Baylor was born on May 12, 1705, at Smithfield, in King and Queen County, Virginia, the son of John Baylor II, a wealthy planter and merchant, and Lucy Todd O'Brien, a widow who married the elder Baylor in 1698. Family tradition suggests that the Baylors had two additional children, a son and a daughter, but it is unlikely that either reached maturity.
Like many children of Virginia's colonial elite, John Baylor III was sent "home," that is, to England, for his post-elementary education. He entered Putney Grammar School, near London, possibly by the age of twelve. Virginia planters normally arranged to have one of their British tobacco merchants look after their children while abroad, and Baylor's father, who had extensive dealings with merchants in Bristol and London, was probably no exception. Unbroken family tradition and numerous nineteenth- and twentieth-century sources hold that Baylor also matriculated at Cambridge University, but if he did no record of his attendance survives.
While in England, Baylor sat for a portrait in a wig and a fancy, royal blue suit. Typical of the period, the stylized painting depicts Baylor—then about seventeen years old—as a young gentleman who is coolly confident and almost haughty in a manner beyond his years. Also while in England, Baylor partook of another luxury of the Anglo-Virginian elite: horses. In particular, he fell in love with the thoroughbreds at Newmarket, England's fabled racing center near Cambridge.
Back in Virginia
Baylor returned to Virginia sometime in the mid-1720s. Just two months after his twenty-first birthday, in 1726, Virginia lieutenant governor Hugh Drysdale granted him nearly 12,000 acres of land along the Mattaponi River in what later became Caroline County. Baylor called his new plantation Newmarket, after the English racing course. There, and at Greenwood Farm, a 6,500-acre plantation in Orange County (adjacent to what later became James Madison's Montpelier estate), he grew tobacco, producing about 100 hogsheads per year for export to London and Liverpool. (A hogshead was a four-foot-high barrel that weighed more than a thousand pounds when fully packed with tobacco.)
On January 2, 1744, Baylor married Frances Lucy Walker (1728–1783), daughter of Jacob Walker (d. 1757), a Yorktown merchant. The Baylors had twelve children, eight of whom survived infancy. With an expanding brood and no nearby schools, Baylor hired a succession of tutors to educate his children, including Donald Robertson (1717–1783), a brilliant Scotsman who lived at Newmarket with the Baylors for five years beginning in 1753. In order to supplement his children's education, and to keep in touch with events and culture in England, Baylor bought hundreds of books through the years from Williamsburg and London merchants, including classics, ancient and modern history, literature, and treatises on practical topics such as farming and horsemanship. Baylor was especially fond of London periodicals such as the Monthly Review, the first modern book review magazine, and Gentleman's Magazine, a monthly digest of news, politics, commentary, and brief literary works.
While he was a burgess, Baylor served as a justice of the peace on the Caroline County court, which presided over civil and criminal cases, declared levies and taxes, issued business licenses, approved public buildings and improvements, appointed local officials, and ordered miscreants to be whipped, branded, or placed into the stocks. Baylor was also appointed an officer of the Orange County militia in the 1740s. From 1755 to 1756, he served under George Washington at Winchester during the early phase of the French and Indian War (1754–1763).
Baylor's Thoroughbred Business
Baylor began racing and breeding horses at Newmarket by late in the 1730s—remnants of his racing track are still visible there—and he imported expensive thoroughbreds from Britain by the early 1740s. Baylor's stud operation was legendary throughout the Chesapeake Bay region, and gentry-turfmen such as George Washington and John Tayloe II sent their prized mares to Newmarket to breed with Baylor's thoroughbreds.
Having lost more races than he won, Baylor largely abandoned horse racing by the mid-1750s and concentrated instead on importing and breeding. He informed John Backhouse, his Liverpool tobacco merchant, that he had "chosen the wiser part of selling Colts & Filleys," because racing was "attended with too great an Expence." Due to lost or missing records, it is not known how many thoroughbreds Baylor imported from England, but the number was probably at least a dozen and possibly many more. Among the thoroughbreds he imported were Crab (foaled, or born, 1736; imported 1746), Shock (1752; 1754), Sober John (1748; 1755), Jenny Dismal (ca. 1752; 1756), Cassandra (ca. 1760; 1764), Stella (1764; 1764), and Walker's Godolphin mare (ca. 1761; 1765).
Baylor sought thoroughbreds with not only great speed but with fine appearance, poise, character, and racing heart. Each year he pored over Reginald Heber's Historical List of Horse-Matches Run, an annual compendium of the previous year's major horse races in Britain. In 1762 Baylor wrote Backhouse and directed him to purchase a special thoroughbred from a select list of horses that Baylor had assembled using the 1761 edition of Heber's Historical List as a guide. Because Baylor had not actually seen any of these animals, Baylor gave Backhouse clear specifications for what he wanted: a "most beautiful strong bay" horse with "strength and spirit" and an unblemished pedigree certified "under a nobleman's hand." Baylor also informed Backhouse to spend whatever he thought necessary, but not more than "5 or 6 hundred Guineas." (A guinea was equal to 21 shillings, or £1.05. When Baylor wrote this letter, a common Virginia laborer earned about £20 a year.)
In 1764 Backhouse procured Fearnought, a tall and remarkably beautiful bay stallion that had won three King's Plate races in England and had been sired by another famous thoroughbred, Regulus, who had won an astonishing seven King's Plate races in one year and was unbeaten. But the most spectacular thing about Fearnought was his cost—a thousand guineas, or twice the amount Baylor had authorized. No one in colonial America had ever paid that much for a horse.
Unfortunately for Baylor and his peers, by the mid-1760s Virginia's "golden age" was coming to a harsh end. From about 1761 to 1768, the repeated droughts and dry spells that plagued the Tidewater and eastern Piedmont dramatically reduced the quantity and quality of the planters' crops of tobacco and corn. In London, economic difficulties caused by war with France were accompanied by falling tobacco prices and a significant credit crunch. Virginia taxes, especially impositions on land and an ever-increasing poll tax, rose dramatically in the 1760s, squeezing planters' profits. By the end of the decade, Baylor, along with the majority of his fellow tobacco planters, was in serious financial trouble.
As a class, the planters—anxious to emulate their British counterparts—did little to help themselves. They were, according to Fauquier, "greatly in Debt to the Mother Country," yet were "not prudent enough to quit any one Article of Luxury." Baylor in particular was heavily indebted. By 1770, he owed Backhouse, his largest creditor, an amount that approached £4,000, and his debt to John Norton, a prominent London tobacco merchant and Baylor's brother-in-law, stood at £1,495.
After a long illness, Baylor died at Newmarket on April 3, 1772. Despite his substantial liabilities, he left a vast estate, including tens of thousands of acres of land, more than 120 slaves, and a stud farm that included more than "fifty choice blooded horses," according to the Virginia Gazette. Baylor's son and principal heir, Cambridge-educated John Baylor IV (1750–1808), sought to pay off Newmarket's debts, but his financial excesses far exceeded his father's. The younger Baylor died in debtor's prison in Bowling Green, Virginia. Ironically, it was a prison his father helped to build while a "gentleman justice" of the Caroline County court.
May 12, 1705 - John Baylor III is born at Smithfield in King and Queen County.
July 6, 1726 - Virginia lieutenant governor Hugh Drysdale grants John Baylor III 12,000 acres of land along the Mattaponi River, on which Baylor develops Newmarket plantation.
1742–1752 - John Baylor III represents Caroline County in the House of Burgesses.
January 2, 1744 - John Baylor III marries Frances (Fanny) Lucy Walker in Yorktown.
1752–1761 - John Baylor III serves as a senior warden of Drysdale Parish.
1753–1758 - Donald Robertson, a brilliant Scotsman, serves as a tutor to the children of John Baylor III, living at Newmarket, the Baylor estate on the Mattaponi River.
1755–1756 - John Baylor III serves under George Washington at Winchester during the French and Indian War.
1756–1765 - John Baylor III again represents Caroline County in the House of Burgesses.
1762 - John Baylor III writes his Liverpool tobacco merchant, John Backhouse, giving him special instructions for the purchase of an ideal thoroughbred horse.
June 1764 - Through his Liverpool tobacco merchant, John Baylor III purchases and imports the thoroughbred Fearnought. The horse's price, a thousand guineas, is twice what Baylor had planned to pay and unprecedented for Virginia planters of the time.
1766–1772 - John Baylor III serves as a senior warden of Drysdale Parish.
April 3, 1772 - John Baylor III dies at Newmarket, the Baylor estate on the Mattaponi River.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Katheder, T. M. John Baylor III (1705–1772). (2014, July 19). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Baylor_John_III_1705-1772.
- MLA Citation:
Katheder, Thomas M. "John Baylor III (1705–1772)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 19 Jul. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: May 17, 2011 | Last modified: July 19, 2014