Along the James
Sunday, April 29, 2007
Stroll 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.