Many people know the story of Mary Draper Ingles’ harrowing escape from Shawnee captors and her heroic 800-mile trek from the Ohio river back to her home in present-day Radford, Va. Her story has been immortalized in novels, films and an outdoor drama performed annually in Radford.
But it took 150 years for anyone to tell the story of Jim Barbour’s heroic escape from Kentucky to Ohio. Barbour was a slave who belonged to Mary Draper Ingles’ cousins, the Prestons.
On Feb. 3, Phillip Troutman, a professor at Duke University, publicly recounted Jim Barbour’s story for the first time. Troutman came across Barbour’s story while researching slave life at Smithfield plantation. In fact, it’s impossible to tell the story of Jim Barbour without telling the story of the Prestons at Smithfield.
Col. William Preston was a land speculator of Scots-Irish descent whose family settled much of southwest Virginia and then pushed into Kentucky. Col. Preston established Smithfield in the 1770s with his wife, Susanna Smith Preston, for whom the plantation was named. He also brought with him a group of slaves bought off of the slave ship, “True Blue.”
By the 1850s, Col. Preston’s third son, William Preston, was settling present-day Louisville, Ky. The younger Preston went to the Chesapeake Bay with the intention of buying 30 slaves. Preston bought Jim Barbour in Norfolk, Va. from a man named Charles Mallory.
But Barbour had a wife in Norfolk and did not want to be taken to Kentucky. He escaped from Preston, but was soon caught and imprisoned. While in jail, he contracted smallpox.
Preston then attempted to sell Barbour to a West Virginia plantation owner, but Barbour sabotaged the sale. He told his prospective owner that he was damaged goods, over 50 years old and lame by an axe wound. Barbour was eventually sent to Kentucky, but managed to escape a final time. He drowned in the Ohio River, very near his freedom.
The story of Jim Barbour is unusual among the enslaved community of Smithfield. Troutman says he was unable to find detailed information about the daily life of slaves on the plantation. “In the collections I looked at, there was no correspondence from any overseers at Smithfield and very little from Susanna Smith Preston,” he says.
According to Troutman, Susanna Preston ran the plantation for nearly 40 years and stayed there most of the time. In this case, there would have been little need for correspondence about daily life. But Troutman believes this information may yet surface. “There are many Preston and related family [document] collections, so it is quite possible that we may yet find such correspondence,” he says.
What did become clear in Troutman’s research was the experience of black families at Smithfield. As was common at the time, enslaved families were forced to migrate with their white owners. As the Prestons pushed deeper into southwestern Virginia and Kentucky, slave families were separated.
According to Troutman’s Smithfield research, there were three major divisions of the enslaved community at Smithfield. Col. Preston died in 1783 and in 1806 some slaves were officially divided among the heirs.
In 1816 Susanna Preston had more slaves than she could manage. So her children divided up the enslaved community once more and arranged to pay their mother an annual income based on the value of those slaves. In 1823 Susanna Preston died and the remaining slaves at Smithfield were divided up among the heirs.
Troutman says significant events like marriage or death in the Preston family caused great turmoil in the enslaved community. “They had to wonder who would be ripped away next,” he says. Inventory lists suggest that family units were sometimes sold together. A list from the 1816 division shows Jack, 33; Chloe, 30; Nanny, 6 or 7; Thomas, 4; and Judy, 9 sold as a group for $1,710.
Other lists include people sold as pairs who may have been related. Though not sold together, some names on the lists suggest family relationships: old Primus, young Primus and Jack’s John, for example. The lists of names from the divisions are now on permanent display at Historic Smithfield.
Dr. Lauranett Lee is curator of African-American history at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. She spoke at the unveiling of the Smithfield slave life research. Lee says she has traveled extensively in Virginia, visiting black history sites. She is pleased that the names of the enslaved people at Smithfield will now be known.
Lee says she has visited many “difficult places” in Virginia and that accurately interpreting the African-American experience at these places is as important for whites as it is for blacks. “Our histories are braided together,” she says. This is indeed so at Smithfield.
Dianna Pickering is a member of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, which owns and operates Historic Smithfield. Pickering says some slave burials have been identified on the property, one of them inside the Preston family burial plot.
According to a pamphlet titled “The Preston Cemetery at Smithfield Plantation 1782 – 1980,” Virginia Capers or “Aunt Ginny,” identified as “the colored mammy of the older children of Cary B. and Hugh C. Preston” is buried in the family plot. Pickering also suspects that some stones piled beneath a tree just outside the family plot mark slave burials. The name “Benjamin” is scratched on one of the stones.
Leni Sorensen, a professor at Virginia Tech, consulted on the new interpretive tour. Sorensen stresses the importance of African American involvement at Historic Smithfield. “How the site is interpreted depends on the quality of volunteers,” she said.
The new tour script incorporates slave life in every room of the house, rather than relegating the history to a few outbuildings. But the docents are free to discuss any aspect of the history of the place, as they see fit. “There is the significant risk that how they talk about slavery may vary widely and may not always comport to what my report recommended,” Troutman says.