Church Hill Mansion at Timber Ridge Plantation
Backstory and Context
Benjamin Borden received a 100,000-acre grant in the area of current Rockbridge County, Virginia (Orange County at that time) and gave 307 of these acres to John Houston, an Irish immigrant and progenitor of the Rockbridge County Houston family', in 1742. His son Samuel Houston received the land upon his death in 1761. (He gave some of this land to be the home of Liberty Hall Academy - now Washington and Lee University - in 1776.) Samuel and his wife Elizabeth had six sons and three daughters; their fifth son, born on March 2nd, 1793, was the future President of the Republic of Texas, Sam Houston.
Elizabeth Houston moved to Tennessee with her children after her husband Samuel’s death in 1806. The land was first sold out of the Houston family to John Kinnear and was divided by him and his heirs; Rev. Horatio Davenport Thompson, his son-in-law, bought a 136-acre tract in 1836. Rev. Thompson was the pastor of the Timber Ridge Associated Reformed Presbyterian church (which sat on land granted by John Houston) from 1833 to 1882.
In 1848, the Church Hill mansion was built on the land by Rev. Thompson. It seems that the “Sam Houston birthplace” cabin was demolished at this time; legends claim that it stood where the kitchen annex stands today and that its logs were used in a barn built on the grounds. The mansion’s exterior and interior features are “typical of the high standards of craftsmanship and design which characterized substantial domestic, Greek Revival architecture of rural America.” However, the house barely survived destruction during the Civil War. In 1864, according to local lore, General Hunter, who burnt the nearby Virginia Military Institute to the ground, “marched up the front walkway of Church Hill but left the house and all of its possessions untouched.” Robert E. Lee was a guest at Church Hill in his post war years as Washington and Lee University (then Washington College) president; Rev. Thompson and Lee were friends and Thompson was one of the trustees of the college who had selected Lee for the position.
The property was passed down through the Thompson family and its current owners, siblings Melinda and Mike Thompson, are the sixth generation of descendants to possess the house. (The owner at the time the house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 was named Horatio D. Thompson.) Melinda and Mike currently operate the house as a vacation rental property; it was also used as Stonewall Jackson’s home for Warner Brothers’ 2003 film Gods and Generals.
As for the property’s most famous resident, Sam Houston left his home in Tennessee to live with the Cherokee before joining the U.S. Army. He served in the War of 1812 and as a liaison with the Cherokee. Upon leaving the Army (as a First Lieutenant), he settled in Tennessee, practicing law and winning elections for both Congressman and Governor. A marital scandal caused him to flee west, where he stayed with the Cherokee again before arriving in Texas in 1832. He became a leader of the Texan revolution and signed its Declaration of Independence in 1836; he ensured this independence by defeating Mexico at the Battle of San Jacinto later that year. He served as the Republic of Texas’s first president and, upon its annexation into the United States, as a Senator and Governor. He died of pneumonia on July 27th, 1863, in Huntsville, Texas, at age 70. (Interestingly, a close relative, Rev. Samuel Houston, was a leader in the movement to create the “State of Franklin” out of current North Carolina and Tennessee in the 1780s.)
A highway sign and monument marking Sam Houston’s birthplace are located on the Lee Highway near I-64/81 and a short distance from the Timber Ridge/Church Hill site.
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