“Times change, and we change with them.” -William Henry Harrison
Berkley Plantation is a historic Virginia home that is located in Charles City County, Virginia, above the banks of the James River, 20 miles upstream from Jamestown.
As a lifelong Virginian, it is so easy to forget how much history is actually in Virginia, and visiting Berkley Plantation was a great reminder. This was our first visit and my husband and I were delighted with our Sunday morning tour, the first of the day, which meant that our time on the property had very small crowds and a cool, April breeze blowing off of the river.
As the first plantation in America, Berkley Plantation currently sits on about 1,000 of its original 8,000 acres between Williamsburg and Richmond and it is known for many historical firsts in the United States.
Notable dates that have made Berkley Plantation famous
- December 4, 1619, 38 English settlers arrived at Berkley Hundred, as the Plantation was known. The name came from Richard Berkley, one of the original founders.
- In 1621, it was the site of the first Whiskey Distillery in the United States.
- The plantation was one of the first shipyards in the New World with the 18 gun, Man of War, constructed there for the Revolutionary War.
- The house is a three-story brick Georgian home, built in 1726, and was home to the Harrison family, one of the “First Families of Virginia.”
- The house survived two wars: The Revolutionary War and the Civil War.
- During the American Civil War, Union troops occupied Berkley Plantation.
- Berkley Plantation is the birthplace of Benjamin Harrison V, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and three-time Virginia Governor.
- November 11, 1971, the plantation was designated a National Historic Landmark and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. On July 6, 1971, the plantation was added to the Virginia Landmarks Register.
Home to a President and a host to others
Virginia has been the birthplace of eight U.S. Presidents, one being born at Berkley Plantation.
President William Henry Harrison was the ninth President of the United States and is most widely known for being the oldest person (at the time) to assume the Presidency at 69 years old. On March 4, 1841, President Harrison delivered the longest inaugural address in history with a total of 8,445 words that took an hour and 45 minutes to deliver. Unfortunately, President Harrison developed a cold on March 26, from which he developed pneumonia and died on April 4. He sadly holds the distinction of being the first President to die in office with the shortest presidential term of 31 days.
President William Henry Harrison’s grandson, Benjamin Harrison, became the twenty-third U.S. President. He never lived at Berkley.
The plantation also boasts that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln visited Berkley during their presidencies.
The first Thanksgiving Day in the United States
On December 4, 1619, thirty-eight English settlers gave thanks for their safe passage to the New World after ten weeks at sea. This means that the first American Thanksgiving took place in Virginia at what is now Berkley Plantation and was held one year prior to the Pilgrim’s landing in Plymouth, and two years prior to the Thanksgiving celebration we all learned in school as kids.
The Origins of “Taps”
In July 1862, The Army of the Potomac occupied Berkley Plantation. It is believed that General Daniel Butterfield was dissatisfied with the customary firing of three rifle volleys at the conclusion of burials during battle and the end of a soldier’s day. It is also believed that he likely altered a French bugle call called “Tattoo” that was used to signal lights out. General Butterfield worked with his brigade’s bugler, Oliver W. Norton who played the song we know today as “Taps” on Berkley Plantation. The next day, buglers from other brigades asked Norton for his tune, which he gladly passed along and though there was no official order, the tune became the regulation call throughout the Army of the Potomac and within months, buglers in both Union and Confederate camps sounded “Taps.”
A marker and an American flag honors the first playing of “Taps” on the Plantation property.
Berkley Plantation: then and now
After the Civil War, the Harrison family was unable to regain possession of the Plantation and it was rented out by the bank to tenant farmers and the mansion fell into such disrepair, it was uninhabitable.
The house was eventually purchased by John Jamison and restored by his son Malcom who moved into the newly restored home with his wife in 1938. The second and third floors of the home are still home to the Jamison family. Berkley also continues as a working farm, historical garden, and attracts visitors and history buffs like me from all over the United States and other parts of the world.
Berkley Plantation is family friendly and a history buff’s bonanza! It is not in the center of the Williamsburg tourist attractions, which is a plus for us and we thought it was worth the short drive to visit. The plantation is peaceful and beautifully situated high above the James River.
For our visit, we bought our tickets in advance on www.berkleyplantation.com. The hours of operation are daily, 9:30 am – 4:00 pm and your admission includes one-day admission to the house, gardens, grounds, exhibits, outbuildings, museum, and the film. There is a short guided tour as part of your admission and the guides are informative and helpful. Oh, and there is a gift shop too! The website recommends at least two hours for your visit but it can be shorter or longer. When we visited, we spent roughly two hours and we could’ve stayed longer. As of April 2021, adult admission is $15 per person, $14 for seniors 65+, $7 for children ages 6-12. There are military discounts and annual passes as well.
I hope that you enjoy your visit to Virginia and will consider adding the Berkley Plantation to your list of places to visit.