Historic Berkeley Plantation Is Stately and Charming

Tucked away at the end of a narrow, tree-lined lane, along a Tidewater river landing, visitors find Berkeley Plantation – site of the truly first Thanksgiving in the New World and the ancestral home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and two U.S. presidents – in Charles City, Va.

Located on a hilltop overlooking the James River, Berkeley has been called “Virginia’s most historic plantation.” The property’s main house, a stately Georgian mansion completed in 1726, “is said to be the oldest three-story brick house in Virginia that can prove its date and the first with a pediment roof,” officials stated.

During a coach tour to the Williamsburg, Va., area last December, a large group from Wheeling discovered the charms of Berkeley and learned of the plantation’s fascinating history. The plantation, a National Historic Landmark, is open daily for guided tours of the house and self-guided tours of the gardens.

The stately home was built by Benjamin Harrison IV between 1721-26. His son, Benjamin V, who was born in the house and became its second owner, signed the Declaration of Independence and served three terms as governor of Virginia. Benjamin V’s third son, William Henry Harrison, also was born at Berkeley and was the famous Indian fighter and the ninth president of the United States.

William Henry Harrison’s grandson, Benjamin Harrison, was the 23rd president.

George Washington was a close friend of the family; in fact, the first 10 U.S. presidents “enjoyed the hospitality” of the Harrisons, guides said.

As to the property’s other famous connection, tour guides explained that early settlers from England came ashore at Berkeley and observed the first official Thanksgiving in America on Dec. 4. 1619 – two years before the Pilgrims celebrated at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. The settlers at Berkeley followed an English tradition of holding a day of thanksgiving, “a Christian celebration when good has happened,” a docent said.

The people who arrived aboard Capt. John Woodley’s ship had been given 8,000 acres by King James and the Virginia Colony, the guide said. Feeling blessed, “they gave thanks to God for the land and for a safe journey,” she said.

In a footnote to Berkeley’s colorful history, docents said an Anglican priest distilled the first bourbon whiskey at the site in 1621.

A Thanksgiving festival took place at Berkeley every year until March 22, 1622, when a huge uprising by Indians led to a massacre of settlers along the James River.

The original plantation never fully recovered from that tragedy, officials said. It wasn’t until 1691 that Benjamin Harrison III established a commercial center at Berkeley.

Thirty years later, his son began construction of the plantation home in the Georgian style, recognized for its balance and symmetry. The guide noted that this particular mansion has two fronts but no back. It was built with two entrances: a carriage front and a river front.

The house is of sturdy construction with 30-inch solid brick exterior walls and 18-inch solid brick interior walls, the guide said. The entrance road, one-half mile in length, was designed in 1725.

On another historical note, Union Gen. George McClellan’s troops occupied the plantation during the Civil War. The Union Army of the Potomac camped in the fields. President Abraham Lincoln visited Berkeley twice to meet with McClellan and to review the troops. The military tune, “Taps,” was composed and first played at Berkeley in 1862, historians said.

In 1907, John Jamieson, a Scotsman who had been a drummer boy in McClellan’s army, bought Berkeley Plantation. In 1927, his son, Malcolm, inherited the property and restored the house. The Jamiesons opened the house for tours in 1937.

In addition to being open for tours and special events, Berkeley remains a working plantation with 500 acres still being farmed, a guide said. Berkeley Plantation is located along Virginia 5, about a half-hour drive from Williamsburg.