At Vir­ginia’s Orig­i­nal McMan­sions, Catch a Glimpse of the Set­tlers’ Style

The Washington Post Sunday - - Travel - By Fredrick Kun­kle

S troll the grounds of Vir­ginia’s Berke­ley Plan­ta­tion and you get it all: the sweep of his­tory, with its legacy of fear­less English set­tlers in the age of Shake­speare, Revo­lu­tion­ary War-era drama, and the gen­teel af­flu­ence and power of the Tide­wa­ter’s aris­to­cratic masses.

In the si­lences, you also feel his­tory’s sor­rows: the In­dian up­ris­ing of 1622, which wiped out the English set­tle­ment for a time, and the war of ex­ter­mi­na­tion against Na­tive Amer­i­cans that fol­lowed; the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery that im­pris­oned mil­lions of hu­man be­ings; and the Civil War, which ripped the na­tion in two.

It’s like that for mod­ern vis­i­tors to the James River plan­ta­tions that sprang up af­ter colonists es­tab­lished the first per­ma­nent English colony at Jamestown on May 13, 1607. Al­though Jamestown it­self would wither, the plan­ta­tions car­ried on its mis­sion, steadily ex­pand­ing across the Tide­wa­ter re­gion un­til Euro­peans reached the tip­ping point as the new ma­jor­ity, giv­ing birth to a way of life that shaped the United States. By 1618, some 600 peo­ple of the 1,800 who had left Eng­land were liv­ing on the plan­ta­tions, which had pen­e­trated five miles in­land and dot­ted both sides of the James River from its mouth to the present site of Rich­mond.

To­day you can drive Route 5, which hugs the north

bank of the James River, or mosey along Route 10, along the south­ern shore, tour­ing about half a dozen English manors and es­tates of the folks whose lan­guage and cus­toms we still share. Some are state-run mu­se­ums, full of an­tiques and in­for­ma­tive do­cents, and a few are op­er­ated by foun­da­tions. Some are in private hands and closed to the pub­lic, ex­cept for tours ar­ranged in ad­vance.

See­ing th­ese early set­tle­ments — places such as Ba­con’s Cas­tle, Berke­ley, Shirley, Flow­erdew Hun­dred or Belle Air — al­lows a glimpse of a cul­ture that arose from a col­li­sion of Euro­peans, Africans and In­di­ans.

The early planters brought steel, glass and gun­pow­der, and some­thing more: a taste for ba­ro­nial homes and a de­light in man­i­cured gar­dens and lawns. It was a style that would come to stand for all that was ro­man­tic and aris­to­cratic of the South.

And yet. One of the most fas­ci­nat­ing rea­sons for visit­ing Jamestown and the sur­round­ing plan­ta­tions is not just to ooh and ahh at the Water­ford crys­tal chan­de­liers. The plan­ta­tions, per­haps more than any other spot in early Amer­ica, force you to re­flect on our blind spots. In ad­di­tion to the enor­mous evils of slav­ery and the de­struc­tion of Na­tive Amer­i­can cul­ture, there were the lesser, but still ru­inous, con­se­quences of build­ing an en­tire so­ci­ety around the cul­ti­va­tion of to­bacco.

So why is see­ing the plan­ta­tions so worth­while? You get a glimpse of the be­gin­nings of the na­tion we’ve be­come.

The Dig Con­tin­ues

It’s pos­si­ble to see sev­eral James River plan­ta­tions in a sin­gle day. Two of the best bets are Ba­con’s Cas­tle and Berke­ley Plan­ta­tion, with a side trip to St. Luke’s Epis­co­pal Church, which of­fers an­other un­usual per­spec­tive on early Colo­nial life.

My trip along the James River be­gan at Jamestown, as the colonists’ did. A crude but his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate pal­isade of tim­bers now stands where the orig­i­nal fort was at His­toric Jamestowne, thanks to the find­ings of ar­chae­ol­o­gist William M. Kelso. In 1994, Kelso un­cov­ered the foot­print of the orig­i­nal fort and much more, in­clud­ing graves, de­spite a long­stand­ing be­lief that it had been washed away by the river. The dig con­tin­ues to­day, and vis­i­tors can watch as ar­chae­ol­o­gists sift soil through screens for new finds. The ar­chae­ol­o­gists also wel­come ques­tions.

Inside the walls of the fort is a replica of an early church where the colonists, draw­ing on English le­gal cus­toms, would also shape the progress of self-gov­ern­ment and private en­ter­prise, and carry those tra­di­tions into the sur­round­ing plan­ta­tions. The Gen­eral As­sem­bly first met in a church in Jamestown in July 1619, and some of its mem­bers rep­re­sented the plan­ta­tions.

The site also has a new mu­seum called the Ar­chaear­ium, and a new vis­i­tors cen­ter dis­plays ar­ti­facts from all three cul­tures found there, in­clud­ing ar­mor, tools and jew­elry.

Less than a mile away is Jamestown Set­tle­ment, whose mu­seum and liv­inghis­tory ex­hibits have un­der­gone a com­plete makeover for the 400th an­niver­sary. The ex­hibits strike just the right note for mod­ern vis­i­tors: There are interactive fea­tures, such as a map that lights up to de­pict all the era’s Euro­pean colonies around the world, and a sex­tant to prac­tice nav­i­ga­tion. But they are also meaty and not ex­cru­ci­at­ingly cute.

Al­though the word “plan­ta­tion” in­evitably con­jures images of “Gone With the Wind,” the English used the term back then to de­scribe any set­tle­ment in a new coun­try. Some were also called “hun­dreds,” which was a term used to de­scribe any po­lit­i­cal unit larger than a vil­lage and smaller than a shire, or county.

Th­ese early plan­ta­tions were both large-scale agri­cul­tural op­er­a­tions and com­mer­cial cen­ters. Poorer farm­ers, known as yeomen, whose small hold­ings were lo­cated on the fron­tier, jour­neyed to the James River plan­ta­tions to sell their crops, trade, and pur­chase goods and tools man­u­fac­tured in Bri­tain.

An Early Revo­lu­tion­ary

Cross the car ferry from Jamestown to the town of Scot­land and you’re only a few min­utes from Ba­con’s Cas­tle, whose name is a mis­nomer. Nathaniel Ba­con, who has the dis­tinc­tion of hav­ing led the first re­volt by set­tlers against a Colo­nial author­ity in Amer­ica 100 years be­fore the Revo­lu­tion­ary War, never lived here. And he is not be­lieved to have even vis­ited. But about 70 of his fol­low­ers seized the house dur­ing Ba­con’s Re­bel­lion, from Septem­ber 1676 un­til the end of the year. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists have dis­cov­ered that they had a grand time plun­der­ing the manor’s sup­ply of wine and liquor.

The two-story house was built in 1665 by a mer­chant and planter named Arthur Allen, whose Surry County prop­erty cov­ered about 700 acres. It is be­lieved to be the old­est stand­ing brick house in Vir­ginia.

Owned and op­er­ated by the non­profit group APVA Preser­va­tion Vir­ginia, the rooms con­vey touches of English life — es­pe­cially in the di­a­mond- leaded case­ment win­dows and the high­style Ja­cobean fea­tures, such as triplestacked chim­neys and curved Flem­ish gables — and ef­forts by their own­ers to try to stay up with fash­ions chang­ing half a world away in Eng­land.

Our fast-talk­ing guide, Mar­shall Blevins, noted that an early mistress of the house reg­u­larly sent away to Eng­land for “fash­ion plates,” sort of the Glam­our mag­a­zine of the time. Th­ese en­grav­ings and wood­cuts gave il­lus­tra­tions of the latest dresses and styles, which seam­stresses at the plan­ta­tion could then copy. Even if your hus­band did move you to the boonies, you didn’t have to be out of fash­ion.

Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­ca­va­tions at Ba­con’s Cas­tle in the 1980s un­cov­ered the ear­li­est ex­am­ple of a for­mal English gar­den in Amer­ica, which has been re­stored. Blevins noted that one veg­etable the own­ers did not grow was the tomato, be­cause it was thought to be poi­sonous. And, as it hap­pens, they were half-right: The acid from toma­toes may have in­ter­acted with the set­tlers’ pewter serv­ing dishes, caus­ing a chem­i­cal re­ac­tion that re­leased lead.

The house’s name­sake was the hot­headed son of aris­to­crats who was packed off to the New World to bet­ter him­self. Nathaniel Ba­con ar­rived in Vir­ginia with con­nec­tions to the gov­er­nor, Sir William Berke­ley. But Ba­con be­came in­censed when Berke­ley re­fused to give him per­mis­sion to re­tal­i­ate against In­dian raids on his prop­erty, and so he raised a band of vig­i­lantes who took mat­ters into their own hands. They soon found them­selves bat­tling the gov­er­nor and other sup­port­ers of the Crown, and even burned Jamestown. Ba­con was de­clared a rebel.

The gov­er­nor vowed to cap­ture Ba-

con dead or alive; he said he would hang the corpse if he could. But Ba­con died at the age of 29 of un­known causes, and the re­bel­lion melted away. His body was never found.

The best part of the tour was imag­in­ing the fun the rebels must have had at the owner’s ex­pense. They filled dumps with bro­ken wine bot­tles, which are on dis­play.

Just down the road from Ba­con’s Cas­tle is His­toric St. Luke’s Church. The Old Brick Church, as it was first known, was built around 1632 and is be­lieved to be the old­est ex­ist­ing church of English foun­da­tion in Amer­ica and the old­est sur­viv­ing Gothic struc­ture.

It is smaller than what you might ex­pect when you hear the word “Gothic.” Step­ping inside the church, its nave suf­fused with warm light from stained-glass win­dows man­u­fac­tured in the 1890s, of­fers a hum­ble, dis­tinctly Amer­i­can echo of the much grander and more elab­o­rate Gothic cathe­drals of Europe. One of the win­dows likens Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton to Moses; an­other casts Robert E. Lee as David.

My fa­vorite ar­ti­fact was the 1630s English cham­ber or­gan, the old­est such in­stru­ment in the United States. For some­thing so old, it looks in good shape, with color­ful scenes of David be­fore Saul and Jeph­thah’s daugh­ter painted on the inside of its doors. Pur­chased in 1630 by a noble fam­ily in Nor­folk, Eng­land, it was ac­quired by the church in the 1950s from a col­lec­tor. It was still playable, but barely.

“It just sounded like evil, de­mented cir­cus mu­sic,” said our guide, Collin Norman. Af­ter some care­ful restora­tion and tun­ing by spe­cial­ists, the or­gan was able to sound out the “Dox­ol­ogy,” a record­ing of which Norman played for us.

Home of Pres­i­dents

On the other side of the river in Charles City, about 20 min­utes north of Jamestown, is Berke­ley, an im­pos­ing Ge­or­gian man­sion that puts a pre­mium on sym­me­try (though the bal­ance was thrown off a bit by the ad­di­tion of a wing on one side of the main struc­ture — the owner ran out of money be­fore build­ing one for the other side). In 1726, Ben­jamin Har­ri­son IV built the three-story Ge­or­gian brick manor, which is said to be the old­est three-story brick house in Vir­ginia that can prove its date. It is also be­lieved to be the first Vir­ginia house to have crowned its top story with a ped­i­ment roof.

Our guide, El­iz­a­beth Pettigrew, who was dressed in pe­riod cos­tume, ex­plained that one of the ways the date of the build­ing can be proved is a round stone on an ex­te­rior wall with the date of its con­struc­tion. It also bears a ro­man­tic mes­sage: Declar­ing his love for his wife, Anne Carter, the owner wrote in stone: “B WA.”

Just be­low this charm­ing de­tail lies one of those re­minders of the un­pleas- ant side of plan­ta­tion life: “the whistling walk,” a 40-foot tun­nel be­tween the out­door kitchen and the main quar­ters, whose name comes from or­ders to the slaves to whis­tle while bear­ing meals to en­sure that no one filched from the plat­ters.

The plan­ta­tion’s story be­gan when 38 men boarded the ves­sel Mar­garet in Bris­tol, Eng­land, and sailed across the At­lantic to settle an 8,000-acre land grant of vir­gin for­est and meadow ti­tled “Berke­ley Plan­ta­tion and Hun­dred.” Ar­riv­ing 21⁄ months later on

2 Dec. 4, 1619, the colonists, led by Capt. John Woodleefe, fell to their knees and gave thanks.

Berke­ley’s boost­ers call this cer­e­mony Amer­ica’s first Thanks­giv­ing and cel­e­brate it as such ev­ery year, re­gard­less of the hoot­ing from New Eng­land (or St. Augustine, Fla., which has made a sim­i­lar claim to the first Thanks­giv­ing).

Though bet­ter pre­pared and ac­com­pa­nied by more skilled work­ers than the feck­less gen­tle­men who ar­rived in Jamestown, Berke­ley’s set­tlers still strug­gled, la­bor­ing in vain to cre­ate a tex­tile in­dus­try on mul­berry trees and silk­worms. About half the colonists soon died, and re­in­force­ments were needed a year later. But slowly, farm­ing and to­bacco caught on.

Then catas­tro­phe struck. Af­ter a rel­a­tively long pe­riod of peace and co­ex­is­tence, the Vir­ginia In­di­ans, un­der a new leader, planned a deadly up­ris­ing on March 22, 1622.

On that Good Fri­day morn­ing, the In­di­ans wan­dered into Berke­ley and other set­tle­ments, as if to work and trade as usual. But as if by some se­cretly com­mu­ni­cated sig­nal, the In­di­ans took up what­ever weapons were at hand — set­tlers’ mus­kets rest­ing in cor­ners, carv­ing knives, hatch­ets and staves for driv­ing live­stock — and cut down men, women and chil­dren. Twenty-five plan­ta­tions were at­tacked, and 349 peo­ple died.

Berke­ley and other out­ly­ing plan­ta­tions were evac­u­ated to Jamestown. The In­di­ans had hoped to ex­tir­pate the English once and for all time. But it was too late: Too many Euro­peans had come.

Berke­ley would not be re­vived un­til Ben­jamin Har­ri­son III, a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grant, pur­chased the prop­erty in 1691. Ben­jamin III would be the first of a be­wil­der­ing num­ber of Ben­jamin Har­risons who resided there and laid some claim to the na­tion’s his­tory, in­clud­ing two pres­i­dents of the United States.

The Har­risons lost con­trol of the plan­ta­tion in the 1840s, and it changed hands sev­eral times. Gen. Ge­orge B. McClel­lan’s troops oc­cu­pied the plan­ta­tion dur­ing his cam­paign to cap­ture Rich­mond, and Pres­i­dent Lin­coln vis­ited him there twice. It was also here that Gen. Daniel Butterfield com­posed the bu­gle call taps in July 1862.

Berke­ley was aban­doned for al­most 75 years at the end of the Civil War un­til a drum­mer boy from McClel­lan’s army, John Jamieson, pur­chased the prop­erty and 1,400 acres in 1907, and his heirs re­stored it.

Spend a few mo­ments look­ing across the panorama of ter­raced lawns from the grand Ge­or­gian manor and you envy the own­ers their days of leisure. But you also re­mem­ber the slaves who dug by hand those five vast ter­races that stretch a quar­ter-mile from the pala­tial manor to James River’s shore. Fredrick Kun­kle cov­ers Vir­ginia for The Post.


Built cen­turies ago in Eng­land, Age­croft Hall was moved to Rich­mond in 1926.

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