Along the James
At Virginia's Original McMansions, Catch a Glimpse of the Settlers' Style

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

Less than a mile away is Jamestown Settlement, whose museum and living-history 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 high-style Jacobean features, such as triple-stacked 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 Bacon 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 {heart} A."

Just below this charming detail lies one of those reminders of the unpleasant 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 2 1/2 months later on 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.

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