Mary Willing Byrd

Mary Willing Byrd (1740–1814)

Mary Willing Byrd was the wife of William Byrd III and, after his death, the inheritor and protector of the Byrd family estate of Westover, in Charles City County. Born in Philadelphia and the goddaughter of Benjamin Franklin, she married Byrd in 1761; he was then serving in the French and Indian War (1754–1763). During the American Revolution (1775–1783), William Byrd, in debt and accused of loyalty to the British, committed suicide. Mary Willing Byrd spent much of the war settling his massive debts and attempting to stay on the right side of both British and American forces. Although charged by the Americans in 1781 with trading with the enemy, she was never tried. Byrd died in March 1814, still in control of Westover. MORE...

 

Mary Willing was born on September 10, 1740, probably in Philadelphia. It was the home of her parents, Ann Shippen Willing and Charles Willing, a wealthy and respected merchant who twice served that city as mayor. Benjamin Franklin, one of her godfathers, took an interest in her education and sent her histories and parliamentary speeches from Europe. On January 29, 1761, Willing married William Byrd III. A recent widower with four sons and one daughter, he was in winter quarters while commanding a Virginia regiment during the French and Indian War. The couple initially lived in Philadelphia but in 1762 moved to Westover, the Byrd estate in Charles City County. They had four sons and six daughters.

Hopelessly in debt and suspected of Loyalism, William Byrd committed suicide or January 1 or 2, 1777, bequeathing his wife a life interest in most of his property. As sole executrix Mary Willing Byrd faced the enormous task of settling the estate and satisfying her husband's creditors as well as preserving an inheritance for her children. By seeking payment from her husband's debtors and selling off his western lands, residences in Williamsburg and Richmond, slaves, silver, and the incomparable 3,500-volume library of William Byrd II, she succeeded in keeping possession of Westover.

That achieved, Byrd watched as the American Revolution literally moved into her home. Despite strong family ties to many men serving the British cause, she attempted to tread a fine line of neutrality and thereby preserve her property for her children. In the first week of January 1781 a British force commanded by Benedict Arnold, whose wife was Byrd's first cousin, landed at Westover. The officers confined her to the upper stories of the house, and the army trampled her wheat, knocked down her fences, butchered her milk cows, and used her plant nursery as a stable. Byrd nevertheless received Arnold tactfully and at one point offered one of her younger sons to the distrustful British as hostage for her good behavior.

Shortly after this visitation Byrd applied to the local American commander for a flag of truce to arrange for the return of forty-nine slaves, three horses, and two ferryboats that the British had seized. The general granted the request even though the governor's Council had banned the use of flags for such private purposes. A lieutenant of the HMS Swift, who happened to be a brother-in-law of Byrd's sister, tried to act under the flag but was detained by George Lee Tuberville, an American major. After discovering a letter from Byrd and a cache of brandy, china, broadcloth, and other goods destined for Westover in the British vessel, Tuberville and a company of light infantry raided Westover on February 21, stormed into Byrd's bedroom while she was still asleep, and seized her papers.

Byrd defended herself and her property vigorously. She protested directly to General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben that "This surely can not be stiled liberty. It was Liberty that Savages would have blushed at." To Governor Thomas Jefferson she defended herself eloquently against those who doubted her loyalty: "I wish well to all mankind, to America in particular. What am I but an American? All my friends and connexions are in America; my whole property is here—could I wish ill to everything I have an interest in?"

Tuberville was arrested and charged with violating a flag of truce, but his court-martial never took place. Byrd was charged in turn with trading with the invading enemy. Her trial, scheduled to begin on March 15 before a special commission of oyer and terminer in the General Court, was first postponed until March 23 and ultimately never held. Rumors circulated that the witnesses had been discouraged from attending. Disgusted with her treatment by both sides, and perhaps fearful for her family after an arsonist attempted to burn her plantation house, Byrd put Westover up for sale and announced that she would leave Virginia. She stayed, however, and in August 1781 asked Governor Thomas Nelson for yet another flag of truce to aid her continuing efforts to recover her slaves. On the eve of the final British withdrawal from the United States in 1783, Byrd appealed to the British commander to honor the promises of restitution made by a succession of British generals.

Byrd's vigilance and protectiveness in behalf of her family were both remarkable and successful. Placed in a position that she never would have faced if she had not been a wealthy widow, she preserved much of her property and the legacy of one of the great families of colonial Virginia. When Byrd prepared her will in December 1813, she was still in possession of Westover and was able to provide for all of her children and grandchildren. Not until after her death was Westover sold out of the Byrd family.

Contemporary accounts characterized Byrd as a pious, educated, "amiable & excellent Lady." One historian of the family judged that she was twice the man her husband had been. Byrd died during March 1814, but the exact date of her death is not recorded. She directed in her will that she be buried next to her husband, who had asked to be interred in the cemetery of old Westover Church.

Time Line

  • September 10, 1740 - Mary Willing is born, probably in Philadelphia. Her parents are Ann Shippen and Charles Willing, a wealthy merchant. One of her godfathers is Benjamin Franklin.
  • January 29, 1761 - William Byrd III and Mary Willing marry. They will have four sons and six daughters.
  • Autumn 1762 - By this time, William Byrd III and his wife, Mary Willing Byrd, have moved from a house Byrd built in Philadelphia to the Byrd family estate, Westover, in Charles City County.
  • January 1 or 2, 1777 - William Byrd III commits suicide at his estate, Westover, in Charles City County.
  • January 1781 - A British force commanded by Benedict Arnold lands at the Byrd family estate of Westover, in Charles City County. Arnold's wife is a first cousin of Mary Willing Byrd.
  • February 21, 1781 - American major George Lee Tuberville and a company of light infantry raid the Byrd family estate of Westover in Charles City County.
  • March 15, 1781 - The trial of Mary Willing Byrd, charged with trading with the British army, is scheduled to begin but is postponed until March 23. It is never held.
  • August 1781 - Mary Willing Byrd asks Governor Thomas Nelson for a flag of truce in hopes of recovering runaway slaves from the British army.
  • December 1813 - Mary Willing Byrd prepares her last will and testament.
  • March 1814 - Mary Willing Byrd dies at Westover, the Byrd family estate in Charles City County. She is probably buried in the cemetery of old Westover Church.

References

Further Reading
Bearss, Sara B. "Byrd, Mary Willing." In The Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss et al., 457–459. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Bearss, S. B., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Mary Willing Byrd (1740–1814). (2014, November 4). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Byrd_Mary_Willing_1740-1814.

  • MLA Citation:

    Bearss, Sara B. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Mary Willing Byrd (1740–1814)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 4 Nov. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: July 23, 2014 | Last modified: November 4, 2014


Contributed by Sara B. Bearss and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Sara B. Bearss is who was senior editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography and author of The Story of Virginia, an American Experience (1995). She died in 2012.