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Berkeley Plantation

Charles City, Virginia

Built in 1726, for Benjamin Harrison IV (1693-1745) and his wife Anne Carter (1702-1743). This truly historic mansion stands in a beautiful situation atop a hill overlooking the James River on a 1,400-acre estate eight miles west of Charles City. Berkeley is surrounded by 10-acres of formal gardens made up with roses, boxwood and parterres which include the ‘Ladies Winter Garden’. A path a quarter of a mile long leads from the front door straight down to the banks of the river via five terraced gardens hand-dug by slaves sometime prior to the American Revolution. Berkeley holds the distinction of staging three history-making "American firsts;" and, while it is neither the largest nor the grandest plantation house, Good Housekeeping suggested that,“if you only have time for one plantation, Berkeley should be at the top of your list”. 
Aside from it’s beauty, the history makes the house unique, as Malcolm Jamieson (1908-1997) observed there is “so much history here you almost feel like you’re making it up.” Each of the first ten Presidents of the United States were entertained here and with Peacefield it shares the distinction of being one of only two ancestral homes to two Presidents of the United States. If that wasn’t enough, Berkeley also holds title to three significant “American firsts”:
  • The first official American ‘Thanksgiving’ was held here: December 4, 1619
  • The first ‘Bourbon Whiskey’ was distilled here by George Thorpe, 1621
  • The distinctive bugle call ‘Taps’ was written and first played here, 1862
In 1618, the Virginia Company of London granted 8,000 acres on the north bank of the James River, twenty miles upstream of Jamestown, to four wealthy Englishmen who were related to one another by blood or marriage. Among these men was Richard Berkeley (1579-1661), of Stoke Gifford, Gloucestershire. His family were intimately linked to Virginia and the Virginia Company and it was for him that the land took it’s name. Thirty-Eight settlers landed at Berkeley Hundred on December 4, 1619, where they observed a Thanksgiving service for their safe arrival.

Benjamin Harrison I (1594-1648) came to Virginia in about 1624 and by 1633 he was Clerk to the Council of Virginia. In 1634, he purchased 200 acres within the Berkeley Hundred from John Smythe of Nibley (1567-1641), one of the four original holders of the land.

Considered a yeoman planter, in 1642 Benjamin I was elected to the House of Burgesses. The following year he increased his plantation with the acquisition of a further 500 acres south of the James River. Though today we use historical numerals to distinguish between the different generations of ‘Benjamin Harrisons’ these were neither used by them nor assigned to them within their titles of birth.

Benjamin Harrison II (1645-1712) began as a prominent yeoman planter who expanded his operations by opening a river-front store on the James trading principally in tobacco. He rose to Sheriff, Speaker of the House of Burgesses and a member of the Council of Virginia. In 1691, his son, Benjamin Harrison III (1673-1710), purchased the remainder of the Berkeley Plantation and 100 slaves from the late Giles Bland (d.1677). Bland’s father was one of the original settlers and lived there from 1636, but the Bland family lost title to the grant when Giles was executed for his complicity in the Rebellion led by Colonel Nathaniel Bacon (1647-1676) at Bacon's Castle.

Benjamin III settled his new acquisition at about the same time that he married Elizabeth Burwell (1677-1734), circa 1691. At Berkeley, he constructed a flour mill and established Harrison’s Landing, the first commercial shipyard on the James River. The tobacco he cultivated on the plantation was loaded into his ships to be sold in England. The following spring or summer, the ships returned to Berkeley laden with goods such as wine, furniture and books etc., for the Harrisons and his business associates.

On his death, Benjamin III instructed his wife to sell two grants totalling 5,000 acres on the south side of the James River. This sale of land gave his family a healthy financial standing to go along with their 20,000 acres of remaining land, and some 80 slaves.

In 1721, Benjamin Harrison IV (1693-1745), though only eighteen, succeeded to Berkeley and married a daughter of Robert ‘King’ Carter (1662-1732). Work started on the manor that year and other than the brass, all the materials used in it’s construction were sourced from the plantation. In 1726, the three-story Georgian brick house was completed for himself and his new family. The round date stone with Benjamin and his wife Anne’s initials between a heart is positioned within the brickwork above a side door - leaving no question as to the date of completion. The pedimented roof is believed to be the first of its kind in Virginia.

Typical of colonial Georgian architecture, Berkeley has a center-hall plan around four rooms: The dining room; a gentleman’s room; and the north and south drawing rooms that form one space and are open to one another via double arches with fluted pilasters. The wide entrance hall that stretches from one end of the house to the other measures 40 feet in length and was also used as a ballroom. So as not to lose valuable dancing space, Benjamin IV placed the foot of the staircase in a separate opening.

Benjamin IV was killed during a thunderstorm at Berkeley, when he was struck by lightning while closing an upstairs window with his youngest daughters, one of whom was also killed. His eldest son, Benjamin Harrison V (1726-1791), was the first of the family to be born at Berkeley and succeeded to the estate. Like his grandfather, he became a noted statesman and was the only Virginian planter to have signed the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776, before serving three terms as Governor of Virginia.

John Adams (1735-1826), 2nd President of the United States, described Benjamin V as an “indolent, luxurious, heavy gentleman” and his picture hangs over the mantelpiece in the northern drawing room at Berkeley. It was Benjamin V who in 1784 warmly welcomed George Washington (1732-1799), the 1st President of the United States, to Berkeley.

During the Revolution, Benjamin V oversaw the construction of eighteen gunships for the American Navy at the shipyard developed by his grandfather. But, in 1781, Berkeley was invaded by Loyalist soldiers under the command of General Benedict Arnold (1741-1801). Having learnt the attack was imminent, Benjamin V fled with his family first to a relative’s plantation and later to Richmond. 

When the Redcoats arrived at Berkeley, they made a bonfire from the Harrisons furniture – including elegant mahogany chairs, a rosewood piano and the Harrison family portraits - while using their cattle for rifle practice and stealing 40 slaves. The house was left in ruins; crops were burnt; and, all but one poplar tree was cut down for campfires. It took four years for the Harrisons to restore Berkeley after returning there in 1784.

Benjamin Harrison VI (1755-1799) succeeded his father at Berkeley. In 1790, under the guidance of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), 3rd President of the United States, Benjamin VI renovated the interior of the mansion with Adam-style woodwork hand-carved by slaves to form the cornices and chair moldings. He removed the original pine panelling and plastered the walls, while adding the double arches between the drawing rooms.

It is Benjamin VI’s younger brother, William Henry Harrison (1773-1841), who rose to prominence with his victory over the Shawnee Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. William is better remembered today as the 9th President of the United States and the grandfather of Senator Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901), the 23rd President of the United States.

Following his election, William returned to write his inaugural speech in the bedroom in which he was born at Berkeley. Ironically, the speech of two hours was delivered on a brisk day in March and is the longest ever delivered. His death caused by the cold he caught that day, just thirty two days later, marks the record for the shortest tenure in American presidential history!

The friend and neighbour who William had named to be his vice-president - John Tyler (1790-1862) of Sherwood Forest - succeeded him to the become the 10th President of the United States. When William’s grandson, the future President Benjamin Harrison, came to visit his relatives at Berkeley, they didn’t give him the time of day because he was a Republican. His response to this was: “the Harrisons are like potatoes – the best of ‘em are underground”.

Benjamin VI died in 1799 and Berkeley was held in trust for his only son, Benjamin Harrison VII (1787-1842). On coming of age, Benjamin VII took over the running of the plantation, but after he died, the Harrisons began to run into financial difficulties and were only just managing to hold on to Berkeley when the Civil War broke out. 

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), 16th President of the United States, twice visited Berkeley while it had been commandeered by General George Brinton McClellan (1826-1885). McClellan established his headquarters on the upper floor while the ground floor was used as a hospital and the cellar as a prison for captured Confederate soldiers. His 140,000 strong "Army of the Potomac" camped in the surrounding fields.

It was during this time in 1862 that General Daniel Adams Butterfield (1831-1901) famously composed the army’s first official bugle call, ‘Taps’ while down by Harrison’s Landing. It was first played at Berkeley by bugler, O.W. Norton.

In the meantime, along with Stratford Hall, Berkeley’s role as a field hospital increased following the bloody Battle of Malvern Hill. One account recalled that Berkeley became a living hell, the screams of the amputees who had been given nothing more than a lead bullet to bite upon while their limbs were crudely hacked off echoed all around. Ironically, Berkeley was only saved from destruction by the Union troops under McClellan as the Seven Day Battle was fought on and around the grounds.

At the end of the conflict in 1865 the Harrison family attempted to regain possession of their old plantation but were unable to do so. Over the next few decades there were a few owners, but the house continued to fall into disrepair and the grounds to ruin.

In 1907, the house and 1,400 acres was purchased for $28,000 by John Jamieson. A native of Scotland, Jamieson had emigrated to New York and served as a drummer boy in a contingent of the Union Army under the command of General McClellan when they were encamped at Berkeley and the Westover Plantation. Following the war, Jamieson became a successful businessman and when he began to look for stands of timber for his shipbuilding enterprise, he remembered Berkeley. 

On revisiting the old plantation some 40 years after having been encamped there, Jamieson found the roof on the house close to falling in and the estate neglected. But, Jamieson remembered it’s former glory and purchased it with the firm intention of restoring and preserving it’s history. Ever the canny businessman, he made the estate pay for itself by selling pine pilings for the new docks being built in New York City and moved his family there soon afterwards.

In 1927, the estate was inherited by John’s son, Malcolm Jamieson (1908-1997), the only one of thirteen heirs who was interested in trying to make something of the estate. In 1929, with the help of six others, Malcolm spent the winter removing the heavy barn-red paint with which a previous owner had dressed the old house. In 1933, he married Grace DeKalb Eggleston (1909-1999), and by selling off cattle, livestock and “anything else we had to raise some money,” she concentrated on the restoration and furnishing of the interior of the house while Malcolm saw to the grounds.

Grace filled the house with magnificent 18th century furniture. The first floor, cellar and grounds were opened to the public while they made their home on the top floor. Bald eagles that nest in the woods can be seen feeding off the frogs and fish in the ten irrigation ponds created by Malcolm Jamieson, and today the grounds include a nursery, a gazebo, a small amphitheatre and even a landing strip for airplanes.

Today the Jamieson’s hard work is continued by Malcolm’s grandson, Malcolm Eggleston Jamieson, and his wife Martha Lee Feinour. By choice, they accept no federal or state funding, making every effort to keep the estate self-sustainable: The Jamieson’s grow corn, soybeans and winter wheat on 600-acres, while harvesting timber from the 400-acres of woodland. A further 300-acres along the banks of the James River has been put into an Historic Easement to prevent future development should the property ever be sold. Rent is collected from properties on the estates and produce is sold, but most importantly, Berkeley operates as a popular tourist destination. The house and grounds are available for celebrations of every kind, including weddings, receptions and corporate events.

Movies featuring Berkeley include: Amistad (1997); the mini-series John Adams (2008); and, Hannibal (2001). Documentaries for the History Channel on the lives of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and General Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870) have been shot on location here too.