Cover image for An Uncommon Woman: The Life of Lydia Hamilton Smith By Mark Kelley

An Uncommon Woman

The Life of Lydia Hamilton Smith

Mark Kelley


$24.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-09675-9

Available as an e-book

280 pages
6" × 9"
27 b&w illustrations
Co-published with LancasterHistory

Keystone Books

An Uncommon Woman

The Life of Lydia Hamilton Smith

Mark Kelley

“A welcome and important work, refuting earlier racist and sexist portrayals and restoring a fascinating historical figure.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Lydia Hamilton Smith (1813–1884) was a prominent African American businesswoman in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and the longtime housekeeper, life companion, and collaborator of the state’s abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens. In his biography of this remarkable woman, Mark Kelley reveals how Smith served the cause of abolition, managed Stevens’s household, acquired property, and crossed racialized social boundaries.

Born a free woman near Gettysburg, Smith began working for Stevens in 1844. Her relationship with Stevens fascinated and infuriated many, and it made Smith a highly recognizable figure both locally and nationally. The two walked side by side in Lancaster and in Washington, DC, as they worked to secure the rights of African Americans, sheltered people on the Underground Railroad, managed two households, raised her sons and his nephews, and built a real-estate business. In the last years of Stevens’s life, as his declining health threatened to short-circuit his work, Smith risked her own well-being to keep him alive while he led the drive to end slavery, impeach Andrew Johnson, and push for the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.

An Uncommon Woman is a vital history that accords Lydia Hamilton Smith the recognition that she deserves. Every American should know Smith’s inspiring story.

“A welcome and important work, refuting earlier racist and sexist portrayals and restoring a fascinating historical figure.”
“An important contribution to Civil War discourse, women’s studies, and Black history.”
“Well researched and written, and telling a dramatic and important life story, readers interested in nineteenth-century gender and race issues are sure to find An Uncommon Woman: The Life of Lydia Hamilton Smith an important contribution to Civil War-era scholarship, and a book well worth reading and adding to their library.”
“Mark Kelley presents valuable new information about Lydia Hamilton Smith, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens’s mixed-race housekeeper and life companion, while providing refreshingly new perspectives on Stevens himself. The book offers important new information and insights by documenting how Smith managed Stevens’s household, took care of him as his health failed, and used her relationship with him to accumulate property and cross racialized social boundaries. It also contributes to our understanding of Stevens’s powerful political opposition to slavery and racial discrimination.”
“Mark Kelley uncovered a treasure trove of archival materials to tell the remarkable life story of Lydia Hamilton Smith. Kelley rescues Smith from obscurity, and in doing so he makes the powerful case that she is one of the nineteenth century’s most influential women. Kelley recounts how Smith had to fight every step of the way to be treated with dignity and respect, insisting that her nation live up to the egalitarian principles of the Reconstruction era. Kelley masterfully combines exhaustive archival research with lively prose and historical context to bring this previously hidden historical figure to vivid life.”

Mark Kelley holds a PhD in journalism from Syracuse University. He worked for twenty-five years as a broadcast journalist and has taught journalism and mass communications at Goshen College, Syracuse University, the University of Maine, and the New England School of Communications. He resides in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Marty.

List of Illustrations




1. James Buchanan’s Father Slept Here

2. A Girlhood in Gettysburg

3. Coming of Age

4. Another Name Change

5. Much More than a Housekeeper

6. Everyone’s on the Move

7. The Widow and the Congressman

8. Booze, Politics, and the Underground Railroad

9. Life, Death, and Marriage

10. The War Years

11. “In Health or in Sickness”

12. The Battles After the War

13. A Companion Lost

14. “It Was Mr. Dickey”

15. Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington

16. Mrs. Smith Versus the Executors

17. An Elderly Businesswoman

18. “A Noted Woman Gone”

19. Those Left Behind

20. A Life Well Lived