Last updated: August 18, 2021
Barbara Smith Suter is just one of the many residents who occupied Old Stone House since it was constructed in 1766. This is her story:
Barbara Smith was born to Mary Chew Smith and Colonel Richard Smith in Calvert County, Maryland, on October 21, 1778. She was named after her paternal grandmother, Barbara Sim.
When Richard Smith died in 1787, his wife believed that he was deeply in debt. Following through with the wishes detailed in his will, she liquidated many of his assets to pay off the financial debts left behind. Though she sold off her husband’s plantation, she had a back-up plan in Georgetown. Her mother, Cassandra Chew, owned several lots in Georgetown, and Mary and her sister Harriet would inherit some of these upon Cassandra’s death. Original Georgetown Lot #3 (now located at 3051 M Street NW) would become Mary’s when Cassandra died.
In the late 1780s, Cassandra allowed Mary and her children to move to Georgetown and occupy what is now known as Old Stone House. In 1790, the fairly new United States of America conducted the first federal census. According to the records collected at this time, Mary Smith was listed as being a head of household and was living with six children. Six slaves are also listed as being in her possession, but their residence is unknown. It was a common practice at the time for slave holders to lease the labor of enslaved people to other residents within their communities.
1790 was also the year in which the Resident Act was passed.
What is the Resident Act? The Resident Act was legislation that laid out the size and location for the District of Columbia which would become the new federal capital of the United States. It established that the Federal Government would acquire land somewhere along the Potomac River that would cover a 10x10-mile-square. Georgetown became the seat of the planning of the new Federal City.
With the establishment and planning of the Federal City going on, Georgetown was an exciting and evolving town to live in. Twelve-year-old Barbara would likely have seen engineers and surveyors like Pierre L’Enfant and Benjamin Banneker travelling to survey the new District of Columbia. Businesses boomed and Georgetown was a thriving port community.
Popular taverns, like the Fountain Inn along what is now known as Water Street NW, would have drawn large crowds and been a hub of information. In 1794, the original proprietor—John Suter, Sr.—died. His son, John Suter, Jr., helped his mother run the establishment for a year before turning his attention to a bigger and more up-to-date property on Bridge Street (now M Street NW). More changes would come to Bridge Street as it became a main thoroughfare into the new Federal City. Over the next few years, Bridge Street would shift from being a quiet residential road leading to the outskirts of Georgetown to being a major commercial street.
In 1800, John Suter, Jr., rented the front, ground floor room of Old Stone House from Cassandra Chew and Mary Smith, who was still living upstairs. He used the space as a clock and watch-making shop. During this time, John and Barbara began courting and would eventually get married. Mary Smith remarried in 1801 to John Suter, Jr.’s, partner, a cabinet-maker named Joseph Brumley. By 1802, they lived elsewhere, and John and Barbara took up residence at Old Stone House after Mary moved in with her new husband.
Between 1804 and 1806, John, Barbara, and their four children lived above the shop at Old Stone House. John Suter, Jr., was not a very successful businessman. In 1806, he was imprisoned by the government for being “an insolvent debtor” and was confined to the county jail.
John Suter, Jr., died on February 25, 1808, still very much in debt. Collectors came to Barbara, who did her best to pay off what her husband owed. She opened a series of boarding houses near the White House to make ends meet.
We might have lost track of Barbara if not for events that began to unfold in 1812. War broke out between the United States and Britain. This war brought business to the capital and money to Barbara, who was still struggling to pay off her husband’s debts. By August of 1814, she was running a boarding house across from MacGregor’s tavern and hotel, which sat where the Willard Hotel sits today. A solitary soldier came to Mrs. Suter’s door, paid for a meal, and then left. Barbara didn’t think much of it and went about the business of keeping house.
Unfortunately for Barbara, that soldier had been part of the British Army, and he’d been in town spying on the American capital. A few days later, on August 24, 1814, British troops marched overland to Bladensburg, Maryland, where they engaged with American troops who had left Washington.
A break in the chain-of-command and poor communication on the battlefield caused the Americans to retreat to the city with the English soldiers and sailors in hot pursuit.
Washingtonians could only watch as the capital burned. First Lady Dolly Madison had already orchestrated the evacuation of the Executive Mansion and had travelled to Dumbarton House in Georgetown to await her husband who had gone to Bladensburg to see the battle for himself.
Barbara Suter closed her shutters and took shelter like so many others as British troops marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, past her boarding house and onto the grounds of the Executive Mansion.
As the soldiers passed the boarding house, one of the officers stopped and knocked on Barbara’s door. This man was General Robert Ross, commander of the British land forces that had attacked the capital. He told her that he and several other high ranking officers “Have come, madame, to sup with you.” Barbara tried to convince him that she didn’t have enough food to cook a meal for several officers and that the business across the street had better food and accommodations. General Ross would hear none of it and told her to kill her chickens and prepare a meal for British officers since her establishment had a better view.
Barbara did as she had been told and prepared a meal for the officers as quickly as she could. While she was busy cooking, the English burned the Presidential Mansion and the Treasury Building. Several hours later, a rowdy group of high-ranking British officials entered Barbara Suter’s tavern. Imagine Mrs. Suter’s surprise when a man rode into her boarding house on a mule! This was Admiral George Cockburn, the overall commander of the British forces, who had come to eat with the other officers. Barbara moved around the common room where the soldiers were sitting down to their meal and began to light candles. Ross spoke up again “No need, madame,” he said, “for we shall dine by a different light.” Ross had his men throw open the shutters to the windows of the room. Outside, the Executive Mansion and treasury buildings were burning, and the light of the fires illuminated the room. Barbara Suter’s tavern provided the perfect vantage point for the English officers to watch the destruction of the Presidential Mansion.
Barbara continued to operate taverns and boarding houses in Washington. Research is still being done on her life and what happened to her after her brush with history in August of 1814. Her mother, grandmother, and mother-in-law never bequeathed anything to her and instead bequeathed property to Barbara’s children. For example, when Mary Smith Brumley died in 1825, she bequeathed half of the property at Lot #3 (now Old Stone House and Garden) to one of her daughters, ¼ of the lot went to another daughter, and ¼ was shared by two of Barbara’s daughters, even though records indicate that Barbara was still alive. This may have been to prevent the property from being confiscated to repay John Suter, Jr.’s, debts.
According to records, Barbara never remarried and died in 1863.