In 1759, William Preston purchased sixteen enslaved Africans brought to America aboard the True Blue, an English slave ship. Over the next century, the Preston family enslaved more than two hundred individuals and used their labor to establish and operate Smithfield Plantation in Blacksburg, Virginia. Daniel Thorp uncovers the stories of the men and women who were enslaved at Smithfield, one of the first plantations west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, between its establishment in 1774 and the abolition of slavery there in 1865 and offers powerful biographies of their descendants after emancipation.

In the True Blue’s Wake is the first book to chronicle the lives of the enslaved families whose labor was crucial to the success of the Prestons, a family that played a central role in the European settlement of southwestern Virginia and produced dozens of state legislators, three governors, ten members of Congress, two cabinet members, and a vice president of the United States. Drawing on records from Smithfield, the Preston family, and the surrounding community, as well as from the Freedmen’s Bureau, federal censuses, military records, newspapers, and oral histories, Thorp tracks the identities and experiences of the enslaved. He then traces the diverse paths and accomplishments of those families as they moved throughout the United States after 1865. A model of public history, In the True Blue’s Wake is an illuminating examination of an enslaved community in a region often ignored by historians of slavery in the United States yet representative of a broad swath of pivotal American history.