July 22, 2013

A fascination with William Henry Harrison?

Having left Williamsburg, Yorkton and Virginia Beach behind, we turned the car north heading for our next historical destination--Gettysburg.  But on the way there was time for one special stop, a trip down memory lane...
As with most of my tales, there is a "back story" from my childhood.  For some odd reason, my imagination was caught by the tales of derring-do of none other than William Henry Harrison, the ninth President of the United States (bet you didn't see that one coming!)  A long distant relative had married into the Harrison family at some point, and I guess that added to the charm--it gave me celebrity status as far as I was concerned.  As a young girl I loved to visit his home, Grouseland, in Vincennes, Indiana.  Did you know he was the last president born as a British subject before the American Revolution?  
Vincennes is the oldest community in Indiana, and one of the oldest settlements west of the Appalachians. Founded in the 1730s by French voyageurs, Vincennes marks the spot where the Buffalo Trace crossed the Wabash River. When William Henry Harrison, the newly-elected first governor of the Indiana Territory, arrived in the frontier village of Vincennes with his wife Anna, he resolved to build a mansion that would inspire respect and be worthy of the office of governor.  Completed in 1804, Grouseland was the first brick house constructed within the Indiana Territory. It cost $20,000 (in those days, a fortune) and had a superb view of the Wabash.
  The Wabash

by Maurice Thompson

There is a river singing in between
Bright fringes of papaw and sycamore,—
That stir to fragrant winds on either shore, —
Where tall blue herons stretch lithe necks, and lean
Over clear currents flowing cool and thin
Through the clean furrows of the pebbly floor.
My own glad river! though unclassic, still
Haunted of merry gods, whose pipings fill
With music all tiny golden willow brakes!
Above thee Halcyon lifts his regal crest;
The tulip-tree flings thee its flower-flakes;
The tall flag over thee its lances shakes:
With every charm of beauty thou art blest,
O happiest river of the happy West!

My long-suffering parents, who probably thought I was mildly strange, to put it lightly, took me as often as possible to Grouseland when we would visit Indiana.  But really, who wouldn't be drawn to an elegant home with beautifully appointed rooms, a bullet hole in a dining room shutter and a real honest-to-goodness skull in the basement museum?  Such "scope for imagination" as Anne of Green Gables was fond of saying! 
In the dining room, one of the shutters still contains a small bullet hole. Harrison was walking in the dining room one night with his son, John Scott Harrison, when someone took a shot at the governor. Some believe it was an intimidation tactic, while others think it was a failed assassination. Harrison and his son were unharmed, and John Scott Harrison lived on to be the only person with a father and, later, a son as president.
During the eight years that the Harrisons lived at Grouseland, the home was the center of frontier government where important treaties dealing with Indian lands were drawn up and signed. Because of “frontier hospitality” and the danger of Indian raids, Harrison and his wife Anna welcomed anyone who was passing through the area or who was afraid of Indian raids. Surviving records mention a constant stream of visitors, guests and troops staying at the house, which due to its thick brick walls could serve as an actual fortress. The basement contained an arsenal and had a brick-lined well set into the floor to serve in case of a siege (and don't forget the skull, which was unearthed during later renovation). 
Residents of this elegant home watched fearfully from their windows as the great Indian leader Tecumseh, accompanied by 400 warriors, paddled down the Wabash River to parley with the Governor. The two sides nearly came to blows during negotiations near the house, but war was averted until the Battle of Tippecanoe, when Harrison defeated the army of Tecumseh’s brother, The Prophet.

If you visit the home today you must mentally strip away the nearby bungalows, the electric lines, levee and railroad in order to see a stately Virginia-style plantation home that originally possessed a 300-acre estate. The surrounding virgin forests contained cougars, bison, passenger pigeons and vast amounts of game (the local grouse led to the name of Harrison’s estate).  I was so captivated by this lovely home that my dad even bought me my own special commemorative plate, which shows Harrison meeting with Tecumseh.
But wait...did I mention above that the home was a "stately Virginia-style plantation"?  That's because WHH modeled it on his childhood home, Berkeley Plantation, located roughly thirty miles west of Williamsburg, Virginia.  And when I found out about Berkeley and realized how close we were to the plantation, well let's just say I was a slightly crazed woman on a mission, and my patient husband was as gracious about indulging my desire to visit Berkeley as my parents had been earlier.  Thank heavens for understanding parents and spouses!

So in a really large circular fashion I came to visit the home that started it all...and not just my Harrison fascination!  It is also the spot where the very first Thanksgiving was celebrated in the New World, and also where the plaintive bugle melody Taps was composed during the Civil War.  So welcome to Berkeley Plantation!

Tomorrow we will stroll through the home and beautiful gardens, but in the meantime please have a lovely day.  Thanks so much for stopping by!

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