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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
Of the first Benjamin Harrison only the barest facts are known. He evidently arrived in Virginia some time after the massacre and settled south of the James River. Of somewhat more substance than the average yeoman, he did not adventure to the colony with the means of, say Richard Lee and some of the later large landowners. He did, however, possess at least sufficient education to become clerk of the Council, he enjoyed sufficient standing in his locale to he elected to the House of Burgesses, and he laid the foundation on which his family was to rise into the ruling class.
The year following his occupancy of the clerk’s job Harrison bought 200 acres outright—a good average holding in that day of the yeomanry’s small agricultural operations—and at an unrecorded date he married a woman whom history can only know as Mary. She was illiterate, signing an X for her name, though this was typical for the times. Perhaps through his salary, more than through his small holding, Harrison prospered sufficiently to buy in 1643 a 500-acre grant on the south side of the James River, across from Jamestown. In 1645 his wife bore a son, and shortly after, on an unknown date and at an unknown age, this sire of Presidents died.
The second Benjamin Harrison came into the world with the arrival of the Cavaliers to Virginia. These elegant gentlemen, followers of the late King Charles I, came to Virginia as refugees from the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Virginians, loyal to the Crown and shocked at the King’s execution, welcomed the Cavaliers; the colonial governor, Sir William Berkeley, made them at home in his Green Spring estate, the first great house in the New World. The Cavaliers had a graciousness of manner, and a flair for fashion, which sonic of the natives admiringly noticed, and a taste for good living that was welcomed by those long exposed to the harshness of a dangerous frontier.
The second Benjamin Harrison’s world was influenced by these courtly Cavaliers and the elegant life they lived in Virginia during the harsh years of Cromwell’s Protectorate. But it was shaped even more decisively by the impact on Virginia of the Restoration of King Charles II. That irresponsible monarch, whose reign brought ease and gayety to England, brought disaster to the yeoman economy of Virginia. Viewing the colonies simply as a means of fattening the royal purse, Charles imposed restrictions on the tobacco trade which drove prices down to a penny a pound and ruined the small growers. The big planter could by volume operate on a smaller margin of profit.
To Benjamin Harrison II, growing into young manhood during these dynamic changes, the pattern of the big planters determined the course of his own ambitions. In his late teens, when Charles’s Navigation Act began to crush the small planter, Harrison was, in practical terms, among the relatively small himself—except that he did not think as they thought.
In any emergency for the many there is opportunity for the few. Harrison was among those men, of all ages, who can turn a time of crisis into personal advantage. Since profit depended on volume and volume depended on workers, he must get more workers: further, since profits from small acreage were insufficient for the purchase of new indentures or slaves, he must find another way to cash profit. He found it in trading and began to operate a river-front store.
A planter’s “store” was something of a combination wharf, tobacco warehouse, and importing storage house. Harrison had small boats built and he plied the bark creeks to take on the tobacco hogs-heads of small planters. In London, the tobacco would be credited against goods which he imported, and from his store some of the goods would be taken by the small planters in exchange for their tobacco. Some he sold for cash. He profited both from a charge on handling their tobacco and a markup on the goods. By these manipulations he established favorable credit balances with his British factor and could sell his own tobacco for cash—to buy more people and get more land. His operation would grow bigger, and he would be recognized as a planter of substance—“discreet,” as the coldly sagacious were called—worthy to share the honors and the burdens of the ruling group. Except for the few who came well endowed to the colony, this is the way they all got to be Old Maassa.
Harrison was still a young man when the yeomanry made its last stand against the domination of the planters in the affair known as Bacon’s Rebellion. Harrison appears to have stood outside that struggle, but two years after the rebellion was over he had done well enough to be given the profitable and honorable steppingstone of sheriff of his county. In 1680 he was sent to the House of Burgesses from Surry County.
Once in the government, Harrison showed himself to be as astute a politician as he was a planter. After serving five terms over a period of eighteen years, Harrison was established among the political rulers even before he was tapped for the Council at 53. As councilors were the recognized royalty of Virginia’s untitled nobility, Benjamin Harrison II had gone as far as there was to go.