Ancestor helps to unravel the history and ghost lore of the Hyatt House

Published 6:30 am Saturday, June 24, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Clark Curtis, For the Washington Daily News

Over the last 15 years Ben Smith, who works for a major cyber-security company in Boston and resides in the Washington, DC area, has spent the major part of his “spare time” knee-deep in family genealogy. In the late 70’s his grandfather had assembled a booklet that contained an enormous amount of information about the Smith family. “As a ten-year-old, I was fascinated when I saw all of that stuff. However, it wasn’t until about 15 years ago that I really started digging into all of this, as I wanted to learn more. I naively thought that within two or three years I would have my family tree all figured out. But as I quickly learned, as soon as you figure out one mystery, you uncover several others.”

Based on the information his grandfather had put together, and Smiths’ own research, online and in person, he was able to determine that Captain Thomas Smith, his great-grandfather four times, was the earliest proven Smith that he was related to. He had a medallion with a picture of the Captain, and a notation on the back indicating he was born in the 1770s, along with information that showed ties to North Carolina. With all of this information in hand, Smith made a trip to the state historical archives in Raleigh. “It was there that I discovered a huge collection of business records and letters from John Gray Blount from Washington, North Carolina,” said Smith. “I learned that my Thomas Smith was a ships’ captain for Blount and traveled often to the Caribbean, hauling lumber and tar. So I knew he lived and worked in Washington however was I still unable to determine his date of birth, where and how he died, and my main goal of determining the names of his father and mother.”

Smith made a call to Brown Library historian, Stephen Farrell, explaining what he had, and asked if the two could get together. “I told him that if I could walk out of there with one piece of new information, I will have hit a home run.”

As Smith discovered two days later, it was that and more. “Stephen was able to confirm that a Captain Thomas Smith had purchased and lived in the Hyatt House in 1801, and worked for John Gray Blount, the builder of the home,” said Smith. “I then showed him a photo my great-grandfather had taken of a house in Washington in 1900. On the back is written, “this is the house my great-great-grandfather Thomas Smith lived in.” Once Stephen saw that he said, “This is it!”

“I knew after putting all of the pieces together that Smith had provided and that I was able to assemble, this was the same guy,” said Farrell.

Accompanied by Farrell and the owner of the Hyatt House, Kasey Stone of Clerestory Design, Smith was able to get his first look at where his ancestor had once lived. “It was exciting and really, more humbling than anything else,” said Smith. “Just think of all the history and stories that house has experienced over the past two centuries.”

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Smith,” said Farrell. “He is one of the few people in the world to literally be able to walk in the footsteps of his ancestors’ 18th-century home that is still standing. And to be able to see and touch the walls.”

During this historic visit, Smith also learned of the ghost lore. “I told him that he might meet his great grandfather four times today,” said Stone, who savors the history of the homes she restores. “Through the process of elimination and the fact that Thomas Smith lived and died in this home, I’m convinced that he is the ghost that some have described as standing at the third-floor window which looks out to the river, and being dressed in a captains’ uniform. And though I have never seen the ghost, I will say he is friendly and made his presence known throughout the renovation. Work, I believe he approved of,” she said with a smile on her face.

“She is convinced, and has convinced me that Captain Thomas Smith is the ghost,” said Smith. “So for now, that’s what I’m going with.”

The visit of Ben Smith to Washington proved to be a win-win for all involved, as the pieces of this historic puzzle started coming together. “This was very special for me,” said Stone. “I learned so much more about Thomas Smith than I ever knew. It was such a pleasure to meet Ben and learn more about his family.”

Added Farrell, “Being able to connect someone with their past in the way that we were able to do with Ben, was very special. It is what makes doing what I do so gratifying.”

As for Smith, it is on to the next chapter. “I have returned home with more than I had hoped for,” said Smith. “I feel much richer as an individual having had the opportunity to meet Steven and Kasey, who are so passionate about history, and the opportunity to tour the home. I walked in with a partial sketch, and although the sketch is yet to be completed, I certainly have a lot more information today than when I first came to Washington.”

Smith hopes that this newfound information will one day help him in his journey to determine who were the parents of Captain Thomas Smith.