Byrd was born in London around 1652, the son of John Byrd, a goldsmith, and Grace Stegge Byrd. His grandfather Thomas Stegge grew wealthy and politically powerful in Virginia during the 1630s and 1640s, and Stegge’s namesake son built on what his father had begun. Sometime late in the 1660s Byrd joined his uncle Thomas Stegge in Virginia, and in the spring of 1670 he inherited the bulk of this younger Stegge’s estate.
Known in Virginia history as William Byrd I (although he did not so style himself) to distinguish him fromand of the same name, Byrd became a member of the Henrico County Court and a captain in the militia while still in his twenties. His vision extended principally westward from his residence at the falls of the James River. Byrd became an active Indian trader and explorer. As early as 1671 he was scouting the Piedmont. Both commercial expectations and curiosity about the wilderness may have motivated him, but Byrd took to the woods as if they were his natural habitat. His expeditions took him away from a family he started in 1672 or 1673, when he married Mary Horsmanden Filmer, the daughter of Warham Horsmanden, a Royalist émigré and former member of the governor’s Council, and the widow of Samuel Filmer, who in turn was a younger son of Robert Filmer, author of the famed monarchist tract Patriarcha (1680). Their two sons and three daughters included William Byrd (1674–1744), also known as William Byrd II, Byrd’s eldest child, namesake, and heir.
Byrd had ties to Nathaniel Bacon (1647–1676) as a neighbor, fellow militia officer, and drinking companion. The two were licensed by Governor Sir William Berkeley in autumn 1675 to trade in furs with western Indians. By March 1676 their operations had been terminated when fighting between the Native Americans and the colonists caused the General Assembly to prohibit regular commercial dealings with the Indians. Susquehannocks killed two of Byrd’s men in April, and Bacon experienced a similar loss. Byrd’s location at the falls was both vulnerable and strategic enough that the assembly ordered it garrisoned to protect the colony against further incursions, although he was not given the command of the post. After a night of carousing Byrd and two comrades persuaded Bacon to visit an encampment of armed planters who were poised to fight the Indians even without a commission from Berkeley. By assuming command of this expedition Bacon became the leader of what became a rebellion. Byrd’s underlying motives may have included disenchantment with a governor who had passed him over, disappointment that he had not been named to the governor’s Council, or a desire with Bacon to make up for their suppressed business by seizing a cache of beaver skins that belonged to the Occaneechi, but Byrd also genuinely believed that only an aggressive crusade against the Indians would bring security to the settlers.
Although unhappy with Berkeley and convinced that the colony’s safety would best be served by an offensive campaign against the hostile Indian tribes, Byrd proved unwilling to sacrifice his family’s welfare by remaining stubbornly loyal to a course of action that would have undoubtedly brought about his personal downfall. He has been criticized for switching sides when the cause that he originally promoted began to ebb. The record, while scant, is compatible with a less judgmental explanation of Byrd’s actions. He may well have begun to regret the bold course on which he had helped launch Bacon as soon as he sobered up from
their night of fateful camaraderie. Byrd managed to keep himself in the shadows throughout the heated months that followed Bacon’s unauthorized expedition against the Occaneechi and Susquehannock Indians in May 1676, and that June Byrd sent his family to safety in England. To what extent Byrd distanced himself from the rebels will probably never be known for certain. He may have abandoned the rebellion only after Bacon died in October, although Byrd later indicated that he had refused to take part after the end of September when Bacon plundered the house of one of the governor’s supporters. Although some witnesses contradicted Byrd on this point, he somehow regained Berkeley’s favor and by January 1677 was helping the governor round up the last of the rebels.
Byrd showed some skill retreating from the insurrection he had helped to precipitate, but he displayed even greater dexterity at maneuvering in the troubled political waters afterward. He was too shrewd to allow himself to become closely identified with so controversial a figure as Berkeley, especially after the governor and his intimates collided with the royal commissioners sent to Virginia to investigate the causes of the rebellion. Within a month of the commission’s arrival Byrd curried favor with its members by informing on two men who had made scandalous remarks about them. The men were fined, and Byrd was poised for advancement.
A new order in provincial politics began with the passing of Bacon and Berkeley from the scene. The Crown responded to the rebellion by diminishing the role of the burgesses, bolstering the authority of the governor, and paying closer attention to Virginia. In this new climate Byrd realized that he had to be more aware and involved in politics at bothand Whitehall. He won a seat in the House of Burgesses in 1677, representing Henrico County in that year’s second session, and soon parlayed his new prominence at the capital into an enhanced position at home. In April or May 1679 he received command over the defense forces at the falls of the James River. By 1680 he was Colonel Byrd, a recognition of his expertise in both commercial and military relations with the Indians. An ally and adviser of Governor Thomas Culpeper, baron Culpeper of Thoresway, Byrd may have helped push through the General Assembly a law giving the governor a permanent salary. The new statute freed the governor from a measure of assembly influence.
On January 11, 1683, Byrd was sworn in as a member of the governor’s Council, where he used his knowledge of the frontier and of Native American affairs to help shape policy and appoint agents to deal with the Indians. He had already proved himself to be a swift, ruthless avenger when he retaliated for the murder of a single colonist by killing seven native prisoners from a village whose inhabitants he merely suspected of being guilty. Despite his record, Byrd’s reputation did not always shield the men he employed in the Indian trade, for several caravans that he sent out were attacked with resulting losses of lives, goods, and horses. Nevertheless, he persevered and deserves to be remembered as one of the half dozen most important Indian traders of the seventeenth century who exchanged English clothing, farm implements, cookware, and beads for native furs and skins.
Byrd could have easily perceived himself either as an English landed gentleman living in America or as a successful colonial merchant. He fully realized the dreams of immigrants with London mercantile backgrounds who found Virginia, despite its absence of urban centers, to be replete with commercial opportunities. Byrd underwrote the importation ofand slaves, both to labor in his own fields and for resale to other planters. Over a period of three decades he gained title to almost 30,000 acres of land through purchase, escheat, and patent. More than half of the acreage was amassed through the headright system, with a third of that coming from the importation of African laborers. On the bulk of his land Byrd produced for shipment on consignment to London merchants. Landing areas along the James River at his plantations in Henrico and later in Charles City County enabled Byrd to operate warehouses and stores that served lesser planters in the interior and added to his own stream of income. In the absence of towns, landing areas functioned as small trading centers usually on or adjacent to a riverside plantation.
Politics provided another avenue to revenue enhancement. Uncompensated public service vied with gainful public employment as valid objectives in the seventeenth century. Service as a burgess, councillor, or militia officer was regarded as a public duty, and incumbents were reimbursed only for expenses. On the other hand the position of auditor-general, which Byrd’s uncle had held until his death, was lucrative enough to justify a transatlantic voyage that Byrd made in 1687 primarily to secure the appointment, which gave him responsibility for collecting and accounting for all quitrents (a royal tax on land) and other revenue and fees belonging to the king. Byrd received the combined posts of auditor- and receiver-general on June 20, 1688, and retained them until his death, even though Governor Francis Nicholson and his Council supporters attempted to separate the two offices during the 1690s. Intimations of malfeasance accompanied the separation attempt, but Byrd was probably at least reasonably diligent and honest in his profitable stewardship of the king’s revenues. As senior member of the Council, he served as president, or acting governor, from September until October 24, 1700, from April to June 1703, and in August and September 1704. Byrd was also an original trustee of the College of William and Mary.
Family Life and Later Years
Building on the wealth of the Stegges, Byrd founded one of the great families of colonial Virginia, but his family life was not typical for a seventeenth-century planter. He wed only once, and the marriage endured until his wife’s death in 1699. Mary Byrd appears to have had no offspring from her first marriage, so the Byrd children grew up without the stepbrothers and stepsisters or half siblings common in the complex households characteristic of the region. They did not, however, escape the high incidence of childhood mortality that was prevalent in Virginia. One son died in early childhood, and their daughter Ursula Byrd, who married the historian(d. 1722), died before her seventeenth birthday, probably as a consequence of childbirth. Long separations characterized the relationship between Byrd and his children. His first son spent more of his early life in England than in Virginia, and one of his daughters married in England and lived thereafter in London.
Byrd resided at his Westover property in Charles City County during his final years and died there on December 4, 1704. He was buried in the cemetery at old Westover Church.