American Sabbatical 69: 3/12/97


3/12.. Jamestown.

Curious how small details can resurrect forgotten memories. A couple of times in the past three days a bit of highway has conjured up a footsore teenager lying his way down these roads. I hitch-hiked from Massachusetts to New Orleans (actually ended up in Shreveport) my senior year in high school, and I walked a good part of the way across this part of Virginia. Each time I got picked up I made up a new story, my way of amusing myself. Now bits of US1 and 301 make my legs ache suddenly, and the cars change vintage.

Wednesday AM we tanked up the Owl, who’s still giving us 46-50 MPG depending on highway speeds, and wiggled out into traffic. We’d decided to forgo all the goodies in the Richmond area (after all, I’d kissed the wall at the Lucky Strike factory in 1964), and plunge into the colonial history along the James. Doing triage on sites of interest is heartbreaking down here, but Peggy had visited quite a few of them when we lived in Norfolk and Hampton, so we opted to bypass Williamsburg and Shirley Plantation and go for Jamestown. But, cruising the sideroad between the Chicahominy and the James there were simply too many temptations, and we finally pulled into an antiquarian’s candystore: Berkeley Plantation.

Berkeley Plantation
(Alfred Waud Sketch)

The Owl shuddered over the stony carriage drive leading to this brick mansion along the James River shore, and while Peggy followed the redbrick paths to the requisite movie and tour, I ambled down to the shore. From the steps of the hall I could see the masts of a replica ship, and curiosity got my cat.

Boxwood Hedges
I zigzagged through the headhigh boxwood hedges and mazes, full of calling birds this sunny morning. The pissy smell of boxwood played prank with my ROM, bringing up childhood moments at Windsor Castle and my mother’s hand in mine. Sweet memories for such a nasty odor, and you wonder if the colonists planted these ornamentals precisely because they brought the old country home so vividly.

These plantation sites, like so much of our historic recreation, are mom and pop affairs. They may have national billing, and local association funding, but they are only as effective as the resident owners make them, and priced at what the traffic can bear.

When I got to the shore I was presented with one of those bogus IT HAPPENED HERE FIRST displays that we so love as a culture. The FIRST THANKSGIVING. On December 4, 1619 the good ship Margaret landed here after a stormy passage, and (as instructed by the proprietors: the Berkeley Corporation) celebrated thanksgiving to God for their deliverance. There’s a plaque to prove it. And the recreation of the Margaret is a 2-dimensional mock-up knocked together out of 2X4s, sagging and ratty with disrepair.

Replica Vessel

The air was full of a familiar buzzing, and going back up the terraces I encountered an angry old black man riding a lawn mower around and around the plantings. Too soon, too soon, a voice was telling me. Not lawn-mowing in March. Maybe there are advantages in a late spring. That aroma was not as nostalgic.

(Memo #59)

March 12 Berkeley Plantation, VA.

Who? The Harrison family (2 presidents - William Henry and Benjamin)

What? Georgian Mansion house and gardens

Where? in the string of plantations along the north shore of the James River

When? Harrison’s Landing established 1619, present house build 1726

How? plantation economy established it, tourism now supports it (owner run)

Topics: tidewater Virginia, colonial aristocracy, plantation life,

Questions: What is the best representation of plantation life? How was (and is) a plantation supported?
The James River flows through Richmond, Virginia, and on southeast until it joins the Chesapeake Bay at the great bay known as Hampton Roads. The first successful English colony (Jamestown) was built on the James and colonists quickly spread up the wide gentle river establishing the plantations that became the center of Virginia tidewater life. Each plantation had its own landing and the river was the highway for social life and trade. To this day the county has no major town. 10% of the county population today is Native American-First People, 20% Anglo-American, 70% Afro-American.

Driving in from the west you see the signs for Shirley Plantation (11 generations of the Hill-Carter clan), Edgewood, Berkeley (Harrisons), Westover (the Byrds), Evelynton (Ruffins), Belle Aire, Piney Grove, North Bend, Sherwood Forest (Tylers). These plantations were joined by an intricate ”web of kinship”, as a guide explained. On this same peninsula between the James and York Rivers you can tour colonial Williamsburg, historic Jamestown, and the Yorktown revolutionary Battlefield. Too many choices for short term touring.

We went to Berkeley, the home of two presidents (William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison). This is the third Virginia plantation we’ve visited this trip (along with Mt. Vernon and Gunston Hall on the Potomac), we’ve seen others in earlier years. We intend to tour rice and indigo plantations in the Carolinas, and cotton plantations along the Mississippi to see patterns and variations in southern plantation life.

Berkeley is reached by a half mile drive on the original carriage road. Tall trees shade it and surround the brick Georgian mansion. “Harrison’s Landing” was settled in 1619 by the 38 passengers on the ship “Margaret” sent by the Berkeley Company of England. This was also the site of the the first commercial shipyard in America, of the first corn liquor distillery, and the first American tobacco warehouses. The Harrison family came in 1691 and Berkeley was home to two presidents (William Henry and Benjamin). William Henry Harrison’s Vice-President John Tyler was from just down the road (Sherwood Forest Plantation) - imagine President and Vice-President candidates who are neighbors from the same county running together today.

The current house was built in 1726 for Benjamin IV and his wife Ann Carter.The Harrison family had provided many colonial, state and national leaders. (Benjamin V , for example, served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, was at the First Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence, and was elected Governor three times). He also was a classmate and friend of Thomas Jefferson. Each of the first TEN presidents visited Berkeley! The plantation claims to be the site of the first Thanksgiving, a ceremony specified by the Company when the settlers first landed. Taps was composed here when it was headquarters for the Army of the Potomac (140,000 men) in the Civil War. Unbelievably, the current 88 year old owner is SON of a drummer boy for General McClelland (who had children late in life)! This makes the Civil War seen recent.

The great house and gardens are beautiful. Five garden levels with lovely steps between them drop to a long lawn leading down to the river. I wandered among boxwood hedges, brick walks, flower gardens, stone seats and balustrades. The basement is now a small exhibit space and theater. I saw an introductory film and then toured the first floor.

The tour gave many facts about the Harrison family, colonial architecture and furniture, and the reconstruction work of the current owners. Inheritance and property taxes are a major burden. To support Berkeley, the current owners have started a successful boxwood nursery business, cafe, and they rent out apartments in many of the plantation’s outbuildings, the "dependencies" (so they are not on the tour). The tour shows the work to restore the mansion, it did NOT give a fully picture of plantation life or the dozens of people who worked there.

At its height, Berkeley encompassed 8000 acres and had 100 slaves. The primary cash crop was tobacco. The mansion has America’s first pediment roof. The brick walls took five years to make and are over two feet thick. The floor plan is similar to many great houses of the period, a large central hall (used here as a ballroom), with two large rooms off each side. There are two chimneys, and four fireplaces. The architects strove for balance, every doorway had its partner (one is a blank, just for effect). Each room has interior wooden shutters that fold into the walls.

The guide (whose mother-in-law actually attended a ball here in her youth) gave fascinating details. The gorgeous wooden secretaries have 12 drawers (for monthly accounts), 4 larger drawers (for quarterly accounts), and special hidden drawers (a wig drawer with mirror, for example). There is often a dogwood flower detail in the wood carving. A neat explanation was given for the ball and claw foot found on so many colonial pieces. It apparently derives from China and is a dragon clutching the pearl of wisdom.

Once again historical representation is an issue. Furnishings were sold off or looted and the mansion was sold by the Harrison family. The current owners have lovingly furnished the mansion with "period furnishings", although few of the pieces belonged to the Harrison family. No outbuildings are available for touring. Plantation life is really not presented. This was a tour of a beautiful old house, inhabited once by an illustrious family. Maybe that’s enough.

3/12.. cont.

After Peggy escaped from the full family treatment, we swung back onto the byroad. Immediately a state trooper hung a U-ey and proceeded to follow us to the county line, dropping back behind the curves periodically, then pushing up close. We probably are an oddity. The historic places are full of kids in yellow buses and the elderly in Camrys. Hairballs in Festivas with owl masks in the window probably make John Law’s backhairs go straight up. But he wasn’t hot enough to bust me for our broken tail-light, and we crossed the Chicahominy into James City County. Outlaws on the run.

The river roads down here in the tidewater run through aisles of tall pines with scrub underbrush, or dense groves of 100-foot hardwoods festooned with Tarzan vines. The red flash of cardinals punctuates the somber woods, and the roadside margins are showing their pastel lingerie. At Jamestown they were tarring the parking lot, and another romantic scent filled the air. While Peggy went to look for Capt. Smith and Pocahontas, I went in quest of a used book store, hoping to find a copy of The Great Rogue, or at least a couple of potboilers for one of us to read while the other putes. Fighting over this keyboard can get intense some nights.

The Great Rogue is a bio of Capt. John written in the 1950’s, and an astonishing yarn. He was only 26 when he talked his way into the Virginia Company’s lists, and already had a decade as a soldier of fortune behind him. He had the reputation for being one of history’s great liars, having spent his later years as the New World’s number one promoter (he coined the name “New England” as a come-on to the unsuspecting). So historians were loath to credit all the brags in his autobiography.. like debating the Jesuits on theological matters, inventing a primitive anti-personnel weapon in a Transylvanian battle, rescuing an enslaved English woman from a Moroccan harem, being a member of a pirate crew in the Adriatic, or besting three Turkish champions in mano-a-mano fights for the fate of a Balkan city. The scholars were rudely jolted when documentary evidence began surfacing to support these wild tales.

Not that the Capt. is to be trusted. The Pocahontas story didn’t appear in his accounts of the Virginia Colony until the third edition, at which time the lady in question, now married to John Rolfe, was the toast of the town in London, a favorite of the Queen, and a tasty fillip to boost book sales (can’t you see the lurid cover now: naked Indian maiden throws herself over heroic Englishman’s neck?). Historians have found the story of her rescuing a colonist from her father’s fury in the diary account of another young man, which account Smith had copped. In any case, The Great Rogue wasn’t in the stalls, but I got lost among the fulminations of Artemis Ward and other 19th century humorists. Isn’t it strange how little of what passes for humor in one age gets ruled incomplete in the next? Dialect jokes fall on deaf ears after only a few decades. You had to be there, I guess. Jeesum.

(Memo #60)

March 12 Jamestown

Who? settlers sent by the London Company

What? first successful English colony in the New World

Where? swampy island up the James River

When? 1607

How? funded by a London-based corporation

Topics: colonial settlement, Jamestown settlement, the Starving Time

Questions: How did Jamestown succeed?

Jamestown Replicas

It’s hard to choose places to visit on the peninsula. Westover? Sherwood Forest? Yorktown? Williamsburg? Jamestown? I chose the last for several reasons - I hadn’t toured it the last time through, I’m fascinated by parts of the story (the gentlemen settlers of Jamestown who wouldn’t to do hand labor, Pocahontas, incredible Captain John Smith), and Norm Buttrick does so much with colonial archaeology at Freeport High, using Ivor Noel Hume’s books (from his work at Jamestown)!

Indian Housing
Well.... Jamestown has a HUGE museum, and - outdoors - a recreated Native American camp, a recreated fort enclosing thatched cottages, a church, store houses, and two ship replicas. All are found together within a five minute walk on the bank of the James. It is a good mile from the original site of the first settlement.

The museum had at least ten rooms which give a thorough treatment of life in England at the time, the trip over and the difficulties of navigation in the early 1600s, the culture of the native Americans in the area, the life at Jamestown. The museum seemed too long on text, but there were some nice displays. Text and charts showed the classes and huge poverty in England in the early 1600s, the primacy of handwoven textiles in the economy, the motives for emigration. There was a good display on the crop that saved Jamestown: tobacco (the species nicotiana tabacum was not native - the seeds came from the Spanish). Tobacco was an instant fad in England. I really liked the gallery on Native American / First Peoples life. Pressing a button gave you a Lenape language dialogue. A display showed hunting and fishing techniques and another the foods, on dishes, laid out by seasons (the Native Americans used plants ranging from persimmons to flagroot and Chickasaw plum). Contemporary English boatbuilding techniques were shown with a quarter scale half model in one place, another showed house construction methods used at Jamestown (wattle & daub houses, thatched roofs). New World prehistory and history were shown on a time line with period specific artifacts.

Mat Siding
There were 32 tribes in the area united under the Powhatan (supreme leader - a man called Wahunsonacock). These tribes lived in villages of about 100 people. There were different ranks of society (priests, warriors, rulers) and matrilineal inheritance (through the mother’s blood line). The hunting-gathering economy exploited a wide range of plants and animals with the whitetailed deer at the center. There was an extensive trade network in copper, shells-pearls, pipestone.


One room tells the story of Pocahontas (Matoaka). It has a copy of the one portrait made during her lifetime and a number of romanticized depictions of the Indian princess who “saved” John Smith. Alas, no room is allotted to John Smith, one of history’s most interesting soldiers of fortune - HIS life should be a Disney feature.

Indian Town
The museum ends at the doors to the outdoor recreations. You can see Native American village / fort / ships in one glance. Well-maintained paths lead around it all. There are frequent labels to explain the structures. I liked the Native American dwellings, huge quonset huts made of reed mats over arched boughs. The interiors seemed authentic with animal robes on low platforms, open fires, storage vessels. Buckskinned interpreters were scraping hides and pounding food outside. There was a small Native American garden.

The triangular fort is constructed according to the original records. There are small houses, a church, store houses within. Each was furnished with facsimile artifacts. The ships are moored to a stout wharf. There are costumed interpreters throughout. Some worked at tasks like woodcutting. They answered any questions. Tourists can try on helmets and armor, sit at woodworker’s benches, watch a blacksmith.

Colonial Street

Kitchen Garden


It was all very neat and tidy, designed for easy access by scores of tourists.
Jamestown is a major big time tourist site. Even on the off season there were scores of schoolchildren in groups, and families and couples. Every picture I tried to take had 1997 folks in it so it is hard to get a sense of history. I felt a little let down as I did several years ago at Sturbridge.

Hundreds of thousands of tourists a year see this site. What do they see? It seems an edited sanitized abbreviated view of the 1607 colony - no mud, no smells, no “necessaries” ( the word for outhouse used at the plantations). The costumes were clean, the interpreters well-scrubbed and using 1997 language. Like beautiful Berkeley plantation where I saw four gorgeous period rooms, Jamestown gave me a partial (romantic?) interpretation

Wattle & Daub

I suppose the visitors do get details (the look of wattle and daub, the heft of armor, the amount of poverty in Elizabeth’s England). If they read all the museum text they learn a lot. But.......... has success damaged Jamestown and Sturbridge?

Canada has just stopped providing government funds for historical recreations because the builders can never get it right. Can we ever reproduce or experience the past?

3/12.. concluded.

Then it was down the last finger to nostalgic Norfolk. You can guess which finger (this is a Navy town). I didn’t recognize a thing. These flatland seaports are utterly lacking in charm: Newport News, Hampton, NorVa. Jungles of towering cranes, acres of tank towns, miles of coal cars (I used to cycle down to the Norfolk and Western coal docks to watch the big machines pick up the railroad cars and dump the coal into ships), concrete, chainlink, rows of onestory brick and ciderblock bungalows, bluff and bland institutional piles.. totally unmemorable.

Peggy insisted we drive around Hampton University (nee Institute), where she had her first college teaching job. Still an almost totally black school (one white ROTC officer in evidence), and Peggy remarked again how comfortable it must be for blacks to go to school here, with none of those cross-cultural games. The place still looks unembellished, a place where scholarship is more important than posturing.. although the black recruits were ramrod straight. Maybe it’s the military flavor of the area.

Through the tunnel (where Peggy once had a flat, and got the quickest emergency road service in her life), and into the town where she learned how to drive. It’s a wonder she did. As I recall Terry Evans and I would get in the back seat of our VW wagon with a six-pack, and shout instructions at her through gales of laughter, spilling ourselves foolish when she popped the clutch or stalled. Maybe that’s why Owlriding seems like a lark to her now. SHE remembered all the turns this time, and directed us downtown to Redgate Avenue.

Norfolk IS remarkably forgettable, and but for a new section of securely-fenced condo clusters in Ghent, just the way I didn’t remember it. The first home we made together was in a turn of the century pile on Redgate, just up a little park from the Ghent Canal in the one neighborhood with some period charm, and we had good times there making a marriage, some terrible furniture, and some lasting friendships (two of the e-riders in the Owl’s backseat are friends from those days). But we only had eyes for each other I guess, cause I was lost within a block. I could still find my way blindfolded around the communications software I designed for those monstrous old third generation computers at CINCLANTFLT, but put me on Grandby or Colley Ave, and I’m lost.

Naval Housing

We mooned over our old digs for at least 30 seconds, and then remembered why we had hustled out of Norva way back when. How many of the early colonists blessed the day they set foot back on Blighty’s beach? One summer in tidewater would convince you that the Indians should have fought just a little bit harder. Look what happened to Pocahontas.. took sick and died in crinolines and lace.

We made it as far as Chesapeake before reporting for night duty at Super8.

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