Burwell was born in Bedfordshire, England, the son of Edward Burwell and Dorothy Bedell Burwell, and was baptized in Ampthill Parish on March 5, 1622. His family connections undoubtedly explain his immigration to Virginia. His uncles Gabriel Bedell and John Bedell, who were members of the Virginia Company of London, arrived in Jamestown in 1608 and were named in the second charter of the colony in 1609 and on other documents through 1624. One of his sisters married a London merchant who acquired a plantation on Queen’s Creek in York County. Following the death of Burwell’s father in 1626, his mother married Roger Wingate, who in 1633 participated in one of the first attempts to plant a colony in what became North Carolina and who served on the governor’s Council in Virginia from 1640 to 1642.
Burwell may have accompanied his stepfather to America in 1633, but if so he probably returned to England the following year. Burwell had settled in Virginia by January 1641. The records of Accomack County between 1641 and 1647 and of York County after 1645 show him acting with and on behalf of his elder brother William Burwell and other local merchants. Lewis Burwell acquired his first land in 1648, when he and a friend received 2,300 acres on the south bank of the lower part of the York River. Later in 1648 he claimed the headrights inherited from his stepfather and patented 2,350 acres on the north bank of the York River. In that same year Burwell’s mother conveyed to him all the rents due at Wingate’s death in 1642, and thereafter his wealth grew rapidly. On consecutive days in 1650 he received 1,600 acres in Northumberland County and two adjoining tracts of 500 acres each on the south bank of the Potomac River. Two years later Burwell patented another 200 acres.
Sometime after August 1650 Burwell married Lucy Higginson, the first of a long series of marriages by which the Burwell family substantially increased its wealth and social status. Their only child, Lewis Burwell (d. 1710), built on his father’s legacy, partly through connections and property acquired by virtue of Lucy Higginson Burwell’s second marriage in 1653 to William Bernard, a member of the Council from 1641 until his death in 1665, and her third to Philip Ludwell, who was appointed to the Council in 1675, the year of her death.
A major in the militia and often identified as a gentleman, Burwell evidently never held political office, but his family ties and the prominence of many of his near neighbors guaranteed that he was well known and respected by persons able to advance his fortunes. Marital alliances and the seemingly insatiable desire for land are common themes in the rise of the great families that dominated Virginia during most of the colonial period, and few families more clearly illustrate these themes than the Burwells.
About the time of his marriage Burwell settled on his land on Carter’s Creek in Gloucester County. By then he was suffering from a debilitating illness that is not identified in the records. Burwell died probably on November 19, 1652, although his gravestone when it was still legible reportedly indicated that he died in the thirty-third year of his life on November 19, 1658. Several extant documents demonstrate that he died before November 1653, and his widow had married William Bernard by August 1653, suggesting that the gravestone inscription was in error or had been incorrectly transcribed. Burwell was buried in the family cemetery, but his body was later moved to the yard of Abingdon Church in Gloucester County.