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Charles Johnston
Frontiersman & Founder
- by Peter W. Houck

Like so many forgotten people in Lynchburg’s past, Charles Johston’s 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 Virginia’s 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. Charles’s 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 Johnston’s 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 country’s 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 Johnson’s Island off Sandusky bay, Ohio, as a prisoner-of-war during the War Between the States.

The Hutter family’s connection to Sandusky will be told, but the brief sketch of Sandusky’s founder Charles Johnston asks for more detail, that came from a variety of sources, the best being Johnston’s 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 Johnston’s 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 Hollin’s 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 Jefferson’s entire Poplar Forest tobacco crop. Jefferson duly recorded Johnston’s 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, Jefferson’s memo book records the transaction, on November 19, 1812, when "the Squire" paid Johnston $6.75 for the five bushels.

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 Martin’s 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.

Jefferson’s memo book being one resource, another is of all things, are Johnston’s 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 Hollin’s University. Charles’s nephew, General Joseph E. Johnston, would become one of the highest ranking and influential Confederate generals of the Civil War.

With Charles Johnston’s 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 Hutter’s sons would follow their fathers’ legacy with George’s enlisting in the Confederate Army and Edward’s, 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 States’s surrender. George then retired to Sandusky as an older man too spent to fight in the impending Civil War.

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. Lee’s 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 Dave’s" 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 Hutter’s backyard barn for the local Confederate Surgeon’s to inherit.

Sandusky thus is a place to tell the detailed story of our city’s 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 Adkinson’s 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. It’s founder and frontiersman, Charles Johnston, would never have guessed that his lovely plantation home nearly 200 years hence would become one of Lynchburg’s historical crown jewels.

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