Born to a family whose lineage can be traced back to very early generations of English settlers in the colonies, Sophia Smith was the fourth child of Joseph Smith and Lois White, born August 27 1796 in Hatfield, Massachusetts. Her father, a soldier in the American Revolutionary war and having grown up on a farm, became a successful farmer who thrived in business and social endeavors in the valley, possessing, “the true Smith characteristic of untiring energy and large thrift” 1). The “Smith characteristic” could possibly refer to the success of Joseph’s siblings; Sophia’s uncle Oliver was also very successful as a businessman, and in possession of a large fortune at the time of his death. Sophia’s mother Lois is described as “a model of domestic virtue” and quite a compassionate woman, “kindly understanding to those within and without her family.”2) Sophia thus had a receptive and comfortable home environment while growing up.
Though we are left with very few physical records of Sophia’s early life, certain milestones and second hand accounts do exist by which one can come to a better understanding of her childhood life. Reverend William Greenwood, pastor of the Hatfield church in 1875, interviewed Sophia’s sister-in-law (who was a year behind her in school) after Sophia’s death. From his report, we know that Sophia attended school from the ages of 4 to 18, and she may have taken a semester to study at the Academy in Hartford.3) When Sophia was 14, her mother made the decision to join the Congregational Church, at which point Sophia and her brothers and sisters were baptized, an unusual circumstance (for one is usually baptized as an infant), but certainly an occasion worth mentioning. Sophia would then wait twenty-three years before becoming a member of that church, her relationship to which was significant in her later years.4) Starting around the year 1828 (when Sophia was 32), Sophia suffered through a series of family deaths in quick succession. In a period of no more than 3 years, Sophia lost two younger sisters, an older brother, and her mother. Just prior, her brother Joseph had married and moved out.5) It was around this time that Sophia and Harriet applied for membership to the Hatfield Congregational Church, admitted in July 1834. It could be, as Quentin Quesnell suggests in his biography The Strange Disappearance of Sophia Smith, that this sudden decision was part of Sophia’s reaction to the deep family distress that had recently transpired. Though it could just as well have been that Sophia was inspired, as were the likes of other locals, (which would later include Emily Dickinson), by the sermons of Edwards Amasa Park, an inspiring speaker of the time.
After the death of Sophia’s father Joseph in 1836, his wealth, which he had acquired through a combination of wise investments and inheritance, was distributed among his four remaining children. Austin, Joseph (who was the only Smith child to marry, and failed to produce an heir) Sophia, and Harriet each received $10,000. Sophia, Harriet and Austin continued to live together at the Smith Homestead (still standing at 22 Main Street in Hatfield), and generally kept their fortunes separate and independent, though certain agreements were made among them, such as Austin paying his sisters for board in exchange for being paid to give them transportation on the horse and wagon.6)
Sophia’s social interactions were limited by her increasing deafness. Around the age of fifty, after the deafness had progressed considerably, Sophia invested in the hearing technology of the time: a yard-long tube with a mouthpiece into which one person would speak when addressing her. According to Quesnell, records indicate that Sophia found the device “humiliating” and “mortifying”.7) Notwithstanding this handicap, or perhaps because of it, Sophia fostered a passionate desire to start a school for the deaf, an intention that can be found in early drafts of her will.
By the year 1861, both Harriet (who died in 1859) and Austin had died, leaving Sophia in possession of a fortune, and good property, but completely alone. A journal entry from 1864 expresses common thoughts of hers: “April 11, 1964. All alone in the house. It is a most dark, sour, dreary April morning. I cannot go out to church. My infirmity of not hearing prevents any profit or improvement from it. But let me not despond, God can be found here as well. Whenever sought in sincerity and truth he is to be found…” This supports Quesnell’s claim that Sophia struggled against chronic depression.9) John M. Greene elaborates upon Sophia’s state of mind in the notes for this entry: “Her journal often represents her saddest and gloomiest frames of mind and heart. When she was alone she was at her worst. And she was alone when she wrote in her Journal.”10) Perhaps as a result of this depression and despair, in 1866 Sophia moved into a new house across the street from the homestead, complete with a new piano.11)
Sophia’s personal life is hard to decipher. She never married, and there is little record of her personal friends. What is known relies heavily on the testimonies of those who knew her. John M. Greene, in his eulogy of 1896 at the centennial of Sophia’s birth, remarked the following about Sophia’s love life: “I knew Miss Smith intimately the last thirteen years of her life. […] Her course of life was quiet, thoughtful, uneventful. There were no startling episodes, no wild romances in it. She built few castles in dreamland or in love-land. Life was serious, real, to her. She walked with her feet on terra firma, not in the clouds. She was a woman of high sentiment, but not sentimental. She never uttered diatribes against married life, but she always commended it; yet she was content to remain unmarried, fully persuaded that was the life God meant for her.”12)