The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

The History of Seven Mile Ford, Virginia

By Goodridge Wilson © 1992

Issue: July-August-September, 1992

Editor's Note: The following information was taken from the book, "Smyth County History and Tradition" by Goodridge Wilson, published in 1932 in connection with the Centennial Celebration of Smyth County.

The unusual name of this community came from the fact that it was a ford of the river on William Campbell's land seven miles from the ford near Authur Campbell's fort at Royal Oak. The land was patented by Col. John Buchanan and transferred by him to his brother-in-law, Major Charles Campbell. Charles Campbell died in 1767 and about 1770, his widow moved out to this land with her son William and her four daughters.

The Campbells became a prominent family in the history of not only the region but the new country fighting for its independence. Mrs. Charles Campbell was born Margaret Buchanan. She was from Buchanan and died in 1777 at an "advanced" age and is buried in the Preston graveyard near Seven Mile Ford. The graveyard is located on a hill about three hundred yards off Route 11 (Lee Highway) and one mile west of Seven Mile Ford. The family graveyard is filled with notable family members, one of which is the son, William, of Charles and Margaret Campbell.

William Campbell was a Revolutionary War hero. In addition to the battles noted on his grave marker, he also played a prominent part as a lieutenant in Dunmore's War at the Battle of Point Pleasant. His grave marker read:

"Here lie the remains of Brigadier General William Campbell. He was born in the year 1745 and died in the service of his country in the year 1781 in the camp of General Lafayette near Richmond. By the unanimous election of his brother officers in command at King's Mountain. For his heroism and gallant conduct on that occasion The Congress of the United States voted to him and the officers and privates under his command the following resolutions: Resolved that congress entertain a high sense of the spirit and military conduct of Colonel Campbell and the officers and privates of the militia under his command displayed in the action of October 7th in which a complete victory was obtained over superior numbers of the enemy advantageously posted on King's Mountain in the State of North Carolina and that this resolution be published by the commanding officers of the Southern Army in General Orders. At the head of his regiment he brought on the Battle of Guilford and was the last to quit the field. His zeal, talents, and courage were rewarded by high testimonials of his country's gratitude and have inscribed his name on the history of the Revolution. His bones were brought hither and this stone erected by the husband of his only daughter, Frances Preston."

William Campbell's wife is also buried here. She was a sister of Patrick Henry. Her marker reads:

"Elizabeth Russell - born Henry. By a first marriage wife of General Will Campbell. By a second marriage wife of General Will Russell. A devoted and fervent member of the Methodist Church her life was passed in the love and practice of its doctrines. She died March, 1825. Placed here by her grandson, Wm. C. Preston."

William and Elizabeth Campbell had one daughter, Sarah Buchanan Campbell, who married General Francis Preston. She was the mother of General John S. Preston, of the Confederate Army and Senator William Campbell Preston of South Carolina who was friends with Daniel Webster. Their daughters married prominent men and their son-in laws were Rev. Robert J. Breckenridge of Kentucky, Governor Wade Hampton of South Carolina, Governor  James McDowell of Virginia and Governor John B. Floyd of Virginia. Sarah Campbell Preston's husband, Francis, was a member of Congress during Washington's second term when that body was assembling in Philadelphia. He served in the War of 1812 as colonel and afterwards was elected Major General of Virginia Militia.

Another item of interest is the home built for Francis and Sarah Preston in Abingdon, Virginia. It is still standing today and is known as the Martha Washington Inn.

The William Campbell home was named Apsenvale and although it is not still standing, there is a historical marker noting its location and the site of William Campbell's grave on Route 11, seven-tenths of a mile west of the Seven Mile Ford historical marker. Aspenvale is the name that is most commonly used for the home today, but in William Campbell's own correspondence, he wrote his address as "Aspen Ville."

Through the years, the land passed down from the Campbells to the Prestons through family connections. As noted before, Sarah Campbell, only daughter and inheritor of the Campbell estate, married John M. Preston. He managed his wife's property and was an astute business man. He developed the lands for farming and built several thriving businesses there such as a mill and a log tavern. (More about the log tavern later.)

Preston built a large (some 24 rooms) brick home which was to house generations of Preston descendants. Family tradition states that Mrs. Preston wanted the house built further from the river and on a hill and she was not pleased at the location where her husband built it. Because of its location, she would have nothing to do with the house. The land was in the Preston family into this century. Captain Charles Preston sold the ancestral estate to settle his debts and moved to eastern Virginia.

The Preston home contained many valuable documents pertaining to personal correspondence during the Revolutionary War period. Many of those were sold to the Library of Congress. They included letters written and signed by General William Campbell, Colonel Arthur Campbell, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, the Floyds and many others from pioneer days up to the Civil War. The family kept back a letter in the handwriting and signed by George Washington and some letters in the handwriting and signed by Jefferson and Monroe. Unfortunately, some of the family documents were taken by a Professor Lyman C. Draper of the Wisconsin Historical Society who visited the place before the first World War when collecting his material for the documentary history of the western movement in national affairs. He borrowed a great number of papers promising to have them copied and returned, but gave no receipt for them. As far as anyone knows, they are still with the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin.

Now, more about oral history concerning the old log tavern built on Preston lands. Following the Revolutionary War, this area of the country was still practically a wilderness. People who lived further west would come through on an eastward trek to sell their crops and cattle to the people in cities and return back this way with money. Many a traveler with money is said to have mysteriously disappeared in the middle of the night when lodging at this tavern. There were tales circulated by servants and poor people who were said to have stumbled upon midnight grave diggings up certain hollows where ghosts are still reputed to walk. However, it is certain that in 1892, a small cave was discovered not far away in which were found 21 skeletons. A doctor examined them and declared they were the bones of white men, women and children and that their probable age corresponded with that of the old log tavern.

During the Civil War, Captain Preston married and was living in the beautiful old family home. In 1864, Stoneman came through Southwest Virginia on his famous raid. His troops took possession of the Preston home and were said to hack beef on the mahogany tables, stable their horses in the halls and first floor and generally mess up the place.

From the end of the Civil War the home was used as a gathering place for the Preston family members in the summer. When Captain Preston and his wife were in their prime, the home was constantly filled with as many as fifty visitors at a time who were housed and fed at the house.

When the railroad was built through the Preston lands at Seven Mile Ford, John M. Preston gave the right of way in return for a contract awarding passes on the road to himself and his sons and their wives as long as they should live, and also stipulating that all trains should stop at Seven Mile Ford on demand. The depot was burned in Stoneman's Raid during the Civil War and rebuilt in 1881. When the railroad was first built, the post office was put at Baker's Mill which was near the railroad bridge over the river between Seven Mile Ford and Chilhowie.

An interesting aside that has nothing to do with the Campbell-Preston families is some information about voting that was told by W. N. McGhee, twice sheriff of Smyth County who lived near Seven Mile Ford. He was born in Washington County in 1864. His father was Joseph McGhee and told W.N. that he voted for "Marion" as the name for the new county seat, but unfortunately didn't mention other names in contention. This indicates that the name of the county seat was chosen by popular vote.

Joseph McGhee also said that under old property qualifications for voters, if a man owned a horse, he could vote. One fellow qualified by swearing he owned a horse, which was in reality a shaving-horse on which carpenters shaved wood with draw knives!