William Byrd II

William Byrd II

Colonial Virginia planter at 50
Born William Byrd II
(1674-03-28)March 28, 1674
Henrico County, Virginia Colony, English America
Died August 26, 1744(1744-08-26) (aged 70)
Charles City County, Virginia Colony, British America
Nationality British
Education Felsted School (classical)
Middle Temple (law)
Occupation Planter, statesman, and author
Known for Founder of the City of Richmond
Title Colonel
Religion Anglicanism
Spouse(s) Lucy Parke, married 1706, died 1715
Maria Taylor, married May 9, 1724
Children Evelyn, Wilhelmina, Anna Jo, Maria, Jane, William Byrd III
Parent(s) William Byrd I, Mary Horsmanden

William Byrd II (March 28, 1674 – August 26, 1744) was a British planter and author from Charles City County in colonial Virginia. He is considered the founder of Richmond, Virginia.

Byrd's life showed aspects of both British colonial gentry and an emerging American identity. His education included the classics, apprenticeship with London global business agents, and legal studies. He was admitted to the bar and served for years as Virginia Colony's official agent in London where he opposed increasing the power of royal governors. A member of the Royal Society, he was an early advocate of smallpox inoculation.[1]

Upon his return to Virginia, Byrd expanded his plantation holdings, was elected to the House of Burgesses, and served on Virginia Governor's Council, also known as Virginia's Council of State (the Upper House of the colonial legislature), from 1709 until his death in 1744. He commanded county militias and led surveying expeditions along the Virginia-Carolina border and the Northern Neck. His enterprises included promoting Swiss settlement in mountainous southwest Virginia and iron mining ventures in Germanna and Fredericksburg.[2]


William Byrd II was born in Henrico County, Colony of Virginia, and educated at Felsted School, England, for the law. He was a member of the King's Counsel for 37 years. He returned to the Colony following his schooling and lived in lordly estate on Westover Plantation. Byrd gathered the most valuable library in the Virginia Colony, numbering some 4,000 books. He was the founder of Richmond and provided the land where the city was laid out in 1737. His father, Colonel William Byrd I, came from England to settle in Virginia.

William Byrd II was a Fellow of the Royal Society (from 1696, at age 22). He was the author of the Westover Manuscripts and most prominently, The Secret Diaries of William Byrd of Westover. His writings have been published in later editions.

Byrd's son, William Byrd III, inherited the family land but chose to fight in the French and Indian War rather than spend much time in Richmond. After he squandered the Byrd fortune, William Byrd III parceled up the family estate and sold lots of 100 acres (0.40 km2), in 1768.

Byrd Park in Richmond and the William Byrd Community House were both named for William Byrd II.

William Byrd High School in Vinton, Virginia, was also named after William Byrd II. Byrd surveyed parts of the Roanoke Valley, and the school's mascot is a Staffordshire Bull Terrier. It is said that Byrd owned two of these dogs.

Byrd had notable descendants in the 20th century. Those are naval officer, pioneering aviator and explorer Richard Evelyn Byrd, for whom Richard Evelyn Byrd Flying Field (the original name for Richmond International Airport) was named. There is also Virginia Governor and U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd and U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, Jr., also of Virginia.

William Byrd II died on August 26, 1744, and was buried at Westover Plantation in Charles City County.[3]

Trans-Atlantic ties

William Byrd II was born in 1674 in Henrico County, Virginia. When he was seven years old, his father sent him to London for schooling. While there, Byrd became engrained in London's society and politics. Not only did he study law, but he was also elected by friends in the aristocracy to the Royal Society in 1696. He also served as a representative of Virginia in London. While Byrd considered himself an Englishman, the fact that he was born in the colonies kept other true Englishmen from considering him as such. Byrd returned to Richmond upon the death of his father in 1705. He had a very large inheritance, and was now required to run the estate.

Byrd became very ambitious after his father's death and sought the governorship of Virginia. When he was denied the position, William Byrd II returned once more to London on romantic endeavors. He was not only rejected by the elite women but also by the British government. Parliament sent Byrd back to Virginia, where he finally accepted his role as a mere Virginia delegate. However, he was chosen to commission the survey of the VirginiaNorth Carolina border.


Jane Byrd, daughter of William Byrd II, later the wife of Hon. John Page of North End, Gloucester County, Virginia, 1750

Upon Byrd's return to Virginia in 1705, he found that the colonies lacked the social vibrancy that he had found in England. Therefore, he began his search for a wife; his goal was not only to find companionship, but to increase his wealth. Lucy Parke was an obvious candidate for his affections. Not only was she beautiful and wealthy; but her father, Colonel Daniel Parke II, was the governor of the Leeward Islands.

Lucy had already reached the age of 18, and her mother was concerned that she would not find a husband. This was partially due to the humiliation of the Colonel's many romantic affairs and his stinginess. When Byrd wrote a letter to the Parkes asking to court Lucy, they immediately accepted. Byrd knew how to woo the young lady and wrote passionate letters to her, proclaiming his love with poetic phrases, e.g., "Fidelia, possess[ed] the empire of my heart" (Treckel 133). The two were soon wed.

Soon after their wedding, Lucy found her husband to be incapable of the kind of closeness she desired. While she wanted an emotional and intellectual relationship, William was able only to provide sexual intimacy. In fact, like many men of the time (including Lucy's father), Byrd was sexually unfaithful in his marriage. His wife often turned a blind eye to his affairs, only getting openly upset when his intimacy with others was demonstrated publicly.

Lucy and William quarreled over other matters, particularly about the running of the household. William wanted a patriarchal household, while Lucy wanted to have some say over household matters. The two disagreed on whose power reigned over the various parts of the estate, and their arguments were often heated. Lucy refused to conform to the traditional role of the submissive wife and wished to assert her authority over enslaved people in their household. William often rebuked her in front of others when she acted upon this inclination, undermining her authority.

William also required absolute sovereignty over the library. To him, the library was a very intimate and personal place, one in which Lucy did not belong. He disliked her entering the library at all, and he loathed her tendency to borrow books when he was away.

The biggest arguments that William and Lucy had were over money. Lucy had a taste for fine fabrics and for imported household items. Byrd found her purchases to be frivolous and often had her sell brand-new items. It is likely that Lucy hoped to be able to spend more of her husband's money, having grown up with a stingy father.

Despite the couple's differences, there is no doubt that they were in love. When she died of smallpox in 1715, Byrd suffered greatly. He blamed himself for her death, telling friends and family that he felt God was punishing him for his pride in his wife's beauty and likeability.

Byrd remarried Maria Taylor eight years later. Maria was the exact opposite of Lucy. She was submissive to Byrd's authority over the household. She was well-mannered and epitomized the English lady that he desired. However, while she kept the household in good order and performed the tasks that Byrd required, the relationship lacked the passion that Byrd had in his first marriage.

Personal diaries

The first diary runs from 1709 to 1712 and was first published in the 1940s. It was originally written in a shorthand code and deals mostly with the day-to-day aspects of Byrd's life, many of the entries containing the same formulaic phrases. A typical entry read like this:

[October] 6. I rose at 6 o’clock and said my prayers and ate milk for breakfast. Then I proceeded to Williamsburg, where I found all well. I went to the capitol where I sent for the wench to clean my room and when I came I kissed her and felt her, for which God forgive me. . . . About 10 o’clock I went to my lodgings. I had good health but wicked thoughts, God forgive me.

A man of great learning who usually read some Greek or Latin text every morning, and a man of great passion who was forever making vows of repentance and then promptly breaking them, Byrd was not uncomfortable with the contradictions in himself. Though his diary recounts his many romantic exploits (including those with his own wife) he never shows much more than the most cursory remorse for his less savory actions. Indeed, it is difficult for the reader to be much more than amazed at the brazenness of a man who can thank God for having good thoughts right after he recounts having a tryst with another man's wife.

In addition to the passages recounting his many infidelities, the diary also contains a record of the lives of enslaved people held by Byrd and his subsequent punishment. Byrd often beat the enslaved people he held and sometimes devised other punishments even more cruel and unusual:

September 3, 1709: I ate roast chicken for dinner. In the afternoon I beat Jenny for throwing water on the couch.
December 1, 1709: Eugene was whipped again for pissing in bed and Jenny for concealing it.
December 3, 1709: Eugene pissed abed again for which I made him drink a pint of piss.[4]

Byrd often quarreled with his wife over the treatment of the people they held in slavery. These disagreements did not bode well for the people in question:

[1712 May] 22. . . . My wife caused Prue to be whipped violently notwithstanding I desired not, which provoked me to have Anaka whipped likewise who had deserved it much more . . .

Byrd was, for a time, receiver general of Virginia and owned the large plantation (and large debts) his father left him upon his death. In 1709, the year he began his secret diary, he was appointed to the Council of Virginia, which meant that he spent much of his time in London. Many of the entries in his diary deal with affairs of state and the running of a plantation, as well as his ongoing education. He was a man of great learning, and most entries record which Greek or Hebrew text he read that morning (or gives the reason for which he was unable to read), and he was known for his extensive private library. He also mentions in nearly every entry having "danced my dance", meaning he performed his calisthenic exercises.

Byrd's secret diary unfolds a picture of a man of many faults who tried daily to fix them and to improve himself in general, and who did not worry overmuch when he failed to do so.

Literary pursuits

HIstoric marker for William Byrd's Camp on his expedition to survey the Dividing Line, Henry County, Virginia, 1728

While William Byrd was an avid planter, politician, and statesman, he was also a man of letters. All but two of his early literary works remained in manuscript form after his death at Westover in 1744, only appearing in print in the early 19th century and later receiving "dismissive commentary" by literary critics. It was not until the last quarter of the 20th century that his writings were assessed with any critical enthusiasm.[5]

Of Byrd's reassessed literary collection, the most frequently discussed are a pair of texts, published in 1841, The History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina, Run in the Year of Our Lord 1728 and The Secret History of the Line, a second edition, with pseudonymous names replacing the real names in the first version. They both provide a colonial perspective on the mapping of the border between Virginia and North Carolina. Among other works published from The Westover Manuscripts in 1841, are A Journey to the Land of Eden, A Progress to the Mines, and The Secret Diaries of William Byrd of Westover.

The History of the Dividing Line is Byrd's most influential piece of literary work and is now featured regularly in textbooks of American Colonial literature.[6] Through The Secret History, the societal stereotypes and attitudes of the time are revealed. According to Pierre Marambaud, Byrd "had first prepared a narrative, The Secret History of the Line, which under fictitious names described the persons of the surveying expedition and the incidents that had befallen them." (Marambaud 144).

In The History of the Dividing Line and The Secret History, Byrd incorporates the motifs of slothfulness and sexual desire. He focuses on the work ethic in The History of the Dividing Line and emphasizes the sheer laziness of the North Carolinians. Byrd defines the border between Virginia and North Carolina as a cultural border as well as a physical one. He describes the residents of North Carolina as corrupt and portrays himself in contrast to their characters. He describes the ways in which the North Carolina men chase after women, as well as the ready acquiescence of the women to the men's urges. He also explains the methods in which he brought control to the sexual situations into which the other men got themselves. For example, Byrd informs the reader that, having encountered a beautiful woman, "Shoebrush [John Lovick] was smitten at the first glance and examined all her neat proportions with a critical exactness. She struggled just enough to make her admirer more eager, so that if I had not been there, he would have been in danger of carrying his joke a little too far." (p. 642, Heath) This is one of many examples in which Byrd clearly indicates that he was the moral superior of his companions.

It is also likely that Byrd was using these writings as a method of promoting himself politically. In showing himself to be the sole person in the stories who is morally upstanding, focused, and responsible, he is describing himself as a great leader. In representing the Carolinians on his commission as morally reprehensible, lazy, lawless people, he is implying that as he can lead such a difficult group of people, he is clearly capable of leading other, less savage people.


The Westover Manuscripts (1841), comprising:


  1. Encyclopedia Virginia, Byrd (1674–1744). Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Charlottesville, Virginia. Colonial History editor, John Kolp, instructor of U.S. History at Augustana College, Illinois, and former professor of history, U.S. Naval Academy. Viewed April 6, 2012.
  2. Encyclopedia Virginia, “William Byrd (1674–1744)”. Viewed April 6, 2012.
  3. William Byrd II
  4. Byrd, William; Louis B. Wright and Marion Tinling, eds. "William Byrd's diary". Africans in America. PBS.org. Retrieved 2008-09-15.
  5. Byrd, William.The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover. Kevin Joel Berland, ed. The University of North Carolina Press. 2013. p27
  6. Encyclopedia Virginia, Byrd (1674–1744). Accessed: 28 Aug 2014.


Further reading

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