Plantation Visit #3 – The Berkeley Plantation – Charles City, Virginia

I am so excited to introduce you to the Berkeley Plantation.  This is a history rich site that sits proudly on the James River in Charles City, Virginia.  Berkeley is, both, a Virginia State and National Landmark.  I hope my pictures will provide you with enough evidence that this is probably the most beautiful location to visit in all of Virginia.  That is a big statement when considering that Monticello, another gorgeous place to spend a day, is also located in Virginia.

I could paraphrase all of the historic events that have occurred on this land, but I decided I should just tell you in chronological order and show you in pictures. You will be able to see the beauty of this plantation for yourself.  I assure you, this is one historic site you will want to add to any trip you take in the Virginia area.  Berkeley Plantation is not to be missed.

Normal hours of operation are March through December. They are closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Tours: 9:30A to 4:30P each day.

Admission: Adults $15, Seniors $14, and Children (Ages 6 – 12) $7.

They also offer a Military Discount which saves $1 per Adult and .50 cents per Child.

An Annual Pass is also offered: Adults $50, and Children (Ages 6 – 12) $25

Admission entitles the visitor to a one-day pass to the Main House, Gardens, Grounds, Exhibits, Outbuildings, Films, and Museum.

I would allow 2 hours minimum for this visit.  I spent a little more than 3 hours here during each of my visits, but I took my time and thoroughly enjoyed the gardens and the rest of the grounds.  If you arrive early and take the first tour, the walk around the grounds is comfortable, even in the summer temperatures.

Long before this land became the Berkeley Plantation, it was the site of America’s First Thanksgiving. What? Yep! I was surprised by this fact as well.

Ship Masts marking the spot on the James River where the ship “Margaret” landed

John Woodliffe was from Prestwood, England.  He and 38 settlers, arrived on the ship “Margaret” and landed here on December 4, 1619. The first official Thanksgiving Day service was held here by Capt. Woodliffe and these settlers.  The Proclamation upon their landing read: “Imp wee ordained that the day of our ship’s arrivall at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perputually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” – that is an exact quote.

The water’s edge at the spot of the landing

The settlers went about making a fort to protect themselves from the Native Americans who were known to be hostile in the area.  Just to give you an idea of the distance between the landing spot at Berkeley and the landing of John Smith, Jamestown is twenty-three miles south of Charles City along the James River.  The Powhatan Indians were aggressive at times and lived all along the James.

A painting depicting an attack by the Powhatan Indians on the Berkeley land. The attack was part of the Second Anglo-Powhatan War, also known as the Indian Massacre of 1622

KEEPING IT STRAIGHT:  The first Benjamin Harrison (1613-1649), was an immigrant to the Virginia Colonies and died at a young age.  Benjamin II (1645-1712), an Attorney General of the Virginia Colony, Speaker of the House of Burgesses, and Treasurer of the Colony, purchased the Berkeley land in 1691. He passed the land to his son, Benjamin, III (1673-1710). The third Benjamin was the Fifth Governor of Virginia. Sadly, he also died at an early age and passed the land on to his son, Benjamin, IV (1694-1745). The fourth Benjamin was a Lawyer, Burgess and High Sheriff, and Member of the House of Burgesses.  We know that it was this Benjamin who built the house that has existed on this land since 1726.  He would die at an early age and leave the plantation to his son, Benjamin V (1726-1791). The fifth Benjamin was the 5th Governor of Virginia and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Below is a picture of the house as it appears today, which is not any different from how it appeared in 1726. We know the home was built in that year because of the datestone above the door.

The Main House. The datestone is visible above the door.

If you look closely, you can see the initials and the date.

The “H” is for Harrison, of course.  “B” is for Benjamin and “A” is for Anne, the daughter of Robert “King” Carter of the Shirley Plantation (a future blog will tell you more about that family and their plantation).

The date is 1726.

The sweetest engraving in this datestone is the heart. Think of how we still, to this day, some 300 years later, write the love between two people in this very way.

There are some interesting facts about this house I think you will enjoy.

It is believed that this is the oldest three-story brick house in Virginia.  It is also believed to be the first with a pediment roof. A pediment roof is a term used in architecture to mean the triangular gable that creates the “cap” at the end of the roof slop, usually over the portico. A portico is the area with a roof supported by columns, most often it is found over the entrance of the home or building. The picture above shows the example of what I am discussing here.

The outside walls of this home are three feet thick. The house has a slate roof.  This is a three-story home, with three floors and a basement. Each floor has four large rooms, divided by an open hall that extends from the front entrance to the river entrance.

Look closely to see all the way through the house.

In the period when this house was built, and into the mid-1800s, especially in houses where the property reached to the water, there were two ways to arrive at the home.  The front entrance would be for guests who traveled by horse or carriage.  The river entrance would be for those guests who traveled to the home by boat. Either way, both entrances are in the center of the home with the same number of windows on each side.  The space between the doors was traditionally used as the entrance parlor and this is where dancing took place when entertaining. Remember, dancing was done in two lines facing each other so the long parlor accommodated this custom perfectly.

The Kitchen Building

During this period, and again into the mid-1800s, the kitchen was usually a separate building and at some distance from the main house.  The reasoning for this was that in case there was a fire, only the kitchen would be damaged or lost.  Usually, kitchen slaves would live in the space above the kitchen. I could not find any information at the plantation if this was true for those enslaved by the Harrisons and enslaved people are not discussed on the tour.

There are two things to note before we move away from the kitchen.

First, there was a Whistler’s Walk, underground, that stretched from the kitchen to the main house.  The kitchen slaves would travel to the main house, carrying trays of food, and were required to whistle while they walked. The whistling was required to ensure that no enslaved person would eat any of the food being transported.  Once the slaves reached the basement, they would place the food into a dumbwaiter-like opening, where the food would be pulled up by the house slaves for serving.  This whistling walk is noted by a sign near the entrance of the basement on the tour.

Whistling Walk Sign

I find this to be an aspect of the tour that is less than flattering to the honesty of the history being presented.  The tour guides refer to those who used the whistling walk as “servants” as opposed to “slaves.”  This switch in terms seems deceptive to me and is meant to deflect the visitor from associating the historical figures who lived in this home from the horrible scar of American slavery.

It might be semantics, but I believe that if there were enslaved people on the plantation, the tour guides should use the term “slave” or “enslaved” to keep the history that occurred at the historic site honest.

Second, during the Civil War, cannon balls were launched at the house from the James River.  One such cannon ball hit the kitchen and was imbedded in the brick.  Remember, the exterior brick is three feet thick.  This type of attack was probably the reason for that decision.  If you look back to the picture of the kitchen, you can see where the cannon ball hit the building.

Close-up image of the cannon ball.

We can get to the events on this plantation during the Civil War in a bit, but I wanted to show you this cannon ball while we were talking about the kitchen.

Benjamin Harrison V, as a young man, and bachelor, moved out of the main house and into the bachelor quarters.  That building is located on the opposite side of the main house from the kitchen.

The Bachelor Quarters. This structure now serves as the Visitor Center and Gift Shop.

This is where bachelor sons of Benjamin IV would have lived until they married.  This is truly a peaceful place to sit and reflect on the beauty of the home and grounds.  All tours start here.

Benjamin V attended school at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia, but his education was cut short due to the untimely, death of his father.  Benjamin Harrison IV died, as did two of his daughters, when a lightning strike hit the house. Today, as you walk the grounds, you will see lightning rods attached to the house structures and trees more than two hundred years of age or older to deflect such strikes from destroying any of the historic site.  The elder Harrison is buried in the family cemetery on the grounds, which are open for touring.

This is a model of the plantation. All of buildings that existed are depicted. Not all of these buildings remain.

Revolutionary War history made its way to the Berkeley Plantation as well.

Painting depicting the interaction with Benedict Arnold after he became part of the British Army.

The story goes that during the American Revolutionary War, Benedict Arnold, who was encamped near the Berkeley mansion on January 9th and 10th of 1781, brought some of his British troops to the plantation.  He and his men plundered the house, shot cattle, and carried off 40 enslaved people.

Painting depicting life on the Berkeley Plantation for the enslaved people.

The Harrisons owned more than one hundred slaves at one point. In the inventories of property, the names of the enslaved people were listed by name, age, and tax value.

Enslaved property tax record.
Close up for the details to be visible.

According to this record, an enslaved woman by the name of Gaby, age 60, has a tax value of $0.00. The notation for this value was that she was “worthless.”

On plantations where enslaved people were kept in bondage, it was customary to assign values to each person for property tax purposes.  An aged woman of sixty years would have had no value beyond caring for the infants and toddlers belonging to slaves who worked in the main house or in the fields.  Because that work provided no financial gain to the enslaver, they would be deemed “worthless.”

I note that some of the enslaved people were listed as having no value for the reason of “Superanuated.”  This meant that the person listed this way was considered, “obsolete due to age or intellect.”  So, with that, I can also guess that “worthless,” in the context as it appeared in these tax records, had a different meaning beyond age.

On another sheet available for view, an enslaved man named Ned was listed as having no value.  The reason given for him was, “mad.”

Taps Monument

During the American Civil War, General George McClellan, prior to his removal by Lincoln from his position and being sent home for ignoring orders, had occupied the plantation.  McClellan had 140,000 Union troops encamped there.  He was there in July and August of 1862.  President Abraham Lincoln came to Berkeley, known at that time as Harrison’s Landing, on July 8, 1862.  McClellan, who did not have a very respectful opinion of Lincoln, presented the President with a letter.  It detailed how McClellan believed Lincoln should handle the slavery question.  He assured the President that slavery was not the reason for the war and should not be tampered with.  He also wrote how he believed that Lincoln should continue the war strategy.  Lincoln read the letter, but made no comment to McClellan, angering him.  Lincoln returned back to the White House and drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, effectively setting the stage for the end of slavery.

In the image above is a monument to the first time Taps was played. This monument is just about as moving as anything I’ve ever seen.  Visitors can read the story and dedication of this being the spot where the event occurred and listen as Taps is played.

Taps Dedication

Private Oliver Norton is the soldier believed to have been summoned to the tent of Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield.  Butterfield whistled a tune for him and then asked the bugler to play it back for him.  History lore has it that it took a few times and changes to the tempo and a few of the notes, but that the final version was eventually played for the men later that evening.

Bugle believed to be THE bugle that played TAPS for the first time.

The bugle pictured above was found after the Battle of Petersburg and is believed to be the bugle Norton used to create what we know to be Taps.

The last aspect of this plantation that I want to share with you is actually my absolute favorite part.  The Gardens and Grounds of this property are more than incredible.

One entrance into the Gardens


Looking through the Gardens toward the James River


Another view from inside the Gardens


A walk along the tree-lined Grounds


A walk away from the James River toward the main house


Open grassy areas looking to the James River with the main house behind.


Paths all over the Grounds that lead you to the different historic spots are just lovely

There was so much wildlife on the grounds.  We saw deer grazing on what once was tobacco fields.

Dried Tobacco on display, reminding us of the crop that was farmed on this land and, ultimately kept millions of people enslaved across the South.

We saw several red-tailed fox, as well as birds and squirrels, and turtles.  There were a lot of turtles.


This little fella realized we were not going to hurt him and he came out of his shell for us.

There is a picnic area on the grounds for guests ti use if they are so inclined.

The cemetery is probably the farthest walk away from the main house but it is worth the trek.

Benjamin Harrison V grave marker

The following marker is detailing the reality for those who signed that document.  These were very honorable men.

Located in the family cemetery

The facts written here are just more proof that many sacrificed for each of us to have the freedom we enjoy today.  We should forever be grateful.

The history for the Harrison family continued after this.  The son of Benjamin Harrison V, William Henry Harrison, was born on this plantation in 1773.  He served his country against the Indians in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, which opened up most of the Ohio area to settlement.  Harrison gained his nickname, Old Tippecanoe, during the Battle of Tippecanoe, where his men battled to stop the Indian raids against the settlers of the Ohio region.  The raids stopped for a while, but continued again not too long after the battle ended.

William Henry Harrison would go on to become the 9th President of the United States.  His term in office was very short-lived.  Insisting that he walk the same path Lincoln had done on his Inauguration Day, Harrison caught his death in cold.  He was in bed for the first thirty days of his Presidency and died of Pneumonia on April 4, 1841.

William Henry Harrison’s grandson, Benjamin Harrison, who was born in 1833, would become the 23rd President of the United States.  With this accent to the Presidency, this became the only Grandfather – Grandson duo to have held the office of President of the United States.

The lineage of this family reaches so far back into the history of this country that it only makes sense that this land has seen, and in many ways taken part, in almost every major historic event.

With so much history attached to one plantation (Historic Site) this truly should be a destination on anyone’s list.

I hope you will find your way to visit this wonderful trip back in time.

Happy Travels…..


3 thoughts on “Plantation Visit #3 – The Berkeley Plantation – Charles City, Virginia

  1. I found this story most interesting . I was informed by ancestry DNA that President Henry Harrison is my 1st cousin 7x removed I am a black female who has learned through ancestry that I had enslaved ancestors As well as White ancestors who were from the James Town river area. I would like to know where can I get a more legible list of them slaves names .

    1. Hello! I am so happy to receive your comment. I know it can be frustrating to try to track down your ancestry. I will try to find where the papers for the Harrison Family are located for you. That would be where I would start. Do you know the names of any ancestors who may have been enslaved there? If you have any information, you could reach out to the Berkeley Plantation and ask them if they can give you access to their records. I would start by talking to a research librarian there in Charles City. They would have knowledge of sites you could visit and would have information to point you in the right direction to find more information. I wish I was still residing in Virginia. I would happily assist you with this leg work. If you read my blog, “Phibby: A Mystery I Would Like to Solve.” You will gain information of how I went about discovering a woman who was enslaved on the King Carter Plantation there on the James River. I have been unable to find Phibby post Civil War, but I continue to look for her. I want to connect her with her descendants, if they do not already know of her. She deserves to be remembered. The records for enslaved people are sporadic at best and often lead to more questions than answers. I do not want to discourage you. I just want to tell you that it will take a lot of time to find answers. If you can get access to the records kept by the overseer on that plantation, and if you have any names of ancestors, you might find them in those records. Because the enslaved were thought of as less than man, overseers of the crops and livestock would also keep notes of the enslaved in their records. I hope you can find your roots. Please continue searching. Every enslaved person deserves to be remembered and their story known. If you to descend from the Harrisons, that would be an interesting history to tell. I will reach out if I can locate where the Harrison papers are preserved. I apologize it took so long to get back to you. Be blessed. Let me know what you find. I would be very interested to know.

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