Yorkers remember a Founding Father

John Joyce
  • Col. James Smith, an Irish immigrant and judge, signed the Declaration of Independence for Pennsylvania

A Founding Father of this nation and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Col. James Smith is laid to rest on the grounds of the First Presbyterian Church in York City.

For 88 years running, the Daughters of the American Revolution have on the Fourth of July commemorated Smith's contribution to the formation of the United States of America.

A wreath dedicated by the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, sits in front of the grave site of Colonel James Smith, Monday, July 4, 2016, at First Presbyterian Church. Amanda J. Cain photo

Norma Vasellas has been alive for each of those ceremonies, although she did not join the DAR until 1981, 21 years after she began tracing her own lineage back to eight family members who fought to free a cluster of colonies from foreign oppression.

She wears bars bearing those eight names among the medals on her chest. She honors them each year along with Smith.

"This is a continuation of what they believed in,“she said. "We honor (Smith's) memory, we put a wreath at his grave. It’s something we do every Fourth of July."

Vasellas, 90, is a past regent and district director of the DAR. She said she learned of her familial connection to the revolution through her grandfather. But to connect all the lines through historical record took quite a bit of digging — and time — she said.

"A lot of hard work. A lot of hours. My grandfather always talked to me about history. And there was a Gemmill (family history) book that was to be for me. His cousin, who was judge in Chicago, wrote the book, and he gave the whole lineage up to my grandfather’s time to him when he passed," Vasellas said.

Through an uncle who was a professor at Penn State, she filled in the blanks and continued to do her own research from there.

"John Gemmill, James Gemmill. A lot of Gemmills,” she said.

Piecing together eight generations of her family took several decades, but one link still escapes her.

"My maiden name is Hamilton," Vasellas said. "I have been hunting and hunting, but …"

Commemoration: About 35 people turned out at 10 a.m. Monday to commemorate the service Smith gave to his country. According to the history recounted at the ceremony, Smith came to the colonies from Ireland in 1727. He settled in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and studied law at the Philadelphia Academy. He later settled in the frontier of Pennsylvania, west of the Susquehanna River in what would become York County, where he served as a surveyor and a circuit judge.

When the Revolution broke out, Smith recruited and trained militiamen. He was eventually elected to the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence as a representative of Pennsylvania.

Judge to judge:  Each year, the DAR invites a community member to take part in Smith's commemoration by reading aloud the Declaration of Independence. This year, fittingly some in attendance said, the invited speaker was  another judge, retired York County Court of Common Pleas Judge John W. Thompson.

Judge John Thompson, reads the Declaration of Independence, during the 88th annual Colonel James Smith commemoration Monday, July 4, 2016, at First Presbyterian Church. Amanda J. Cain photo

Thompson offered his own nugget of history to coincide with Smith's, sharing that prior to 1700, the Pennsylvania judicial system was active and in place. But back then, all appeals went back to England. It would not be until the Judiciary Act of 1722 that the colony would have its own Supreme Court, making it the first and oldest supreme court in the nation, Thompson said.

John Eppinger, of Stewartstown, has come to York each Fourth of July for the past 15 years to attend the DAR's annual commemoration of Smith. He said Thompson was by far the best orator he has heard.

"He had the hearts and minds of the Founding Fathers right there in front of us. I've never heard it done that well before, ever," Eppinger siad.

Eppinger said the ceremony each year is his Fourth of July, it is how he celebrates. And while fireworks are great and so are cookouts, he said it is important to honor the sacrifice of those who fought for America's independence.

"The importance is what (Thompson) said, the Founding Fathers. That they declared independence from England. That's the heart of the whole thing. That's the fireworks right there," he said.

Where are the fireworks in York County?

No other war in this nation's history has its own national holiday to commemorate it. And, while less than a century later another war was fought to sustain it and  countless others have and will continue to be fought to maintain it, America has endured.

"It shows you the strength of this nation, really. It shows you that we can debate among ourselves, and sometimes it seems like terrible debate, but in fact it is healthy debate," Eppinger said. "And lots of countries don't have that."

— Reach John Joyce atjjoyce2@yorkdispatch.comor on Twitter at @JohnJoyceYD