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Preston Family papers

 Collection 0124-MDHC

The Prestons were an upper-middle-class family in nineteenth-century Baltimore and Baltimore County, Maryland. William P. Preston, a lawyer who dabbled in state and local politics, his wife Margaret "Madge" Smith Preston, and their daughter May Preston McNeal recorded, through their correspondence, diaries, and other documents. The family lived on Pleasant Plains farm in Baltimore, and records show that they enslaved people on both the farm and the family residence. The papers include observations on entertainment, domestic life, the Catholic Church, local politics, theater and the arts, court cases, business, travel, fashions, weather and natural disasters, food, the family’s history as enslavers, William Preston’s domestic abuse of Madge Preston, the family’s strong Confederate sentiments and support for the Confederacy, health, boarding school, and life in Maryland during the Civil War.


  • 1799-1916
  • Majority of material found within 1828-1894

Use and Access to Collection

This collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies or digital surrogates may be provided in accordance with Special Collections and University Archives duplication policy.

Copyright resides with the creators of the documents or their heirs unless otherwise specified. It is the researcher's responsibility to secure permission to publish materials from the appropriate copyright holder.

Archival materials may contain materials with sensitive or confidential information that is protected under federal and/or state right to privacy laws or other regulations. While we make a good faith effort to identify and remove such materials, some may be missed during our processing. If a researcher finds sensitive personal information in a collection, please bring it to the attention of the reading room staff.


4.75 Linear Feet

Scope and Content of Collection

The Preston Family papers cover the period from 1799-1916 with most of the material dated between 1828 and 1894. The collection consists of correspondence, diaries, writings, legal documents, case files related to William Preston's law practice, photographs, and memorabilia. Records also describe the Preston family’s history as enslavers, William Preston’s domestic abuse of Madge Preston, and the family’s strong Confederate sentiments and support.

Family History

The Preston Family Papers document three generations of a family who lived in Baltimore and Baltimore County from the nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. The Preston and McNeal families enjoyed the privileges of the upper middle class: education at private schools, travel to Europe, and the social connections of prominent citizens of the city. For both families, the Catholic faith was an important part of their daily lives.

William P. Preston (1811-1880) was born in Virginia. In his late teens he lived in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and by 1839 was an attorney in Baltimore. On August 12, 1846, at St. John's Catholic Church in Philadelphia, he married Margaret "Madge" Wickham Smith (1815-1895), daughter of Andrew Smith and Anne Wickham of Frederick County, Maryland. In her youth, Madge Preston attended St. Joseph's Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and spent time with her older sister, Louisa, who lived in Mountain View, Pennsylvania, near Gettysburg. Once married, Madge Preston spent much of her time managing the farm at Pleasant Plains and their residence in Baltimore, raising her daughter, and writing about her daily life.

William Preston's law practice required him to travel frequently to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York. The Prestons maintained a residence and law office in Baltimore and a farm, Pleasant Plains, near Towson, Maryland, in Baltimore County. Among their family friends were the philanthropist Johns Hopkins and A.S. Abell, founder of the Baltimore Sun. Active in the politics of his day, William Preston ran for Congress in 1859. Shortly before the 1859 election, William Preston was attacked and hit over the head, possibly by the Baltimore street gang, the Plug Uglies. He was seriously injured and for the rest of his life may have suffered physical and mental difficulties as a result. The incident is remembered in a line from the song "Plug Uglies!!": "There's their Billy Preston, they beat him out of sight…." The injury may have precipitated his spousal abuse of Madge Preston and also the initiation of her diary writing in 1860. In her diaries, Madge Preston wrote of a personality change that is displayed in his angry outbursts and physical abuse of her. William Preston was also an ardent supporter of Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. In 1863 he visited Gettysburg shortly after the battle and described the scene in detail to his wife. The Prestons expressed strong Confederate sentiments throughout their diaries and correspondence.

The Prestons had one daughter, May Preston McNeal (1849-1913), who, like her mother, attended St. Joseph's Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland, a Catholic boarding school for girls. May and Madge Preston often corresponded while May was away at school during the Civil War. They frequently discuss daily life at school and at home, including enslaved people and free Black and white servants that lived at Pleasant Plains and at their Baltimore residence. Kitty Mason was an enslaved woman who worked specifically for May Preston until May left at home while attending school. Other enslaved people and free Blacks at Pleasant Plains mentioned in family diaries and letters include Elizabeth "Lizzie" Johnson, Jim, Uncle Isaac Woodlands, and Aunt Nancy Woodlands. Following May Preston's graduation in 1867, May and Madge Preston toured Europe for several months. They visited France, Germany, England, and Italy.

May Preston married Joshua "Van" Vansant McNeal (1846-1917) on May 19, 1873. He was the son of a Baltimore Catholic family. Van spent his early career in insurance and the remainder working for the railroad. He retired in 1916 as a vice president and treasurer of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company. From 1880 to 1893, the McNeals lived in Indianapolis and then returned to Baltimore for the remainder of their lives.

The McNeals had eight children. Mark (1874-1934), Stella (1877-1965), James Preston Wickham (1878-1954), and Marie (1885-19?) survived to adulthood; four others died in childhood. Mark was a Jesuit priest and taught in Japan. Stella never married and lived with her parents until their deaths; she resided with a nephew in Connecticut at her death. James was a lawyer who married and had one son and two grandchildren; he resided in New Haven at his death. Marie married Renato Tittoni (1882-1943), a U.S. Marine Corps officer, in 1909; they had one son, Tommaso Preston (1912-1937).


The collection is organized as seven series:

Series 1
Personal Correspondence
Series 2
Business Correspondence
Series 3
Diaries and Other Writings
Series 4
Legal Documents
Series 5
Case Files
Series 6
Series 7

Custodial History and Acquisition Information

The papers were purchased by the University of Maryland prior to 1972. A November 3, 1847 letter from Madge Preston to William P. Preston was purchased in 2008.

Related Material

Researchers may consult the following work in the Maryland Room, Hornbake Library, at the University of Maryland Libraries:

Preston, Madge. A Private War: Letters and Diaries of Madge Preston, 1862-1867, edited by Virginia Walcott Beauchamp. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, c1987. (UMCP HBK Maryland Room, Maryland Stacks HV6626 .P73 1987)

Additional manuscript materials related to the Preston family are held at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, Maryland.

Processing Information

The papers were placed in acid-free folders and stored in acid-free boxes. The diaries of Madge Preston and May Preston McNeal have been preserved in individually-made acid-free boxes.

Guide to the Preston Family papers
Originally processed by unknown staff.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Library Details

Part of the Special Collections and University Archives

University of Maryland Libraries
Hornbake Library
4130 Campus Drive
College Park Maryland 20742