Berkeley Plantation is the Old Dominion’s beau ideal colonial homestead. It features the oldest three-story brick home in Virginia and has been the setting for several noteworthy events in American history—the birthplace of President William Henry Harrison and location of the first English Thanksgiving, among others. Given these attributes, Berkeley has earned the honorable distinction as “Virginia’s most historic plantation.”
Berkeley Plantation was originally established as the ‘Berkeley Hundred’ on December 4, 1619, by Captain John Woodlief and 37 members of the Berkeley Company of London. Upon landing ashore, Woodlief—a survivor of the Starving Time at Jamestown—led his men in a prayer of thanksgiving commemorating their safe Trans-Atlantic voyage, as ordained by King James I in the Berkeley Company charter.
“We ordain that this day of our ships arrival, at the place assigned for plantacon, in the land of Virginia,
shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
— Captain John Woodlief
This celebration marked the first observance of Thanksgiving in America, nearly two years before the Pilgrims. However, unlike the Pilgrims’ version, this ceremony was strictly a religious rite rather than a banquet of conviviality.
Berkeley’s Thanksgiving celebration has largely been forgotten in the annals of American history. It was even excluded from President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 Thanksgiving Proclamation, which irked many local historians. Virginia State Senator John J. Wicker sent a telegram to the White House following Kennedy’s address, communicating his own personal displeasure with the omission. Senator Wicker received a reply from historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.—writing on behalf of the President—who apologized for the oversight. Berkeley’s contribution to America’s contemporary Thanksgiving celebration was mentioned the following year, and the White House letter validating Berkeley’s claim remains on display inside the main house.
Despite being a respected pillar of the new colony, Captain Woodlief quickly fell out of favor with the proprietors of the Berkeley Company, who were unhappy with their business venture’s meager earnings. They believed Woodlief devoted too much time on long-term enterprises (such as winemaking and silk) instead of producing raw materials that could be shipped back to England for quick profits. On August 28, 1620, the Company relieved Woodlief of his governorship. He was replaced by Captain William Tracy and clergyman George Thorpe—the superintendent for the College of Henricus—who later used Berkeley's property to distill the first known batch of corn whiskey in America.
On March 22, 1622, Chief Opechancanough of the Powhatan Confederacy launched a series of surprise attacks against the English settlers. Three hundred forty-seven colonists were massacred across the Virginia colony, eleven of which were slain on Berkeley’s soil. The threat of future insurgency forced the remaining settlers to retreat towards Jamestown, leaving the once-promising Berkeley settlement completely abandoned for nearly fifteen years.
The Berkeley Hundred was re-patented by Theodorick Bland in the mid-1630s. The Bland family maintained the property for four decades before losing their landholdings in 1677, when Theodorick's nephew, Giles, was executed for his participation in Bacon's Rebellion. In 1691, Benjamin Harrison III acquired Bland's plantation assets and vastly expanded operations around the estate. He constructed the first commercial shipyard on the James River and utilized its fleet to transport tobacco and other raw materials to England. This business venture proved to be quite lucrative. By the time Benjamin IV inherited Berkeley in 1710, the Harrisons were one of Virginia's wealthiest families.
In 1721, Benjamin IV proposed to marry Anne Carter, the daughter of wealthy planter Robert "King" Carter. To celebrate their engagement, Harrison commenced construction on Berkeley's extant manor house. Completed in 1726, the Georgian-style mansion is believed to be the oldest three-story brick home in Virginia. A round date stone above the side door—inscribed with the initials of Benjamin and Anne—confirms the structure's age.
On July 12, 1745, Benjamin IV and one of his daughters were struck by lightning while attempting to close an upstairs window during a violent thunderstorm. Both died instantly. The Harrison patriarch's sudden passing placed the plantation's ownership under his eldest son, nineteen-year-old Benjamin Harrison V. The inherent Harrison was a budding political protégé at the time of his primogeniture. He was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1749 but had to wait an additional three years to claim his burgess seat as he was underage. Benjamin V served in the Virginia General Assembly from 1752 to 1774 before attending the First Continental Congress as a representative of Virginia.
Harrison was well-respected among his fellow congressmen. During the Second Continental Congress, he was frequently appointed Chairman of the Committee, presiding over the final debates concerning the Lee Resolution—distinguishing the thirteen colonies as “free and independent states.” On July 1, 1776, Harrison was selected to read aloud Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence to the delegation. On August 2, Benjamin Harrison V was one of 56 representatives to sign the landmark resolution.
During the Revolution, Benjamin V oversaw the construction of eighteen gunships for the American Navy at the shipyard. Harrison’s efforts for independence were seen as traitorous by British supporters. Like many Declaration signers, Harrison was a conspicuous target for Loyalist forces. In January 1781, 1,600 British troops commanded by turncoat Benedict Arnold sailed up the James River, threatening to invade Berkeley. Harrison managed to flee with his family to Richmond before the Redcoats arrived, leaving his estate at the mercy of enemy forces, who subsequently ransacked the house—burning all of Harrison’s furniture and family portraits—and destroyed all crops and livestock. When the Harrison family returned in 1784, Berkeley was in utter ruin. It took Benjamin V four years to restore his livelihood.
When Benjamin V died in April 1791, Berkeley was bequeathed to his oldest son, Benjamin VI, who himself was an active participant in Virginia politics and the Revolutionary War. From 1774 to 1775, the younger Harrison was a member of the Charles City County Committee and Virginia House of Delegates. During the Revolutionary War, he became the Deputy Paymaster General of the Continental Army. Tragically, Benjamin VI died in 1799 at the age of 44, leaving Berkeley to his son, Benjamin VII, who was only twelve years old at the time. The residual effects of the Revolution, subsequently with poor farming practices, caused the plantation to spiral into financial ruin. Dr. Benjamin Harrison VIII was the last Harrison to own Berkeley Plantation before it was sold out of the family in the mid-1800s.
In July 1862, following the devastating Seven Days' Battles, over 100,000 soldiers from the Union Army of the Potomac organized their camps around Berkeley Plantation. General George B. McClellan established his headquarters on the upper floor of Berkeley's manor house. The main floor was used as a field hospital while the basement held Confederate prisoners of war. The Army remained on plantation grounds for six weeks.
While encamped at Berkeley, General Daniel Butterfield composed the army’s first official bugle call, “Taps.” Originally intended to signal lights out, “Taps” was first commissioned by Captain John C. Tidball to play during a burial for one of his cannoneers. Since 1891, the solemn song has been a standard component of military funerals and evening flag ceremonies at military bases.
Following the Civil War, Berkeley fell into a state of disrepair. In 1907, John Jamieson, a former drummer boy in McClellan’s army, purchased the estate and its surrounding 1,400 acres for $28,000. His son, Malcolm, inherited the property in 1927. He, along with his wife, Grace, spent the next several years extensively restoring Berkeley to its 18th century appearance. In 1938, the estate was opened to the public for tours.
Today, Berkeley Plantation—the ancestral home of Presidents William Henry Harrison (9th) and Benjamin Harrison (23rd)—is one of the most beautiful estates on the James River. General admission for the Berkeley estate costs $15, which includes a guided tour of the mansion’s first floor and access to the plantation’s outbuildings, monuments, and terraced gardens.
Check out the Berkeley Plantation website for more about the location's history and tour information
Visit the Charles City Database, Virginia Living, and Encyclopedia Virginia for more about Berkeley's colonial history
Visit John Banks' Civil War Blog and Historical Digression to learn more about Berkeley's Civil War history
Read the following resource for more about the Union camp conditions at Harrison's Landing:
Fry, Zachery A. "McClellan's Epidemic: Disease and Discord at Harrison's Landing, July–August 1862." Civil War History 64, no. 1 (2018): 7-29.