William Byrd II
Colonel William Byrd II (28 March 1635 – 26 August 1744) was a planter
Plantations in the American South
Plantations were an important aspect of the history of the American South, particularly the antebellum .-Planter :The owner of a plantation was called a planter...

, slave-owner and author
An author is broadly defined as "the person who originates or gives existence to anything" and that authorship determines responsibility for what is created. Narrowly defined, an author is the originator of any written work.-Legal significance:...

 from Charles City County
Charles City County, Virginia
As of the census of 2000, there were 6,926 people, 2,670 households, and 1,975 families residing in the county. The population density was 38 people per square mile . There were 2,895 housing units at an average density of 16 per square mile...

, Virginia
The Commonwealth of Virginia , is a U.S. state on the Atlantic Coast of the Southern United States. Virginia is nicknamed the "Old Dominion" and sometimes the "Mother of Presidents" after the eight U.S. presidents born there...

. He is considered the founder of Richmond, Virginia
Richmond, Virginia
Richmond is the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia, in the United States. It is an independent city and not part of any county. Richmond is the center of the Richmond Metropolitan Statistical Area and the Greater Richmond area...



William Byrd II was born in Henrico County, Virginia
Henrico County, Virginia
Henrico is a county located in the Commonwealth of Virginia, a state of the United States. As of 2010, Henrico was home to 306,935 people. It is located in the Richmond-Petersburg region and is a portion of the Richmond Metropolitan Statistical Area...

, and educated at Felsted School
Felsted School
Felsted School, an English co-educational day and boarding independent school, situated in Felsted, Essex. It is in the British Public School tradition, and was founded in 1564 by Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich who, as Lord Chancellor and Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, acquired...

, England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

, for the law. He was a member of the King's Counsel for 37 years. He returned to the Colony following his schooling in England, lived in lordly estate on his plantation, Westover Plantation
Westover Plantation
Westover Plantation is located on the north bank of the James River in Charles City County, Virginia. It is located south of State Route 5, a scenic byway which runs between the independent cities of Richmond and Williamsburg...

, and gathered the most valuable library in the Virginia Colony, numbering some 4000 books. He was the founder of Richmond
Richmond, Virginia
Richmond is the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia, in the United States. It is an independent city and not part of any county. Richmond is the center of the Richmond Metropolitan Statistical Area and the Greater Richmond area...

 and provided the land where the city was laid out in 1737. His father, Colonel William Byrd I
William Byrd I
William Byrd I was a native of Shadwell, London, England. His father, John Byrd was a London goldsmith with ancestral roots in Cheshire, England....

, came from England to settle in Virginia.

William Byrd II was a fellow of the Royal Society of Great Britain. He was the author of the Westover Manuscripts, published in 1841 under three titles, The History of the Dividing Line
The History of the Dividing Line
The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina is an account by William Byrd II of the surveying of the border between the U.S. states of North Carolina and Virginia in 1728...

, A Journey to the Land of Eden
, and A Progress to the Mines, and most famously, The Secret Diaries of William Byrd of Westover, all remarkable for their style, wit, keen observation, and intrinsic interest to all. His writings have been published in later editions.

Byrd's son, William Byrd III
William Byrd III
William Byrd III was the son of William Byrd II and the grandson of William Byrd I. He inherited his family's land in Virginia and continued their planter prestige as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses.He chose to fight in the French and Indian War rather than spend much time in Richmond...

, inherited his family land but chose to fight in the French and Indian War
French and Indian War
The French and Indian War is the common American name for the war between Great Britain and France in North America from 1754 to 1763. In 1756, the war erupted into the world-wide conflict known as the Seven Years' War and thus came to be regarded as the North American theater of that war...

 rather than spend much time in Richmond. After he squandered the Byrd fortune, Byrd III parceled up the family estate and sold lots of 100 acre (0.404686 km²) in 1768.

Byrd Park
Byrd Park
Byrd Park is a public park located in Richmond, Virginia, USA north of the James River and adjacent to Maymont. The park includes a mile-long trail with exercise stops, monuments, an amphitheatre, and three small lakes: Shields , Swan, and Boat Lake. Boat Lake has a lighted fountain at its center...

 in Richmond is named for William Byrd II. He is related to the explorer Richard Evelyn Byrd
Richard Byrd
Richard Byrd is the name of:*Richard C. Byrd , American politician*Richard Evelyn Byrd , admiral, polar explorer, aviator*Richard Byrd , American Olympic athlete...

, for whom Richard Evelyn Byrd Flying Field (the original name for Richmond International Airport
Richmond International Airport
- Accidents and incidents :*In 1996, Eastwind Airlines Flight 517 from Trenton experienced loss of rudder control while on approach to Richmond, however rudder control was regained shortly after and the aircraft landed normally. There was one minor injury....

) was named, as well as Virginia Governor and U.S. Senator Harry Flood Byrd and U.S. Senator Harry Flood Byrd Jr.

William Byrd II died on 26 August 1744 and was buried at Westover Plantation
Westover Plantation
Westover Plantation is located on the north bank of the James River in Charles City County, Virginia. It is located south of State Route 5, a scenic byway which runs between the independent cities of Richmond and Williamsburg...

, Virginia
The Commonwealth of Virginia , is a U.S. state on the Atlantic Coast of the Southern United States. Virginia is nicknamed the "Old Dominion" and sometimes the "Mother of Presidents" after the eight U.S. presidents born there...

, British America
British America
For American people of British descent, see British American.British America is the anachronistic term used to refer to the territories under the control of the Crown or Parliament in present day North America , Central America, the Caribbean, and Guyana...


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. His degree of respect was not entirely tainted, however, because it was Byrd who was chosen to commission the survey of the Virginia-North Carolina border.

Personal Relationships

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 also to increase his wealth. Lucy Parke was an obvious candidate for Byrd’s affections. Not only was she beautiful and wealthy, but her father, Colonel Daniel Parke II, was also the governor of the Leeward Islands.

As Lucy had already reached the age of 18, her mother was very 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 Lucy’s parents asking to court her, they immediately accepted. Byrd knew easily how to woo Lucy, and wrote passionate letters to her, exclaiming his love with poetic phrases, such as, "Fidelia, possess[ed] the empire of my heart" (Treckel 133). The two were soon wed.

Soon after their marriage, Lucy found her husband to be incapable of the intimacy she desired in the relationship. While Lucy desired 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 to his wife. Lucy often turned a blind eye to her husband’s affairs, only getting openly upset when his intimacy with others was acted upon publicly.

Lucy and William often fought about other matters, in particular, the running of the household. Byrd wanted a patriarchal household, while Lucy wanted to have some power over household matters. The two disagreed on whose power reigned over the various parts of the estate, and their fights were often heated. Lucy refused to conform to the stereotypical role of the submissive wife, and wished to assert her power over slaves and servants. Byrd often publicly rebuked her when she acted upon this desire, undermining her authority.

Byrd also required absolute sovereignty over the library. To Byrd, the library was a very intimate and personal place, and one in which Lucy did not belong. He disliked her entering the library at all, and loathed her tendency to borrow books when Byrd was not home. It would appear that Byrd feared his wife’s gaining of knowledge, and saw her entrance into his library as a threat to his manhood.

The biggest arguments that William and Lucy had were over money. Lucy had a taste for fine fabrics and 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 in the household with her stingy father.

Despite the couple’s differences, there is no doubt that the two were very much in love. It is quite possible that Byrd focused on their sexual relationship because it was the only way that he knew to express his love for his wife. Lucy’s desire for intimacy makes obvious her love for William. When Lucy 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 power over the household, and never disobeyed a single command that he gave her. She was well-mannered and epitomized the English lady that Byrd desired. However, while she kept the household in good order and performed the tasks that Byrd required of her, the relationship lacked the passion that Byrd had in his first marriage.


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:

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 faithful record of the disobedience of Byrd’s slaves and his subsequent punishment. Byrd was not a kind master, and beat his slaves often, and sometimes devised other punishments even more cruel and unusual:

Byrd often quarreled with his wife over the treatment of their slaves. These disagreements did not bode well for the slaves in question:
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.

Professional accomplishments and publications

William Byrd not only was an avid politician and statesman, but he was also a great writer. Many of his works are now part of the American literary canon. His most famous work is arguably The History of the Dividing Line, published in 1841, but he also wrote The Secret History, which provides a much more "colorful" perspective of the mapping of the border between Virginia and North Carolina. His other works, published in The Westover Manuscripts in 1841, include but are not limited to A Journey to the Land of Eden, A Progress to the Mines, and The Secret Diaries of William Byrd of Westover.

Without a doubt, The History of the Dividing Line is Byrd’s most influential piece of literature. In conjunction with 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 work ethic in The History of the Dividing Line and emphasizes the sheer laziness of the North Carolinians. Byrd distinguishes 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 lazy and corrupt, and provides himself as a contrast to their behavior. He describes the ways in which the North Carolinian 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 just one of the many examples in which Byrd clearly distinguishes himself as the moral superior of his companions.

It is also likely that Byrd was using these writings as a method of promoting himself politically. In providing himself as the sole person in these stories who is morally upstanding, focused, and responsible, he is describing himself as a great leader. In representing the Carolinians in 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.

External links

  • Biography at Virtualology.com (under his father)
  • Encyclopedia Virginia: William Byrd (1674–1744)
  • William Byrd (2) in The Literary Encyclopedia, The Literary Dictionary Company Limited
  • Katheder, Thomas, "Provenance of William Byrd’s Copy of Britannia Illustrata: Byrd’s London Bookseller Identified" (August 29, 2011). (Discussion of Byrd's private library and discovery of one of his principal London booksellers.) [Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1919240]
  • William Byrd II at Find-A-Grave
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