‘I said my prayers and ate milk and pears for breakfast. About 7 o’clock the negro boy that ran away was brought home. My wife against my will caused little Jenny to be burned with a hot iron, for which I quarreled with her.’ Such was life, 300 years ago today, in the household of William Byrd, a gentleman planter and a man often at odds with his wife over the use of money and the treatment of slaves. We know a lot about his private life - including when he danced his dance and rogered his wife! - thanks to his secret diaries, which were not decoded or published until the 194os.
William Byrd II was born in 1674 at Westover Plantation in Charles City County, Virginia, his father having emigrated from England and become an Indian trader and slave importer. Byrd was sent to England to be schooled and to study law, but returned to Westover on the death of his father in 1705 to run the, by then, large and rich estate. By marrying Lucy Parke, the daughter of Colonel Daniel Parke II, a wealthy land owner and also the governor of the Leeward Islands, Byrd increased both his wealth and power in the region. In 1709, he was made a King’s Councilor, an appointment he held for the rest of his life.
Although Byrd fought with his wife almost daily, it seems, they also loved each other passionately. But she died young, in 1715, from smallpox. That same year, he returned to England where he stayed until 1726. Thereafter, having married again (Maria Taylor) he settled into his role as head of the plantation, and part of the ruling clique. He built a large house at Westover, helped found the city of Richmond, and collected the largest library in the colonies. He died in 1744. More biographical information is available online from Wikipedia or The British Empire.
However, Byrd is mostly remembered for his talent as a writer. The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina, an account by Byrd of the surveying of the border between the US states of North Carolina and Virginia in 1728, is considered one of the earliest colonial literary works and a minor humorous masterpiece.
Byrd was also a letter writer and diarist of some note, though some of his diaries written in shorthand were not decoded or published until the 20th century. Dietz Press published The Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover 1709-1712 (edited by L B Wright and Marion Tinling) in 1941, and Another Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover, 1739-1741, the following year. Nearly 20 years later Oxford University Press published The London Diary, 1717-1721, and other writings.
Several websites have substantial extracts from Byrd’s diaries, including the National Humanities Center, and student resource pages at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Indiana University. Here are a few typical examples.
9 April 1709
‘I rose at 5 o’clock and read a chapter in Hebrew and 150 verses in Homer. I said my prayers devoutly and ate milk for breakfast. My wife and I had another scold about mending my shoes but it was soon over by her submission. I settled my accounts and read Dutch. I ate nothing but cold roast beef and asparagus for dinner. In the afternoon Mr Custis complained of a pain in his side for which he took a sweat of snakeroot. I read more Dutch and took a little nap. In the evening we took a walk about the plantation. My people made an end of planting the corn field. I had an account from Rappahannock that the same distemper began to rage there that had been so fatal on the Eastern Shore. I had good health, good thoughts and good humor, thanks be to God Almighty. I said my prayers.’
15 July 1710
‘About 7 o’clock the negro boy [or Betty] that ran away was brought home. My wife against my will caused little Jenny to be burned with a hot iron, for which I quarreled with her. It was so hot today that I did not intend to go to the launching of Colonel Hill’s ship but about 9 o’clock the Colonel was so kind as to come and call us. My wife would not go at first but with much entreaty she at last consented. About 12 o’clock we went and found abundance of company at the ship and about one she was launched and went off very well, notwithstanding several had believe the contrary. When this was over we went to Mr Platt’s to dinner and I ate boiled beef. We stayed till about 5 o’clock and then returned home, where all was well. I found an express from above with a letter from Joe Wilkinson desiring to be discharged from my service when his year was out.’
12 August 1710
‘I had a quarrel with my wife about her servants who did little work. I wrote a long and smart letter to Mr Perry, wherein I found several faults with his management of the tobacco I sent him and with mistakes he had committed in my affairs. My sloop brought some tobacco from Appomattox. Mr Bland came over and dined with us on his way to Williamsburg. I ate roast shoat for dinner. In the afternoon Mr Bland went away and I wrote more letters. I put some tobacco into the sloop for Captain Harvey. It rained and hindered our walk; however we walked a little in the garden.’
24 September 1710
‘The Governor’s horses got away but Colonel Hill sent men after them and got them again. We had chocolate for breakfast and about 10 o’clock rode home to my house, where we refreshed ourselves and then the Governor and I went to church in the coach and my wife was terribly out of humor because she could not go likewise. Mr. Anderson preached very well and pleased the Governor. After church I invited abundance of gentlemen home where we had a good dinner. My wife after much persuasion came to dinner with us. The company went away in the evening and the Governor and I took a walk on the river side. The Governor was very willing to favor the iron works. We sat up till 9 o’clock.’
31 December 1710
‘My daughter was very sick all night and vomited a great deal but was a little better this morning. All my sick people were better, thank God, and I had another girl come down sick from the [slave] quarters. I danced my dance. Then I read a sermon in Dr Tillotson and after that walked in the garden till dinner. I ate roast venison. In the afternoon I looked over my sick people and then took a walk about the plantation. The weather was very warm still. My wife walked with me and when she came back she was very indisposed and went to bed. In the evening I read another sermon in Dr Tillotson. About 8 o’clock the wind came to northwest and it began to be cold.’
1 January 1712
‘I lay abed till 9 o’clock this morning to bring my wife into temper again and rogered her by way of reconciliation. I read nothing because Mr Mumford was here, nor did I say my prayers, for the same reason. However I ate boiled milk for breakfast, and after my wife tempted me to eat some pancakes with her. Mr Mumford and I went to shoot with our bows and arrows but shot nothing, and afterwards we played at billiards till dinner, and when we came we found Ben Harrison there, who dined with us. I ate some partridge for dinner. In the afternoon we played at billiards again and I won two bits. I had a letter from Colonel Duke by H-l the bricklayer who came to offer his services to work for me. Mr Mumford went away in the evening and John Bannister with him to see his mother. I took a walk about the plantation and at night we drank some mead of my wife’s making which was very good. I gave the people some cider and a dram to the negroes. I read some Latin in Terence and had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thank God Almighty. I said my prayers.’
28 August 1712
‘I danced my dance. The weather was cloudy and warm. My wife was indisposed for want of sleep, having been disturbed by mosquitoes, which we have more of this year than ever I knew. I read some law till dinner and then I ate some hogs’ haslet. In the afternoon I went to the granary to see the people work and then returned and read some Latin till the evening and then I took a walk about the plantation and saw my people making cider. My wife was indisposed very much at night which made me go to bed soon. I said my prayers and had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thank God Almighty. In the night my wife was disturbed with mosquitoes and could not sleep herself nor would she let me sleep.’