Byrd was born in London around 1652, the son of John Byrd, a goldsmith, and Grace Stegge Byrd. His grandfather Thomas Stegge grew wealthy and politically powerful in Virginia during the 1630s and 1640s, and Stegge's namesake son built on what his father had begun. Sometime late in the 1660s Byrd joined his uncle Thomas Stegge in Virginia, and in the spring of 1670 he inherited the bulk of this younger Stegge's estate.
Known in Virginia history as William Byrd I (although he did not so style himself) to distinguish him from his son and grandson of the same name, Byrd became a member of the Henrico County Court and a captain in the militia while still in his twenties. His vision extended principally westward from his residence at the falls of the James River. Byrd became an active Indian trader and explorer. As early as 1671 he was scouting the Piedmont. Both commercial expectations and curiosity about the wilderness may have motivated him, but Byrd took to the woods as if they were his natural habitat. His expeditions took him away from a family he started in 1672 or 1673, when he married Mary Horsmanden Filmer, the daughter of Warham Horsmanden, a Royalist émigré and former member of the governor's Council, and the widow of Samuel Filmer, who in turn was a younger son of Robert Filmer, author of the famed monarchist tract Patriarcha (1680). Their two sons and three daughters included William Byrd (1674–1744), also known as William Byrd II, Byrd's eldest child, namesake, and heir.
Although unhappy with Berkeley and convinced that the colony's safety would best
be served by an offensive campaign against the hostile Indian tribes, Byrd proved
unwilling to sacrifice his family's welfare by remaining stubbornly loyal to a
course of action that would have undoubtedly brought about his personal downfall.
He has been criticized for switching sides when the cause that he originally
promoted began to ebb. The record, while scant, is compatible with a less
judgmental explanation of Byrd's actions. He may well have begun to regret the
bold course on which he had helped launch Bacon as soon as he sobered up from
Byrd showed some skill retreating from the insurrection he had helped to precipitate, but he displayed even greater dexterity at maneuvering in the troubled political waters afterward. He was too shrewd to allow himself to become closely identified with so controversial a figure as Berkeley, especially after the governor and his intimates collided with the royal commissioners sent to Virginia to investigate the causes of the rebellion. Within a month of the commission's arrival Byrd curried favor with its members by informing on two men who had made scandalous remarks about them. The men were fined, and Byrd was poised for advancement.
A new order in provincial politics began with the passing of Bacon and Berkeley from the scene. The Crown responded to the rebellion by diminishing the role of the burgesses, bolstering the authority of the governor, and paying closer attention to Virginia. In this new climate Byrd realized that he had to be more aware and involved in politics at both Jamestown and Whitehall. He won a seat in the House of Burgesses in 1677, representing Henrico County in that year's second session, and soon parlayed his new prominence at the capital into an enhanced position at home. In April or May 1679 he received command over the defense forces at the falls of the James River. By 1680 he was Colonel Byrd, a recognition of his expertise in both commercial and military relations with the Indians. An ally and adviser of Governor Thomas Culpeper, baron Culpeper of Thoresway, Byrd may have helped push through the General Assembly a law giving the governor a permanent salary. The new statute freed the governor from a measure of assembly influence.
Byrd could have easily perceived himself either as an English landed gentleman living in America or as a successful colonial merchant. He fully realized the dreams of immigrants with London mercantile backgrounds who found Virginia, despite its absence of urban centers, to be replete with commercial opportunities. Byrd underwrote the importation of servants and slaves, both to labor in his own fields and for resale to other planters. Over a period of three decades he gained title to almost 30,000 acres of land through purchase, escheat, and patent. More than half of the acreage was amassed through the headright system, with a third of that coming from the importation of African laborers. On the bulk of his land Byrd produced tobacco for shipment on consignment to London merchants. Landing areas along the James River at his plantations in Henrico and later in Charles City County enabled Byrd to operate warehouses and stores that served lesser planters in the interior and added to his own stream of income. In the absence of towns, landing areas functioned as small trading centers usually on or adjacent to a riverside plantation.
Family Life and Later Years
Byrd resided at his Westover property in Charles City County during his final years and died there on December 4, 1704. He was buried in the cemetery at old Westover Church.
1652 - William Byrd I is born in London to John Byrd and Grace Stegge Byrd.
1660s - William Byrd I joins his uncle Thomas Stegge in Virginia.
Spring 1670 - William Byrd I inherits most of the estate of his uncle, Thomas Stegge.
1671 - William Byrd I, an explorer and trader, begins to scout the Piedmont region of Virginia.
1672 or 1673 - William Byrd I marries Mary Horsmanden Filmer, the daughter of Warham Horsmanden, a Royalist émigré and former member of the governor's Council. They will have two sons and three daughters.
Autumn 1675 - William Byrd I and Nathaniel Bacon are granted licenses by Governor Sir William Berkeley to trade in furs with the western Indians.
October 26, 1676 - Nathaniel Bacon, in the midst of leading a rebellion against the governor of Virginia, dies of dysentery at the house of Thomas Pate in Gloucester County. Joseph Ingram takes command of the rebel troops.
1677 - William Byrd I wins a seat in the House of Burgesses, representing Henrico County.
April or May 1679 - William Byrd I receives command over the defense forces at the falls of the James River.
1680 - By this date, William Byrd I has been promoted to colonel in recognition of his expertise in both commercial and military relations with the Virginia Indians.
January 11, 1683 - William Byrd I is sworn in as a member of the governor's Council, where he uses his knowledge of the frontier and of Native American affairs to help shape policy and appoint agents to deal with the Indians.
1687 - William Byrd I travels to England primarily to secure the position of auditor-general, which is not only a personally lucrative job, but also makes him responsible for collecting and accounting for all quitrents (royal land taxes) and other revenue and fees belonging to the king.
June 20, 1688 - William Byrd I receives the combined posts of auditor- and receiver- general, offices he will retain until his death.
1690s - Governor Francis Nicholson and his Council supporters unsuccessfully attempt to separate the offices of auditor- and receiver-general, both of which are held by William Byrd I.
1699 - William Byrd I's wife Mary Horsmanden Filmer dies.
September–October 24, 1700 - William Byrd I, as the senior member of the Council, serves as president, or acting governor, in the absence of Governor Francis Nicholson.
April–June 1703 - William Byrd I, as the senior member of the Council, serves as president, or acting governor, in the absence of Governor Francis Nicholson.
December 4, 1704 - William Byrd dies at his Westover property in Charles City County. He is buried in the cemetery at old Westover Church.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Evans, E. G., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. William Byrd (ca. 1652–1704). (2014, August 20). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Byrd_William_ca_1652-1704.
- MLA Citation:
Evans, Emory G. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "William Byrd (ca. 1652–1704)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 20 Aug. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: March 31, 2011 | Last modified: August 20, 2014