Charles Johnston established the Sandusky estate in 1808 on 234 acres of land he purchased from John and Molley Timberlake in Campbell County. Johnston and his family lived in Sandusky from the time it was completed until 1818 when Johnston retired to Botetourt Springs. Charles Johnston, the third son of Scottish emigrant Peter Johnston grew up in nearby Prince Edward County.
In his late teens Charles began clerking for a Mr. John May of Petersburg, Virginia. It was during his employment with May that he experienced a life-changing event which provided the name for Johnston’s future home in Campbell County, Virginia. In 1790 May and Johnston organized a journey to Kentucky to survey some lands owned by May. The previous year they traveled by land however this time they decided to use the Ohio River. Along the way they were attacked 40 odd hostile Indians, a mix of Shawnee, Delaware, Wyandot, and Cherokee. Two of the group were killed outright and the remainder taken prisoner. For several weeks Johnston was trundled by his captors across the Ohio Territory suffering indignities and torture.
About a month later Johnston and his captors reached a small trading village in an area called Sandusky. There, a French trader took pity on him and purchased him from the Indians bondage for the price of “600 silver broaches” and promptly set Johnston free. Johnston was freed on his 21st birthday. After a long journey through the Great Lakes and down the eastern seaboard, Johnston returned to his home in Virginia. During the journey he stopped in New York City where he was interviewed by President George Washington and made a deposition about his capture and captivity before Secretary of War Henry Knox.
In 1797 Johnston met and married Letitia Pickett and fathered three children. He worked as a merchant for the Richmond firm Pickett, Pollard, and Johnston. Letitia died just five years later in 1802 at 22 years of age. He then married Elizabeth Elizabeth Steptoe, the daughter of Bedford County clerk James Steptoe, and in 1808 they oversaw the construction of a two-story Federal-style house which he named “Sandusky” after the place where he'd been a captive.
One of Johnston's neighbors was Thomas Jefferson who established a home nearby at "Poplar Forest." Johnston handled many of Jefferson’s tobacco transactions and invited him to dine at Sandusky in 1817. Johnston’s sister-in-law, Francis Steptoe Langhorne, reported that “Mr. Johnston intends having a big dinner tomorrow Mr. Jefferson is to be of the party and to dine on venison at least that is a dish they seem to admire most.”
A speculative venture in Botetourt County proved to be Johnston’s downfall however. Johnston was one of a dozen investors in a land development deal. A tobacco town was planned complete with houses for workers, stores, shops, facilities for drying and packing tobacco. Before it could come to fruition the Great Panic of 1819 wiped out Johnston’s assets and he was forced to sell Sandusky. He moved to Lynchburg for a year and then moved to his tract of land in Botetourt County, the site of the failed development project. He opened and operated a hotel and spa there until his death in 1833. Before his death he wrote a memoir about his Indian captivity entitled "A Narrative of the Incidents Attending Capture, Detention, and Ransom of Charles Johnston of Botetourt County.” President James Madison helped to fund the printing of Johnston's book. Years after his death Johnston's hotel became a college which grew into present day Hollins University.
To purchase a copy of Johnston's memoir click here
Letters from Charles Johnston to Thomas Jefferson via the National Archives