William Preston (Virginia)

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Col. William Preston (December 25, 1729 – June 28, 1783)[1] played a crucial role in surveying and developing the colonies going westward, exerted great influence in the colonial affairs of his time, ran a large plantation, and founded a dynasty whose progeny would supply leaders for the South for nearly a century.[2] He served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, and was a Colonel in the militia during the American Revolutionary War. He was one of the thirteen signers of the Fincastle Resolutions, a predecessor to the United States Declaration of Independence.[3]

He was a founding trustee of Liberty Hall (later Washington and Lee University), when it was made into a college in 1776.[4]

Alt William Preston's Signature
William Preston's Signature

Personal life[edit]

William Preston was born on Christmas Day, 1729, in Limavady, Ireland, to Col. John Preston and his wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth's father Henry Patton was a prominent shipwright and merchant, and her brother James Patton served with such distinction in the Royal Navy that the Crown granted him between 100,000 and 120,000 acres in America to permit British colonization beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains.[5] The family immigrated to Augusta Co., Virginia, in 1738 on James's ship.[6] Subsequent French and Indian resistance and reversal of British policy limited the impact of the family's grants, but Prestonsburg, Kentucky, was named in John's honor by its later founders.[7] In 1755, he survived the Draper's Meadow massacre, an Indian attack against a settlement that was part of a property (later known as Smithfield Plantation) that he inherited from his uncle, Colonel James Patton, who died in the incident.

Remaining in Virginia, William married Susanna Smith on January 17, 1761, and together they had 12 children. He and his family moved to Smithfield Plantation, in present-day Blacksburg, Virginia, in 1774 and it served as his final home.[8] He previously resided at Greenfield Plantation at Fincastle, Botetourt County, Virginia.[9]

Political and military life[edit]

Colonel Preston was elected to the Virginia colony's House of Burgesses in 1765 to represent Augusta County and served until the county was divided around 1770.[10] In 1775, Preston was one of the thirteen signers of the Fincastle Resolutions.

Colonel Preston served in both the French and Indian War and American Revolutionary War. During the French and Indian War, William Preston saved George Washington's life from an impending Indian attack.[11] During Lord Dunmore's War of 1773-1774 against the Shawnee Indians, he urged Virginians to join the militia to enact revenge on the Indians and plunder their stock of horses. As a Colonel in the militia, one of Colonel Preston's greatest contributions to the American Revolutionary War was his ability to suppress the Tories (British loyalists) from uprising in Southwest Virginia, thus helping prevent a civil war during the Revolution. He also helped aid in the fight against Lord Cornwallis and the British in the Carolinas.[12]

He served as a founding trustee of Liberty Hall, formerly the Augusta Academy, when in 1776 it was renamed in a burst of revolutionary fervor and relocated to Lexington, Virginia.[13][13] Other founding trustees along with Preston were prominent men including Andrew Lewis, Thomas Lewis, Samuel McDowell, Sampson Mathews, George Moffett, and James Waddel.[4] Finally chartered in 1782, Liberty Hall was again renamed, to Washington College and finally Washington and Lee University. It is the ninth oldest institution of higher education in the country.[13]


Colonel Preston died during a military muster near Price's Fork, Va., in 1783. The cause of death is unknown but it is believed to be either a heat stroke or a heart attack. He is buried in the family cemetery located on Virginia Tech's campus in Blacksburg, Virginia near Smithfield Plantation. His final home, Smithfield Plantation, has been restored and is listed on the U.S. Historical Registry, and is open for tours April through the first week in December.

Many other prominent Americans descended from Colonel William Preston and his wife Susanna, for whom the plantation is named. They were parents or grandparents to governors, senators, presidential cabinet members, university founders and presidents, and military leaders. Most notably among them are the Prestons' son James Patton Preston, who was governor of Virginia from 1816–1819 and helped charter the University of Virginia, and their grandson William Ballard Preston, who was a Congressman, Secretary of the Navy under Zachary Taylor, and later a Senator from the Confederate States of America. William Ballard Preston also offered the Ordinance of Secession to the Virginia Legislature that resulted in Virginia joining the Confederacy, and he co-founded a small Methodist college, the Olin and Preston Institute, which was in financial difficulty by 1872. The trustees relinquished its charter and donated its property to the state, which reorganized the campus as the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, the forerunner what is today Virginia Tech.[14]

Colonel Preston was memorialized on July 27, 2011 with the Colonel William Preston highway in Blacksburg, Virginia.

The city of Prestonville, Kentucky, was erected on one of his land grants and named in his honor. It was (before 1800) the most important town in the county and larger than Port William. One of the first roads built in this section of the state was from the mouth of the Kentucky to New Castle in Henry County.

Further reading[edit]

  • The Smithfield Review, Volumes I-XV.
  • Johnson, Patricia Givens, William Preston and the Allegheny Patriots. 1976
  • Osborn, Richard Charles, William Preston of Virginia, 1727–1783: The Making of a Frontier Elite. UMI Dissertation Services. 1990

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Colonel William Preston Gravestone, Preston Family Cemetery, Smithfield Plantation, Blacksburg, Virginia
  2. ^ The Smithfield Review, Volume XIV, "The Fincastle Resolutions," Jim Glanville. page 91
  3. ^ The Smithfield Review, Volume XIV, "The Fincastle Resolutions," Jim Glanville. page 81
  4. ^ a b Williams, Richard G (2013). Lexington, Virginia and the Civil War. The History Press, 2013. Retrieved online https://books.google.com/books?id=SnlXXMRrD3MC&pg=PA22
  5. ^ Preston, F.L. "John Preston 1699-1747". 2007. Accessed 28 September 2013.
  6. ^ Osborn, Richard Charles. William Preston of Virginia, 1727–1783: The Making of a Frontier Elite.1990, Dissertation, University of Maryland College Park. pages 9–10
  7. ^ Rennick, Robert. Kentucky Place Names, p. 242. University Press of Kentucky (Lexington), 1987. Accessed 1 Aug 2013.
  8. ^ Family Tree, Historic Smithfield Plantation Museum
  9. ^ Michael J. Pulice & John R. Kern (April 2010). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: Greenfield" (PDF).
  10. ^ Johnson, Patricia Givens. William Preston and the Allegheny Patriots, 1976. pages 89–108
  11. ^ spoken family history
  12. ^ The Smithfield Review, Volume XII. "William Preston, Revolutionary (1779–1780)," Richard Osborn. pages 5–24
  13. ^ a b c "A History :: Washington and Lee University". Wlu.edu. Retrieved 2011-02-28.
  14. ^ Kinnear, Duncan Lyle. "A Short History of Virginia Tech". Retrieved 2017-09-15.