The James River Plantations

Jamestown was James River Capital as the first successful English city in the New World. Founded by the Virginia Company of London, three ships arrived with 104 men (women and children were not included in the statistics) in 1607 to find fame and fortune.

Everyone knows the story of Pocahontas, the Indian maiden, who married John Rolfe. If it wasn’t for the help of her tribe, the Powhatan, Jamestown would have suffered the same fate as Raleigh’s Lost Colony. After trying many different ways of making money (all of which failed), they discovered the tobacco plant, already being cultivated by the local natives.

So the labor intensive production of tobacco brought fortunes to the early settlers, through the help of indentured servants and slaves imported from the West Indies. The colony struggled for many years and became the first capital of Virginia Colony. As the colony grew and appropriated more land, the original owners, i.e., the Indians, grew tired of being squeezed out of their lands and raided the settlers who were encroaching on their territories.

Nathaniel Bacon, one of these backwoodsmen, took exception of the apparent lack of help the government was providing to eradicate “the problem” of the Indian raids. He led a group of like-minded citizens and torched Jamestown in rebellion during the governor’s absence. (“How do you like that?”) After a series of more fires, the gentry grew tired of rebuilding the town and moved the capital further inland: Williamsburg.

Today, the National Park Service, operates the site as an historical monument. Reconstructed foundations and a system of earthworks and drainage ditches are what remains of the original colony. Excavations unearth new artifacts from that period in history. The Old Church tower and memorial church remind the visitor of the splendor which was once Jamestown.

Further up the River are the remains of many of the tobacco plantations, which dominated the area. A few are open to the public for touring.

Of them, only the grounds of Sherwood Forest, the retirement home of President John Tyler, are open for visitation. Because the family still resides there, the house, is private. It is one of the longest wood frame houses in America.

Further up the James River is Berkeley Plantation founded in 1619. This is the home of the first Thanksgiving in the Colonies. Opening their orders from the King, when they landed at their prescribed estate, they were told to give thanksgiving at once and do it annually thereafter.

The plantation is also noted for other firsts in the Colonies. Having grown tired of the drink of the day, the settlers distilled their own form of mash. This would be known from that day forward as Bourbon.

Another first was the first playing of Taps. While McClellan’s army was encamped there during the Civil War, after the Seven Days Battle in 1862, General Daniel Butterfield was listening to the ‘lights out’ bugle calls from the other companies. He called his bugler, Oliver Wilcox Norton, and asked him to play a new tune. With some modifications, Taps was developed and became the official lights out bugle call. The Confederate troops bivouacked across the James River echoed it in return.

Berkeley Plantation is the home of Benjamin Harrison, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and William Henry Harrison (Tippecanoe), the ninth President of the United States. Ironically both he and John Tyler came from the same county in Virginia. Harrison, having lived in Indiana for many years after the battle of Tippecanoe, was considered a Native Son of Indiana and so won the Presidency.

Besides the historical importance of the building the grounds are equally beautiful, with terraces of formal gardens rising from the James River. There are many more plantations along the James River, too many to see in a day or two. The close proximity of these gentry brought about the term of Virginian Cousinage, the intermarriage of their families. No wonder the War for Independence and the War between the States were so traumatic for the families, especially in Virginia. The Northern Colonies did not have such a devastating situation.

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