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Pillars of Romance

by Janet Nesler | Camper Ways Magazine

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Travel back in time through secret passages, discover the darkness of slave trade, three centuries of war that have taken place on the graceful lawns of America’s first prominent Virginian plantations where romance has formed a nations history.

Where southern bells once swooned and the pineapple still remains the symbol of welcome to a state that is submerged in the founding of America.

The first Thanksgiving, the first shot of the Civil War and homes of presidents are woven into a lush tapestry of romance.  The James River Plantations will allure you to go back in time when a nation was given birth.

Located between the James and Chickahominy Rivers is the County of Charles City.  Charles City, which is not a city, became the first westward expansion of English speaking America where the founding of the Colonial Capitals of Jamestown and Williamsburg are located.

Traveling northwest on State Route 5 from Colonial Williamsburg time unfolds to the dense shade trees of Sherwood Forest, the longest framed home in America.  The original 1600 acres was inherited by President William Henry Harrison (the 9th U.S. President) in the 1700’s and subsequently sold Sherwood Forest to President John Tyler in 1842 (the 10th U.S. President) this historic home still houses the Tyler Family. The home was built in the 1730’s and was expanded with a long ballroom to accommodate the fashionable dance – the Virginia reel.  Beautifully landscaped grounds include original magnolia trees who's knurled roots still clutch the earth and yield fragrance from the past hundred years.

Continuing west along State Route 5 a portion of the original Westover Plantation can be found.  Lush lawns and boxwood gardens surround a Georgian Revival Manor named after Evelyn Byrd, the daughter of William Byrd II (the founder of Richmond).  The plantation of Evelynton was built as dowry for his beautiful daughter.  Evelyn’s true love did not meet with her father’s approval, forbidding her to marry her love.  The tragedy of this lost love broke her heart.  She died in her late twenties.  Edmond Ruffin who fired the first shot of the Civil War at Fort Sumter purchased Evelynton in 1847.  Today the 2,500 working plantation still remains in the Ruffin family.  This marks the 4th, 5th and 6th generation of descendents of the Edmond Ruffin family.

The oldest three story brick home in Virginia has shown hospitality to President Washington and the first nine Presidents of the U.S. have enjoyed the comforts of Berkley Plantation located just west of Evelynton on US State Route 5.  The historic plantation boasts many of our nation’s historic firsts.   On December 4, 1619, Capitan John Woodlief celebrated the first official Thanksgiving after the 40 ton ship Margaret landed on the shores of the now Berkley Plantation.  The first bourbon whiskey was brewed about one year (1621) later after the settlers arrived. George Thorpe, a Anglican Priest, formulated the brew stating, “… much better than British ale . . . two drinks a day of this fiery water made all things right.”  On March 22, 1622, the Berkley settlement was wiped out by an Indian massacre. 

Berkley was purchased by Benjamin Harrison III in 1691, who established the first commercial ship yard on the James River.  The tobacco economy began and 18 gunner battleships were built for the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

A round date stone boasting a heart and the initials of Benjamin (IV) and his wife Ann Carter mark building date of 1726 gives authenticity to the home which was built six years before President Washington was born.  Benjamin (IV) died a sudden tragic death being struck by lightening.  Their son Benjamin (V) inheritated the plantation at the age of 18 and later became a signer of the Declaration of Independence.   His younger brother William Henry Harrison, born at Berkley, became the 9th president of the U.S. (an owner of Sherwood Plantation).  The grandson of Benjamin Harrison became the 23rd president.

The Harrison’s lost control of Berkley in the 1840’s and later became occupied by General George McClellan’s Union troops.  Nearly 140,000 solders camped in the surrounding fields.  President Lincoln visited Berkley on two occasions during the encampment.  At Berkley, General Daniel Butterfield composed the memorable sound of TAPS, first performed as lights out by his bugler, O. W. Norton.  A monument now stands to mark the spot where the tune was played the first time. 

Berkley fell into ruin and was abandoned for 75 years and was bought by a drummer boy in McClellan's forces in 1907.  His son Malcolm inherited Berkley in 1927 and began restoration.

As a child General Robert E. Lee was wrestled with his cousins on the vast lawns of Shirley Plantation where Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton were once dined and entertained.  Shirley Plantation lies waiting just a few miles west of Berkley remaining on US State Route 5.   It is the oldest Virginia plantation founded just six years after the first American colony of Jamestown in 1613.  This mansion was built by Edward Hill (III) for his daughter Elizabeth and her husband John Carter. This home boasts a three-story flying staircase without any visible means of support and is the only one of its kind in America.   This home is presently occupied by 11th generation of the Hill/Carter Family.

These are just a few of the James River Plantations are bound by family ties and US Presidents.  Others included in the James River group located along State Route 5 are: Westover, Edgewood, North Bend and Piney Grove Plantations.

A couple of significant plantations to visit that are rich with history in the surrounding area are:  Fort Smith Plantation and Beacon’s Castle.

Fort Smith Plantation is a lasting example John Rolfe’s love for the legendary Pocahontas which was built for their wedding.  Pocahontas also shared a deep friendship and a romantic love for Capitan John Smith.

A rare surviving example of Jacobean architecture built in 1665 the house was home to prosperous planter, Arthur Allen.  The house, named after Nathaniel Bacon who was leader of Bacon’s Rebellion. 

Beacon’s Castle’s romance is etched in glass-window panes where betrothed southern bells tested their diamonds with letters of love.   Dr Emmet Robison etched such a poem for his wife Indiana, the last Allen descendant to live at Bacon’s Castle.  The poem was dated September 1840 and read “Dear Indy, In storm or sunshine—joy or strife, Thou art mine own, my much loved wife, the treasured blessing of my life.  Em.”  They both died a young death shortly after leaving Bacon’s Castle.

These plantations are open for public tours daily from 9 am to 5 pm with exception of holidays or planned events.  One can buy multiple ticket passes at Colonial Williamsburg or at each plantation.  For a detailed schedule of events one may contact The Historic James River Plantations, P.O. Box 218, Charles City, VA 23030, or call 1-800-704-5423 or visit their website at


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