Mary Willing was born on September 10, 1740, probably in Philadelphia. It was the home of her parents, Ann Shippen Willing and Charles Willing, a wealthy and respected merchant who twice served that city as mayor. Benjamin Franklin, one of her godfathers, took an interest in her education and sent her histories and parliamentary speeches from Europe. On January 29, 1761, Willing married William Byrd III. A recent widower with four sons and one daughter, he was in winter quarters while commanding a Virginia regiment during the French and Indian War. The couple initially lived in Philadelphia but in 1762 moved to Westover, the Byrd estate in Charles City County. They had four sons and six daughters.
Hopelessly in debt and suspected of Loyalism, William Byrd committed suicide or January 1 or 2, 1777, bequeathing his wife a life interest in most of his property. As sole executrix Mary Willing Byrd faced the enormous task of settling the estate and satisfying her husband’s creditors as well as preserving an inheritance for her children. By seeking payment from her husband’s debtors and selling off his western lands, residences inand , slaves, silver, and the incomparable 3,500-volume library of , she succeeded in keeping possession of Westover.
That achieved, Byrd watched as the American Revolution literally moved into her home. Despite strong family ties to many men serving the British cause, she attempted to tread a fine line of neutrality and thereby preserve her property for her children. In the first week of January 1781 a British force commanded by Benedict Arnold, whose wife was Byrd’s first cousin, landed at Westover. The officers confined her to the upper stories of the house, and the army trampled her wheat, knocked down her fences, butchered her milk cows, and used her plant nursery as a stable. Byrd nevertheless received Arnold tactfully and at one point offered one of her younger sons to the distrustful British as hostage for her good behavior.
Shortly after this visitation Byrd applied to the local American commander for a flag of truce to arrange for the return of forty-nine slaves, three horses, and two ferryboats that the British had seized. The general granted the request even though thehad banned the use of flags for such private purposes. A lieutenant of the HMS Swift, who happened to be a brother-in-law of Byrd’s sister, tried to act under the flag but was detained by George Lee Tuberville, an American major. After discovering a letter from Byrd and a cache of brandy, china, broadcloth, and other goods destined for Westover in the British vessel, Tuberville and a company of light infantry raided Westover on February 21, stormed into Byrd’s bedroom while she was still asleep, and seized her papers.
Byrd defended herself and her property vigorously. She protested directly to General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben that “This surely can not be stiled liberty. It was Liberty that Savages would have blushed at.” To Governorshe defended herself eloquently against those who doubted her loyalty: “I wish well to all mankind, to America in particular. What am I but an American? All my friends and connexions are in America; my whole property is here—could I wish ill to everything I have an interest in?”
Tuberville was arrested and charged with violating a flag of truce, but his court-martial never took place. Byrd was charged in turn with trading with the invading enemy. Her trial, scheduled to begin on March 15 before a special commission of oyer and terminer in the General Court, was first postponed until March 23 and ultimately never held. Rumors circulated that the witnesses had been discouraged from attending. Disgusted with her treatment by both sides, and perhaps fearful for her family after an arsonist attempted to burn her plantation house, Byrd put Westover up for sale and announced that she would leave Virginia. She stayed, however, and in August 1781 asked Governor Thomas Nelson for yet another flag of truce to aid her continuing efforts to recover her slaves. On the eve of the final British withdrawal from the United States in 1783, Byrd appealed to the British commander to honor the promises of restitution made by a succession of British generals.
Byrd’s vigilance and protectiveness in behalf of her family were both remarkable and successful. Placed in a position that she never would have faced if she had not been a wealthy widow, she preserved much of her property and the legacy of one of theof . When Byrd in December 1813, she was still in possession of Westover and was able to provide for all of her children and grandchildren. Not until after her death was Westover sold out of the Byrd family.
Contemporary accounts characterized Byrd as a pious, educated, “amiable & excellent Lady.” One historian of the family judged that she was twice the man her husband had been. Byrd died during March 1814, but the exact date of her death is not recorded. She directed in her will that she be buried next to her husband, who had asked to be interred in the cemetery of old Westover Church.