By Rupert Cutler, Co-Chairman, Fincastle Resolves Chapter Preston Memorial Committee
Thanks to generous contributions from SAR compatriots, DAR chapters, Preston family members and others, construction by the Fincastle Resolutions Chapter SAR of a permanent stone memorial to honor the memory of Colonel William Preston of Greenfield and his distinguished descendants is under way now near the site in Botetourt County where Colonel Preston and his family lived from 1762 to 1774.
While more funds will be needed to complete construction the ambitious and handsome memorial garden plan designed by Hill Studio of Roanoke and approved by the Botetourt County Board Of Supervisors, Preston Committee Co-chairman John Bradshaw and I have raised enough money to make possible our signing of a contract with the Lionberger Construction Company of Roanoke that gives that company 60 days to complete what we are calling “Phase One” of the memorial in time to make a ribbon-cutting event at the site a feature of the Virginia Society SAR’s semiannual meeting in Roanoke on September 19.
The idea for the memorial surfaced in a letter to the editor of The Roanoke Times by late SAR member Malcolm Bryan—a descendant of William Preston’s--20 years ago! Here is a chronological “flashback” to those early days of the project:
1959--The Roanoke Times: “An early Monday morning fire destroyed Greenfield, historic Botetourt County landmark visited by George Washington when he surveyed this section of Virginia. Only the chimney remained among the charred ruins of the 200-year-old home which stood on a hill near Amsterdam.”
August 26, 1995—Malcolm W. Bryan III’s letter to the editor of The Roanoke Times: “When the historic (William) Preston home ‘Greenfield’ burned in 1959, it can be argued that this was, taking history alone into consideration, the greatest tragedy to occur west of the Blue Ridge. There were hundreds of individuals who have served in high place in both state and national governments whose ancestors were protected by Greenfield’s walls.”
September 1995—Malcoln Bryan’s paper listing some of William Preston’s “astounding” activities: “There should be a statue of William Preston somewhere in Botetourt County. I happen to think something to honor his memory should be placed on the site of the historic home, ‘Greenfield’.”
May 21, 1996—Minutes of the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors: “A monument for the Preston family and the Sons of the American Revolution will be designated within the ‘preservation area’ on (the Botetourt Center at Greenfield) site.”
This year, a series of events have brought the project to near fruition. They include:
SAR compatriots have long recognized that is a chance to honor a local colonial-era hero and an important opportunity to add a major attraction to the county’s history-based tourism appeal. It will complement the recently installed Lewis and Clark memorial disk in the nearby county courthouse lawn and other initiatives the county is taking to encourage long distance travelers to leave I-81 and enjoy what this county has to offer by way of historical sites and recreation. In that process they will pay lodging and sales taxes to boost county revenues and support county services. William Preston is Botetourt County’s most illustrious resident, but there is nothing “on the ground” here now to let anyone know he ever existed.
Who was William Preston?
William Preston played a crucial role in the surveying and development of western lands, exerted great influence in eighteenth century colonial affairs, supervised a large plantation, and founded a dynasty whose progeny would supply leaders for the South for a century or more.
Here’s a more complete story of his interesting life, taken from the National Register of Historic Places registration form for Greenfield prepared by Mike Pulice of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in 2010:
Born in 1729 in northern Ireland to Presbyterians John and Elizabeth Patton Preston, William Preston sailed to the American colonies with his parents and three sisters in 1738 and settled in the Valley of Virginia near the site of Staunton in what is now Augusta County.
After the death of his father in 1748, William Preston received instruction and patronage from his uncle James Patton, who was by then one of the principal leaders of frontier Virginia with controlling interest in large land grants west of the Blue Ridge. Because Patton directed Augusta County surveys for his land grants and served as colonel of the Augusta County militia, county sheriff, collector of revenues, burgess, and general leader of county affairs, he was well positioned to make William Preston his secretary and surveyor of his land grants, and then to secure Preston’s appointment as deputy surveyor for Augusta County in 1752 and as justice of the Augusta County Court in March 1755.
At the start of the French and Indian War hostilities, when a raiding party of Shawnee killed Col. Patton at Drapers Meadow in July 1755, William Preston assumed greater responsibility for protection of the Virginia frontier. Preston received a commission as captain of Augusta County Rangers by August 1755. By 1756 he built Fort William, probably on Catawba Creek in what became Botetourt County, wrote an August 1756 account of the burning of the first Fort Vause now in Montgomery County, and in October 1756 accompanied George Washington, who then commanded all of Virginia’s colonial troops, on a tour of frontier forts.
From late 1756 to early 1759, Captain, then Major, and finally Colonel Preston commanded Augusta County Rangers who sought to defend a string of forts along the headwaters of the Ohio River and Chesapeake Bay. When French and Indian War raids on the Virginia frontier subsided around 1760, William Preston returned to maintain the peace in Augusta County and married Susanna Smith of Hanover County, Virginia, on January 17, 1761.
Sometime after the birth of their first child in May 1762, William and Susanna Preston moved to Greenfield, an estate that began in 1759 with Preston’s purchase of a 191-acre tract from Stephen Rentfroe and that extended to 2,345 acres by 1761. When Botetourt County was formed from Augusta County in 1769, William Preston, then residing at Greenfield, received Botetourt commissions as justice of the peace, surveyor, coroner, and colonel of militia.
The Greenfield plantation house eventually became a two-and-a-half-story log L-plan residence with weatherboard siding and three massive brick chimneys. After some 12 years at Greenfield, William and Susanna Preston moved in 1774 with their six children to Smithfield in what would soon become Montgomery County, Greenfield plantation was consolidated in an exclusive tract of 2,175 acres.
Once in Montgomery County, William Preston resumed his military command in support of the American Revolution. The Continental Congress named Preston as Colonel of Montgomery County Militia, whose troops he led at the decisive North Carolina Battle of Guilford Court House in March 1781. During the Revolutionary Era years of frontier military and political unrest, Preston, who received death threats from disaffected frontiersmen, still sought to keep the peace along the waters of the New River, by protecting Tory landholdings from seizure at the hands of zealous Patriots, and by persuading Tories in the New River Valley to take the oath of allegiance to the new American nation.
At the time of his death in 1783, Preston was the wealthiest man in Montgomery County, with 7,000 acres of land, 34 slaves, 36 horses, and 86 cattle. The Prestons, one of the first families to settle in the region, were arguably southwestern Virginia's most prominent and powerful family from the mid-18th century until the period following the Civil War.
The Greenfield manor house burned to the ground in 1959. Only a detached kitchen/dwelling and a separate slave dwelling, both constructed of logs, survive.
Our SAR chapter has taken the lead in the design of the memorial by contracting with Hill Studio in Roanoke to create the plan for the memorial. The memorial garden will be built at the north end of this Greenfield Education and Training Center where easy access, abundant parking, nearby utilities, and high visitor traffic volume make the site ideal and where the Prestons’ Greenfield Plantation site is easily viewed from the proposed landscaped monument and garden.
David Hill’s design is both aesthetically pleasing and user-friendly. It will have a landscaped garden effect, with benches and low stone walls on the periphery around a set of stone arrows or rays set into the ground. Each ray of the memorial will have a focal point where Preston was active , toward Staunton, Fincastle, Greenfield, Smithfield and Kentucky. It will be a very convenient place for students to retreat to for outdoor breaks between classes as well as for tourists who will have parking nearby. It will be an asset for the teaching facility as well as a major tourist attraction. It will be a work of art, potentially the beginning of a public art program in Botetourt County. It will increase traffic flow at the Education and Training Center because the Preston Memorial Garden could be the location of outdoor weddings and parties. It will help bring Botetourt County history to life.
Compatriots are urged to make additional financial tax-deductible gifts to the Preston Memorial construction fund to assure the project’s completion in good form and to plan to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony the site from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 19. Members of SAR chapters from across the state, in Roanoke to attend the 2015 Semi-Annual Meeting September18 and 19, are invited to attend the ceremony.