A Visit to One of the Most Historical Sites Around: Berkeley.

A Visit to One of the Most Historical Sites Around: Berkeley.

Aug 20, 2023

A visit to the ancestral home of the Harrisons is how I started Sunday.

Well, I actually started today with some work for my Free At 50 blog!

But then- I veered off-path again and hit Route 5. My destination: the ancestral home of 2 presidents, Benjamin and William Henry Harrison. I'm talking about Berkeley Plantation, set on the James River.

No one can argue the statement in my title: it IS absolutely, unequivocally one of the most historical sites around in terms of American history, this blog's topic. So as always, I may be updating this post and cross-referencing the content with future posts!

I already stated it's the ancestral home (and birthplace!) of 2 American presidents, but it is so much more than that.

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Actually, the first 10 presidents stayed there.

This is what always amazes me: I get to stand in the rooms that Washington, Jefferson, Madison and so many others ate, discussed, danced, and slept in.

Berkeley is no exception. You may or may not know this but Benjamin Harrison V was both a signer of the Declaration of Independence (a traitor to the King!) and a 3-time Virginia Governor. As well as father to President William Henry Harrison and great-grandfather to President Benjamin Harrison VI.

Standing in the dining room, it was easy to imagine all those early American presidents dining and discussing everything from their fears of being hanged for treason to the words that would go into the Declaration of Independence to their thoughts on policies for our new country.

Knowing that if they came by land, they rode down the same lane I drove on this morning really set the scene for my tour.

Side note: President Lincoln swung by during the Civil War and George W. Bush also visited.

The first Thanksgiving actually happened there.

Yes, it's true. When Captain John Woodlief got the good ship Margaret to the land Berkeley sits upon in Charles City, he was instructed to give thanks. And he returned for the next couple of years, until history intervened, to repeat the ritual.

If you don't believe me about this whole claim, get this: after President Kennedy referenced New England as the location for the first Thanksgiving, an angry Virginian wrote him a letter!

And guess what, Kennedy's historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote a letter back, confirming the Virginian was correct.

Read about it here... I saw the actual letter, framed at Berkeley, but of course no photography is allowed inside the home.

Benedict Arnold burned all the stuff.

This story is horrifying and standing on the property, I can picture 8 year old and future President William Henry Harrison seeing all his toys and his family furniture, every possession he's ever known, having been burned to ashes on the lawn. Something he references later in life, according to our tour guide.

As I mentioned earlier, his father was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and after Benedict Arnold switched sides, he brought 1200 British troops down the James River and landed at the Harrison property, looking for Ben 5.

But Ben 5 was in Philadelphia and one of the family's enslaved saw the fleet heading over, then warned Mrs. Elizabeth Harrison- who already had a plan. She fled, missing the 'invasion' by 45 minutes, and separated all her children off to different places in Virginia to keep them safe.

Arnold was more than a bit upset. He ordered everything inside the home to be burned and it was. Thus, none of the furniture etc. you see today is pre-Revolutionary.

Jefferson helped renovate it, although the architecture was already breathtaking.

It seems to be a running joke that Jefferson never met a building he didn't want to renovate. There's no doubt his passion for architecture is well-known, but I didn't know he messed with other people's homes as well as Monticello and everywhere else he lived, planned to live, and the government and educational buildings he designed.

Word is (according to the fantastic and knowledgeable tour guide today) that Jefferson visited the home of his room-mate from William and Mary, William Henry, and told him renovations like a more open-plan concept, arches, and plaster walls as well as redirecting light, were necessary.

For some reason, it seems that Harrison ok'd the idea of renovation and it's said Jefferson visited over a 6-week period until the changes were going according to his liking.

One cool feature we got to see: a spot in the cement where William Henry actually signed his name- I agree with what our tour guide said, it's just hard to pass by wet cement and not make a mark!

140,000 Union troops stayed there, and that's the beginning of the Civil War history there.

I don't want to gloss over the Civil war era at this house, but I also don't want to write a novel. So much is tied to Berkeley during the 1860s.

At the time it was owned by the Starke family, Confederates who evacuated before General McLellan arrived.

This was where about 140,000 troops stayed on and around the home, a Union hospital was in the home (surgery is not something I was happy to hear about, but who is), and where General Daniel Butterfield composed Taps, first played by Oliver Wilcox Norton on this property to let the troops know it was time to sleep.

As you likely know, Taps has been adopted into use for the soldiers' final rest, played at military funerals.

I cannot tell you what it's like to hear Taps played at the monument on the property. I was alone listening and the feeling is overwhelming.

What happened to the property after the war? The Starkes abandoned it and ultimately the Jamieson's saved it.

Malcolm and Grace Jamieson restored one of the most beautiful homes I've visited.

When the property was acquired and the house was first built by Benjamin Harrison III in the early 18th century, it obviously was meant to impress.

  • A perfectly symmetrical Georgian house.
  • Long and short bricks designed in the Flemish style.
  • The short bricks intended to be a color that both shimmered from view on the river and showed as purple, the color of royalty.
  • Two entrances into a grand room, used for balls. (Two front doors was common - one was a river entrance and one a carriage entrance so no matter how guests arrived, they were always entering the front door.)
  • High ceilings and solid wood floors, still original today.

When John Jamieson, who served as a "drummer boy" on the property during the Civil War purchased it in 1907, it was the beginning of new life for the home.

John's grandson Malcolm and his wife Grace made the restoration a reality. They actually opened Berkeley to the public in the 1930's and lived there about 60 years. They both passed away in the 1990's and their son currently owns it; it's intended to continue on in the family.

It's currently open for tours and is even used for filming. In fact, the majority of the film Harriett was filmed there. The history of the enslaved and their relationships with the Harrisons was complex (as in most of history involving humans) and if you head to our region, please visit Berkeley.

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There is a huge practical disclaimer to the content on this blog, which is my way of sharing my excitement and basically journaling online.

1) I am not a historian nor an expert. I will let you know I’m relaying the information as I understand and interpret it. The employees of Colonial Williamsburg base their presentations, work, and responses on historical documents and mainly primary sources.

2) I will update for accuracy as history is constant learning. If you have a question about accuracy, please ask me! I will get the answer from the best source I can find.

3) Photo credit to me, Daphne Reznik, for all photos in this post, unless otherwise credited! All photos are personal photos taken in public access locations or with specific permission.

The lane leading to Berkeley.