Beverley was probably born in Middlesex County, the eldest child of from four to six sons, three of whom survived childhood, and one daughter of the immigrant Robert Beverley, usually referred to as Major Robert Beverley, and his second wife, Mary Keeble Beverley. He was most likely born about 1667 or 1668 and was of legal age before September 1, 1690, when he succeeded his elder half brother, Peter Beverley, as legal guardian of their younger brother John Beverley.
Beverley was educated in England, possibly at Beverley Grammar School in Yorkshire. In 1697, he married Ursula Byrd, the sixteen-year-old daughter of William Byrd I. She died on October 11, 1698, not long after giving birth to their only child, William Beverley, who grew up to become a member of the governor’s Council. Beverley evidently never married again.
During the 1690s, Beverley lived in Jamestown and became a man of reputation and influence. He used his family connections to obtain prestigious and remunerative clerkships that in turn enabled him to add to his large inherited estate, including 6,000 acres in King and Queen County on the Mattaponi River. In the spring of 1688 Beverley was working as a copyist in the Jamestown office of the secretary of the colony and doubling as deputy clerk of James City County, but he probably lost his berth in October 1691 when Lieutenant Governor Francis Nicholson ousted William Edwards, the chief clerk of the General Court and the secretary’s office.
When Christopher Robinson, the second husband of Beverley’s stepmother Katherine Hone Beverley Robinson, became secretary of the colony in the summer of 1692 he appointed Beverley to the lucrative clerkship of the new county of King and Queen. Following Robinson’s death the next year, Ralph Wormeley, another Middlesex County gentleman close to the Beverley family, became secretary, and he named Peter Beverley chief clerk of the General Court and the secretary’s office. Robert Beverley went to work for his half brother, who by then was also clerk of the House of Burgesses. In March 1693 Robert Beverley became clerk to the Committee of Public Claims, and in May of that year he also filled in temporarily for Peter Beverley as clerk of the General Court.
In October 1693 Robert Beverley succeeded his half brother as chief clerk of the General Court and the secretary’s office, and as clerk of James City County. Beverley substituted for James Sherlock as clerk of the Council and as clerk of the General Assembly in 1696, and in June 1697 he became register of the Virginia Court of Vice-Admiralty. Following the fire that destroyed the statehouse in Jamestown on October 20, 1698, Peter Beverley and Robert Beverley salvaged and arranged the valuable surviving public papers. Robert Beverley resigned as chief clerk before the end of the month and was subsequently elected to represent Jamestown in the House of Burgesses in 1699 and 1700, and in 1699 he was also elected to the distinguished committee to revise the laws of the colony. In March 1703 he became, like his father and half brother before him, clerk of the House of Burgesses.
Beverley acquired property in Jamestown and in Elizabeth City County, and he was appointed to the Elizabeth City County Court on December 27, 1700. Litigation over ownership of Elizabeth City County land resulted in an adverse decision in the General Court, and Beverley appealed the decision to the Privy Council. After he sailed for England in the summer of 1703 to prosecute the case, Francis Nicholson, who had returned to Virginia as governor, deprived him of the clerkship of the House of Burgesses and engineered his dismissal as clerk of King and Queen County.
The History and Present State of Virginia
Beverley lost his case in London, and authored a number of letters back to Virginia that especially angered Nicholson. “As to Mr. Beverley’s letter and narrative,” declared Nicholson, “they are part false, part scandalous, & part Malitious, but I could not expect otherwise from a man of his universal ill character.” While in England Beverley also wrote The History and Present State of Virginia, In Four Parts (1705), the first published history of a British colony by a native of North America. Beverley recalled later that he had reviewed for a bookseller “about six pages of paper written, which contained the account of Virginia and Carolina.” But “the account was too faulty and too imperfect to be mended,” so he proposed to the bookseller to “make him an account of my own country.” Three French-language editions were published between 1707 and 1718, probably as promotional literature to be distributed to Protestants in French-speaking portions of Europe.
When it first appeared in London, the book was three hundred pages of text, accompanied by fourteen engravings, and divided into four sections: “The History of the First Settlement of Virginia,” “The Natural Productions and Conveniencies of the Country,” “The Native Indians,” and “The present State of the Country.” It is an unmatched source for the Virginia of its time—an amalgam of personal observations and stories heard, material borrowed from published and unpublished accounts, and official reports. He also included significant portions from the unpublished writings of several other Virginians. The early section of the history relied heavily on Captain John Smith‘s writings, but the later sections on politics, Native Americans, and the flora, fauna, and agricultural products of the colony used several sources.
No prior author identified himself so clearly as a Virginian. “I am an Indian, and don’t pretend to be exact in my language,” Beverley wrote in the preface. “But I hope the Plainness of my Dress, will give him [the reader] the kinder Impressions of my Honesty, which is what I pretend to.” His treatment of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676–1677) clearly reflected his father’s loyalty to Governor Sir William Berkeley. The History was also sharply critical of Nicholson, including the governor’s transfer of the capital from Jamestown, where Beverley owned property, to the “imaginary City” of Williamsburg. Before leaving London, Beverley participated in the campaign against the governor that led to Nicholson’s recall at about the same time that the History was printed.
Beverley returned to Virginia and resumed the pursuit of wealth. He also returned briefly to politics and represented James City County in the House of Burgesses in 1705–1706 before retiring to his estate, Beverley Park, in King and Queen County. During the 1710s he established friendly relations with Alexander Spotswood and probably accompanied the lieutenant governor on his exploratory journey to the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1716. Beverley also prepared An Abridgement of the Publick Laws of Virginia, In Force and Use, June 10, 1720, which he dedicated to Spotswood. Before sending it to his London publisher Beverley added abridgements to the acts of the assembly session of November–December 1720, in which he represented King and Queen County. The Abridgement, which also contained forms for writs and other legal processes, was issued in 1722. That same year, the publisher brought out a second edition of the History in which Beverley removed some of his earlier critical remarks about Virginia customs and Governor Nicholson and added new material to bring the historical section up to the same June 10, 1720, date given on the title page of the Abridgement.
Beverley’s life during the 1710s is not well documented, but he continued to acquire property, including a large interest in 1719 in an iron foundry. In 1715 John Fontaine visited Beverley “at his residence, near the head of the Mattapony [Mattaponi River]. Here he cultivated several varieties of the grape, native and French, in a vineyard of about three acres, situated upon the side of a hill, from which he made in that year four hundred gallons of wine.” Beverley “had nothing in or about his house but what was actually necessary, he had good beds, but no curtains, and instead of cane chairs used wooden stools. He lived mainly within himself upon the products of his land.”
While Beverley’s experiments in viticulture were successful, he failed in efforts to obtain salaried clerkships to legislative committees. Beverley probably helped his son obtain the clerkship of Essex County in 1717, and he bequeathed most of his large estate to him. Robert Beverley died at Beverley Park on April 21, 1722, possibly without ever seeing the second edition of his History or the first edition of his Abridgement.
- An Essay upon the Government of the English Plantations on the Continent of America (attributed to Beverley, 1701; however, other possible attributions include Benjamin Harrison III and Ralph Wormeley)
- The History and Present State of Virginia, In Four Parts(1705)
- An Abridgement of the Publick Laws of Virginia, In Force and Use, June 10, 1720 (1722)