The plantation was large for western Virginia, and over the years, the number of enslaved Africans living and working there grew from about forty at the end of the American Revolution to fifty when the Civil War brought Emancipation. After William died in 1783, his widow Susanna oversaw the farm for nearly four decades. Little is known of how she handled the plantation, though she probably employed an overseer to keep the labor force producing the harvest and maintaining the property. The overseer would also have dealt with the day-to-day issues typical of slavery, including catching runaways and punishing insubordination.
Like many other slave owners, William learned that some African Americans refused docilely to accept their condition. In 1812 he bought a man named Jim Barbour, who had lived in Norfolk and apparently had a wife there. Jim had already run away once from his previous owner, and in 1814 he escaped again and headed towards Norfolk and his wife, only to be caught and jailed at Petersburg. William’s brother John Preston moved Barbour to the state penitentiary in Richmond and then sold him to a man who took him to Cabell County, now in West Virginia. Jim Barbour escaped yet again and joined two other runaways making for the "freedom line," the Ohio River. They stole a boat and were moving down the Guyandotte River toward the Ohio when it capsized on a mill-dam and Jim Barbour drowned. For the tens of thousands of the enslaved who ran away during the slavery years, capture, punishment, and return to slavery, were constant probabilities, and not a few died on their sometimes-hazardous flights for freedom.
Still, living and working with a white family sometimes developed close relationships. In 1821, William Preston visited his sister Letitia’s home in what is now Pulaski County. There he fell ill and a man named Nassau whom he brought with him tended Preston on his death bed. Letitia paid tribute to Nassau's “affectionate attentions" and "great fidelity” to his master, and in return, William
promised him freedom after five years. William's heirs may not have honored that promise,
for Nassau was still with them eight years later, but sometime after 1830, he left without
warning to claim his promised freedom.
James Patton Preston, the fourth son of Colonel Preston, was the first Preston born at
Smithfield, inheriting the plantation from his father when he was only nine, though his
mother Susanna managed the property. Even when he came of age, James left his mother
to run it until her death in 1823, but he grew its enslaved population by purchasing a
number during his life.
William Ballard Preston—Grandson of Colonel Preston
James's son William Ballard Preston, the third master of Smithfield, challenged many of the old ways. Coming of age as he did just as the 1820 Missouri Compromise controversy ignited the slavery controversy nationally, he regarded slavery as "the great question of the age." Like many upper South Whigs, he felt uncomfortable with the institution, which put him at odds with his brothers, illustrating the way the slavery debate could divide families.
In 1831, in the uproar following the Nat Turner slave revolt in Southampton County, Virginia, William Ballard Preston proposed that the Commonwealth enact gradual emancipation and repatriate the freedmen to Africa, a goal of the fledgling American Colonization Society. His concern was the welfare of white Virginians, who he believed would be safer if all blacks were returned to Africa, leaving none like Turner willing to use violence to achieve freedom. Still, his argument that the state could abolish a category of property was an inflammatory challenge to slaveowners' property rights. The legislature voted against even debating his plan, but Preston had made his mark. To those who argued that whites had a “mystical right” to own slaves, he replied that “the slave has a natural right to regain his liberty.”
At the time he was just 25 and had not yet inherited Smithfield and a portion of his father’s slaves. Thanks to that inheritance and his own purchases, his views began to change as he became a slave owner himself. As the anti-slavery argument came to dominate the national focus, he argued that Congress could not prohibit slavery in the federal territories, which was the property of all citizens including slaveholders. By 1860, when Abraham Lincoln was elected president and the deep South states seceded, William Ballard Preston owned almost fifty slaves, but remained a "conditional unionist" like many Virginians, believing that Virginia should stay in the Union if a constitutional amendment expressly safeguarded slaveholders’ property rights. Lincoln rejected that, and when South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter and Lincoln called for troops to quell the rebellion, Preston embraced secession and served briefly in the Confederate Senate until his death in 1862.
Living, Working and Sleeping at Smithfield
Slavery provided an elevated lifestyle for families like the Prestons, and it took a combination of field hands and skilled craftsmen to make that way of life possible. We know little about the daily labor, social, or family lives of the Smithfield slaves specifically, but if typical they would have performed multiple tasks. The enslaved men were mostly field hands or artisans who lived in log and clapboard cabins they built themselves not far from the Prestons' house. At harvest, enslaved women worked in the fields, too, and also as maids, nannies, and more.
They preserved produce from the garden, compounded medicines from herbs and other plants, made candles and soap, washed and ironed linens, cleaned the main house, and often tended not only their own children but also the Prestons' toddlers. Virtually all of them cooked for their own families, and if the Prestons did not employ a white cook or cook for themselves, it would not have been unusual for enslaved women to cook for the masters as well.
Despite their physical proximity to the Prestons, however, domestic slaves did not necessarily share a closeness with their owners. Slaves were first and foremost commodities to William Preston. He bought and sold them as suited his needs, but like many slaveowners, he also evolved paternalistic compassion or fondness toward at least some of them, like a man called Peter whom the white family cared for through his dying days. In letters written by her children, there are also hints of Susanna’s feelings towards the slaves that she lived with every day. They speak of her loneliness and isolation after William's death, and more so after her children grew and left home, despite her being surrounded by scores of her slaves. Clearly, she did not let slaves figure in her emotional world. As a result, their company provided her no comfort in her solitude.
Slave garden. This interpretive garden is used to grow food that was common among the enslaved community. These gardens were a common practice on plantations and allowed the enslaved to carry on their cultural food traditions.
1000 Smithfield Plantation Road, Blacksburg, VA 24060 540.231.3947 firstname.lastname@example.org
The above receipt represents one of the earliest known records of William Preston's involvement with slavery. Dated 28 August 1759, Preston paid 752 pounds in current Virginia money for sixteen slaves from the True Blue. Preston Family Papers, 1727-1896. Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia.
Cook's Cabin. This 19th-century structure was used to house the enslaved and moved from another Preston property and reconstructed on the site of the former Summer Kitchen.
Francis, William, and James Patton Preston: 3 Sons of Colonel William Preston
Francis Preston was the second son of William Preston and, like his father, he owned slaves. During periods of crisis like the War of 1812, whites often viewed both free and enslaved African Americans as potential insurrectionists, and Francis certainly shared that view. He had two of his own slaves arrested, not because he believed they plotted rebellion, but because they were caught meeting with slaves from other plantations. Whites viewed such meetings as breeding grounds for resistance and revolt, and sometimes that was the case, though mostly they were occasions for people from neighboring plantations to gather socially, perhaps see relatives, or pursue romantic interests.
William, the third son of Colonel Preston, served during that war and early on staked his claim as a planter. During a leave from the army, he bought slaves in Maryland and eastern Virginia, and took them to his property in Kentucky, sometimes reselling a few along the way. Such a move could be wrenching for people being separated from family and familiar environs, and taken into the unknown. It emphasized the utter hopelessness of living lives in which they had no control of their destinies.
Three years later in 1865, the Union won the war and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery forever. At the Preston family's Smithfield and other Montgomery County plantations, approximately 100 enslaved people were free at last.
Research continues into what became of these Americans after emancipation.
Smithfield’s perspective is best summed up by Carolyn Dixon in her narration of
our Juneteenth celebration in 2007:
“Unfortunately, this nation still suffers from the effects of slavery and the Civil War.
We are still embroiled in issues of rights, race, discrimination, and segregation. We
continue to struggle for equality for all people. To truly be free we all must do our
part to embrace freedom."
‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they
are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.’
These words of our Declaration of Independence give us a foundation on which to
move toward justice and equality for all. The African Sankofa bird has become a
symbol of learning from the past to use knowledge gained to better the future. At
Smithfield, we don’t look back to glorify or romanticize the institution of slavery, but
to learn from it, to recognize and honor the enslaved Africans who were an integral
part of Smithfield's life and legacy, and to illuminate their untold story. We look
back to learn lessons from the mistakes of the past that can advance a society that
respects and protects freedom for all.
Smithfield's Other Families
Slavery in America presented many faces. During its two-century
sway it cleared wilderness for the plow, built homes and commun-
ities, combined capital, and labor to define wealth and social status,
held politics and even government hostage, and ultimately so
fractured the nation that Americans went to war with themselves.
Its origins are obscure, but between the day in 1619 when the first
Africans arrived at the Jamestown settlement, either as indentured
servants or slaves for life, and 1774 when the Preston family moved
into Smithfield, racial enslavement of black Africans took a firm hold
in Virginia and elsewhere. Slaveowners ranged from small farmers
with only one or two field hands, to large scale planters who owned
hundreds. No single example typifies all, but for its time and place
Smithfield well represented slavery as it existed on a prosperous
plantation in the shadow of the Appalachians.
Smithfield, the Prestons, and their Enslaved Africans
By the time construction of Smithfield was begun in 1772, enslaved Africans and their descendants had become a significant workforce in the Commonwealth. Colonel William Preston had already purchased 18 West Africans in 1759, years before he and his wife Susanna Smith Preston moved to Smithfield in 1774. While they would own other farms in the region, the Prestons made Smithfield their home where they raised the seven children they brought with them, and five more born to them while living there. All but one reached adulthood, making Smithfield the fountainhead of a large and ever-growing network of Prestons and plantations.