The headstone in Bruton Parrish Cemetery simply reads “Sacred To The Memory of Reuben Smith. Born November 6th, 1822, Died February 27th, 1843. Aged 20 Years, 3 Months, and 21 Days.”
I noticed it every day when walking in Williamsburg, but it seemed there was no possible way to find further information on this young man who died at such a tragically early age.
Then, amazingly, while visiting Fort Smith, Arkansas, the brochure listed a Reuben Smith amongst the children of the military general for whom the fort was named. And dates checked out.
I discovered that Reuben was the younger brother of Lucy Ann Smith (buried at the obelisk beside him.) He came to Williamsburg to live with her and her husband, Nathaniel Beverley Tucker in the Tucker House on Nicholson Street. Reuben attended the College of William and Mary, graduating in 1842.
But how did he die?
Desperate to find more information, I wrote an essay, “Who Was Reuben Smith?” that was printed in the Virginia Gazette. The best advice in response was, “Go to Swem Library.”
As I sat in the exclusive reading room of the library and held in my hands an actual letter written by Reuben to his sister, I felt an excitement I had never experience before. I discovered a charming, witty young man who played chess, loved to dance and fence, who enjoyed hot cornbread (never cold!), and who teased his dear friend George Upshur by stealing and smoking his cigars (to preserve George’s health!)
I smiled and laughed as I browsed the letters, and then, in the form of a letter of condolence from George to Lucy Ann, the information we had been seeking. Reuben aspired to become a doctor. He and George travelled to Philadelphia staying in lodgings (“We slept high—on the fourth floor!”) Here, while tending the poor in the alms houses, he contracted tuberculosis. He returned to Williamsburg for the Christmas break in 1842 and died in an upstairs room of the Tucker House in February 1843.
George completed his studies and married. He died a hero at 33 caring for patients during the epidemic of yellow fever in Norfolk.
Their stories are sad, but now Reuben, George, and Lucy Ann live again in my heart, and I thank Swem Library for collecting and preserving these precious letters, giving us the opportunity of connecting with the past.