- 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
He had won the top position himself in a life of steady, unobtrusive acquisition. Building soundly lrom the first 500 acres, and then his river-front store, he paid quit-rent on 2,750 acres in several working plantations, in addition to land settled on his sons. Though he seems to have tended less to conspicuous consumption than some of his more lavish-minded friends, he made the standard investments in silver and books and furnishings from England. He wanted of all things to do well by his children, and this he most certainly accomplished.
Benjamin Harrison II had married a lady named Hannah, whose last name, as with his mother, has remained undiscovered by the most diligent genealogists. Evidently she belonged to the class of his birth and not to the well-recorded ruling class to which her husband was striving. With her children it would be a different story.
Hannah Harrison’s children were trained for the large responsibility—to their estate, their class, their country (Virginia). They were born too late to remember the frontier. They matured as aristocrats with an inherited sense of privilege, a position of rule, and a dedication to sustain the existing order. One daughter married Philip Ludwell’s son, himself a Councillor, and from their union came an ancestor of Robert E. Lee. Another married “Commissary” Blair, commissioner of the Church to Virginia (unofficial bishop, as the Church never established Virginia as a diocese), founder and first president of William and Mary College, and long president of the Council. Benjamin Harrison III married the daughter of another Councillor, Colonel Lewis Burwell, who had done extremely well in land and indenture speculation.
In sterner times the purpose of training was not to postpone a child’s assumption of responsibility but to hasten it. The early growth was particularly developed on plantations. At his father’s river store—that combination of wharf, warehouse, and trading post—young Ben learned his ciphering and practical balancing of books. The knowledge of planting he also acquired in the same way, by observing and doing under tutelage. He had to know how tobacco plants needed to be guarded from suckers and worms and weeds, how the tobacco stem had to be cut in a single strong stroke downward and sliced off at the bottom, how the leaves were hung and graded as they cured in the sheds, and how the sizes were arranged for packing in hogsheads. It was not intended that young Harrison should ever work in the hot fields or roll a hogshead to the boat, but he must be able to judge tobacco and know when others were working poorly.
Reversing the English procedure, Benjamin III, the oldest son, left the home place, and established his line of the family on the north side of the river at Berkeley Hundred. He might have been sensible of the ghosts of the early settlers who tried to farm those acres before the Indian massacre, but the source of his attraction was that three-mile river front with a landing where “the big boats could ride.”
When Benjamin Harrison III was 27, he was given the special assignment of acting attorney general for the prosecution of criminals on trial, with the title of “His Majesty’s Council at Law.” He went up very fast. Within five years of his special appointment, he became treasurer of the colony, while already Speaker of the House of Burgesses.
His Berkeley Hundred house was commodious and well built, but neither pretentious nor designed for the ages. Around the time when William Byrd II became Benjamin Harrison’s neighbor, the big planters were just beginning to envision great houses as the crowning glory of their baronies. The Governor’s Mansion in Williamsburg perhaps inspired the idea of the splendor that was to come later. Then, too, as the planters began to buy slaves for the house as well as the fields, the families acquired the servants necessary to maintain a large establishment. Benjamin Harrison III had the servants before the great house. Along with his wharf and shipping enterprises, he worked eighty slaves at Berkeley plus twenty at his south-side holdings.
The broadly based sufficiency of his operations enabled his home plantation to run with such outward blandness that, on the surface, his life could appear to illustrate the idyll of the legend. Place him in one of those typical paintings of a life in thrall. There, with family and friends, playing cricket of a warm afternoon, the group figure would be frozen in time, as graceful and as lifeless as a pageant. The frame would contain the broad, shaded lawn, the background of the tidal river and a cloudless sky. To one side of the happy cricket players would stand a sleek, saddled horse, held by a brightly liveried Negro, and on the other side, to balance, little Ben Harrison IV, born in 1700, would be caught in some moment of childish grace with a fat Mammy beaming over him. Squarely in the center a Negro butler, with starched front, would stand smiling with a vast silver tray containing decanters and goblets. In the foreground the master, in silver knee breeches, blue silk-lined coat with silver buttons and linen neckpiece, would stand transfixed forever with a mallet in his hand while the sun, breaking through a willow tree, would fall like a nimbus upon his head.