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Merchant, Scholar, Painter, Sailor: Some Smiths

The Smith Family Cottons to Skaneateles


Reuel Smith, the Elder

1787 - 1873 (a)


"Little Smith," they called him in New York City, where he was partner in the profitable shipping firm Smith & Mills, from about 1824 to 1845. Reuel Smith was a farm boy, son of a Corporal in the 
Continental Army, (b) seventh generation descendant from Thomas Rogers, and  eighth generation from Stephen Hopkins, both of the 
Mayflower. (1) He grew up to make 
big money by shipping New World cotton, sugar and rice to England. Reuel married his business partner's 
sister, Celestia Mills in 1822. Sadly, 
five years after they wed, she died, 
only four days after the birth of their second son, Edmond Reuel Smith. (2) Then, ten short weeks later, their two-year old daughter, Sarah, also died. His eldest, James, lived until 1902, surviving a wound in the march on Atlanta as a Union Soldier in the Civil War, with the 149th NY Volunteers(3)


After losing wife and daughter, the patriarch grew the firm and raised his two boys, doing well enough to take three years off for a tour of Europe. By 1849 he retired and purchased a site far away from New York City for his summer retreat, near his friend Henry Latrobe Roosevelt, in the stagecoach stop called Skaneateles. (4) As a man of great wealth, perhaps influenced by the son who would soon demonstrate a decidedly artistic flair, he hired the most sought-after architect in America to build his lakeside cottage: Alexander Jackson Davis.


Edmond Reuel Smith, Scholar

1829 - 1911


One of Reuel Smith's two sons,
"E. R." inherited the summertime homestead when the senior Smith died in 1873.  According to Skaneateles historian Kihm Winship, "E. Reuel Smith studied in Geneva, Switzerland, worked briefly at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, graduated from Georgetown (Class of 1848) and went on to Yale, where he studied botany, zoology, mineralogy and Spanish to prepare for a role as an artist with a U.S. Naval Astronomical Expedition to Chile."


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Edmond Reuel Smith Gallery


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E. R. Smith was an author, artist, a civilian on a U. S. Naval expedition, an apologetic critic of his country bumpkin neighbors, and later a local luminary, Deacon and School Board Trustee. (5) He wrote: The Araucanians; or, Notes of a Tour Among the Indian Tribes of Southern Chili (1855). He sketched and painted prolifically. He married into Skaneateles village royalty; his bride being Elizabeth DeCost. They had five children, twenty-five years apart: Leslie (1862,) DeCost (1864,) Celestia (1866,) Burnett (1877,) and Sedgwick (1887).


Upon settling in to Skaneateles, he famously humiliated his new neighbors by critiquing them in a New York society rag, (see story) but later came around to be a favored son, getting high praise for his lectures on his travels.


E. R. was a talented artist, creating pen and ink drawings and etchings, (Illustrations at right,) some of which can be seen in the archive room at the Skaneateles Public Library.


In 1904, E. R. hired noted Syracuse architect Achimedes Russell to improve Cobweb Cottage and expand the estate. He died in 1911, leaving the home to his youngest son, then still in college at Harvard.


For a fascinating and detailed essay on the family whose patriarch commissioned Cobweb Cottage, and whose descendants made great contributions to an emerging America, read Kihm Winship's blog post on The Two Reuels.


DeCost Smith

1864 - 1939


One of E. R.'s sons inherited his father's gifts with both words and picture making.


DeCost Smith lived in Paris and New York City, and explored the American West numerous times, among the Indians. In 1890 he travelled with artist Edwin Deming, capturing Native American culture on canvas, even as it faded from history. (6) He amassed a collection of important artifacts from the Souix, Crow, Onondaga Indians, and more importantly, first-hand accounts of their tribes and tribulations as the New World 
expanded. He served on the Bureau of Indian Affairs under President Theodore Roosevelt and others. Having met Sitting Bull, Rain-in-the-Face and many other legendary Indians, he penned two books on his expeditions.


DeCost Smith claimed in his autobiography Red Indian Experiences to have become smitten with Native Americans when, as a youngster, an Onondaga Indian with her papoose came knocking at the back door of 28 West Lake Street. (7) 

His other book, Martyrs of the Oblong and the Little Nine, is known as the true story of the "Last of the Mohicans." 



His writing, painting and collections documented the fast-disappearing culture as the West was "won". His painting "Conflicting Faiths" was exhibited at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1889. Smith donated that to the Skaneateles Library in 1907, where it can be seen today. (8) A contemporary and collaborator of famed Western artist Frederic Remington, (who, interestingly, also lived in an A. J. Davis Gothic Revival Cottage in New Rochelle New York,) DeCost's paintings have found a devoted collector's market. His collection of Indian artifacts became part of the Smithsonian.


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DeCost Smith Gallery


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Some DeCost Smith works, discovered by collector Jonathan Holstein, can be seen here. Smith's correspondence, newspaper clippings, photographs, notebooks, brochures, manuscripts, maps, paintings, and sketches are archived at Cornell University.


The hand written journal of his 1907 trip, (pictured at right,) can be found in The Amenia Free Library, with two seldom seen paintings and a rare etching of three musicians, created for a collaborative work with his father "Ramblings About Town."


DeCost Smith died in 1939 in Amenia, New York, and is buried there with his wife Elizabeth Mills Smith, who died in 1930. They had no children.


Sedgwick Smith

1887 - 1963


Last of the descendents of the one who moved the New York family upstate, Sedgwick was a devoted sportsman, championing sailing on Skaneateles Lake by summer, and bringing hockey to the schools in the icy months. He married Elsa Watts of New York, a fashion model and artist, and adopted her daughter Judy. (See Kihm Winship's Try, Try, Try Again essay.) They spent the next two decades in the home together, until "Poppy," as Sedgwick was called, passed away in 1963. (9) Elsa, a spirited and independent artist, sold Cobweb Cottage to the Feldmann's in 1975, and the estate passed out of the family for the first and only time since its cornerstone was set.


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Descendents of Reuel Smith travelled the world, and also became quite involved in their own back yard, as prominent Skaneateles 
citizens. One wrote a book on explorations of natives in South America and another on the vanishing Native Americans of the Wild West. A third brought hockey to town and toiled in a family 

business that brought the world the 

famed Lightning Sailboats. Others have great legacies not listed here.

The Reuel Smith family 
maintainined three generations of 
stewardship of their unique
A. J. Davis country cottage. The Feldmanns gave it almost fifty years of TLC, preservation and restoration. More than one hundred and sixty years from its design and 
construction, the charming gingerbread house has become one of the villages most endearing 



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1. Smith, Dwight, Dr. , Ralph Smythe of Hingham and Eastham, Massachussets and His Descendants,  P.86


2. Ibid.


3. See 1, above; also, notes from James Mills Smith in a letter to E. R. Smith from the Civil War front, in the private collection of Judy Kaspar


4. Kihm Winship, Skaneateles - Character and Characters of a Lakeside Village. The Two Reuels post


5. Smith, Dwight, Dr. , Ralph Smythe of Hingham and Eastham, Massachussets and His Descendants,  P.130


6. Biography of DeCost Smith on Artprice


7. Smith, DeCost, Red Indian Experiences, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1949.


8. Dick Case, Syracuse Post-Standard, Skaneateles exhibit of artist DeCost Smith runs though June at The Creamery,  2011


9. Interview with Judy Kaspar, daughter of Elsa Watts Smith, 2016




A. James Reuel Smith, in the introduction to Springs and Wells of Manhattan and The Bronx, New York Public Libray Rare Books & Manuscripts, dates the birth of Reuel Smith at 1789, and his marriage to Celestia Mills at 1824.


B. Dr. Dwight Smith references Reuel Smith as a Corporal in the Revolutionary War, but clearly that is a typo, given his birthdate. It is Reuel's father, Joshua, who served in that capacity.








Above: Typical scene in Charleston, SC, the port from which Reuel Smith conducted his shipping businesses (Smith & Stevens, later Smith & Mills,) from 1812 until the outbreak of the Civil War.

Left: Only extant photograph of Reuel Smith (presumed) from the family photo albums of Judy Kaspar, daughter of Elsa Watts Smith


Left: Pen and ink drawing of a ship from a Schoolmaster's book, about the time that Reuel created his fortune as a merchant. Courtesy of Jonathan Holstein.

Right: Edmond Reuel Smith, known as
"E. R. S." lived in New York City and Skaneateles New York, travelled the world, spoke six languages, was on the Board of Education in Skaneateles and a colorful character in the small town.

Underneath: One of the fabulous stained glass windows in the Saint James Episcopal Church was donated by E. R. Smith in his family's name. E. R. was a Deacon at the church.


Below: This etching is one of many by
E. R. S. held in a private collection. Others, along with his watercolors, can be seen in the Skaneateles Library Fossil Room, upstairs over  the John D. Barrow Art Gallery.

Underneath: The front pages of Smith's book on the Araucanians , Notes of a Tour . . . of Chili (sic).


Above: "Conflicting Faiths" by DeCost Smith, exhibited in Paris and donated to the Skaneateles Library in 1907.  

Left: DeCost Smith at work, from the family photo albums of Judy Kaspar, niece of DeCost Smith

Below: Smith's journal from a 1907 excursion

Below Left: His published account of the trip

Below: Untitled painting by DeCost Smith, (private collection). The scene depicts an Indian spotting a wagon train on its way to settle the West. DeCost became friends with Sitting Bull and many other notable Native Americans, and his writings in "Red Indian Experiences and "Martyrs" are an excellent and informative account of personalities and tales of tribes. 

Above: DeCost's depiction of his collection of tribal masks, which he bequeathed to the Smithsonian

Left: DeCost Smith field study of the Lemhi Pass, Idaho, where Lewis & Clark crossed the rockies. 10" x 14", oil on hardboard, 1904. The painting remains in the home where Smith was born.

Right: Elsa Watts Smith and Sedgwick Smith, aka Mimi and Poppy

Inset: Elsa Watts with her daughter Judy, about 8 months of age. It was Judy who suggested to her mother that she should marry Sedgwick.

Below: Sailing on Skaneateles Lake by Sedgwick Smith, who was long time president of the boat manufacturing company that introduced the Lightning Sailboat to the world


Above: In keeping with family tradition, Sedgwick, too, painted. This depiction of sailboats moored by the Skaneateles Pier was painted in 1960.


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