National Geographic : 1953 Jun
Stately Homes of Old Virginia 787 James River Plantations, Now Busy Working Farms, Link the Nation's Past to the Living Present BY ALBERT W. ATWOOD FROM a boxwood-fringed lawn topping a gentle rise, we gazed through the trees toward a steely glimmer that was the James River, a quarter of a mile to the south. Behind us rose the noble Georgian facade of Berkeley, ancestral home of two Presidents and one of Tidewater Virginia's most famous mansions (page 791). "We have nearly 8,000 visitors a year," said Malcolm Jamieson, who owns Berkeley today. "What questions do people ask?" I in quired. "What interests them most?" " 'Plantation' is a magic word," he replied. "Everybody has heard of the old Virginia plantations, but few visitors know much about them. You can hardly think of a question they haven't asked me. Especially they want to know whether the plantations operate as they did 200 years ago; if not, how they com pare with those of the 18th century." "They always want to know when the house was built," another plantation owner told me. "The age and architectural period seem to interest everybody. Often they ask who the architect was, a question few owners can answer. "Visitors insist on knowing whether the house had any connection with historic per sonages or events. 'Did Thomas Jefferson or Robert E. Lee really visit here?' "Everyone is interested in the boxwood, and some question us closely about unusual shrubs or trees not normally found in their own States. "They want to know about the outbuildings, known here as 'dependencies.' 'Which was the kitchen and which the schoolhouse?' "And always they ask, 'Where did you come from? How long have you been here? Are you from the North or South? Do you farm the property, or is it just a home?' They want to compare us with the men and women who lived in this house in colonial times." Near Jamestown and Williamsburg To join these thousands of spring and summer visitors who find so much to arouse their curiosity and interest in the old planta tions, I had driven south to the James River region between Richmond and the sea. A landmark of this area is Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the American Colonies. Williamsburg, which I made my head- quarters, was not only the planters' colonial capital but for 80 years the political and cul tural center of what was then the largest, most populous, and in some respects the most influential of the Colonies.* Twenty-six years ago John D. Rockefeller, Jr., began to restore Williamsburg. Since then 6,000,000 people have visited the little city. Many of them have learned there of the close tie between the plantation system and the early leadership of our Nation. Standing beside the James River, I was reminded of a sentence in a letter which Thomas Lee Shippen, a student at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, wrote his parents in 1783: "The River flows beautifully along, carry ing with it, or rather giving birth to Commerce Riches & Happiness." When Rivers Were the Only Roads The river still "flows beautifully along," giving the plantations much of their rare charm. But in the wilderness of 300 years ago the Tidewater rivers provided something far more important-access to the outside world. Without the rivers, the only high ways, trade would have been impossible.t Ocean-going vessels loaded bulky hogs heads of tobacco at each planter's private landing at the foot of his garden. With this valuable freight the ships sailed directly for London and Bristol. Large tracts of land and much labor were needed to raise tobacco. The wilderness sup plied the land; indentured servants from Eng land and slaves from Africa performed the labor. In England, land was the source and symbol of aristocracy. The same tradition was trans planted to Virginia, where great tracts gave the settlers wealth, power, and social position. Remote and isolated, the plantations devel oped as self-contained units; each was a town in itself, a society in miniature. As Thomas Jefferson pointed out, Virginia had no towns of consequence because trade was brought to the doors. Each mansion, like an Old World manor * See "Restoration of Colonial Williamsburg," by W. A. R. Goodwin, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, April, 1937. t See "Tidewater Virginia, Where History Lives," by Albert W. Atwood, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE, May, 1942.