- Historic Sites
The Harrisons Of Berkeley Hundred
Five successive Benjamin Harrisons created a private empire of tobacco and trade and a great Virginia plantation
April 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 3
For all his aristocratic manner and belief, however, the planter was not the firstcomer to Tidewater Virginia; others had preceded him. First to come and settle Jamestown in 1607 were 105 “Gentlemen” and “men of the common sorte,” picaresque characters all, all of them in search of gold and adventure. Led by the resolute John Smith, they found nothing of the former and rather more of the latter than they had bargained for, together with disease, starvation, and danger from Powhatan’s powerful Indians.
Successive waves of adventurers, some stockholders in the Virginia Company, many indentured to pay their passage, made up the depleted ranks, but Virginia did not even begin to show signs of lasting until a sturdier breed arrived, of whom John Rolfe is a good example. Rolfe made himself a romantic place in history by marrying Powhatan’s tempestuous daughter Pocahontas, but a more significant one by experimenting with tobacco, which turned out in the end to be the real wealth of the new El Dorado.
Soon, maintaining an uneasy peace with the remarkable Indian leader, the colony spread out beyond the palisaded fort at Jamestown, and small holdings spread up the lazy James River, which became a sort of watery Main Street for the colonists. Now appeared in 1619 a boatload of indentured wives, sturdy but anonymous ladies from whom, apparently, no one in Virginia is today descended, but a welcome sign of permanence in their own time. And there was established this same year a kind of popular government, the House of Burgesses. This self-governing body would give England trouble later, but no more, certainly, than was foreshadowed for this new land by the arrival, also in the notable year 1619, of a shipload of black slaves from Africa.
It was in 1619 that Berkeley Hundred was founded as a private venture by a small group of English investors, headed by one John Smythe, Esq., of Nibley. To stave off failure, the Virginia Company had begun chartering settlements known as “hundreds” (either because a hundred acres was the basic grant for a share of stock or because 100 was the ideal number of settlers). At Berkeley, 38 settlers arrived after two and a half months on the ship Margaret, to build their settlement on a tract of 8,000 acres, stretching for three miles along the north bank of the James River. The next spring found the colonists living in split-log houses and experimenting with mulberry trees for silk and grape vines for wine, as well as with tobacco, while the English backers impatiently waited for the colony to become self-supporting. At this and neighboring hundreds, though the dream had shifted from gold to tobacco, the methods had not been discovered for the big killing. Probably the British financiers would never have discovered the way to colonial riches. As it happened, they were not given the opportunity.
The blow from which the Virginia Company and its proprietors never recovered occurred on Good Friday morning, March 22, 1622. By then the great Powhatan had died, and his brother, ferocious Opechancanough (Opie-can-canoe) did not feel bound to the truce. With the kind of wiliness that used to be associated only with the savage, he encouraged the whites to believe in the Indians’ friendship until he had them set up, off guard, for the stroke designed to annihilate the colony.
At breakfast time, at practically every holding in Virginia, groups of friendly Indians drifted in without weapons. At Berkeley Hundred they were received warmly and invited to sit down in the assembly hall for a breakfast of gruel. No white man or woman saw a signal given, but as if by some group impulse, the unarmed Indians suddenly snatched up the muskets which the unsuspecting settlers had propped in corners. The men fought hard for their lives but the records list eleven Berkeley settlers as “slayne.”
Many of the plantations were virtually wiped out. Small family units perished and their holdings were reclaimed by the brush. The college recently founded at the new city of Henricus, south of the river, and the iron works nearby were destroyed beyond repair. Only Jamestown was saved. A converted Indian warned an adventurer on the mainland, and this Richard Pace, with no poet to make a Paul Revere of him, rowed at daybreak to the island and saved the colony from destruction.
As it was, 347 of the 1,200 inhabitants were killed in America’s greatest massacre. Stored corn was burned in the crude barns, cattle and hogs were run off, and the wholesale disaster—just when the colony seemed to have turned the corner—was more than the Virginia Company could absorb. James the First, impatient for gain from this genesis of empire, withdrew the charter in 1624 and made colonizing the business of the Crown. With this change, the age of the yeomanry began to supersede that of the adventurer.
During the age of the yeomanry, half a century long, Virginia had her only approach to a classless society. Her citizens, in a soundly growing colony, formed what later became the stalwart middle class. Yet, even while the yeomanry enjoyed its hour, the men of the future were settling in Virginia. These were people of substance who dreamed of acquiring in the New World the positions of rank and privilege pre-empted at home by kinsmen. These were the embryonic plantation masters, who came with the baronial dream.