Freeman, sailor, soldier Charles Smothers


Tony Burroughs-Genealogist

Author and War of 1812 historian Gerald Altoff wrote an insightful book several years ago (still available on entitled “Oliver Hazard Perry and Battle of Lake Erie”. His companion book “Amongst My Best Men”, took a more in depth look at African Americans in the War of 1812. Part of this later work focused on the African American sailors who were a part of Oliver Hazard Perry’s crew during the Battle of Lake Erie.

According to Altoff’s book many of the northern states stipulated “that each and every free able bodied white male, citizen of the respective states, resident there in, who is or shall be the age of eighteen … shall be enrolled in the militia.” While many of these states did not strictly forbid the enrollment of African Americans, they were not encouraged either. Ironically, the territory of Michigan and southern states like Virginia enlisted free men of color. In fact Louisiana had a long and proud tradition of black fighting men.

These free men enlisted in militia and rifle units that served honorably and bravely in many of the engagements of the War of 1812. It was no surprise that some of these men, probably 10-15 percent would become sailors, transferred by General Harrison and Commodore Chauncey to be crew aboard Oliver Hazard Perry’s ships.

So a few months back I got a call from internationally acclaimed and published genealogist Tony Burroughs of Chicago. Tony has quite a resume and has researched genealogy for notable African Americans like Oprah Winfrey, Al Sharpton and Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson.



Mr. Burroughs was researching the story of freeman and war of 1812 sailor Charles Smothers. It turns out that Tony Burroughs is a seventh generation descendent of Charles Smothers who Tony believed served in the Battle of Lake Erie under Perry. This is not an easy thing to prove since men like Charles Smothers were often left out or given limited documentation in the records kept during this time period.

Mr. Burroughs shared with me his research on his great-great-great-great grandfather. “Charles Smothers was born in 1784 in Henry County, Virginia. He was a farmer and migrated from Virginia to Davidson County Tennessee, near Nashville, sometime prior to 1813 when he enlisted in the military. Smothers enlisted in the Regular Army in March of 1813. He was assigned to the 24th U.S. Infantry [and] was transferred from his army regiment to the Lake Erie fleet on August 28, 1813.”

Following these leads Tony Burroughs needed to find records that acknowledged his ancestor’s service. He found one of those on the Battle of Lake Erie website ( that lists all the men who participated in the Battle of Lake Erie according to the purser’s records.



Mr. Burroughs’s had corroborated this fact about Smother’s by examining the official Prize List compiled by Purser Samuel Hambleton (Commodore Perry’s Purser) which was published in The American State Papers in 1814. Tony found that Hambleton’s official Prize List indicated that Smothers “may” have served aboard the “Schooner Scorpion.”

However Tony found that Charles Smothers had stated in his application for “Bounty Land” that he served on board the “Flagship Niagara.” This contradicted the pursers report and meant that further research was needed.


It was a common practice of the era for Veterans of the War of 1812 to earn “Bounty Land” as a bonus for their service. Mr. Burroughs had found documentation that Charles Smothers made a successful application for the Bounty Land and a warrant was awarded him based on his service in the War of 1812.



Mr. Burroughs’s research also revealed that Charles Smothers continued to serve with the Regular Army but was transferred to a unit called the “First Rifles” company led by Captain Edward Wadsworth, December 13, 1813. Charles was honorably discharged on June 3, 1815 in Buffalo, New York. Instead of returning to Tennessee, he decided to settle in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. There he married a white woman named Ruth and they had several children. Two sons served in the Civil War in the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry. One of them is named Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry Smothers.

Mr. Burroughs research was painstaking and still drives him on to find that last piece of written evidence that places Smothers aboard the Flagship Niagara. But the story of Charles Smothers, African American War of 1812 Sailor is now documented. If genealogy is your passion and if you think you might have an ancestor that was aboard one of the US Navy’s ships during the Battle of Lake Erie take the time to check out the celebration website ( Perhaps you will be inspired to sign up to be that person during the reenactment September 2nd.

7 Responses to “Freeman, sailor, soldier Charles Smothers”

  1. 1 Perry March 2, 2013 at 8:15 pm

    It is intriguing to learn of a soldier being transferred to the Navy and finding himself in the middle of major combat thirteen days later!. Research such as this deserves accurate references. If Smothers is Burrough’s fifth great uncle, then Burroughs would not be an “ancestor” but rather a descendant or related descendant. Also, it is entirely possible that Burroughs served on both the Scorpion and the Niagara, inasmuch as the crews had to be re-aligned to account for the many casualties.

    • 2 hiddenarts March 2, 2013 at 11:03 pm

      Your observations are very helpful, I changed the ancestor to descendent, and upon review uncle to grandfather.Mr Burroughs has verified all the details of Charles Smothers. In fact he was recently admitted to the General Society of the War of 1812 due to evidence he uncovered last year. I believe that dated orders could have come after the actual re-assignment took place. And I bet your correct that he might had been moved during the battle.Thank you!

  2. 3 Steve Church March 4, 2013 at 7:18 am

    Maybe one of the men Harrison gave Perry to serve as Marines?

  3. 4 Jahrod Pender June 30, 2014 at 3:02 am

    I just found out that I am a descendant of Charles Smothers! his daughter’s Mary and Lousia Smothers married my other ancestor Aaron Hackett in Fayette, PA! I was told by my great grandmother born in 1913 that her grandfather the grandson of Charles Smothers was Native American! Of course I don’t believe this is all the way true, he may of been triracial and not Cherokee.

  4. 6 Jahrod Pender August 17, 2014 at 5:11 am

    I found this to be evidence that Charles Smothers was on like Erie. In the early census Charles Smothers was a neighbor of the Lynn family in Fayette, PA

    “In 1813, Captain Lynn organized a company of infantry, which was a part of the command of Colonel Reese Hill. After a brief service in Canada, their Company was stationed at Erie, Pa. In filling the shortage of sailors in Commodore Perry’s fleet at the time of the battle of Lake Erie and the capture of the British fleet, Captain Lynn and a portion of his Company volunteered to serve. During this engagement Captain Lynn and his men served with such credit that the legislature voted each of them a Silver Medal for distinguished service.”

  5. 7 hiddenarts August 18, 2014 at 2:46 am

    Thank you Jahrod. I will pass this on!

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