Mission Statement:

"To advance through research, education and symposia, an increased public awareness of the Cape Fear region's unique history."


Major-General Benjamin Smith

Patriot, Legislator and Governor

Cape Fear Historical Institute Papers 


Major-General Benjamin Smith

Benjamin Smith was born in the South Carolina province

of Charlestown on January 10, 1756, to Thomas and

Sarah Moore Smith. His father was the son of wealthy

planter and merchant Thomas Landgrave Smith; mother

Sarah was the daughter of colonial leader “King Roger”

Moore of Orton Plantation on the Cape Fear River

in Brunswick County, North Carolina.

Prior to North Carolina becoming a State, Thomas Smith

was one of the last of the landgraves, a title of nobility bestowed upon a few of the wealthiest colonists by the

Lords Proprietors.

Beginning his education at Charlestown, Benjamin was

sent to study under Reverend Jacob Duche at Philadelphia

for three years as a young teen. In mid-May, 1774, he was admitted to the exclusive Middle Temple of London’s Inns

of Court for barristers with origins in the 12th Century

and Enlgish law taught by clergy. With worsening relations between England and the American colonies, he soon

returned to Charlestown to study under attorney

Edward Rutledge, until the Revolution

interrupted his studies. 

In late August 1776 Benjamin became aide-de-camp

to General George Washington, a position he held during

the retreat of Washington’s army from Long Island

and through the campaigns of 1777.

In early February 1779 Smith served on Gen. William Moultrie’s staff in South Carolina. He was present

during the defeat of British troops at Port Royal Island,

now Beaufort, which delayed the invasion of South

Carolina several months. Moultrie’s force then moved

on to strengthen Charleston’s defenses against an

expected attack in mid-May. Smith would eventually

rise to the rank of colonel in the Continental Army.

While with Washington’s army, Smith married Sarah

Rhett Dry at St. Philips Church in Charleston in

November 1777, she the daughter of Col. William Dry, Customs Collector for the port of Brunswick,

and wife Mary Jane (Rhett) Dry.


Returning postwar to North Carolina, Smith was elected

in 1784 to represent North Carolina in the Continental Congress, and active in North Carolina’s Constitutional Conventions in 1788 and 1789. Additionally, he served

a number of terms in the General Assembly between

1783 and 1810, and from 1795 to 1799 Smith was

Speaker of the North Carolina Senate.

In 1794, Smith was appointed brigadier-general of

North Carolina Militia, and was well-known politically

in the State. Elected Governor of North Carolina in

1810, he served a one-year term, was not reelected,

and returned to the North Carolina Senate in 1816.

Smith also sat on the University of North Carolina’s

Board of Trustees 1789-1824, chaired the Board

during his term as Governor and donated 20,000

acres of Tennessee land for the school’s endowment.

The land was a reward for his military service

during the Revolution.

The town of Smithville at the mouth of the Cape Fear

River is named in his honor, as he donated his land

adjacent to Fort Johnston to establish the

community in 1792.

Though a well-educated man, he had an irascible disposition which caused him to settle disagreement by duel with blood kin or political antagonists, being twice-wounded in the contests. One wound left him with a bullet in the leg

which he carried the rest of his life; another time he

received a wound in his side defending his honor

against Captain Maurice Moore.

Governor Smith was also a Grand Master of Masons,

serving from 1808-1810. In 1807, he was appointed

Adjutant-General of North Carolina in 1807 with the

rank of major-general, commanding the State’s militia.


After his term as governor, General Smith returned to

the Cape Fear and his wife’s plantation “Belvedere,”

left to her by father Col. William Dry. This was directly

across the Cape Fear River from Wilmington and where President Washington was entertained after departing Wilmington on his Southern Tour in 1791. 

Smith was an early owner of nearby Orton Plantation, inherited from his grandfather, and spent much time at his residence on Dock Street near the northwest corner of

Second Street – later the residence of Dr. John D. Bellamy.

Sadly, Governor Smith’s enormous wealth but extravagant living led to financial misfortune and increasing debt obligations.  After wife Caroline passed away in 1821,

he continued to live in his dilapidated Smithville house

where he died a virtual pauper five years later.

Having no will, his creditors clamored for his few

remaining possessions, which were auctioned at a

sheriff’s sale in 1826.

Caroline was buried at St. Philip’s at Brunswick, but

he was buried at the Old Smithville burial ground for expediency as body decomposition had advanced. His

remains were later removed to the cemetery at

St. Philips Church.  

Author Lewis Philip Hall writes that after the fall

of Fort Anderson in February 1865, Northern troops

“dug up the remains of the coffins, broke open the

tombs and scattered bones, looking for jewelry and

silver coffin plates, and many gravestones were


At the urging of postwar Northern speculators who

proposed building a railroad to the town and establishing

it as a grand city of business and industry, Smithville

was renamed “Southport” in 1887.

The speculators intent was never realized.


History of New Hanover County, Alfred Moore Waddell,

Vol. I, 1909

Biography of Benjamin Smith, Alan D. Watson,

McFarland, 2014

Land of the Golden River, Lewis Philip Hall, Wilmington Printing Co., 1980