Proclamation from 1700

William Byrd (ca. 1652–1704)

William Byrd, also known as William Byrd I, was an Indian trader, explorer, member of the House of Burgesses (1679–1682), member of the governor's Council (1683–1704), and auditor- and receiver-general (1688–1704). Inheriting the bulk of his uncle's Virginia estate, Byrd spent his early years as an Indian trader and explorer. Early in 1676, his trade was cut off after Indian attacks, and he helped to persuade his partner, Nathaniel Bacon, to take unlawful command of a militia and lead it against the Indians. Bacon's Rebellion (1676–1677) resulted, but Byrd switched his loyalties to Governor Sir William Berkeley, opening the way for his political career. Elected to the House of Burgesses in 1677, Byrd commanded defense forces at the falls of the James River and operated as one of the most important Indian traders of the seventeenth century. He became an ally of Governor Thomas Culpeper, baron Culpeper of Thoresway, who appointed him to the Council in 1683. Five years later, after much lobbying, he received the combined posts of auditor- and receiver-general, putting him in charge of both collecting and maintaining all the colony's royal revenue. In the absence of Governor Francis Nicholson, he served three stints as president, or acting governor, of the colony. Byrd died in Charles City County in 1704. MORE...

 

Early Years

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.

Bacon's Rebellion

Byrd had ties to Nathaniel Bacon (1647–1676) as a neighbor, fellow militia officer, and drinking companion. The two were licensed by Governor Sir William Berkeley in autumn 1675 to trade in furs with western Indians. By March 1676 their operations had been terminated when fighting between the Native Americans and the colonists caused the General Assembly to prohibit regular commercial dealings with the Indians. Susquehannocks killed two of Byrd's men in April, and Bacon experienced a similar loss. Byrd's location at the falls was both vulnerable and strategic enough that the assembly ordered it garrisoned to protect the colony against further incursions, although he was not given the command of the post. After a night of carousing Byrd and two comrades persuaded Bacon to visit an encampment of armed planters who were poised to fight the Indians even without a commission from Berkeley. By assuming command of this expedition Bacon became the leader of what became a rebellion. Byrd's underlying motives may have included disenchantment with a governor who had passed him over, disappointment that he had not been named to the governor's Council, or a desire with Bacon to make up for their suppressed business by seizing a cache of beaver skins that belonged to the Occaneechi, but Byrd also genuinely believed that only an aggressive crusade against the Indians would bring security to the settlers.

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 their night of fateful camaraderie. Byrd managed to keep himself in the shadows throughout the heated months that followed Bacon's unauthorized expedition against the Occaneechi and Susquehannock Indians in May 1676, and that June Byrd sent his family to safety in England. To what extent Byrd distanced himself from the rebels will probably never be known for certain. He may have abandoned the rebellion only after Bacon died in October, although Byrd later indicated that he had refused to take part after the end of September when Bacon plundered the house of one of the governor's supporters. Although some witnesses contradicted Byrd on this point, he somehow regained Berkeley's favor and by January 1677 was helping the governor round up the last of the rebels.

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.

Political Career

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.

On January 11, 1683, Byrd was sworn in as a member of the governor's Council, where he used his knowledge of the frontier and of Native American affairs to help shape policy and appoint agents to deal with the Indians. He had already proved himself to be a swift, ruthless avenger when he retaliated for the murder of a single colonist by killing seven native prisoners from a village whose inhabitants he merely suspected of being guilty. Despite his record, Byrd's reputation did not always shield the men he employed in the Indian trade, for several caravans that he sent out were attacked with resulting losses of lives, goods, and horses. Nevertheless, he persevered and deserves to be remembered as one of the half dozen most important Indian traders of the seventeenth century who exchanged English clothing, farm implements, cookware, and beads for native furs and skins.

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.

Politics provided another avenue to revenue enhancement. Uncompensated public service vied with gainful public employment as valid objectives in the seventeenth century. Service as a burgess, councillor, or militia officer was regarded as a public duty, and incumbents were reimbursed only for expenses. On the other hand the position of auditor-general, which Byrd's uncle had held until his death, was lucrative enough to justify a transatlantic voyage that Byrd made in 1687 primarily to secure the appointment, which gave him responsibility for collecting and accounting for all quitrents (a royal tax on land) and other revenue and fees belonging to the king. Byrd received the combined posts of auditor- and receiver-general on June 20, 1688, and retained them until his death, even though Governor Francis Nicholson and his Council supporters attempted to separate the two offices during the 1690s. Intimations of malfeasance accompanied the separation attempt, but Byrd was probably at least reasonably diligent and honest in his profitable stewardship of the king's revenues. As senior member of the Council, he served as president, or acting governor, from September until October 24, 1700, from April to June 1703, and in August and September 1704. Byrd was also an original trustee of the College of William and Mary.

Family Life and Later Years

Building on the wealth of the Stegges, Byrd founded one of the great families of colonial Virginia, but his family life was not typical for a seventeenth-century planter. He wed only once, and the marriage endured until his wife's death in 1699. Mary Byrd appears to have had no offspring from her first marriage, so the Byrd children grew up without the stepbrothers and stepsisters or half siblings common in the complex households characteristic of the region. They did not, however, escape the high incidence of childhood mortality that was prevalent in Virginia. One son died in early childhood, and their daughter Ursula Byrd, who married the historian Robert Beverley (d. 1722), died before her seventeenth birthday, probably as a consequence of childbirth. Long separations characterized the relationship between Byrd and his children. His first son spent more of his early life in England than in Virginia, and one of his daughters married in England and lived thereafter in London.

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.

Time Line

  • 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.
  • March 1676 - The General Assembly meets in Jamestown to prepare for defending the colony. The assembly enacts laws to erect forts along the fall line to try to keep friendly Indians at peace with the colonists and to cut off the Indian trade temporarily to reduce contacts that might flare into conflicts.
  • April 1676 - The Susquehannocks kill two men working for the Indian trader William Byrd I. His partner, Nathaniel Bacon, also loses men, prompting the General Assembly to approve a garrison near the falls of the James River to protect the colony from further incursion.
  • May 1676 - Virginia governor Sir William Berkeley expels Nathaniel Bacon from the Council and brands him a rebel. Bacon is the leader of militiamen in the upper reaches of the James River valley and is preparing, against the governor's instructions, to attack friendly Indians.
  • June 1676 - Fearing for his family's safety at the outset of Bacon's Rebellion, William Byrd I sends his wife and children to England.
  • 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.
  • January 1677 - After regaining Governor Sir William Berkeley's favor, William Byrd I helps round up the last of the rebels who took part in Bacon's Rebellion.
  • 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.
  • August–September 1704 - 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.
Further Reading
Evans, Emory G. A "Topping" People: The Rise and Decline of Virginia's Old Elite, 1680–1790. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.
Quitt, Martin H. "Byrd, William." In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by John T. Kneebone, J. Jefferson Looney, Brent Tarter, and Sandra Gioia Treadway, 463–466. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Evans, E. G., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. William Byrd (ca. 1652–1704). (2013, April 17). 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, 17 Apr. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: March 31, 2011 | Last modified: April 17, 2013