BOZEMAN – November is one special month for Billy Smith, a Montana State University historian who turned into a global gumshoe for his new book on a deadly ship that killed millions and shut down governments.
First, an international conference will be dedicated to his pioneering research on life in early America. Smith is such an expert that the country’s premier center for such studies will hold a Nov. 7-9 conference in Philadelphia, the nation’s first capital and the focus of Smith’s research for more than three decades.
“I’m really gratified and slightly embarrassed because it seems a little undeserved,” Smith said.
At the same time, he said, “I’m very happy about it. To be honored by your colleagues who are doing similar work is high praise. I’m trying to accept it with some graciousness.”
Then, starting Nov. 26, the public will be able to read Smith’s ninth book, “Ship of Death: A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World.” The book tells the forgotten story of the Hankey, an 18th century ship that spread yellow fever from Africa to two other continents. More than 5,000 people died in Philadelphia alone, creating an early American version of 9/11 and shutting down the federal, state and local governments for three months, Smith said. By the end of the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of people – maybe millions – died on both sides of the Atlantic.
“It really is a traumatic event in the new nation,” Smith said.
Smith first learned about the Hankey from an obscure reference in an unpublished medical manuscript. Doubting the report could be true because it involved British abolitionists trying to start a colony in Africa, he continued, nevertheless, to find mentions while researching other topics. Smith has written eight previous books on such topics as “Blacks Who Stole Themselves,” Down and Out in Early America,” and “The Infortunate: The Voyage and Adventures of William Moraley, an Indentured Servant.”
Smith’s curiosity about the Hankey eventually turned into a transcontinental treasure hunt that lasted about six years while he continued to teach, conduct research and carry out his other responsibilities. Funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and MSU, the search had him delving into specialized archives and libraries from Paris to California. One time in the Library of Congress, his search was interrupted by a bomb scare.
He discovered that the British abolitionists wanted to start a colony in west Africa to demonstrate that they could succeed by hiring blacks instead of enslaving them, Smith said. So they booked the Hankey, a sweet-smelling ship that usually hauled molasses from the West Indies to England.
The British were ill-prepared for the diseases and conditions they faced in Africa, however. After half returned to England and most of the others died, the survivors decided to return to England, too. They learned it would be impossible, though, because their country was at war with France. So they sailed to the West Indies, then Haiti and finally Philadelphia. Along the way, not knowing that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitoes, they carried the insects and the disease everywhere they went and passed both on to about 100 ships. Outbreaks of yellow fever followed the ship’s every docking in the Caribbean.
Over the next 15 years, yellow fever spread to every major city in the United States, Smith said. When the survivors finally returned to England, the government burned the ship, but let the people disembark. Ships infected by contact with the Hankey spread yellow fever to continental Europe as soon as they arrived.
With the book now published by Yale University Press, Smith is working on a new project that he will explain at the upcoming conference at The McNeil Center for Early American Studies. He and his collaborators are using remote sensing and historic documents to map Philadelphia in the last half of the 18th century. Co-directing the project is Paul Sivitz, a former doctoral student of Smith’s and now a faculty member at Idaho State University. Also on the team are Scott Challender, a geographer in MSU’s Department of Earth Sciences, and earth sciences students Alex Schwab, Tara Chelsey-Preston and Alice Hecht.
Already, they have established a new website at http://mappinghistoricphiladelphia.org that eventually will contain hundreds of maps and data, as well as interpretations, Smith said.
One such map shows where specific people lived between 1789 and 1791. Widow Magdalen Mollidore, for example, lived along Coats Street and a block away from Davis Ten Eyck, a mariner, and Jacob Sutter, a ferryman. At the end of the block was John Allen, a weaver. Across from Allen lived Jacob Duberry, a starchmaker. Other maps will show all the public buildings, all the merchants and the homes of all black people in Philadelphia.
The free resource is available to historians, genealogists and anyone else who is interested, Smith said.
Smith has won MSU’s top awards for outstanding teaching and research. He was the Michael P. Malone Professor of History from 2002 through 2005 and the Distinguished Professor of Letters and Science from 2008 through 2011.
Daniel K. Richter, director of The McNeil Center for Early American Studies, said Smith was also one of the pioneers in what was once known as "the new social history." In a number of important articles and in his 1990 book -- The "Lower Sort: Philadelphia's Laboring People, 1750‑1800” -- he set the standard for quantitative history from the bottom up and created what remains to this day the best work on late-18th-century Philadelphia and early American urban history, Richter said. While continuing to explore social and labor history, Smith also wrote influential work on the history of medicine and disease and has turned his formidable talents to geographic information systems.
“But more important even than all that, he has been an extraordinary collaborator, as co-editor, co-author, convener of academic conferences, and a real breath of fresh air in a field where humor and wit seldom are found, “Richter said. “He is a living, breathing example of how the best way to take one's work seriously is never to take one's self too seriously.”
The upcoming conference was proposed by several of Smith’s colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic, Richter said. Two of those proponents, like Smith, were Fellows at the McNeil Center in the late 1970s.
“That fact, along with the importance of Philadelphia to most of Billy's work, made the McNeil Center a logical place to hold the event, and I gladly signed on to sponsor it,” Richter said. “The conference brings together many scholars who have worked with or been mentored by Billy over the years, along with a group of graduate students who have not done so but are following some of the scholarly paths he has blazed.”
Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org