William Byrd II

The Virginia diarist and government official William Byrd II (1674-1744) revealed much about 18th-century American life in his important, charming, and witty diaries.

William Byrd II was the son of William Byrd, whose inheritance had enabled him to purchase valuable Virginia lands at the age of 18, and of Mary Horsmanden Byrd, daughter of a Cavalier gentleman. Born on March 28, 1674, near what is now Richmond, Va., the younger Byrd was educated at Felsted Grammar School in Essex, served as an apprentice in business in Holland and London, and studied law at the Middle Temple. He was admitted to the bar in 1695 after 3 years of study. At the Middle Temple, Byrd's contemporaries included the dramatists William Congreve and William Wycherly. Byrd also came to know notable men of science, such as Sir Robert Southwell and Hans Sloane. In 1696 he was elected to membership in the Royal Society, and a paper published soon afterward demonstrated his scientific abilities.

In the same year Byrd returned to Virginia, where he was elected to the House of Burgesses, but the next year he was back in London, representing the governor of Virginia and later the Virginia Council as agent. This time he remained until 1704, when his father died, leaving him not only his lands, including the site of Richmond and the 1,400-acre Westover plantation, but also his office of receiver general. In 1706 Byrd married Lucy Parke. After the death of his wife's father he made the mistake of seeking to acquire his lands and as a result acquired immense debts.

In time Byrd became a member of the governor's council and commander in chief of the Charles City and Henrico County militias. His life, public and private, during these years is well documented in a secret diary dating from 1709. From it emerges a vivid portrait of Byrd as a healthy extrovert interested in everything from books (his library eventually numbered more than 3,600 items) to the welfare of his many tenants.

In 1715 Byrd returned to England on business. The next year he sent for his wife, who died of smallpox soon after her arrival. She left him two daughters, whom he brought to England. Another secret diary, now published like the earlier, demonstrates that Byrd took advantage of the opportunities London offered for sexual adventures. He also served again as agent for Virginia. Despite strenuous efforts, he did not find the wealthy wife he was looking for, though he remained in England until 1719. Another visit in 1721 brought him a wife, Maria Taylor, who in time gave him four children but no fortune. He returned to America in 1726 and remained there until his death on Aug. 26, 1744.

Byrd's cultivation of writing over the years is demonstrated by his care in letter writing. His most famous contribution to literature is his History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina Run in the Year of Our Lord 1728, first published in 1841. It is a witty, frank, and informative narrative. (Another version, The Secret History of the Line, is inferior.) Byrd's other writings include A Journey to the Land of Eden and A Progress to the Mines, both also published in 1841.

Further Reading on William Byrd II

Written without knowledge of the diaries, Richmond C. Beatty, William Byrd of Westover (1932), is the only full-length biography. The best brief biography is by Louis B. Wright in Byrd's The London Diary (1717-1721) and Other Writings, edited by Wright and Marion Tinling (1958). A sketch of Byrd as man of letters appears in Wright's edition of Byrd's Prose Works (1966).

Additional Biography Sources

Lockridge, Kenneth A., The diary and life of William Byrd II of Virginia, 1674-1744, Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Va., by the University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

Perceval, John, Earl, The English travels of Sir John Percival and William Byrd II: the Percival diary of 1701, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989.