William Byrd was born on September 6, 1728, at Westover in Charles City County, the only son of William Byrd II and his second wife, Maria Taylor Byrd. His indulgent parents raised him in a style that few upper-class Virginians could match. With a 3,500-volume library and numerous servants at Westover, among the most beautiful of Virginia’s eighteenth-century mansions, Byrd had his every wish granted. His father appears to have been attentive to Byrd. He played billiards and cards and bowled with his son and even ran with him at least once, on February 21, 1740, when the elder Byrd was nearly sixty-six.
Known in many Virginia histories as William Byrd III, although it is a style he did not himself use, Byrd was educated with his sisters and some children from neighboring planter families at a school on the Westover estate. His father provided him with books as well as laboratory equipment such as telescopes, a barometer, a thermometer, and a vacuum pump. The elder Byrd had spent most of his first three decades in England, but he did not send his own son abroad to be educated. A mother who could not bear to part with him and fear of smallpox kept the young man in Virginia until after his father’s death in 1744. About two years later he went to London to study law at the Middle Temple. Contemporary comments on Byrd’s English sojourn highlight his pursuit of pleasure rather than knowledge. He evidently succumbed to many of the dissipations popular with young men of rank and fortune in London, including gambling, a weakness that plagued him throughout his life.
Byrd had returned to Virginia by April 14, 1748, when he married Elizabeth Hill Carter, a member of another of Virginia’s great colonial families. They had four sons and one daughter. In the early years of their marriage the young couple probably lived at Belvidere, a mansion overlooking the falls of the James River that he either built or refurbished. Byrd’s mother remained at Westover, where she died in 1771.
The young man assumed enormous responsibilities. Not yet twenty-one when he married, Byrd soon gained full control of an estate that included more than 179,000 acres, hundreds of slaves, and numerous mills, fisheries, vessels, warehouses, and a store. Even though he employed business and farm managers, the estate required complicated coordination. Byrd also assumed all of the other roles an upper-class Virginian was expected to fill. In early adulthood he was a justice of the peace in both Halifax and Charles City counties, where he owned land, and he also served as county lieutenant in Halifax County. In 1752 Byrd was elected to the House of Burgesses from Lunenburg County and served until 1754, when he was appointed to the governor’s Council, a post he held until its last meeting in May 1775. Because of his father’s experience Byrd was considered knowledgeable on Native American affairs, and in 1756 he and Peter Randolph represented the colony in negotiations with the Catawba and Cherokee Indians in South Carolina. In all of these posts he appears to have served actively and responsibly.
But Byrd could not live within his income, and as early as 1755 he was in dire financial straits. He conveyed his estate in 1756 to seven trustees, who by 1767 had reportedly sold land and slaves worth £40,000, a huge sum that still did not pay off his debts. The total of the debt cannot be accurately calculated, but in 1768 Byrd resorted to a lottery, the prizes for which were to come from the bulk of his estate at the falls of the James River, valued at £56,796. He vainly hoped to raise £50,000 from the sale of tickets in Virginia and England. Byrd sold additional lands, mortgaged slaves and all of the Westover silver, and finally sold for £15,500 the English estate that he had inherited from his mother. Even these efforts did not cover his debts, some of which burdened the Byrd estate well into the nineteenth century.
Byrd’s ability to incur such a vast debt before his thirtieth birthday is difficult to explain. Gambling was certainly a major factor. He reportedly lost £10,000 to the duke of Cumberland in one evening in London. A French visitor to Williamsburg describing the popularity of gaming at a tavern in 1765 remarked that Byrd was “never happy but when he has the box and Dices in hand” and added that Byrd had “reduced himself to that Degree by gameing, that few or nobody will Credit him for Ever so small a sum of money.” Even after putting his estate in the hands of trustees Byrd continued to spend freely, perhaps because his income, though reduced, remained substantial. Thanks to his status and polish as the head of a distinguished family, a member of the Council, and a handsome gentleman with elegant manners, his friends found him difficult to deal with firmly until it was too late. They generally conceded that he wanted to pay his debt and had a sense of honor and justice, but as Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier observed, “his Failing is want of Circumspection and Steadiness.”
Debt was not Byrd’s only problem. By the mid-1750s his marriage was failing, and in the summer of 1756 a report circulated that he had repudiated his wife. After turning his estate over to the trustees and sending his three eldest children to England in the care of an uncle and aunt, Byrd volunteered for service under John Campbell, earl of Loudoun, then commander of British forces in North American during the French and Indian War (1756–1763). Byrd did not see his wife again. After writing him affectionate letters that begged him to return, Elizabeth Byrd died on July 25, 1760, a probable suicide.
With one brief exception Byrd was in military service from 1756 until 1761. He served in Nova Scotia, the Carolinas, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Byrd used his early experience with Indians to recruit them for service against the French. In 1758 he became colonel of the 2nd Virginia Regiment, and the following year he succeeded George Washington as commander of the 1st Virginia Regiment. After an abortive campaign against the Cherokee, Byrd resigned his command in September 1761. During his years of military service he never saw battle but served ably, experienced great hardship, and managed to spend large amounts of his own money. Even in the field Byrd supported a costly table that would have done honor to a general. When he was in Pittsburgh in 1759, for example, his mother hired a wagon and sent him eleven dozen bottles of wine and a great deal of coffee, tea, French brandy, English soap, sweetmeats, fine chocolate, and sugar.
While in winter quarters in Philadelphia in 1760 Byrd met Mary Willing, a daughter of Charles Willing, a prominent local merchant and former mayor of the city. They were married on January 29, 1761. At first the Byrds lived in a house he built in Philadelphia, but they had moved to Westover by the autumn of 1762 and spent the remainder of their married life there. They had four sons and six daughters. Byrd resumed his seat on the Council, took an active role in the management of his business affairs, and worked to pay off his debts and provide for his children. In addition to producing large amounts of tobacco, he offered 11,000 bushels of wheat for sale in 1770 alone, and he also operated a lead mine in southwestern Virginia, an iron forge near Richmond, and other profitable ventures. Byrd proved difficult to deal with in business matters. He once refused to pay George Washington rent on a property in Williamsburg and swore at the latter’s agent. When John Beale, the manager of Byrd’s iron forge, resigned and tried to collect money owed him, Byrd rudely refused to pay, and Beale found himself unable to sue Byrd because no attorney would take a case against so prominent a member of the Council.
Byrd’s later life was not easy. Almost every year someone commented on his desperate circumstances. When an audit disclosed in 1766 that John Robinson, the Speaker of the House of Burgesses and treasurer of Virginia, had illegally lent more than £100,000 of paper money to prominent friends and acquaintances, the colony’s leaders learned that Byrd had received the largest amount—£14,921. And things only got worse. He was unable to retire his debts; the lottery was largely a failure; two of his sons ran amok at the College of William and Mary, destroyed property, and threatened the institution’s president; and the death of his mother in 1771 left him owing £5,000 to his children by his first wife.
Byrd continued to enjoy a very expensive lifestyle and does not seem to have denied himself or his family in any way. He dispensed lavish hospitality, raced blooded horses, and purchased expensive British army and navy commissions for three of his sons, one of whom he sent off with a riding chair, horses, and a servant. Byrd purchased a house in Williamsburg, hired tutors, and in 1773 bought a new chariot. His life was luxurious but not idle. He apparently worked hard, continued trying to increase his income, and sold some of his eastern land in order to acquire property farther west. He also remained active in public affairs and unsuccessfully sought appointment as secretary of the colony.
On July 6, 1774, a thoroughly unhappy Byrd made his will, disposing of an estate that “thro’ my own folly and inattention to accounts the carelessness of some intrusted with the management thereof and the vilany of others, is still greatly incumbered with Debts which imbitters every moment of my Life.” The political difficulties between Virginia and the mother country also disturbed him. He had little sympathy with “the frantick patriotism” of many Virginia leaders and urged a moderate approach and continued loyalty to the Crown. On July 30, 1775, he wrote to his old commander, Sir Jeffery Amherst, offering his service to the king and stating that he still hoped to convince his countrymen of the error of their ways.
In November 1775, however, the royal governor of Virginia offered freedom to slaves who ran away and joined the fight against the Virginia revolutionaries. That proved too much for many moderates, including Byrd, who in December unsuccessfully sought the post of colonel of the 3rd Virginia Regiment. On February 25, 1776, Landon Carter heard that Byrd was “going to the Congress to solicit an appointment to be Majr. Genl.” If he went to Philadelphia, nothing came of his efforts. On January 1 or 2, 1777, Byrd, an embittered forty-eight-year-old man, took his own life at Westover. His will directed that he be buried in the cemetery of old Westover Church.