Fall 2002 Forward to a Friend

A young visitor helps weed corn at the Yorktown Victory Center’s 1780s farm.
Photo courtesy of Jamestown Settlement.

By Trish Riley

Ever since Tara burned to the ground and blew into that deep red sunset, I have been enamored with plantation homes. I finally set foot inside a few – some of the first of the nation – as I made my way through the golden fields and green, rolling hills of the Tidewater countryside to Jamestown and the James River Plantations of Virginia, home of America’s birthplace.

The colony of James Towne was founded by English settlers on May 13, 1607. The 104 colonists named their riverside community for their King. James Towne, later known as Jamestown, survived for only about a century, but remains the original foundation of our nation.

“In many ways it was the first instance of our government forming laws,” says Mike Litterst, Public Affairs Officer for the National Park Service at Jamestown and nearby Yorktown, collectively called Colonial National Historical Park. “What happens on Capitol Hill today traces right back to this site.”

The Colonial Parkway provides the perfect driving route connecting Jamestown, Yorktown and historic Williamsburg. Maintained by the National Park Service, the road offers a scenic sampling of the breathtaking vistas of riverfront, centuries-old hardwoods that greeted the first explorers of America and the stately plantation homes of presidents and signers of the Declaration of Independence. Some are still managed and lived in by the descendants of names you may recognize – John Tyler, Benjamin Harrison, Robert E. Lee, Edward Ruffin and William Byrd II. You’ll want to allow a few days to enjoy these plantation homes, which reflect hundreds of years of genteel history.

North Bend Plantation

Our first stop, North Bend Plantation, a home transformed to accommodate modern travelers by its owners, Ridgely and George Copland. Mr. Copland is the descendant of Edward Ruffin, considered the father of Virginia agriculture for his contributions of crop rotation and fertilization, of William Henry Harrison, ninth president of the United States, and of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. The home was built in 1819 for Sarah Harrison, sister of the president, and many of the belongings from the nearby plantations are displayed. Mr. Copland and his son continue to farm the land for wheat, corn and soybeans. I ask how it must feel as heir to such important figures in history. With a kind smile, Mr. Copland humbly replied that he never thought much about it. “Mother [Mary Harrison Ruffin Copland] would tell the stories of the love of the person who owned the house – of her namesake,” he said. “We’d get together with our first cousins, and she’d introduce us to the others once or twice a year at funerals and weddings.”

North Bend Plantation
Photo courtesy of North Bend Plantation.

General Sheridan and 30,000 Union troops occupied the home and surrounding land during the Civil War, and some of Sheridan’s possessions remain, including his desk and some maps he had secreted in its hidden recesses. Mrs. Copland permits us to stay in the room with General Sheridan’s desk and Ruffin’s bed, which gained fame when Ruffin lived at the neighboring Evelynton Plantation – a cannonball fired at the home during the Civil War flew through the canopy of the bed, damaging the headboard.

Situated on more than 800 acres, a creek and hiking trail run behind the house and the James River borders the property. Open windows provide fresh breezes and the silence of the night, broken only by birds, bugs and creatures. It is completely peaceful ... unless one should happen to hear the pacing that awakened Mrs. Copland some years ago. Alone in the home one night, she said she was afraid a burglar had made his way upstairs when she heard the rhythmic footfalls on the thick wooden planks of the bedroom floor. She called her son to the house, then listened to the steps which ended when the sound of a car signaled his arrival. A search revealed that no uninvited guests were in the home, and nothing had been disturbed. When her son left, the steps began again. Mrs. Copland called her son back, and he stayed the night with her. The Coplands decided it must have been the ghost of General Sheridan, and guests have reported hearing similar nocturnal sounds since then.

“This house is so full of wonderful memories,” says Mrs. Copland, adding that she no longer fears its ghosts.

Sherwood Forest

Back stairways, secret hiding places and passages also lend a mysterious air to the other homes, many of which have ghost stories to tell. Harrison Tyler, grandson of our tenth president John Tyler, still lives in his ancestral home of Sherwood Forest. Tyler says he never believed in ghosts until he encountered the rocking of an empty chair, true to the rumors he’d heard of the Gray Lady of Sherwood Forest, caretaker of a child who died.

Sherwood Forest
Photo courtesy of Sherwood Forest.

Set amidst 25 acres of terraced gardens, the Tylers open their home (ca.1730) and its treasures to group tours on request. Just a few years ago, in 1998, Mrs. Tyler discovered a cache of books stored in a barn on the property – they were a set of bound Congressional Records, each signed by President Tyler and dated 1836. Asked about the prestige of presidential ancestry, Harrison Tyler says, “That was never front and center. I grew up during World War II and surviving the war and the shortages was what was on everybody’s mind. Being related to a president was never a thought.”

Berkeley Plantation

Berkeley Plantation is one of the largest and most elaborate homes of all. Berkeley lays claim to the first Thanksgiving – an early boatload of English settlers arrived here in 1619, a year before the better known colonial cooks arrived at Plymouth Rock. The moment they set foot on dry land, they dropped to their knees and prayed thanks for their safety, as instructed by the king. The date was December 4, 1691, and it is still celebrated each year at Berkeley with tours and a feast on the first Sunday of November. The home was built by Benjamin Harrison IV in 1726, whose son, Benjamin V, signed the Declaration of Independence and entertained friends such as George Washington. Brother William Henry Harrison became the ninth president of the United States, and was the grandfather of the 23rd U.S. president, another Benjamin Harrison.

Berkeley Plantation

Photo courtesy of Berkeley Plantation.

The Harrison family lost the home during the Civil War, when Union General George McClellan stationed 140,000 troops on the grounds. President Abraham Lincoln visited Berkeley to review the troops and later to relieve McClellan of his duty. The property fell into disrepair until its rescue in 1907 by John Jamieson, of Scotland, whose son, Malcolm, and his wife, Grace, brought it back to the glory of its golden days. “Mac” Jamieson is known as the father of Virginia’s tourism industry for his efforts to preserve the area’s history and to make it accessible to the public. “My parents dedicated their whole lives to restoring this place,” said his son, Jamie Jamieson, who continues to run the plantation – his family home – as an attraction. “We all ride the tiger – you just have to love it to be able to put in that much hard work.”

Holiday events, progressive dinners linking several plantations, candlelight tours and teas are regularly scheduled throughout the year, so all times are a good time to plan a visit.

One thing we can’t help but notice as we move from home to home, touring the stately mansions and hearing the personal tales of each: the same names are repeated at home after home. Tyler, Ruffin, Harrison, Carter – the families intermingled and mixed considerably. Not unusual, explained Ridgely Copland. In those times it was rare for a person to venture more than 17 miles from the place of his birth throughout his entire lifetime, and since poor families didn’t mix with rich families, there were only so many mates to choose from.

The families living on this 30-or-so-mile stretch of country road are still close. On the morning of our tour, our hosts were in a hurry to leave after preparing a copious breakfast and helping to schedule our day. They were off to meet with the neighbors at the local church, where the newest addition to the Tyler family was being baptized. The Coplands, Tylers, Jamiesons and others remain a tightly knit group, just as they’ve always been. And yet they’re all generous enough to open their homes to us, that we may glimpse the lives that formed the foundation of America.

Jamestown–Yorktown Foundation,
www.historyisfun.org; (888) 593–4682 for more information on the living history museum sites.

For more information on Colonial National Historical Park, call (757) 898–3400.


North Bend Plantation, (804) 829–5176, www.northbendplantation.com.

Piney Grove, (804) 829–2480.

Edgewood Plantation, (804) 829–2962.

More information on the Plantations:

www.SherwoodForest.org, (804) 829–5377; www.BerkeleyPlantation.com, (804) 829–6018;
Virginia Tourism Corporation, (804) 786–2051, www.VATC.org.