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.
In addition to his duties as a patriarch and planter, Baylor served as a warden and vestryman in Drysdale Parish, his local Anglican church, from 1752 until 1761 and again from 1766 until his death. He represented Caroline County in the House of Burgesses from 1742 until 1752, and again from 1756 until 1765, but he was swept out of office for good the following year amid a rising tide of more aggressive politicians whom Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier dismissed at the time as “Young, hot, and Giddy.” Baylor’s apparent political downfall in Williamsburg likely came when he, along with other conservative burgesses mostly from Tidewater counties, voted against Patrick Henry‘s inflammatory resolves against the Stamp Act. The problem wasn’t that Baylor and his allies supported the Stamp Act; in fact, they, too, strongly opposed it. The problem was that Baylor and his likeminded colleagues regarded Henry and his backcountry collaborators as puerile upstarts whose tone toward the British authorities in their resolves was too hostile and whose deference toward their socioeconomic superiors in the House of Burgesses—including Baylor—was insufficient.
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
In 1759 the Reverend Andrew Burnaby, a British traveler, observed that the “gentlemen of Virginia, who are exceedingly fond of horse-racing, have spared no expense to improve the breed of them by importing great numbers from England.” Between 1730 and 1770 the Virginia gentry imported at least ninety-four thoroughbreds from Great Britain, a number that represented more than half of all thoroughbreds imported into colonial America during the same period. And prior to 1770, Baylor was the most important thoroughbred importer and breeder in Virginia.
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.
Fearnought ignited a sensation among the Chesapeake gentry and was, Baylor boasted, “much admired by every gentleman.” According to a leading nineteenth-century chronicler of race horses, Fearnought was “one of the most distinguished stallions ever in America” and did “more to improve the breed of thoroughbred race horses than any other stallion in the United States” at the time. Many of Virginia’s gentry sent their mares to Newmarket for breeding with Fearnought and then bragged for years about their horses’ descent from the celebrated stallion. Thomas Jefferson, for example, proudly noted in his farm journal that his favorite mount, Caractacus, was the grand sire (grandson) of Fearnought. (While serving as governor, Jefferson famously fled a contingent of British soldiers sent to capture him at Monticello astride Caractacus). Fearnought’s genes were so highly prized that by 1900 it was “virtually impossible” to find a pedigree of any “significant” American-bred thoroughbred that didn’t have multiple strains of Fearnought ancestry, according to renowned thoroughbred pedigree expert Anne Peters, of Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Kentucky. Due to intensive inbreeding from a select group of horses, many of today’s American thoroughbreds are descended from Fearnought hundreds or even thousands of times over.
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.