The Harrisons Of Berkeley Hundred

PrintPrintEmailEmailBerkeley Hundred, as a working plantation still in operation after more than three centuries, is older than any English-speaking settlement in America outside Virginia. In fact, a Thanksgiving was celebrated on its river front and an experiment made there with corn whiskey before the Puritans, setting sail in one of the boats bound for Virginia, were blown off their course and landed in New England.

One of the very first plantations settled in the New World, Berkeley evolved out of the wilderness to become the demesne of the Harrisons—Presidents of the United States, governors of Virginia, a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, and an ancestor of Robert K. Lee. The Harrisons helped shape their immediate region into one of the most powerful and fabled sections of Virginia. Their home place sat between the Westover of William Byrd and the Shirley of the Hills and Carters; President John Tyler lived nearby, and when he was William Henry Harrison’s Vice President it was probably the only time in the country’s history that a President and Vice President had grown up in the same neighborhood. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson came to that section for their wives, and Lee’s mother was born there.

The aristocratic pattern which was to characterize the Old South was created in that region, and the first democratic form of government on the continent was introduced there. The men were America’s first Indian fighters, first patrician grandees, and first rebels, fighting the power of England a hundred years before the successful revolution. Underlying all things, they were the country’s first planters.

The southern plantation seems remote today, almost legendary, intertwined with the half-romantic and half-barbarous myths of the ante-bellum South. In these myths of the slaveholding South, the plantation seems always to have existed in some perpetual and semi-tropical feudalism, where time ceased in the slumberous heat, the seasons never changed, and the cast of characters in the white-columned mansions, identical on each plantation, were as impervious to the mutations of life as the characters in a familiar play. The protagonist was always Old Massa. Ridden with debts and vice and high personal honor, always booted and spurred, with a whip in one hand and julep in the other, this highborn and arrogant wastrel kept a harem of mulattoes, a stable of blooded horses (on which he repeatedly ruined himself by betting), and, when he wasn’t out duelling under the live oaks, he was entertaining friends with prodigal lavishness.

Actually, for this composite image, many gentlemen in the South would contribute aspects to the whole. Some were debt-ridden (as William Byrd III), some were always booted and spurred (as John Randolph even in the halls of Congress), some were addicted to drink and some to horse racing (as President Andrew Jackson), some were impoverished by hospitality (as Thomas Jefferson), and some had Negro mistresses (or there would be no mulattoes). Certainly all held a high sense of personal honor, and duelling in protection of personal honor was an established custom, though actual duels were few.

But plantations were neither developed nor maintained by men who embodied all these traits or only these traits. They were built by men who, with whatever weaknesses of the flesh, combined the qualities which have made for success throughout the ages-ambition and energy, self-discipline and resourcefulness, and the power to conceive boldly.

Stripped of romantic connotations, the plantation was both a large-scale agricultural operation and a commercial center. In Virginia, where plantations were first established, the money crop was tobacco. For this operation, the virgin forests were cleared, the seeds planted, the plants tended, the leaves cut, stripped, and hung; then packed into hogsheads made on the place and shipped to England from the private wharf. Besides marketing their own crops, the big plantation owners bought tobacco from the small planters, shipped it for export and brought in English goods beyond their own needs, which they handled as importers. In addition to tobacco, the planter raised food for his own people, who might number as many as 1,000. Some river plantations baked hard biscuits which they sold to ships’ crews, as on the plantation of the Berkeley Harrisons’ kinsmen. Artisans made the clothes from cotton and wool, tanned hides, built the outbuildings and sometimes boats, as at Berkeley Hundred. Kroni their sawmills the planter sold planks and clapboards to England.

The plantation master was also responsible for every detail in the total group life of his microcosmic world: he represented law and order, the Church, and the courts. The mayor, judge, sheriff, and preacher combined would not be so powerful as he. In combination with other planters, he formed the ruling bodies of his immediate country, and his state; and from their ruling class the planters sent their own chosen representatives to London or, later, Washington. If you accused the planter of not being democratic, he would look at you in surprise and say, “Of course not. I am an aristocrat.”