One of the “first great estates in America”, Berkeley is the site of the first official Thanksgiving, the birthplace of “Taps”, and the ancestral home of Benjamin Harrison V, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his son, William Henry Harrison, the ninth President of the United States.
On December 4, 1619 Captain John Woodlief arrived on the ship, Margaret, from Bristol, England with 38 colonists to settle an 8000-acre land grant that became known as “Berkeley Hundred”. On that day, the first official Thanksgiving was held in accordance with the London Company, one year and seventeen days before the Pilgrims landed in New England. Three years later, the settlement was eliminated in the Indian Massacre of 1622, a coordinated series of surprise attacks organized by Chief Openchancanough on settlements along the James River.
In 1691, the property was purchased by Benjamin Harrison III who established the first commercial shipyard on the James. The 3-story Georgian brick house was constructed by 1726 for Benjamin Harrison IV and his wife Anne Carter, daughter of Robert “King” Carter. The plantation was a major force in colonial Virginia’s economic, cultural and social life, and passed to Benjamin Harrison V, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and three-time governor of Virginia, and then to Benjamin Harrison VI. Harrison V’s younger son, William Henry Harrison, was born at Berkeley in 1773 and became the ninth President of the United States in 1841.
During the Revolutionary War, Benedict Arnold and his men landed at neighboring Westover in January 1781. En route to their capture of Richmond, the Redcoats pillaged Berkeley, burning all of the Harrison family portraits and taking rifle practice at their cattle. After roughly 150-years of continuous ownership, Berkeley was sold out of the Harrison family in the 1840s.
During the Civil War, Berkeley was occupied by Major General George B. McClellan’s Union troops. Some 140,000 soldiers camped in the surrounding fields during the summer of 1862, and the U.S. Navy delivered supplies and food to Harrison’s Landing at Berkeley. President Lincoln visited on two occasions, and following the Seven Days’ battles, General Daniel Butterfield, with the help of brigade bugler O.W. Norton, composed “Taps” to honor his men while encamped at Berkeley.
In 1907, the house and 1,400 acres was purchased by John Jamieson, a drummer boy with McClellan’s forces. The property remains in the Jamieson family to this day. Now 1000 acres overlooking the James, Berkeley is a National Historic Landmark. The original brick buildings remain and five terraced gardens, thought to be dug by hand prior to the Revolutionary War, lead 1400 feet down to the river. Miles of old-fashioned gravel roads meander through field, forest, and pastures.
After the landing of the colonists at Jamestown in 1607, a private English company undertook to settle lands farther upstream along the James River. Such settlements were known as “Hundreds”. Included among the leaders of these settlers were John Rolfe, husband of Pocahontas, and three brothers of Lord De La Warr, the first Colonial Governor of Virginia- Francis, John and Nathaniel West.
As early as 1616, John Rolfe wrote about West Hundred, and in 1637, 2000 acres of the plantation called Westover was patented by the Colonial Governor to Captain Thomas Pawlett. He sold the property to the Bland family who in turn sold it in 1688 to William Byrd I. His son, William Byrd II, founder of the city of Richmond, is known for the diaries he kept in which he documents his life in Virginia and England. His library at Westover was the largest in the colonies, with over 4,000 volumes. Both William Byrd I and II are buried at Westover with William Byrd II’s tombstone located in the center of the garden.
A quintessential James River plantation house, Westover is one of the country’s premier examples of colonial Georgian architecture. Until recently, history has supported William Byrd II as the builder of the current house, but dendrochronologic testing on attic beams indicate that they may date to circa 1750, thereby making William Byrd III the builder. Georgian design elements are exemplified in Westover’s symmetry, elegant proportions, distinctive brickwork and pedimented entrances.
In early January 1781, Benedict Arnold’s fleet landed at Westover, then owned by William Byrd III’s widow, Mary Willing Byrd. First cousin to Arnolds’ wife, Mary was considered Loyalist-leaning and was confined by Arnold’s men to the upper stories of the house while his army destroyed her fields, fences, livestock, and plant nursery. From Westover, the British marched to Richmond, the new capital of Virginia, and set the city ablaze. Despite being left in massive debt after her husband’s 1777 suicide, Mary succeeded in keeping possession of Westover until her death in 1814. By the turn of the next century, Westover would change hands seven times.
Near the end of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign of the Civil War, Westover was used as headquarters for Union Generals while the neighboring Berkeley Plantation was converted into a major military base. During this time, Westover’s East wing was hit by a Confederate cannon- intended for Union troops- and lay in ruin until the property was purchased in 1899 by a Byrd descendant. Mrs. Clarise Sears Ramsey was instrumental in rebuilding the East wing, modernizing the house, and connecting the main house to the previously separate dependencies with hyphens.
Westover was acquired by Mr. and Mrs. Richard Crane in 1921 and has remained in the family since. The National Historic Landmark is situated beneath 150-year-old tulip poplar trees and alongside ancient boxwood. The grounds include formal gardens, a rare iron clairvoyee, plantation outbuildings such as a five-hole privy, icehouse with tunnel, a collection of barns of varying ages and three sets of elaborate 18th-century English wrought-iron gates, among the most elaborate in America. An expansive lawn meets the banks of the James River. The site of the first Westover Church is 400 yards west of the house, and includes the burial sites of a number of prominent Virginians, including the first Benjamin Harrison of Berkeley, William Byrd and his wife, and William Byrd II’s daughter, Evelyn Byrd.