Tuesday, December 28, 2010


            Oaklands was the name of the Watts family plantation, in the present-day city of Roanoke, Virginia. My maternal grandmother was Jean Duncan Watts, and much of my family’s history is bound up in the history of Oaklands. The home was built by Edward Watts (1779-1859), but his father William Watts (1740-1799) had come to the Roanoke Valley, acquired land there, and lived there for several years. His health began to fail, however, and he found the region too unsettled to live comfortably, so he moved about fifty miles east, to an estate in Campbell County, south of Lynchburg, which he called Flat Creek, after a local stream.
            William Watts married Mary Scott, and had eight children, one of whom was Edward. Around 1818, Edward returned to the Roanoke area, which at the time was still in Botetourt County. He bought land just north of the Great Road, which led west across the Appalachians at the Cumberland Gap, and prospered both as a farmer and as a lawyer. An officer in the U. S. Army in the War of 1812 himself, he married Elizabeth Breckinridge, the daughter of a general, James Breckinridge, who had a plantation just a few miles north, near Fincastle, the county seat of Botetourt County. Edward and Elizabeth (Breckinridge) Watts had ten children, and their descendants of the fifth generation still own part of Edward’s original land.
Edward Watts
            Edward continued adding to Oaklands throughout his lifetime, buying adjoining pieces of property. By the time of his death in 1859, Oaklands measured about 3130 acres, almost five square miles. It filled an arc around the northwest half of what later became the city of Roanoke, as can be seen on the map, where the approximate boundaries of Oaklands are superimposed on a recent map of the city. The little gap on the east resulted from the arrival of the railroad in the 1850s; its right-of-way cut through that part of the plantation. When Edward’s widow, Elizabeth, died in 1862, according to his wishes she divided the land among his five surviving children, four married daughters and one son, William Watts.
William Watts
            One of the daughters, Alice (Watts) Robertson, lived with her husband in Charlottesville, Virginia; another, Emma (Watts) Carr, died in 1872, her husband remarried to his children’s governess, and the children were raised by their maternal aunts; a third, Anne (Watts) Holcombe, lost her husband in 1873, and was left in financial difficulty; the last, Letitia (Watts) Sorrel, was married but had no children. William received the largest share of the estate, and like his father, he farmed and practiced law, and did military service, as a colonel in the Confederate army. He had only one child who lived to adulthood, a son named John Allen Watts, who signed himself J. Allen Watts, though his college friends called him “Squat”.
J. Allen Watts
            The sleepy little village of Big Lick had been transformed in 1881 by the junction of the north-south Shenandoah Valley railroad with the east-west Norfolk and Western main line. Big Lick chose for itself the more dignified name Roanoke, was chartered as a city in 1884 when its population passed 5000, and became a boom town. J. Allen Watts followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather as a lawyer, but he was not interested in farming. He moved his family into a big house in the growing city, and sold Oaklands to a development company. In 1897, the old house burned. The development company apparently failed; by 1918 the land belonged to the Watts family again, headed by J. Allen’s son, William. In the twentieth century, most of the land was sold off, for residential and commercial development, but a small portion remains in the possession of the family.

Oaklands plantation c. 1860, superimposed on a map of Roanoke today

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