Lewis Burwell (1651 or 1652–1710)


Lewis Burwell was a planter who enlarged the already considerable estate he had inherited from his father. By 1704 he was one of the largest landowners in six counties, paying taxes on 26,650 acres. Through marriage alliances and inheritances—both of his stepfathers, his father-in-law, and a son-in-law served on the governor’s Council, and his first wife inherited her fortune from her uncle, who was a councillor—he expanded his fortune. Burwell served as a major in the militia, a trustee of the College of William and Mary, and sat for one term in the House of Burgesses. The Privy Council appointed him to the governor’s Council, but Burwell declined the position. This refusal probably sprung from his daughter‘s refusal to marry Governor Francis Nicholson, along with declining health.

Burwell was born in 1651 or 1652, probably in Gloucester County, the only child of Lewis Burwell (1622–1652) and Lucy Higginson Burwell. Less than a year after his father’s death, his mother married William Bernard, a member of the governor’s Council, with whom she had three children before he died on March 31, 1665. By November 1667 she had married Philip Ludwell, who became a councillor eight years later and with whom she had two children. Burwell thus grew up as part of a politically prominent, wealthy, and extended family. About 1674 he married Abigail Smith, the niece and heir of Nathaniel Bacon (1620–1692), who was also a councillor. They had four sons and six daughters before her death on November 12, 1692. Sometime between March 4, 1694, and November 21, 1695, Burwell married Martha Lear Cole, daughter of John Lear, who had served on the Council, and widow of William Cole, yet another councillor. They probably had two sons and three daughters.

Burwell made good use of the connections he gained through the profitable marriages of his mother and greatly enlarged the fortune he had inherited from his father. Already related to the powerful Ludwell family, he saw his sons and daughters marry into the Armistead, Bassett, Berkeley, Carter, and Harrison families. By the 1690s the marriage alliances were no longer one-sided. In six of the seven counties in which he paid taxes in 1704, Burwell was one of the largest landowners, and in Charles City County he owned 8,000 acres, more than any other person. He paid taxes on 26,650 acres that year and was one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. His son Nathaniel Burwell (1680–1721) lived until his death at Fairfield, the striking brick mansion that Burwell had built in the 1690s on Carter’s Creek in Gloucester County; another son, Lewis Burwell (d. 1743), lived at Kingsmill, part of the former Bacon estate in James City County; and his daughter Lucy Burwell was the object of a renowned and turbulent courtship by Francis Nicholson, but she spurned the governor and married Edmund Berkeley (d. ca. 1719), of Barn Elms in Middlesex County.

The Bodleian Plate

Burwell was a popular member of Tidewater Virginia society, and his name appears regularly in the diary of William Byrd (1674–1744). Burwell became a militia major; a governor, or trustee, of the College of William and Mary; and a trustee of the city of Williamsburg. His name is not included on any extant list of justices of the peace, but a man of his stature would normally have served on the county court, and the loss of most of the Gloucester County records makes it impossible to rule this service out. In 1698 Burwell served a single term in the House of Burgesses, where he sat on the Committee for Propositions and Grievances. Membership on the governor’s Council was the highest office to which a Virginian could then realistically aspire, and it usually marked a man or his family as having reached the pinnacle of Virginia society. On September 5, 1700, the Privy Council appointed Burwell to the Council, but on October 13, 1701, he wrote to the Board of Trade and, citing his poor health, but perhaps also believing that his strained relationship with Nicholson would make membership on the Council unpleasant, asked to be excused from service. On May 14, 1702, the Privy Council accepted the Board of Trade’s recommendation that Burwell’s appointment as councillor be withdrawn, and he consequently never served.

Burwell was the central figure in the rise of a prominent Virginia family. By concentrating on acquiring land and pursuing family connections, he became one of the wealthiest men of his time and maximized his descendants’ ability to succeed. Among the many evidences of his prosperity was his donation of a lavish set of communion silver to Abingdon Parish. Burwell died at his plantation on King’s Creek in York County on December 19, 1710. He was buried at Fairfield in Gloucester County, but his remains were later moved to Abingdon Church.

1651 or 1652
Lewis Burwell (d. 1710) is born, probably in Gloucester County, to Lewis Burwell (1622—1652) and Lucy Higginson Burwell.
August 1653
By this time Lucy Higginson Burwell has married William Bernard, with whom she will have three children.
November 1667
Lucy Higginson Burwell Bernard marries Philip Ludwell, with whom she will have two children.
ca. 1674
Lewis Burwell (d. 1710) marries Abigail Smith, the niece and heir of Nathaniel Bacon the Elder. They will have four sons and six daughters.
November 12, 1692
Abigail Smith Burwell, wife of Lewis Burwell (d. 1710), dies.
March 4, 1694—November 21, 1695
At some point between these two dates, Lewis Burwell (d. 1710) marries Martha Lear Cole. They will likely have two sons and three daughters.
Lewis Burwell (d. 1710) serves a single term in the House of Burgesses.
September 5, 1700
The Privy Council appoints Lewis Burwell (d. 1710) to the governor's Council at Governor Francis Nicholson's suggestion.
September 22, 1701
Governor Francis Nicholson delivers a speech to the House of Burgesses in which he makes an unsubtle reference to his love for eighteen-year-old Lucy Burwell, daughter of Major Lewis Burwell. She declines his marriage proposal.
October 13, 1701
Lewis Burwell (d. 1710) writes to the Board of Trade asking to be excused from service to the governor's Council. He cites his poor health, but may have believed that his strained relationship with Governor Francis Nicholson would make membership on the council unpleasant.
May 14, 1702
The Privy Council accepts the Board of Trade's recommendation that Lewis Burwell's appointment as councillor be withdrawn.
May 20, 1703
Six members of the governor's Council—James Blair, Robert Carter, Benjamin Harrison II, John Lightfoot, Philip Ludwell, and Matthew Page—complete a letter to Queen Anne urging her to remove Governor Francis Nicholson.
Lewis Burwell (d. 1710) pays taxes on 26,650 acres of land. He is among the largest landowners and the wealthiest men in Virginia.
December 19, 1710
Lewis Burwell dies at his plantation on King's Creek in York County. He is buried at Fairfield in Gloucester County, but his remains are later removed to Abingdon Church.
  • Blair, John L. “The Rise of the Burwells.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 72 (1964): 304–329.
  • Downey, Fairfax. “The Governor Goes A-Wooing: The Swashbuckling Courtship of Nicholson of Virginia, 1699–1705.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 55 (1947): 6–19.
  • Lee, Christopher F. “Burwell, Lewis (1651 or 1652–1710).” In Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 432–433. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
APA Citation:
Lee, Christopher & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Lewis Burwell (1651 or 1652–1710). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/burwell-lewis-1651-or-1652-1710.
MLA Citation:
Lee, Christopher, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Lewis Burwell (1651 or 1652–1710)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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