wrote from Homer, Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, to Burwell depicting the trials of Federal rule in Tennessee, his flight to Texas, and the sale there of enslaved people he owned who had not deserted to the Federals. In 1884 he was still in Galveston, Texas, supporting Cleveland in the presidential race.

Ann Downey married Isaac H. Davis, a tobacco and cotton farmer who sold his crops through commission merchants in Petersburg and Norfolk and through Cooper, Blackwell, and Co., and Reams's warehouse in Durham, N.C.

Jane Downey's history is harder to trace. There is no mention of her in the division of property following Samuel Smith Downey's death.

Source: Find A Grave website, (accessed October 18, 2023).

Acquisition information:
The Samuel Smith Downey Papers were received by the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book Manuscript Library as a gift in 1949. Additional materials were added on June 26, 1964; transferred from the W.H. Gregory papers, August 1964; transferred from the Jonathan K. Smith papers in June 1971; and received as a gift from Ann McGee in September 2023.
Processing information:

Processed by Rubenstein Library Staff, 1989

Encoded by Meghan Lyon, July 2011

Accession 2023-0189 added by Leah Tams, October 2023.

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[Identification of item], Samuel Smith Downey Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.