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Frontiersman & Founder
- by Peter W. Houck
Like so many forgotten
people in Lynchburgs past, Charles Johstons unknown story
lay dormant in books and libraries scattered throughout the area until
he resurfaced as the builder of Sandusky (1808). His early presence
in the area was relatively brief - only ten years - but during that
time young Charles left an indelible stamp upon our community by building
his historic estate. Having survived being captive of a dangerous
Indian tribe, and brushing shoulders with George Washington and Lafeyette,
Charles would soon befriend Thomas Jefferson who was building his
retreat at nearby Poplar Forest. The two men shared the experience
of estate construction of what would later become our two most historic
homes in the region. Yet, Johnston was different from Jefferson in
that he wanted to stay on the cutting edge of the Virginias
westward movement, not remaining very long in one spot. Thus he deserves
the appellation, a Virginia frontiersman.
Charles Johnston was the
last of three sons born to Scotsman, Peter Johnston, who immigrated
to Prince Edward County in 1750. Charless older brother, Peter,
was a courier for Light Horse Harry Lee in the Revolution, but the
younger brother was too young to be a Revolutionary soldier. Five
years after the war ended, as a man barely beyond adolescence, young
Charles became a clerk for a western frontier explorer of Kentucky
and Ohio. His employer, John May from Petersburg, was a man who wanted
to survey and claim lands in wilderness territory inhabited by Shawnee
and Cherokee Indians. Venturing west to claim lands was a common and
sometimes dangerous practice by land speculators at the time. Early
explorers to our Piedmont area were of course the Quakers, and then
the surveyors, most who were agents of the British government, laying
claim to lands once inhabited by the local Monacan Indians. Contrary
to encountering a more peaceful Monacan tribe, five weeks of terror
awaited Johnston on his trip to what would later become Ohio, with
two of his party being killed outright including his employer John
May, and another burned at the stake. If not rescued, young Charles
was doomed to a similar fate.
After five weeks of horror,
Johnston persuaded a French fur trader, Francis Duchouquet, to buy
his freedom from his Shawnee captors with "600 silver brooches"
and other goods. This most eventful day of freedom was Johnstons
twenty-first birthday, April 28,1790. He traveled with his fur-trader
deliverer to Detroit and then on to New York where he was interrogated
by then President George Washington about his harrowing experiences.
The countrys new president was interested in what the post-revolutionary
British and French were doing in the wilderness area. Charles then
returned home to Hanover County and was appointed to France on a government
mission three years later (1793). While in Paris he developed a friendship
with Marquis de Lafayette, a meeting that would later bring the distinguished
visitor to his home (then in Botetourt county) in 1824.
After his Indian ordeal
and returning home as a local hero, Charles married Letitia Pickett
in 1802. Six years later he purchased land here in Campbell County
to become his plantation home for the next ten years. Johnston settled
on a tract of land northwest to the present Quaker Meeting House,
building his manor house and calling it Sandusky, named from the site
of his Indian adventures. History spawns many quirky happenings, one
of which was that another future inhabitant of Sandusky also underwent
an ordeal of a different kind in the Sandusky, Ohio area. Truth being
stranger than fiction, Col. J. Risque Hutter a resident and future
owner of Sandusky, was confined to a Federal Prison at Johnsons
Island off Sandusky bay, Ohio, as a prisoner-of-war during the War
Between the States.
The Hutter familys
connection to Sandusky will be told, but the brief sketch of Sanduskys
founder Charles Johnston asks for more detail, that came from a variety
of sources, the best being Johnstons own publication of his
adventures in 1827, shortly before his death. The book with the all
inclusive title, "Narrative of the Incidents Attending the Capture,
Detention and Ransom of Charles Johnston of Botetourt County, Virginia,
who was made prisoner by the Indians on the River Ohio in the year
1790, together with an interesting account of the fate of his companions,
five in number, one of whom suffered at the stake. To which are added
Sketches of Indian Characters and Manners with Illustrative Anecdotes,"
pretty much says it all.
Johnston stated in the
introduction of the book that his reason for writing it was that the
inaccurate French version which was published in France in 1794 which
was "replete with errors," and so before he died Johnston
wanted to set the record straight. Young Charles was interviewed by
a Duke de Liancourt, a French passenger aboard a ship to Europe in
1793 who made so many mistakes that Johnston felt compelled to re-write
the English version. We can be grateful that he did as the story of
his terror being one thing but the interaction of a variety of post-Revolutionary
Indian cultures and personalities make it a compelling read. We could
only wish for more detail of his life after his adventures as a young
man in the wilderness.
We next find him in
Central Virginia having lost his first wife, Letitia Pickett, who
bore him a son and daughter, and he would marry the daughter of another
well-known local figure. On coming to Campbell County, Johnston acquired
land tracts from John Lynch, Thomas Burgess and James Steptoe, the
latter being the famed Bedford County clerk, whose daughter Elizabeth
Steptoe of Federal Hill, New London became Johnstons second
wife, and thus the mistress of Sandusky. While at Sandusky, an addition
- a nursery wing - was added to the original house to accommodate
their new baby boy. Ten years after living at Sandusky the family
moved further west to the present location of Hollins College,
at Botetourt Springs.
As mentioned, Johnston
in 1827 wrote and published the manuscript of his ordeal in Ohio from
his home in Botetourt Springs and died there at the age of 64 in 1833.
He is buried in a nearby Salem cemetery. Although Johnston is really
an unknown personality in our Central Virginia lexicon, like so many
recent discoveries of our local Lynchburgiana, his life certainly
adds more to understanding our history and about us. Having established
Sandusky as the centerpiece of Campbell County, purchasing the 1200-acre
plantation from Lynch, Burgess & Steptoe, he apparently became
quite a businessman. In 1810, he purchased Thomas Jeffersons
entire Poplar Forest tobacco crop. Jefferson duly recorded Johnstons
payment of $2003.11 in his Memorandum Book.
Two years later, as
work on Poplar Forest was progressing, Jefferson wrote Johnston asking
for five bushels of plaster of Paris. Johnston had intended using
it as fertilizer, but Jefferson needed it instead for plaster. Again,
Jeffersons memo book records the transaction, on November 19,
1812, when "the Squire" paid Johnston $6.75 for the five
In 1812 when Lynchburg
feted Andrew Jackson, the hero of New Orleans, then on his way from
Tennessee to Washington, the two neighbors from Sandusky and Poplar
Forest saluted each other again. At the banquet, held at downtown
Martins Warehouse which Jefferson pronounced the most extravagant
dinner he had ever seen, Charles Johnston offered a toast to his friend
and neighbor from Poplar Forest.
book being one resource, another is of all things, are Johnstons
insurance records. On two occasions, in 1813 and 1817, Johnston insured
Sandusky with the Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia. These still
extant policies provide valuable information about the house, certifying
it as among the most prominent of the area. The 1813 policy describes
the "brick house covered with wood." Although the present
standing-seam metal roof is quite old, the house was originally covered
with wooden shingles. Also we know from these policies that the house
is remarkably unchanged over the years. Still remaining are the handsome
finishes that Johnston knew and its reede mantels, paneled wainscots,
framed arches on either side of the chimney breast. Each insurance
policy also lists a separate brick kitchen and smokehouse, while the
latter on shows that a brick office and schoolroom had been added
to the compound by 1817.
In 1818, only a year
after renewing his insurance, Johnston sold Sandusky and moved across
the Blue Ridge to settle in Botetourt County. The Sandusky property
then changed hands several times until George C. Hutter bought it
at auction along with the 700 surrounding acres in 1841. The businessman
Charles Johnston continued as a prosperous landowner in Botetourt
Springs, his property becoming the future site of Hollins University.
Charless nephew, General Joseph E. Johnston, would become one
of the highest ranking and influential Confederate generals of the
With Charles Johnstons
departure, obviously wanting to be on the western frontier again,
Sandusky would soon become "the Hutter place" for 110 years.
Major George C. Hutter, a career army officer settled his family there
in 1841. Just prior to that his half brother, Edward Sixtus Hutter
purchased nearby Poplar Forest, again reestablishing a close link
between the two estates. While brother Edward was a former navy midshipman,
George was an 1812 war veteran also of the Seminole, Black Hawk and
Mexican Wars. The future Civil War service of the Hutters sons
would follow their fathers legacy with Georges enlisting
in the Confederate Army and Edwards, the Confederate Navy.
With the impending
start of the great war, Major George Hutter served as army paymaster
in Charleston, S.C., earning the distinction of delivering the last
payroll to Fort Sumpter garrison before the Southern bombardment and
subsequent United Statess surrender. George then retired to
Sandusky as an older man too spent to fight in the impending Civil
But in 1864, during
the Hutter family occupancy, Major Hutter and Sandusky had their "fifteen
minutes of fame." Actually it was longer than that, at least
a weekend, though the Hutters might have thought it was an eternity.
From June 17-18, 1864, Sandusky served as headquarters for Union General
David Hunter and his staff, who were determined to capture Lynchburg
burn it, and thus cut Robert E. Lees supply line to Petersburg.
General U. S. Grant issued orders to Hunter that "the complete
destruction of the railroad and canal on the James River is of great
importance to us ... you are to proceed to Lynchburg and commence
there. It would be of great value to get possession of Lynchburg for
a single day." With that mission in mind, Hunter with 18,000
troops crossed the Peaks of Otter honing in for the attack, burning
and plundering along the way with the intention of destroying Lynchburg.
Hunter and his troops looted Poplar Forest on June 17th, and then
commandeered Sandusky for his headquarters. On "Black Daves"
staff were two future presidents, Rutherford Hayes and William McKinley.
Here we have an obvious
moment for a resounding Confederate defeat. Lynchburg was poorly defended,
mostly by convalescing soldiers from the hospitals, a handful of VMI
cadets and a few regulars who limped in from the battle of Cold Harbor.
General Hunter bragged at the Sandusky supper table on the eve of
the battle that he and his men would enjoy dinner in the Hill City
the next evening. Major George Hutter replied it would be no easy
task. Thanks to Union mistakes and Confederate quickness and tricks,
the Confederates not only won the next day but chased Hunter back
into the hills of West Virginia, and General Jubal Early marched unimpeded
down the Shenandoah Valley to the outskirts of Washington D. C. Before
the Union soldiers left Sandusky, they took time to plunder the Hutter
chamber, and to purloin Hutter ornaments and valuables. They also
left ninety odd Union wounded in Major Hutters backyard barn
for the local Confederate Surgeons to inherit.
Sandusky thus is a
place to tell the detailed story of our citys the only battle
this city will encounter but also there is much to learn about its
founder and frontiersman, Charles Johnston, and the Hutters family
descendants who occupied the house until 1952 when Col. and Mrs. Neville
Adkinson purchased it. The Adkinsons devoted the fifty years
to restoring and modernizing the estate always mindful of its historical
and architectural importance until it was purchased by a group of
citizens, who like the residence Poplar Forest thought that Sandusky
deserved being opened to the public.
The Historical Sandusky
Foundation purchased and has owned the house for the past year and
the site will soon become a local and regional Civil War tour site.
Its founder and frontiersman, Charles Johnston, would never
have guessed that his lovely plantation home nearly 200 years hence
would become one of Lynchburgs historical crown jewels.
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