Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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Ralph Dunning Smith, the oldest member of the New Haven County bar remaining in active practice, died on September 11th, 1874, at the age of sixty-nine years. Born in Southbury in 1804, he was graduated at Yale College in the class of 1827, commenced the study of law with Hon. Edward Hinman, at his native place, and then after spending some time in the office of Heman Birch, Esq., of Brookfield, completed his preparation for the bar in the Yale Law School in 1831. He entered the profession in the fall of that year, established himself in Guilford, and there, for more than forty years, was the leading spirit of the town.
Without any of the graces of oratory, and with not a particle of sham or show in his character, it was not Mr. Smith's ambition to distinguish himself as an advocate or a politician. His leading characteristics as a practitioner were a thorough acquaintance with the Common Law, industry in the preparation of his cases, persistency in maintaining the interests of his clients to the end, undiscouraged by any adverse decision so long as a hope of reversing it remained, accuracy in his statements, and fair dealing with all.
His business was largely that of an office lawyer, and he was often consulted by persons living in other counties, not unfrequently being engaged in trials in Middlesex and New London, either as counsel, arbitrator or committee. His most important professional work was done in connection with the New Haven and New London railroad, the construction of which his exertions helped greatly to secure. He was for many years the secretary of the railroad company, as well as one of its directors, acting also as its attorney in the matter of its location, land purchases, construction contracts, &c., and took a prominent part in the organization and management of the New London and Stonington extension, and thus in making Guilford a point upon a new through route between New Haven and Boston.
No lawyer in the state, probably, ever had a better knowledge of the local history and real estate titles of his town. For six years the judge of his probate district, and during all his professional life much engaged in the settlement of estates, Mr. Smith had frequent occasion to consult the ancient town, church, and probate records, and thoroughly mastered their contents. He could trace the families of the early planters of Guilford - one of the first settlements within the limits of the New Haven Colony - down from generation to generation, point out the homestead lot which belonged to each, and turn to the record of the "terrier" under which the original title was derived.
It is indeed as an enthusiastic antiquarian and genealogist that Mr. Smith will be best remembered. He was for many years a valued director of the New Haven Colony Historical Society, and has left in manuscript, sketches of the history of Guilford, and of two of its ecclesiastical societies, and biographical minutes, more or less full, in relation to every person who was graduated from Yale College, from its foundation down to 1767. His attachment to the college was very great, and there were few commencements at which he was not in attendance. He had two sons, both of whom were graduates of Yale, and of remarkable promise, but their early deaths, occurring, in the case of each, within a year or two after graduation, cast a deep shadow over the last years of their father's life.
Mr. Smith was an active member of the First Congregational Church in Guilford and was honored by all his townsmen as a man of a consistent Christian life. At his funeral a commemorative discourse was pronounced by Rev. Dr. Leonard Bacon, of New Haven. Resolutions expressive of their respect for his memory were passed by the bar of New Haven County, in which especial mention is made of "the ripeness of his learning and the soundness of his judgment, his faithfulness to the interests of his clients, and punctual performance of his professional engagements."