ELIZABETH WIRT WAS PREGNANT in the summer of 1803. Her husband feared for her life. Too many women died in childbirth; he had lost his first wife. To distract his mind, he began a series of lighthearted, faintly satirical sketches describing Virginia and Virginians. Though he came from Maryland, William Wirt tried to make himself an eminent Virginian in law, in politics, and in letters. He had joined an informal college of wit-crackers whose dean was St. George Tucker in Williamsburg. His friends wrote verse and essays. So would he.
Wirt called his pieces The Letters of the British Spy, pretending they had been found in a boardinghouse. Readers knew Wirt was the author. Still, a catchy title and a pose of British condescension toward provincials helped attract notice as these sketches appeared first in newspapers, then, before the end of the year, in a small book. It was published after Elizabeth Wirt gave birth to a girl.
The spy’s first letter, written in Richmond, included a short account of how that city at the falls of the James River, capital of the state, had been planned long ago by the man who then owned the site. William Byrd served the spy’s purpose as a striking example of unequal ownership of property in Virginia. Dead for sixty years, he was a figure of romance from past days of heroic adventure. The spy described Byrd’s service in 1728 with commissioners and surveyors running a boundary line between Virginia and North Carolina. Not far west of the sea their course lay through the Great Dismal Swamp, “an immense morass” of “black, deep mire, covered with a stupendous forest.” Wirt crammed his paragraph with lurid color: beasts of prey, endless labor, perpetual terror, and, wildest of all, nighttime filled with “the deafening, soul chilling yell” of unnamed hungry animals. On such a night, William Byrd received a visit from “Hope, that never failing friend of man.” He planned the city of Richmond, to be erected on land he owned.
Great Dismal Swamp, Albemarle Sound, and Outer Banks. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library. Drawn by a British Army cartographer during the Revolutionary War. The dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina runs through the Dismal Swamp.
For readers who might wonder how the spy knew all this, Wirt added a footnote citing Byrd’s manuscript account, preserved by his descendants in the family home at Westover. Mary Willing Byrd, widow of William Byrd’s son, still practiced, with the help of her daughter and granddaughters, the hospitality of an earlier time. A guest was welcome to read a folio volume, bound in vellum, containing the work Byrd had talked of publishing but had continued to revise and rewrite in two versions: History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina Run in the Year of Our Lord 1728 and The Secret History of the Line. The volume included his accounts of two other expeditions: A Progress to the Mines in the Year 1732 and A Journey to the Land of Eden: Anno 1733. A reader could sit in the parlor on a chair covered in crimson silk damask, lifting his eyes from the page to high, wainscotted walls hung with portraits in black and gilt frames and to intricate, symmetrical rocaille plasterwork on the ceiling. Or a visitor might stay in a guest room and glance from William Byrd’s writings to a painting above the fireplace, a naked Venus, lying asleep on her right side—the work of Titian, the family said. Windows opened onto terraced gardens leading down to the James River, onto the walled garden where the body of William Byrd lay buried, and onto a separate library, which once had held Byrd’s thousands of volumes. In hot weather a traveler from the North lay on a sofa by the curiously carved balustrade of the big staircase in the central hall, catching any breeze that blew between the ornate stone pilasters of the north and south doorways. Reading the manuscript, he found Byrd to be “a sly joker,” whose work “tickled me in some of my susceptible parts.”
The family at Westover also preserved other writings by William Byrd. While in England, he had published A Discourse Concerning the Plague, though he had left his name off the title page, putting instead: “By a Lover of Mankind.” This scholarly pamphlet drew upon his wide reading to assemble vivid descriptions of the extent and the physical effects of the plague since ancient times. How could “this dismal distemper” be avoided? He endorsed traditional measures such as temperance, repentance for sins, and abstinence from “immoderate Venery.” But he concluded that those seeking the utmost security ought to surround themselves at all times with tobacco—“this powerful Alexipharmick,” “this great Antipoison.” He told them to carry tobacco in their clothes, hang bundles of it in their rooms and around their beds, burn it in their dining rooms while eating, chew it, smoke it, take it as snuff. “Tobacco being itself a poison, the effluvia flowing from it, do, by a similitude of parts, gather to them the little bodies of the pestilential taint, and intirely correct them.” Virginians escaped the plague because they produced and consumed tobacco. The plague had grown rare in England as use of tobacco spread. It was, Byrd wrote, “our sovereign antidote.” Thus Virginians offered a benefit to humanity, or at least to that large portion of mankind who did not get a joke.
Readers of Byrd’s History of the Dividing Line noticed his suggestion that “a great Sum of Money” be invested to drain the Dismal Swamp and thereby make that land “very Profitable.” Another, smaller manuscript in Byrd’s neat, square handwriting took the form of a petition to the king. The unnamed petitioners sought a royal grant of the entire Dismal Swamp and all the unowned land within half a mile of any part of it, more than 900 square miles. To the petition Byrd added a description of the swamp and a proposal to drain it and make it fertile, able to yield vast crops of hemp. Byrd made it all sound easy. Form a new company to finance the project for ten years with a capital of £4,000. Start with ten slaves to dig ditches, fell trees, make boards and shingles, render pine tar, grow rice and corn and hemp, and tend cattle. With its own food and salable commodities the undertaking would partly “carry on itself.” As fast as clearing and ditching advanced, buy more slaves, thereby accelerating progress. True, the swamp’s “malignant vapours” would kill some slaves, but others would “Breed” and “supply the loss.” Use profits from slaves’ labor to defray expenses and purchase still more slaves. There could be “no doubt in the world” that, once the original capital had been invested, the Dismal Swamp would have become as good as any soil in Virginia, with at least three hundred slaves at work and “an incredible number” of cattle grazing and multiplying. “From all which we may safely conclude,” Byrd wrote, “that each share will then be worth more than Ten times the value of the original subscription, besides the unspeakable Benefit it will prove to the Publick.”
William Byrd, Unknown Artist. Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society. A portrait of the elder William Byrd painted in London and brought to Virginia.
More than 900 percent profit in ten years, a “Bogg” rendered productive, a region rescued from the swamp’s “noisome Exhalations,” a system of canals connecting North Carolina’s trade to Virginia’s ports, and huge crops of hemp for cordage for Britain’s merchant fleets and Royal Navy—surely the Crown must make this grant and exempt the petitioners from the customary charges and quitrents. Yet “to remove all suspicion of Fraud,” they would agree to pay if they did not drain the swamp in ten years. Of course, the Crown would extend their time if they met “unforeseen Difficultys.” Byrd’s manuscript closed with a few sentences on the sex lives and marriages of slaves, explaining the wisdom of “providing wives” who would keep men from “rambling abroad anights.” At Westover, Mary Willing Byrd, then her daughter, Evelyn Byrd Harrison, at Brandon, and then her grandson, George Harrison, kept the little manuscript of William Byrd’s petition for the Dismal Swamp with the folio volume of his other writings.
Some of William Wirt’s friends and some of his colleagues among Virginia’s lawyers were heirs or attorneys of men who had tried to carry out William Byrd’s proposal long after Byrd’s death. They had been among the leading men of their day; three were still living in 1803. Wirt had some tie to each of the early members of what was now called “the old Dismal Swamp Company.” His best friends in Virginia—William Nelson, Jr., St. George Tucker, and John Page, the wit-crackers of Williamsburg—knew the company well. Judge William Nelson, Jr., Mary Willing Byrd’s son-in-law, remained active in its affairs. His father, William Nelson, and his uncle, Thomas Nelson, had been two of the most powerful Virginians in the 1760s, when they had helped to found the company. St. George Tucker, professor of law at the College of William and Mary, gave legal advice to members of both the Farley family and the Meade family as they squabbled among themselves over estates and debts. The late Francis Farley, planter, councillor, and judge in the Leeward Island of Antigua, had been the first to try to carry out William Byrd’s proposal. Farley’s son moved to Virginia and became the husband of one of Byrd’s granddaughters. David Meade had lived near the Dismal Swamp in the 1760s and had acquired, through his wife, the share once owned by her father, William Waters of the Eastern Shore and Williamsburg. Meade lived in Kentucky in 1803, pursuing his hobbies: landscape gardening and litigation. John Page was governor of Virginia, elected to that office in gratitude for his services during the American Revolution. Page needed its salary. Though his father, Mann Page, had given him land, slaves, a piece of the Dismal Swamp Company, and the largest, most ornate house in Virginia, he could not pay his own debts, let alone those of his father’s estate.
Among William Wirt’s colleagues in the law were Edmund Pendleton, Bushrod Washington, and John Wickham. Pendleton had administered the messy estate of Speaker John Robinson. The most powerful man in Virginia for many years, Robinson had a hand in money-making schemes of the 1760s; the founders of the Dismal Swamp Company prudently had made him a partner. Bushrod Washington, justice of the United States Supreme Court, was an executor of the estate of his uncle, George Washington. It still held a share in the Dismal Swamp Company, for which George Washington had done much service with high hopes long before. Young lawyers envied John Wickham, who made an ample income and lived a luxurious life. He sued Virginians in federal court on behalf of creditors in Britain at last able to collect old debts unpaid since colonial days. Most of these clients were merchants, and among them was one of the original partners of the Dismal Swamp Company, the baleful Samuel Gist in London. Nearing the age of eighty in 1803, Gist retained good health and a sharp mind. Rich and nominally retired, he still went into the City, walked on the Exchange, visited the subscribers’ room at Lloyd’s, and extracted money from Virginians and others.
Wirt felt fond of Francis Walker, genial, drunken son and heir of Dr. Thomas Walker. Dr. Walker had twice crossed and marked Virginia’s west beyond the Allegheny Mountains. Leaders of the Cherokees, the Shawnees, and the Iroquois had known him well, to their cost. Had Virginia’s land companies been a spiderweb, Dr. Walker would have been the spider. And he had shared George Washington’s expectations for their Dismal Swamp Company. Wirt also knew Robert Lewis, mayor of Fredericksburg, who, with his brothers, was still pursued in court by heirs of Anthony Bacon, onetime associate of their father, Fielding Lewis. Bacon, a merchant, ironmaster, slave trader, government contractor, and member of Parliament, had been the Dismal Swamp Company’s first man in London before Samuel Gist arrived. Fielding Lewis, a merchant in Fredericksburg, had represented Bacon’s interests in Virginia. Lewis also had joined his brother-in-law, George Washington, in starting the Dismal Swamp Company.
In 1803, William Wirt was moving his law practice to Norfolk, where everyone knew Thomas Newton, Jr., one of the city’s leading politicians and merchants. Newton promoted the digging of a canal through the Dismal Swamp, remaining loyal to the project despite its problems. He also handled the complicated affairs of the estate of his father-in-law, Robert Tucker, Norfolk merchant and founding member of the Dismal Swamp Company, whose fortunes had fallen so rapidly just before his death. Tucker was a kinsman of both Nelson brothers, William and Thomas. He was also related to Robert Burwell. Burwell had served on Virginia’s colonial Council with the Nelsons, but his main interest had been horses, and his kinsmen had agreed that he was the weak link of the Dismal Swamp Company.
William Wirt had higher literary ambitions than The Letters of the British Spy. He had ingratiated himself with leading Virginians, including the president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. How better to confirm his standing as a political and literary heir to eminent Virginians than by memorializing their greatest success in a book? For Wirt, a Jeffersonian, Virginia’s heroic age was not the era of William Byrd or the era of Speaker Robinson and the Nelson brothers but of the American Revolution. To celebrate it, he planned a book about Patrick Henry. He would portray Henry as a hero who had freed Virginia not only from King George III and Parliament but also from the likes of the Nelsons, Speaker Robinson, and “old Colo. Byrd.”
William Byrd—“Colonel” meant that he led his county’s militia—planned the city of Richmond in 1733, not as he lay in the Dismal Swamp in 1728. He never saw the interior of the Dismal Swamp. Commissioners for running a boundary line in 1728 went around the swamp, leaving surveyors to hack and wade through it. Virginia’s officials had sought a precise boundary for years. People had settled farther south of the James River and farther north of Albemarle Sound in greater numbers since the 1680s. Many Virginians of the “poorer sort” moved into North Carolina, where, if they bothered to seek title, they could get more land from the proprietor’s office at lower cost than in Virginia. Worse, in 1706, the surveyor of North Carolina started running lines west of the Dismal Swamp on land that Virginia officials claimed as their colony’s. Some in the area hoped to get title from North Carolina, as they had not from Virginia. Worst of all, this intruding surveyor began to lay out a dividing line between the colonies without consulting the government of Virginia. The Council sent someone to stop him.
Virginia officials called the oldest residents of the southernmost counties to swear under oath that no one ever had believed the boundary to run where Carolinians said it did. In the summer of 1710 the two colonies, under orders from London, appointed commissioners to establish a line jointly. These four men spent September and October gathering depositions and trying in vain to take a celestial fix with a sea quadrant to find the latitude. They had no hope of agreement: the Virginians accused the Carolinians of trying to change witnesses’ testimony; Carolinians accused Virginians of cheating with the quadrant. The commissioners parted bitterly, without starting a survey. Before the delegations met, Virginians, approaching the swamp from the west, concluded that there was “no passage through the Dismall.”
From a distance, the Dismal Swamp looked impassable. Ancient, immense cypress trees, massed, presented a wall of broad, bald trunks supporting feathery crowns 100 feet up, above which a few buzzards or a hawk slowly moved to and fro. In the forest were black gum trees and thick stands of white cedar. Under the right conditions, barricades of trees reverberated a shout with an echo. The great swamp had smaller tributary swamps; it sent out broad tentacles of wetland.
The Dismal Swamp’s uneven surface sloped slightly downward from west to east. Almost imperceptibly, amber water flowed from it. Beaver dams deepened standing water, providing better fishing to otters and convenient frogs to great blue herons. Cypress, gum, and cedar had bases in water and roots in a deep accumulation of peat. Above the surface, the pedestals of kneelike roots of cypress and arching roots of gum trees held honeysuckle, yellow jessamine, and vines of bright hydrangea delicately climbing their trunks. Virginia creeper intertwined under branches hung with moss, locking the closely set trees together. Thick rattan stems coiled around some trees. The swamp mirrored itself where trees and their hangings were reflected in its dark water. Much of the drier, mossy ground was spongy and yielding. Where time or storms or fire had felled trees, the swamp lay choked with tumbled trunks and branches. Rich ferns grew to heights of nine or ten feet, as did reeds. These, with myriad coiled briers and hanging vines, could make any spot seem closed off from all others. Sounds did not travel far, and the swamp seemed to sit in silence, creating its own dark shade.
Yet the swamp could be noisy. On a spring or summer evening many kinds of frogs, so numerous that the earth seemed to undulate and croak, kept up a cacophony, swelling as darkness fell. In the night, frogs and bats consumed part of the vast population of insects. In summer, blood-sucking horse flies swarmed. Large mosquitoes hovered in thick clouds. Barred owls preyed on shrews and mice. At the approach of dawn, an array of birds, especially warblers and thrushes, awoke the swamp. With different cries, in autumn great numbers of grackles and crows descended.
Dense growths of tall bamboo hung in broad arches. On these, snakes sometimes sunned themselves—copperheads or a water snake exposing its bright red underside. Water snakes consumed fish and fell prey in turn to long king snakes.
On some margins of the swamp and on drier ridges and islands within it, sandy, firmer stretches supported hardwood trees—red maples and white oaks—as well as tulip poplars and forests of loblolly pine overshadowing a profuse undergrowth of cane and briers, ferns, blackberry thickets, gallberry shrubs, and rusty red and green poison oak. Blackberries, gum berries, and beehives in trees attracted black bears, the swamp’s largest animals. Berries, saplings, and other ground plants were forage for flocks of white-tailed deer, some of which fell to packs of gray wolves.
Near the eastern rim of the swamp lay a broad expanse of open marsh densely covered with tall green reeds—thousands of acres of reeds swaying under the wind in waves like the surface of the sea. In its interior the swamp hid a shallow, almost circular lake ringed with old cypress trees. When its dark water lay still on a windless day outside the migrating season for swans, ducks, and geese, the swamp’s silence seemed even deeper on the lake than amid the undergrowth. Around the lake the swamp’s fecundity extended for hundreds of thousands of acres in every direction.
William Byrd measured his trip along the northern margin of the Dismal Swamp from the east side to the west side as 65 miles. More than any other tract in the colony, the swamp confirmed his description of Virginia. True, Virginia lacked the Garden of Eden’s Tree of Life, Byrd wrote, but, apart from that, “our land produces all the fine things of Paradise, except innocence.”
Visitors to the counties in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina found many residents odd. They seemed ignorant but self-satisfied, dirty but idle, poor but dishonest. They gave travelers directions that turned out to be wrong. They told learned men about strange creatures, such as the jointed snake, which broke into inch-long pieces when struck. They acted as if there were “no difference between a Gentleman and a labourer all fellows at Foot Ball.” Quakers had settled in the region, hoping to be left alone; other people, with little or no religion, sought the same comfort. Poor Virginians moved into North Carolina, got 150 or 200 acres to support some corn and pigs, while the swamp fed their cattle and they tried to evade paying quitrents to the proprietor in England. Indebted Virginians crossed into North Carolina, where their creditors could not collect. “Women forsake their husbands come in here and live with other men.” In the zone claimed by both colonies, some people told a Virginia official that they lived in North Carolina and a North Carolina official that they lived in Virginia. “Borderers” allowed runaway slaves to hide and farm nearby, taking a large share of their crops in return for concealment. One governor reported: “The Inhabitants of North Carolina, are not Industrious but subtle and crafty to admiration.” The leaders of both colonies wished to bring more order to “the disputed bounds” near the Dismal Swamp and farther west. To do so, they needed a clearly marked line.
In the evening of February 2, 1720, the Spotswood, out of London, sailed between the capes and dropped anchor in Chesapeake Bay. William Byrd had returned to Virginia. He did not plan to stay long, three months at most. Yet he did not leave for England until the summer of 1721. Upon reaching London, he published his Discourse Concerning the Plague. A widower for almost five years, he went back to England partly to win a rich wife. After he failed with several women, he and Maria Taylor were married in May 1724. Twenty months later the couple went on board the Williamsburg and sailed for Virginia. William Byrd never saw England again. Back at Westover in 1726, he became one of Virginia’s commissioners for running the boundary line.
By spending the year 1720 at Westover rather than in London, Byrd missed the excitement of the South Sea Bubble, an episode that would affect people’s notions of companies and finance for one hundred years. He received lurid reports about the collapse of the South Sea Company’s stock: “The fire of London or the plague ruin’d not the number that are now undone, all ranks of people bewayling their condition in the coffee houses & open streets.” Endowed with a monopoly of Britain’s trade to South America, the South Sea Company never did much trading, though its monopoly was its chief tangible asset. Instead, the directors undertook to refinance Britain’s national debt, offering to retire it more quickly at a reduced rate of interest. To accomplish this, the company persuaded holders of government annuities, which made up the bulk of the debt, to exchange their annuities for stock in the South Sea Company, in expectation of much larger returns from a rising stock. The company would thus become the government’s largest creditor and retire the national debt sooner at a lower cost.
As South Sea stock rose, annuities came in more easily, and investors bought more stock on the open market. In fact, its price had to rise for this scheme to work. The company helped by allowing deferred payment for stock and by lending money, accepting its own stock as security, knowing that loans would be used to buy more stock. The company bid up the price on the open exchange by buying some of its new issues. Many people made quick profits by buying and reselling in a rising market. Imitators of the South Sea Company announced new projects, promised immense profits, and invited subscriptions. They planned to use subscribers’ money not for the advertised enterprise but to turn a profit in South Sea stock. During the spring and summer of 1720, avid striving for easy wealth grew more frantic. South Sea stock, selling at 116 before the annuity scheme, rose to 375 by May 19, then to 820 by August 12. On August 24, the company sold a new issue of £1,200,000 at a price of 1,000, all subscribed in a few hours. Its supposed value rested on nothing but “the opinion of mankind.” Balladeers sang rhymed warnings:
Five hundred millions, notes and bonds
Our stocks are worth in value;
But neither lie in goods or lands,
Or money, let me tell you.
Yet though our foreign trade is lost,
Of mighty wealth we vapour;
When all the riches that we boast
Consists in scraps of paper!
The South Sea Company induced the government to take legal action against some of the new projects, which were “bubbles”—all stock and no substance. Calling smaller bubbles into question encouraged doubts about the South Sea Company. Its stock began to fall in September, dropping from 1,100 to 185 in six weeks. With the help of purchases by the Bank of England, the price held near 400. Speculators took heavy losses, and two-thirds of the original holders of the national debt found that they had exchanged £26,000,000 in secure annuities for £8,500,000 in South Sea Company stock. From their correspondents, Virginians heard about “the ruinous effects of the South Sea stock and other bubbles,” which had thrown England on “dismall times.” At Alexander Spotswood’s celebration of his birthday on December 12, 1720, in the governor’s new mansion in Williamsburg, the guests, including William Byrd, danced country dances and played at stockjobbing.
The collapse of the South Sea Bubble and the similar fate in Paris of the Mississippi Company and its bubble became a theme for plays, verse, tracts, and books. Thomas Mortimer began his book of advice, Every Man His Own Broker, with his experience: “The author has lost a genteel fortune, by being the innocent dupe of the gentlemen of ’Change-Alley.” Plays such as The Stock-Jobbers and South Sea; Or the Biters Bit satirized such people and moralized against greed. William Hogarth created a busy, vivid print, South Sea Scheme, linking speculation with prostitution, theft, and depravity. After 1720, the words “South Sea” brought to mind not only stockjobbing and rash speculation but also financial disaster as punishment. After William Byrd reached England in 1721, he carried on his search for a wife at the height of bitter reaction against bubbles. Once he and his new wife settled at Westover, Byrd wrote to his friends in England describing the merits of life in Virginia. He made his colony sound like an idyllic contrast to dangerous, smoky, corrupt London. He tried to convince his friends that he had moved to a healthier, more fruitful, more honest country. After his service along the boundary line, Byrd’s descriptions of Virginia changed. Even when they professed sincerity, his celebrations of this rich land contained a broader streak of irony. The land, like the South Sea Company, was only potentially rich. And extracting wealth from it would require not only projectors but also dupes.
Running a dividing line began in March 1728. Three commissioners and two surveyors from Virginia, four commissioners from North Carolina, one of whom was also a surveyor, another Carolina surveyor, a chaplain, and more than twenty workmen, mostly Virginians with experience in cross-country travel to trade with Indians—this group assembled on the edge of an inlet separated from the ocean by a narrow spit of land. Looking out to sea, Byrd “cast a longing Eye towards England, & Sigh’d.” As waves crashed on the spit, the commissioners squabbled, finally settling on a place to plant their starting post, then headed westward, along the latitude, more or less, of 36°30′.
Men cleared the underbrush with hatchets; others carried surveyors’ equipment and chains; some tended horses laden with supplies, a tent, and bedding. The commissioners took notes. The surveyors blazed trees. The line passed through thickets, canebrakes, sand, mud, streams, and standing water. Before they reached the Dismal Swamp, 23 miles west of their starting post, the whole party, Byrd later wrote, could be taken for “Criminals, condemned to this dirty work for Offences against the State.”
On the swamp’s eastern margin, in sight of acres of reeds, the commissioners decided to push the line through the swamp. Three surveyors, with twelve workmen to carry supplies and clear the way, advanced the line, while the rest of the party took roads around the northern perimeter to the west side. The surveyors confronted a forest of cedar clogged with undergrowth and fallen trees. The swamp slowed them to a mile or two per day. Its water caused diarrhea. They had food for eight days; the swamp was fifteen miles wide. After seven days they had covered ten miles. Abandoning their survey, they pushed westward, first through dense growths of cedar, then knee-deep in water for a mile among pines. Reaching dry land, they found a farm and asked for food. After two days of rest, surveyors, chain men, and workmen waded back into the swamp and resumed the line, blazing trees for five more miles to the swamp’s western margin.
Much to the surprise of Virginia’s commissioners and to the delight of North Carolina’s, the line came out of the Dismal Swamp farther north than anyone had expected. Acres that even North Carolina had conceded to Virginia turned out to be in North Carolina. The line mattered not only to people living near it but also to collectors of quitrents and to the Crown. Virginia’s landlord was the king, but North Carolina belonged to descendants of loyal friends of the House of Stuart, who had received it as a grant from a grateful King Charles II. Even after North Carolina came under royal governance in 1729, one of those proprietors, John Carteret, Baron Carteret of Hawnes, later Earl Granville, retained the right to grant tracts and receive quitrents along its northern boundary. William Byrd, when he found time to write, heaped sarcasm on clowns who had celebrated their exclusion from Virginia.
The surveying party pushed westward, slicing across farms, passing log huts covered with cedar shingles, pausing at each road to erect a post marked “Virginia” on one side and “North Carolina” on the other. Thirty-five miles west of the Dismal Swamp, on April 5, the commissioners, worried about rattlesnakes, agreed to suspend their survey until autumn. They resumed their progress on September 21. The terrain became rolling. They forded the same winding streams several times, their wet dogs running ahead. Tree branches and bushes ripped at biscuits in deerskin bags slung across their horses, whose pack bells rang with each step. The same workmen who had carried the boundary line through the Dismal Swamp in March took it toward the mountains in the fall. Their supply of bread dwindled; hired Indian hunters killed deer, bears, and wild turkeys. The survey passed beyond the western limit of white people’s settlements. North Carolina’s commissioners decided to quit.
The party stood near the southern branch of the Roanoke River, 170 miles west of the ocean. The North Carolinians said they saw no purpose in continuing the line, since settlements any time soon in “so barren a place” were unlikely. Arguing against the Virginians’ desire to press on, the Carolinians also thought but did not say: “we had many reasons to induce us to believe their proceeding further was not altogether for the publick.” William Mayo, one of Virginia’s surveyors, had just arranged to acquire from North Carolina’s commissioners 2,000 acres south of the line, within five miles of where the surveyors stopped. William Byrd and his colleague, William Dandridge, thought the Carolinians’ case “strange.” Land along the Roanoke looked not barren but rich. They foresaw many settlements within ten years, perhaps five. But in giving this reason for a longer survey and in offering Mayo’s purchase as proof, Byrd and Dandridge confirmed the Carolinians’ suspicion that the survey was not carried onward solely for the public good. North Carolina’s commissioners and one of Virginia’s went home. Byrd, Dandridge, and Virginia’s surveyors and workmen moved westward for three more weeks, marking another 72 miles of the line.
In North Carolina’s delegation were the chief justice, the receiver general of revenue, and the secretary of the colony, as well as the oily Edward Moseley—councillor, surveyor general, and treasurer. They knew private interest when they saw it. Ignoring the proprietor’s instructions, they granted many large tracts to themselves in payment for their six weeks of work. Before the end of the year they sold 20,000 of these acres to Byrd for £200. This oblong stretch lay just south of the dividing line, about 20 miles west of the place where the North Carolinians had abandoned the survey. On it the Irvin River flowed into the Dan, as it wound through the valley Byrd had chosen. Creeks fed it clear water. In the woods were beech, hickory, and old oak. Tall green canes lined the river banks. Bottom land was a dark, rich mold. As soon as he looked, Byrd coveted the vale, “the most beautifull stream I ever saw.” After he got it, he named his purchase “the Land of Eden.” Finding that the western part held hills and rocks, he envisioned mines and named one site Potosi.
Five years after his adventures in running the line, Byrd, at the age of fifty-nine, returned to the Dan. He and William Mayo surveyed tracts they had bought in 1728. Following the southern edge of his Land of Eden, Byrd saw a broad meadow of tall grass on the south bank of the Dan, where the “Saura,” or Cheraw, Indians had lived before moving into South Carolina. After his party passed, moving eastward, he kept turning in the saddle to look back at the meadow. In the last year of his life he obtained a patent for those 5,490 acres from the governor of North Carolina. On the way home after their survey, Byrd and Mayo spent a night at one of their old campsites along the dividing line. They found a beech tree in the bark of which North Carolina’s commissioners had carved their names. Byrd worked on the bark “to add to their Names a Sketch of their Characters.”
Anyone as close to William Byrd as was his brother-in-law, John Custis, knew that Byrd’s purchase of so much land in 1728 was a change. He had inherited 26,231 acres from his father in 1704; he had added about 5,500 acres in the following eight years. Then, except for land he acquired from Custis, growth of his holdings had stopped. For this Byrd and Custis blamed their late father-in-law, Daniel Parke. Parke had left Virginia for England, fought alongside the Duke of Marlborough on the Continent, carried news of the duke’s victory at Blenheim to Queen Anne, gone to Antigua as governor of the Leeward Islands, and died there in 1710. After surviving an attempted assassination, he had been attacked by a mob and murdered. Some said that outraged husbands and fathers killed him in revenge for his amours. Some said that violators of laws regulating trade, who were those same husbands and fathers, killed him to stop his greedy interference.
Parke’s will gave Byrd and Custis a taste of what his enemies had experienced at his hands. It treated a baby girl in Antigua—“that little bastard of Col. Parkes,” Custis called her—more generously than it treated Parke’s adult daughters in Virginia. The girl was to inherit his property in the Leeward Islands, worth £30,000, on condition that she took the name Parke and that her future husband did so. The will left Parke’s property in England and Virginia to Frances Custis. With that legacy came liability for his debts and a bequest of £1,000 to Lucy Byrd, to be paid by her sister, Frances. Since William and Lucy Byrd were known to quarrel sometimes, ending one dispute by climbing onto the billiard table to enjoy a flourish, and since John and Frances Custis were known to quarrel constantly, though she was pregnant when she learned of her father’s murder, Daniel Parke’s will seemed to convey a refined malice, designed to make trouble between his adult daughters, between them and their husbands, and between the two couples and the “little bastard.”
John Custis managed Parke’s plantations in Virginia. To pay Parke’s debts, these would have to be sold. Reluctant to see the family’s holdings shrink, Byrd offered to assume the debts and bequests if Custis would give him the land: 9,760 acres in Virginia and property in England. Custis agreed, and Byrd soon found he had made a bad bargain. Instead of an obligation to pay £6,680, of which £4,000 could be obtained by selling property in England, he had acquired one closer to £10,000, while the English estate turned out to be mortgaged and involved in litigation. To his distress, Byrd remained in debt until near the end of his life. He even thought of selling Westover.
Buying land in North Carolina in 1728, buying more in Virginia in the 1730s, and getting grants in Virginia with help from his friends on the Council, Byrd hoped to turn this property into income quickly. He offered to sell the Land of Eden to a group of Swiss Protestants. He obtained a grant of 105,000 acres along the Roanoke River in southern Virginia, expecting to sell to another group of Swiss. After those immigrants went instead to South Carolina, he switched his plan for the first group, offering them his Virginia land, telling them how much better they would fare in Virginia than in North Carolina. He already owned the Land of Eden, but the terms of his grant in Virginia required him to find settlers. In 1737, Byrd published a book in Bern: Neu-gefundenes Eden, ostensibly written by him, Wilhelm Vogel, but mostly drawn from earlier writers on North Carolina and Virginia.
In the summer and autumn of 1738 a vessel bearing Swiss immigrants crossed the Atlantic. Their voyage took about five months, more than twice as long as the usual passage. Upon entering Chesapeake Bay, their vessel dropped anchor near shore so that the immigrants could search for food. A winter storm stranded the vessel, drowned some immigrants, and froze others, leaving only ninety of the original three hundred alive. The following year Byrd told the Council that he could “no longer depend upon the Importation of Families to Settle on the Said Land.” To keep his Virginia grant, he had to pay the customary charges. The wreck of the Swiss immigrants cost him £525. Late in 1740 he again tried to sell, this time to Germans. Knowing better, he still described a Virginia that resembled Paradise. He never closed the big sale.
Not long after Byrd returned to Virginia in 1726, Governor Hugh Drysdale died. For the following eighteen months the president of the Council, Byrd’s friend, Robert Carter, acted as governor. Near the end of this time Carter, at the urging of his son-in-law, Mann Page, posed for a portrait. Artists routinely depicted large, bewigged gentlemen wearing long coats of superfine cloth and looking out from the canvas with an expression of authority, but Carter’s portrait conveyed more command and self-confidence than pictures of others. It was easy to see why people called him “King” Carter. Now sixty-four, he had served on the Council since his thirties. Earlier he had been speaker of the House of Burgesses and treasurer of the colony. He owned 300,000 acres; among them were almost fifty farms and plantations. He had 750 or more slaves, worth about £10,000. An ambitious young Virginian imagining a successful career pictured himself as another King Carter.
Carter acquired much of his land by granting it to himself, his sons, and his sons-in-law during his long service as the Fairfax family’s agent for their large proprietary holdings along the Potomac River. Overriding censure and resentment, he extended their claims and tripled their property. He reserved the best land, eventually amounting to 180,000 acres, for himself and his family. Grants to others brought him composition money and fees. Before he died, Carter signed thirty or more blank deeds, later used by his eldest son for new purchasers more than a year after Carter’s death.
William Byrd and John Custis questioned the wisdom of Virginians’ importing large numbers of slaves, but Carter welcomed ships from Africa, expertly managing some sales. In search of rent-paying tenants for his land, he encouraged Scots-Irish settlers to come to the proprietary. He invested prudently: a long annuity and stock in the Bank of England. Always in search of solid wealth, he put no faith in what he called “that plague, the South Sea Company.” He fought the efforts of London tobacco brokers to make themselves indispensable middlemen. Carter called himself a man of “plain style” and “plain dealing.” In 1712, Edmund Jenings, with help from friends in London, persuaded Catherine, Lady Fairfax, to dismiss Carter as agent for the proprietary and appoint Jenings. Carter and his friends in London worked against Jenings for ten years until Carter regained the agency. He then took advantage of unpaid arrears owed to the Fairfax estate to ruin Jenings financially, extracting mortgages, even one on Ripon Hall, Jenings’s home. Carter finally supplanted him as president of the Council on the grounds that Jenings was senile. “We are but stewards of God’s building,” Carter wrote just before retaking control of the proprietary; “the more he lends us the larger accounts he expects from us.” King Carter continually expanded his stewardship.
At his home, Corotoman, along the Rappahannock River, Carter was surrounded by fields of tobacco, wheat, and corn. Gristmills ground his grain. A small shipyard turned out vessels for use in the river and the bay. The plantation and its wharves formed a small village of indentured servants and slaves. Carter’s large wine cellar was that of a connoisseur. He entertained “with abundant courtesy.” During a three-day visit, William Byrd drank, played cards, danced minuets and country dances, and “lay in the fine room and slept very well.”
Carter and his first wife had four children; he and his second wife eight more. Three of his children were married to three of William Byrd’s. Carter enjoyed reading, and he took pains to educate his children, not wishing any of them to be “a dunce or a blockhead.” His daughter, Judith, married to Mann Page, was, her grandson recalled, “one of the most sensible, and best informed women I ever knew.” Adding Byrd’s influence in England to his own, Carter helped his eldest son, John, become Virginia’s secretary, an office which cost the Carters 1,500 guineas to obtain. That was how Robert “Walpool,” as King Carter phonetically spelled the name of the man at the head of government, ran the empire. The secretaryship was in some ways better than the governorship; it yielded a large, steady income for life. The unsuccessful rival for the appointment was Edmund Jenings.
King Carter played favorites among his sons, daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren. In his later years his favorite son-in-law was Mann Page, a member of the Council at the age of twenty-three. Page and Judith Carter were married three years later, in 1717. Page called his father-in-law a “dear friend.” Carter included Page in the bounty of his land grants, dividing a “great tract” with him in 1720. Nine years later Page joined Carter and two of Carter’s sons in founding the Frying Pan Company, named after a run, or creek, in Stafford County where they expected to mine copper. They acquired 27,470 acres from the Fairfax proprietary, built roads, and imported Cornish miners. Despite his gout, King Carter rode to the mine to see copper extracted from ore. All to no avail—the sandstone proved less cupreous than they had hoped. Nevertheless, through inheritance and with his father-in-law’s help, Mann Page accumulated more than 30,000 acres, scattered across eight counties.
Judith Carter Page found her husband affectionate and tender. To do honor to her, himself, and their children, Mann Page in 1721 began to build a new house on his plantation, Rosewell, in Gloucester County on the north bank of the York River. It replaced the wooden frame house that burned down that year. Spending the night at Rosewell in October 1720, King Carter and William Byrd were obliged to sleep in the same bed. That would hardly be necessary once Page’s new house stood completed. It was the largest, most opulent home in Virginia. For sixteen years the three-story building, with its four huge chimneys, was under construction, its intricate brickwork both strong and ornamental, its roof covered with lead. Up the York River vessels bore Madeira wood, mahogany for wainscotting, pilasters and pediments of decoratively cut stone, glass for almost fifty windows, Tuscan cornices, marble mantelpieces, tiles of English Purbeck white stone and black Belgian marble for a checkerboard floor in the great hall, finely carved woodwork, and treads and risers for a staircase six feet wide. Years before it was finished, the new mansion at Rosewell had won the reputation of being “the best house in Virginia.”
Mann Page spent much more money than he had. Soon his debts in England, with interest, exceeded the value of his land and slaves. He also owed money to his father-in-law. In January 1730 he suddenly fell ill. He barely had time to dictate a will, and died the same day. The executors of Page’s estate were King Carter and Carter’s sons until Page’s sons grew to adulthood. The Carter brothers and their sister, Judith, continued work on the Rosewell mansion. They found that Mann Page’s plantations did not yield enough profit to pay his creditors. King Carter obtained from the General Assembly authorization to pay Page’s debts and to charge the estate for principal and interest, but Carter died a few weeks later. One of Page’s chief creditors in London, Micajah Perry, son of King Carter and William Byrd’s merchant friend, grew “very angry.” The brothers proposed to borrow money elsewhere to satisfy him. Though the estate operated on questionable credit, the grand house at Rosewell at last stood finished. King Carter’s daughter and the grandchildren she had given him lived amid unequaled splendor.
During his lifetime and in his will, Robert Carter helped his children into large estates. Even after division of his land and slaves among his heirs, his four sons—John, Charles, George, and Landon—as well as his grandson—Robert—were among the richest of Virginians. King Carter had begun life orphaned, with 1,000 acres and £1,000. His success in amassing a fortune found no rival among young men the age of his grandson. Nevertheless, Virginians tried to emulate him. George Washington, in his thirties, explained a line of thought he had begun to form more than ten years earlier. He asked “how the greatest Estates we have in this Colony were made; Was it not by taking up & purchasing at very low rates the rich back Lands which were thought nothing of in those days, but are now the most valuable Lands we possess?” He answered: “Undoubtedly it was.”
Robert Carter died in 1732, just as Virginia planters were sharply increasing the number of slaves brought from Africa and the amount of tobacco shipped to Britain. The colony held about 60,000 slaves in 1740, twice as many as in 1730. Foster Cunliffe, merchant for King Carter’s son, Charles Carter of Cleve, sent his vessel Liverpool Merchant from Africa to Virginia in the spring of 1732 and again in the summer of 1734 to transport more than 300 slaves. In the fifteen months between those voyages, sixteen other vessels from Africa brought almost 2,700 slaves, while still others came from the West Indies. During June 1732, the Liverpool Merchant was one of four slave vessels anchored in the York River, with 761 slaves from Gambia, Angola, and Bonny. Buyers went on board and between decks, observing men stowed fore and women aft, naked or wearing scraps and beads. Between them boys were fore, girls aft, all naked. A visitor watched a white woman “Examine the Limbs and soundness of some she seemed to Choose.” The vessels rode at anchor for weeks, until all slaves found buyers.
William Byrd feared that Virginia’s blacks would follow “a man of desperate courage” able to lead them in revolt. Four slaves were hanged in 1731 on a charge of leading a conspiracy among two hundred to attack whites in Norfolk and Princess Anne counties. Maroons, Byrd said, could cause as much trouble and danger in Virginia as in Jamaica. He wished the British government would stop slave traders, who, he said, “woud freely sell their fathers, their elder brothers, & even the wives of their bosomes, if they could black their faces & get any thing by them.” More vessels arrived from Africa and the West Indies. By 1750, Virginia held 101,000 black people. In that year and for several more years planters’ demand for slaves exceeded the supply. Better markets for tobacco, new plantations in the piedmont, new vistas for ambition—at the height of the season in 1752, vessels in the James and York rivers held 2,000 new slaves in one eight-week period. Enterprising men with capital bought dozens of slaves at a discount, then resold them one by one a few weeks later at a profit of 25–50 percent. Eager purchases “drained the Planters of Cash.”
John Custis also wished the trade could be stopped. But he knew “it is so sweet to those concernd and so much concerns the trade & Navigation of great Brittain; that it will bee next to impossible to break the neck of it.” By 1730, Britain had become the largest carrier of slaves in the Atlantic. The French state monopoly bought more and more Virginia tobacco. British merchants profited from this trade with the Continent; the government drew Customs revenue, especially from the domestic tobacco trade. Money or credit given to planters they soon spent, mainly to buy from merchants. The government wanted more, not fewer, vessels to cross the Atlantic. And during Byrd’s and Custis’s lifetimes, traffic in slaves for Virginia tasted too sweet to too many Virginians. Custis wrote to a British correspondent: “as long as wee will buy thm; you will find thm … it is a very melancholly thing seriously to consider it.”
Few slaves brought to Chesapeake Bay came in vessels owned by Virginians. But many small sloops plied between the Chesapeake and the islands of the West Indies, routinely sailing back to Virginia with new slaves. A cargo of cured pork and boards and shingles bought a cargo of rum and slaves. David Meade, a young merchant living along the south branch of the Nansemond River, near the northern reaches of the Dismal Swamp, pursued this trade for twenty years. His father, Andrew Meade, had begun it with his sloop Molly, bound for Jamaica, bringing back eight or ten slaves each time. Andrew Meade had opened his large house to William Byrd and the other commissioners of the dividing line on a rainy night as they passed from the eastern to the western edge of the swamp. He also entertained Sir Richard Everard, last proprietary governor of North Carolina, though the Virginia Council suspected the governor of tricky dealing on the boundary question. In 1731, Sir Richard and his family visited Andrew Meade on their way to sail for England. David Meade, then twenty years old, had led a sheltered life. He fell in love with Sir Richard’s daughter, Susannah. With his father’s and Susannah’s help, he won Sir Richard’s permission for her to stay in Virginia. She and David were married that year. Andrew Meade was generous to his son. Beginning the next year, David owned the sloops Molly, Priscilla, Susannah, and others bringing slaves to the James River from Jamaica and Barbados—sometimes one or two or four, sometimes eighteen or nineteen.
David and Susannah Meade enjoyed a happy marriage, bringing up six children and leading, one son said, “a monotonous and tranquil life.” David joined his father in the counting room and warehouses near their home. He acquired larger vessels for more runs to the West Indies. With John Driver he founded the firm Meade & Driver, taking four lots in the new town of Suffolk, established along the Nansemond River in 1742. Allied with Robert Cary & Company of London, they imported merchandise. Meade sent his three oldest sons to England for education. He had portraits painted of himself, his wife, and their sons. He bought land along the Roanoke River in North Carolina. David Meade died at the age of forty-seven, leaving his partner with a stock of merchandise and a debt to Robert Cary & Company, which grew as Driver imported more goods. Meade left for his children both his share of the company’s debt and his personal debt to Cary.
The pursuit of wealth through Virginia’s transatlantic trade depended upon extending and receiving promises. Virginians and their commercial connections in Britain needed one another. To sustain the flow of commodities, slaves, and goods, they had to give trust and credit. Often, each side complained that it had been betrayed by the other. Yet the flow continued. In the days of William Byrd, John Custis, King Carter, and Andrew Meade, a great planter sent his tobacco to British merchants, who sold it. Merchants then expended proceeds of the sale among tradesmen, filling planters’ orders for goods. The most ambitious Virginians also bought tobacco from and resold goods to their neighbors who worked on a smaller scale. At every stage of these transactions, someone charged an “advance”—a markup—or interest or a commission, or all three. Virginians often protested that merchants extracted too much money in disposing of tobacco, in handling orders for goods, in charging for freight and insuring cargoes. Merchants complained that they received too little money from and extended too much credit to those Virginians who balanced accounts late or never. Even when tobacco sales were good, Richard Corbin, Virginia’s deputy receiver general of revenue for the Crown, wrote to England, “no Promises in Respect to any Payment can be depended upon.”
Planters used an array of devices. They might consign their inferior tobacco to their creditors, sell their best for cash, and use the money not to pay debts but to buy slaves. They slowed suits for debt in the courts, where planters sat as judges. They consigned tobacco to another merchant, leaving their chief creditor unpaid. After a few months in the colony late in 1750, a young Englishman concluded: “there’s a Vanity and Subtilty in the generality of Virginians.” He attributed these qualities to “leaders of the Fashion or promoters of mean and vicious habits among the opulent, or as they are fond of styling themselves—Persons of Note.” The life of a young man trying to start his fortune by commercial dealings with Virginians could be hard. Though he had a planter’s word that he would get a consignment or a cargo, he learned that those hogsheads already had been loaded in a rival’s vessel, bound for a different merchant. During some experiences of this kind, Edmund Wilcox started ordering his innkeeper to bring him shots of rum in the morning. Even his kinsman, Richard Corbin, did not give him a cargo Corbin had led him to expect. If a relative and friend could behave this way, Wilcox wrote to his employer, “what must you think of the generality?” Experience had made him cynical about Virginia. He concluded: “this may properly [be] called the Land of Promis without any intension of Performing.”
Unhappy Virginians said their colony relied too much upon tobacco. Since the earliest days, officials had tried to force or persuade planters to grow other crops, as well. Hemp, called Cannabis sativa in the new Linnaean system, regularly appeared in lists of alternatives. Within a year of his final return to Westover, William Byrd foresaw that tobacco would glut the market. He became an enthusiast for hemp in 1727. It would always have a market because the Royal Navy needed it for cordage, yet relied chiefly on Russia for a supply, a dependence the British government wished to reduce.
Byrd first tried a small crop. Judging it a success, he put a “great part” of his slaves to work on hemp in 1728. The next year he shipped three tons to England. At about the same time he sent his “scheme of a project” for draining the Dismal Swamp to Martin Bladen, to the Earl of Orrery, and to Sir Charles Wager, in search of investors, he said. Once the swamp was drained, he of course proposed to grow hemp. Other Virginians were “running mine-mad,” in search of iron, copper, and gold, “which proceeds from a passion to grow rich very suddenly, as the South Sea phrenzy did.” Byrd bet on hemp for steady wealth. A pamphlet published in London in 1731, dedicated to Sir Robert Walpole for his understanding of the ties between “National Counsels” and “National Commerce,” praised Byrd for promoting hemp: “if he succeeds he will be of more real Benefit to this Kingdom, than if he had given us 100,000 Guineas a Year for ever.”
Ropemakers in London found Byrd’s hemp as good as the best, but by 1732 he had lost his enthusiasm and abandoned the crop. From the beginning he knew that it cost much labor. On a visit to Bridewell Prison in London he had watched female inmates breaking hemp with mallets, in the manner William Hogarth portrayed in his fourth stage of The Harlot’s Progress. This process for separating the long plant’s bark from its fibers was tedious and grueling. After several years’ trial at Westover, Byrd computed that hemp consumed too much of his slaves’ time and his money. Russians produced it at one-fifth the cost in labor and shipped it at one-third the rate for freight. The Royal Navy took too long to pay, and merchants in Britain, as usual, imposed charges and commissions for handling the crop, “like the Bald Eagle, which after the Fishing Hawk has been at great pains to catch a Fish, pounces upon and takes it from him.” Byrd made no profit and looked back upon the undertaking as a “wofull Experience.” During his lifetime, Virginians collected bounties for only 1,000 tons of hemp. Tobacco still reigned.
Tobacco from North Carolina passed through the hands of David Meade and other merchants near the southern reaches of Chesapeake Bay. Virginia outlawed overland importation in 1726, calling Carolina tobacco inferior, but the Crown disallowed that law. By 1733, North Carolinians were driving large numbers of hogs and other livestock across the boundary and hauling into Virginia tobacco, pork, pitch, tar, deerskins, beaver pelts, and other goods worth perhaps £50,000 each year. On the Virginia side of the Dismal Swamp the produce floated in small boats down the Elizabeth River or the Nansemond River to merchants’ warehouses. Carolinians made good customers. Though they devised “a thousand shifts” to avoid paying quitrents, they bought slaves and British merchandise in Virginia.
Stopping in the town of Norfolk on his way to survey the dividing line, William Byrd saw a few blocks of houses and shops along streets leading to wharves that stretched into the eastern branch of the Elizabeth River. The county held about 4,000 people. Perhaps 1,000 lived in town, drawing their livelihood from the sea. Near the mouth of the James River, only a few miles from Cape Henry, Cape Charles, and the Atlantic, Norfolk offered a convenient port to sloops, schooners, and brigantines sailing to and from the West Indies. Shipwrights and ships’ chandlers, seamen, clerks, and merchants lived there. Byrd counted almost twenty vessels riding at the log wharves. New houses rose, and justices of the peace had a new brick courthouse. In other rivers the master of a vessel dropped anchor off the plantations’ landings, then used boats for crates of goods and hogsheads of tobacco. At Norfolk he could find artisans able to heave down his vessel, clean her, caulk her, make repairs, and replace rigging.
Twenty years after Byrd’s visit the county had almost twice as many people. Norfolk had become a borough, with its own government and a public market house. In the 1740s merchants began to build vessels, drawing timber and masts from the tall trees of the Dismal Swamp. Travelers crossing Chesapeake Bay saw more sails moving to all points of the compass. A visitor early in the 1740s found Virginians preoccupied with “Schemes of Gain,” which in Norfolk took the form of the “great Number of Vessels” along the expanded wharves. In that busy port, “a Spirit of Trade reigns, far surpassing that of any other Part of Virginia.”
Among the first aldermen of the new borough in 1736 was a hardworking young merchant, Robert Tucker, who intended to increase his wealth with Norfolk’s. The aldermen formed a closed corporation, choosing new colleagues to fill vacancies and electing a mayor each year. Tucker served as mayor three times. He had begun business with the advantage of inheritances from his father and uncle. He spent his youth in a house filled with pictures and maps, not far from his father’s sloops waiting to depart for the West Indies. Two months after his father’s death, his mother was married to another successful merchant, a widower, Thomas Nelson of York Town. Tucker impressed people with his tireless dedication to his work. Fellow merchants thought him the “intire Man of Business.”
Importing rum, sugar, and molasses, exporting pork, corn, and wheat, Tucker widened his trade. He dispatched vessels to Madeira, the Canary Islands, and Barcelona. Only one merchant in Norfolk shipped more than he. Three years after becoming an alderman, Tucker got married to Joanna Corbin, younger sister of Richard Corbin. During the ceremony at Laneville, a plantation in King and Queen County, the Reverend William Phillips preached on the text “Marriage is honourable.” The Tuckers’ first child was baptized, at the age of six weeks, on their first anniversary. During the following twenty-six years, Joanna Tucker usually was pregnant. She bore eighteen children.
Robert Tucker steadily added to his holdings. He bought or built homes and warehouses, leasing them to tenants, charging rent for space on his wharf. To the sloop Bobby in the Barbados trade he added the sloop Johnny, the sloop Salley, the ship Joanna—each built in Norfolk and launched soon after the birth of a Tucker child of that name. On return voyages these vessels sometimes carried slaves, as well as rum, molasses, and sugar. In July 1750 the Joanna brought forty-eight “new Negroes,” for whom Barbados had been only a stop on the way to Hampton Roads from Africa. Tucker’s own slaves were artisans: sawyers, caulkers, watermen. His stores dealt in clothing, pewter, household linen, and other goods imported from Britain. He earned his reputation for “Assiduity & indefatigable Application to Business.”
William Nelson, after an unknown artist, Mary Burwell. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia. Merchant of York Town, colonial councillor, and acting governor of Virginia.
Among Robert Tucker’s greatest objects of pride, his mills and bakeries won the admiration of all. On a point of land jutting into the Elizabeth River where it opened into a broad estuary meeting the James, he acquired 170 acres. There he erected two brick windmills, one a large double gristmill operating two sets of stones, the best French burr. From a northern colony he hired a miller at high wages. He built a brick granary 40 feet square and another holding three bolting mills. Under the same long roof he added a large bakehouse with tall chimneys and four ovens able to turn out 3,000 pounds of bread per day. The slaves working in these buildings were “very fine bakers, millers.” Tucker devised a fan with paper wings to blow dust out of wheat. He expected to raise hogs on the stone floor under one granary’s wheat loft, and he had a smokehouse for curing hams and bacon. One of Tucker’s contractors said: “no expence was spared in the buildings or their improvement.”
Tucker added two brigantines to his fleet. He acquired more land: new lots in the borough of Norfolk, as well as lots and plantations in Nansemond, Norfolk, and Princess Anne counties. He joined the rush of Virginians seeking large grants along tributaries of the Ohio River in 1749. He and his associates took 400,000 acres. He won election to the House of Burgesses, taking a seat on one of its most important committees. Elsewhere in the colony, Virginians who needed something done in Norfolk routinely said that Colonel Tucker would take care of it.
Tucker’s mother, Frances Courtney Tucker Nelson, lived to the age of eighty-three, a widow for twenty years after the death of her second husband, Thomas Nelson. For forty-three years she lived in York Town, watching its commerce grow and sharing the success of her husband and her two stepsons, William Nelson and Thomas Nelson. When she moved to York Town, William and Thomas were boys, twelve and seven years old. By the time she died, they had become the most powerful men in Virginia. Her husband took advantage of York Town’s position as the place vessels from Britain met tobacco from plantations along the York River’s tributaries. Ships trading to other rivers also anchored in the York while their cargoes—hogsheads of tobacco weighing almost half a ton each—were restowed for an ocean voyage. In town, sailors found busy taverns, one of which belonged to Thomas Nelson. He built a wharf and a warehouse. By the 1740s only one man rivaled his dominance of the wholesale trade in imported goods. Nelson’s home, with other brick houses and handsome wooden ones, “all built in the modern Taste” along rising ground overlooking the York, gave the town “a great Air of Opulence.” Nelson advertised that he managed the sale of “choice young Slaves,” directly off ships arriving from Angola and the Gold Coast. He prospered; he bought plantations for his sons; Frances Nelson received from her husband rings and jewels of gold and diamonds.
Her tall stepsons, William and Thomas, improved upon their father’s legacy. After her husband’s death in 1745, she stayed in the house that was now hers while William and Thomas built mansions nearby. Both had spent their teen-aged years being educated in England, acquiring an ideal of books and prints and elegant surroundings. Into his correspondence Thomas dropped the phrase “When I was last in England,” as if he made regular visits. He bought Hogarth prints; William bought Collet landscapes. William subscribed to The London Magazine; a few years after his father’s death he said that if he could turn the business he had inherited into liquid capital, he would “remove to England with the utmost expedition.” Confined to Virginia, the brothers remained close throughout their lives. Presented with a proposal in business or politics, either man could delay or deflect it by saying that he must consult his brother. Virginians, on matters as disparate as freight rates and land surveys, appealed to the authority of the united opinion of the Nelson brothers.
Before death came to their father at the age of sixty-eight, he could take pride in leaving his sons well fixed. Like William Byrd’s father, he once had worked in the Indian trade, as his sons need never do. William Nelson, at the age of thirty, played host to William Byrd, then in his late sixties. A few years later Nelson succeeded Byrd on the Council. Though Thomas Nelson had to wait several more years for his seat on the Council, he gained the biggest prize of all, the office of deputy secretary. On the last day of July 1742, Secretary John Carter died. The next day his brother, Charles, wrote to his English merchant, seeking support for an attempt to get the secretaryship. Charles Carter of Cleve offered £2,000 to buy the appointment, almost £500 more than John and their father, King Carter, had paid. But the Carters’ connection in England, Robert Walpole, was no longer in power, and the Earl of Albemarle, sinecurist governor of Virginia, had an “agent,” William Adair, who wanted the sinecure office of secretary of Virginia. Like his patron, he did not intend to live in the colony. The work would be done by a deputy, and Adair would, as William Byrd said, “have a snack” out of the revenues of the office. He, in turn, would share part of his income from the office with the earl, who ran through money fast. Charles Carter learned from his English merchant that the earl planned “to make the most he could of it” and had received an offer that “farr exceeded your limit.” Three months after Adair became secretary, Thomas Nelson, at the age of twenty-seven, took the oath of office as his deputy. It was easy to see that Nelson’s father had outbid Charles Carter.
As Secretary John Carter lay dying of dropsy, young Thomas Nelson traveled from the York River to the Rappahannock to “make his addresses” to Lucy Armistead. Most people predicted that “it will be a match,” and the couple proved them right once Nelson became deputy secretary. His brother, William, already had been married for several years to a niece of John and Charles Carter’s. Elizabeth Burwell, “a very genteel, accomplished young Lady,” had grown up at Rosewell, her education supervised by King Carter’s bookish daughter, Judith Page. The wedding took place in the newly finished mansion at Rosewell. William Nelson took his wife and her “considerable Fortune” to York Town, where they had a son before the end of the year, soon afterward beginning a big brick house. On higher ground at the upper end of town, Thomas Nelson built an even larger house, with a tall chimney at each corner and with “European taste” inside, such as a mantelpiece of fine marble and “exquisitely sculptured” marble bas-reliefs. In front of the house a terraced formal garden led down toward the river and Nelson’s storehouse at waterside. From the cupola on the roof of the mansion at Rosewell, one could see, across the expanse of the York and downriver, the two Nelson houses standing out among the buildings of York Town.
William Nelson inherited his father’s stores and customers, then expanded his wholesale and retail business, selling to people as far as 100 miles west of York Town. He faulted himself for not working half as hard as Robert Tucker did, but Nelson paid close attention to his affairs, and he prospered. When the market would bear it, he charged a 100 percent markup on wholesale purchases and a 110 percent markup on retail, though the usual rate was lower. He bought and sold land, imported and sold perhaps 1,000 slaves, and performed some of the functions of a banker, lending money at interest. As payment came due, everyone knew that “Nelson insists on Sterlg. money.” He owned plantations scattered from York Town to Frederick County in the Shenandoah Valley.
William Nelson was a big man; an artist painting his portrait saw a direct, clear gaze in Nelson’s eyes and a firmly closed mouth with a hint of a smile—not sardonic like William Byrd’s, but self-confident, with one hand in his waistcoat and one hand resting on a solid base, his hat under his arm. Nelson wore broadcloth suits befitting a businessman, not green velvet or scarlet silk, yet he showed that he was a success. His watch, chain, and seal were gold; the stock buckle at his neck was gold, and his sleeve buttons were deep red garnets set in gold. Elizabeth Nelson wore diamond rings, a gold chain, and a necklace of large, perfect pearls. William Nelson spoke and wrote with blunt directness. He carried himself with “conscious Dignity”; he made clear that “except the Governour, he is the greatest Man in this Country.”
Nelson enjoyed using his power to do favors. He took an orphaned girl into his home, made her a governess and chatelaine, then gave her £200 as a wedding present. He and his brother helped an ambitious twenty-one-year-old George Washington get commissioned adjutant of the Northern Neck. But Nelson dismissed importunings and complaints. “As to the rest of your Letter,” he wrote to one of his father’s debtors, “abt. the Purchase of the Land &ca., I imagine it proceeds from the Errors of your Memory, (as you have not kept Books & Minutes of those Transactions) & therefore not to be deserving of any Answer from Me at this Time.” Face to face, Nelson could be abrupt and peremptory. Handing written terms of a loan to a man borrowing money, he said: “There, Sir!—Sir, if you like that!” Sarcasms and raillery strewn through his letters and conversation seemed “pleasant and entertaining” to one person but could strike another as sneers and taunts.
William Nelson sometimes spoke loudly and turned red in the face, but Thomas Nelson was cautious and noncommittal. A person hoping to manipulate him found him “prudent & sensible.” Though he suffered attacks of gout, he prided himself on not having “squandered the Resources of health” in his youth. He spoke calmly, spent many hours reading, attended to his pleasure garden, and wore out the binding on his Book of Common Prayer. Everyone knew him as Mr. Secretary. For more than thirty years he was the one constant figure at the center of Virginia’s government.
The secretary recorded, kept, and copied the colony’s public and legal documents. For every official paper or sheet of vellum, he charged a fee: land patents, court writs, tavern licenses, deeds, wills, commissions, testimony, appeals—each transaction brought him a few shillings or payment in tobacco, from a few dozen pounds to a few hundred. The secretary appointed all county clerks, who remitted part of their fees to him. Thomas Nelson did not write with his own hand the documents that came from his office. He brought promising young men to Williamsburg to work without pay for five years with the understanding that he would give each a county clerkship. Fathers wanted these positions for their sons and competed “in making … Interest with his Honr the Secretary about procureing the Clerks place.” Nelson kept the clerkships of four counties for his own sons and kinsmen. One aspirant, confronting this closed system, tried to break in by writing to Secretary William Adair in England, saying that Nelson “has Provided for all his friends.” But Adair was sharing Nelson’s income. In the early years they split annually about £1,000 sterling, later much more, though they left no record of the size of Adair’s “snack.” Much to the irritation of several governors and some ambitious young Virginians, the two men understood each other, and both lived to a hearty old age.
After the Council began, in 1745, to make large grants of western land to companies and individuals, the Board of Trade in London received complaints about “undue practices” in Secretary Nelson’s office. The chief accuser was Robert Dinwiddie, resident governor. He reported that the secretary had records of almost 1,000,000 acres of grants not yet patented. A patent brought property onto the rent roll, obliging the owner to pay an annual quitrent to the Crown. The governor and the Board of Trade concluded that Virginians were “defrauding the crown of quitrents by delay” in patenting. Of course, Virginians well knew Secretary Nelson’s “upright Character.” When the board later implied suspicion by ordering that the secretary’s fees be open to public inspection, Nelson replied that they already were open, so “that no body may be imposed on.” The Board of Trade called for a list and abstract of all grants since the founding of the colony. Nelson brought his chief clerk before the Council to explain why “such a perplexed and endless work” was impracticable. Nelson told the governor that if the board wished “to be informed of the number of Acres that ought to pay Quit rents, it will appear with great exactness by the Rent roll.” Two years later the board again demanded a list of grants. Nelson gave a similar answer, adding a few further difficulties to his earlier list of reasons why he could not comply. A list of grants west of the Allegheny Mountains since 1745 and of all petitions for western land was compiled in 1770. It was signed not by the secretary but by the clerk of the Council. A county clerk who feared Nelson’s displeasure warned a friend: “it would be imprudent in you to impose upon Mr. Secretary.” Neither county clerks nor the king’s ministers easily imposed upon Thomas Nelson.
John Robinson, Unknown Artist. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia. Longtime speaker of the House of Burgesses and treasurer of the colony of Virginia.
The president of the Council when Thomas Nelson joined it in 1749 was John Robinson, Sr., who had served for almost thirty years. He had included Nelson and John Robinson, Jr., his son, in one of the large grants of land the Council made in 1745. The Robinsons’ personal attorney became Nelson’s attorney. John Robinson, Sr., died in William Nelson’s house in York Town. The Nelson brothers knew John Robinson, Jr., well. He was seven years older than William and twelve years older than Thomas. At the time of his father’s death in August 1749, he had been speaker of the House of Burgesses for eleven years. For decades governors came and went, but the speaker and the secretary stayed.
John Robinson held two offices: speaker of the House of Burgesses and treasurer of the colony. After every election the burgesses voted him into those positions again. Beginning in 1752, he won by a unanimous vote, without opposition. As treasurer, he received taxes collected by sheriffs and duties levied on imported liquor and slaves. After the burgesses voted appropriations, he spent the money. His pay was 4 percent of the revenue—about £300 per year in peacetime, as much as £1,000 per year during war. He also collected a commission for auditing accounts of inspectors of tobacco. The Board of Trade would have preferred that the Crown choose the treasurer or, at least, that one man not hold both offices. But the government let long usage continue and heeded warnings that the burgesses’ cooperation with London depended upon the Crown’s accepting Robinson as speaker and treasurer.
With rare exceptions, the speaker had his way in the House of Burgesses. Before Landon Carter grew reconciled to Robinson’s rule, he privately complained that in sessions of the committee of the whole, the speaker’s nods and signals carried every motion: “there he sits and what he can’t do himself he prompts others to do.” In formal sessions, the speaker took the chair. Robed in his gown of office, sitting in state above a long table on which lay an ornate silver mace, Robinson put Carter in mind of a Turkish pasha. Robinson chose the members of standing committees, often appointing the same man to several committees at once. He expected and rewarded loyalty as well as efficiency. The Nelson brothers, during their time as burgesses, served on one of the most important committees. Members of the Randolph family consistently won committee assignments. In 1742, every standing committee had a Randolph on it. Later, Peyton Randolph seemed so close to the speaker that their wills were as one, and a loyal burgess must be “at their beck.” New members soon learned how the House of Burgesses worked, and Robinson advanced some of them quickly. Describing the colonial House of Burgesses after it had ceased to exist, Edmund Randolph wrote of Robinson: “To committees he nominated the members best qualified.… In the limited sphere of colonial politics, he was a column.”
Speaker Robinson’s place among Virginians was unique. He had both power and popularity. Almost everyone who recorded an opinion admired him. Thomas Jefferson, a harsh critic of Robinson’s system of politics, later described the speaker: “He was an excellent man.” Amiable, generous, charitable, Robinson “had a Benevolence for all Mankind” and “a Desire to please everybody & make them happy.” For these qualities he was “universally Esteemed,” even “beloved,” more than any other man in Virginia.
Those mentioning Speaker Robinson’s “friends,” however, had in mind a connection arising from more than his demeanor. His friends were his closest allies in the House of Burgesses, those able to foretell how votes would go. Upon these he lavished a “thousand little flattering attentions,” and they repaid him with political as well as personal attachment. To a burgess not in favor, Robinson’s “warm & private friendships” looked not admirable but ominous. Some burgesses voting to make Robinson speaker and treasurer nevertheless talked among themselves about his “undue influence.” They knew of widespread suspicions that he used “indirect methods” to obtain “unnatural Influence in the House.”
Rumor said that Robinson spent £5,000 improving his home and estate, called Pleasant Hill, in King and Queen County. His two-story brick house stood on an eminence commanding a long view of the Mattaponi River, just before it joined the Pamunkey River to form the York. A falling garden within brick walls led down to the water. More than 1,300 acres separated Robinson from his neighbors. George Washington, whom the speaker befriended early, called Pleasant Hill “a beautiful Situation.”
For his comfort, Robinson could thank his generous father-in-law, Augustine Moore, who had amassed large holdings through the slave trade and in other ways. Robinson eventually owned about four hundred slaves, working his land in six counties. Lucy Moore Robinson died, apparently in June 1755, leaving him a widower a second time. In the summer of 1756 he went courting again to Susanna Chiswell. Her mother, Elizabeth Randolph Chiswell, belonged to the family of Robinson’s chief political friends. By the time the speaker and Susanna Chiswell were married in December 1759, her father, John Chiswell, had become Robinson’s business partner in a lead mine company for which Robinson furnished the capital. Chiswell had many debts and little money. The company, though unprofitable, made frequent payments to him. At the wedding in Williamsburg on Friday, December 21, as Robinson, now fifty-five, was married to his friend’s daughter, “nothing appeared but youth and gaiety.” The bride and bridegroom then left for Pleasant Hill.
The day after John Robinson was unanimously re-elected speaker in February 1752, he chose burgesses for the committee of propositions and grievances. Among them were Robert Tucker of Norfolk and a new member, Robert Burwell, from Isle of Wight County just west of Nansemond County and the Dismal Swamp. Tucker and Burwell were brothers-in-law; Burwell’s wife, Sarah, was the daughter of the elder Thomas Nelson and Frances Tucker Nelson, Robert Tucker’s mother. Although men marveled at Tucker’s energy and enterprise, no one thought Burwell had either trait. A good person, he lacked “mental Qualifications.” He did not read books. He preferred horse races to governmental work. He flew into temper tantrums. One acquaintance described him as “a shallow weak man.”
Even so, he was “of a very good Family.” His father, Nathaniel Burwell, had married one of King Carter’s daughters. Nathaniel died while Robert was a baby. Robert Burwell’s sister, Elizabeth, named after her mother, grew up at Rosewell, where she and William Nelson held their wedding. Robert Burwell was not as bright as the Nelsons wished, but he was family. He and his wife spent much time in York Town, where he owned houses. Their home estate overlooked the James River on its south bank. The ample brick house was graced with a rectangular garden covering more than 7,800 square yards. Across portions of the 3,500-acre estate stretched apple orchards, as well as many other fruit trees. Burwell also owned property in northern Virginia and along the Roanoke River in North Carolina, but he had too few slaves to work all his land. His debts grew. He promised to give his daughter a dowry of £1,000—the elder Thomas Nelson had given Sarah £1,500 when she was married to Robert—but did not keep his promise. As a brother-in-law, he was an embarrassment.
Burwell’s daughter was married to another great-grandchild of King Carter’s. The bridegroom’s father was Mann Page, son of the Mann Page who had begun the mansion at Rosewell. The younger Page, twelve years old when his father died, inherited, with his two brothers, about 70,000 acres. Their uncle, Secretary John Carter, was their guardian. Mann Page came into his property upon turning twenty-one in 1740. Carter had assured Micajah Perry in London that young Page would find his estate’s credit good. By the time Page reached adulthood, John Carter was dead.
On the last day of 1741, Page went to Brandon, an estate in Middlesex County, the home of John Grymes, a member of the Council and a friend of William Byrd’s. There Page was married to Grymes’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Alice. Her affability and sweet temper had won his respect; her “personal Beauty” had caught his eye. (Her portrait, painted a few years later, suggests that she resembled her husband.) While she was pregnant with their first child at Rosewell, late in 1742 and early in 1743, she and her husband began to confront the difficulties of his inheritance.
During ten years of John Carter’s guardianship and three years of Page’s executorship, neither had made the elder Page’s estate yield enough to pay his debts or bequests in his will. Fearing that creditors would bring suits, then seize and sell personal property and slaves, thereby leaving his land of little or no benefit without laborers, Page advanced “great sums” of his own money to meet some of his late father’s obligations. But his father had agreed to pay interest on most debts, and accrual of interest kept him from gaining ground in repayment. To keep some of his holdings and enough slaves to work them, he must sell other land and slaves. In September 1744 he petitioned the House of Burgesses to dock the entail, removing the inherited legal restraint on sale of holdings which were supposed to remain intact for generations. The General Assembly did so in October; the Crown approved a year later. At the annual fall political and commercial gathering in Williamsburg, the first of Mann Page’s auctions of land took place on October 30, 1745, to help pay for the glass, mahogany, brick, and marble of his mansion.
Mann Page lost his “Exemplary” wife before her twenty-third birthday. On January 11, 1746, Alice Page died in her third childbirth, showing “constancy & Resignation.” For his second wife, Page went to Mount Airy, home of John Tayloe. Another colleague of William Byrd’s on the Council, Tayloe was one of Virginia’s richest men, but by 1744 he had grown “incapable of Business.” He had written his will; he was waiting to die. This he did in 1747, leaving to his daughter £2,000 sterling, to be paid when she turned twenty or was married. Within months of her father’s death, Ann Tayloe was married to Mann Page. In later years Page’s first son recalled fondly his hours with his grandmother Judith Carter Page, but he left no mention of his stepmother. A neighbor in Gloucester County found her “detestable.” Upon the death of Judith Carter Page, Ann Tayloe Page became mistress of Rosewell.
Not long after Thomas Nelson took office as deputy secretary in 1743, he and Speaker Robinson and their friends began to lengthen their vision, casting the mind’s eye farther west. William Byrd, at the age of sixty-nine, set an example by patenting 105,000 acres along the Dan River. He added the Saura Town lands in March. In the fifteen years since Byrd first had seen the Land of Eden, other Virginians had taken an interest in still more remote regions. James Patton had found “at vast Expence” tracts along a 100-mile river, now known as the Kanawha, flowing into the Ohio River. He petitioned the Council in October 1743 to grant 200,000 acres to him and his associates, including John Tayloe, Jr. Patton promised to pay all fees, to file surveys with Secretary Nelson punctually, and to settle on that land one family for each 1,000 acres. Members of the Council were friendly but skeptical, seeing little benefit to Virginia or to the Crown’s revenue in moving “a hand-full of Poor People” to a western river. Patton, however, feared that his plan was so good that others would imitate it as soon as they learned of it and then “Reap the benefit of my Industry.” If more people followed Patton’s lead, the Council would realize that Virginia could expand commerce and the Crown gain revenue by approving his petition. He won the councillors over, leaving only the question of when his grant would be made. They promised him preference, and their clerk recorded this in the Council’s journal.
During the following eighteen months, the Council’s president, John Robinson, Sr., his son the speaker, and Secretary Nelson resolved to get a grant for themselves and nine associates—100,000 acres along the Greenbrier River, a tributary of the Kanawha. Acting on April 26, 1745, the Council chose wording that did not oblige the Greenbrier associates to settle families there or to pay duties and fees until they filed surveys, that is, until they sold tracts of the land they had received free. Later the same day, the Council gave James Patton 100,000 acres, half of his request. His “Friend in the Governmt” assured him that he “could not miss” getting the other 100,000 as soon as he complied with his promise to find settlers. Six months later, another member of the Council, John Blair, obtained for himself and his associates a grant of 100,000 acres along the upper Potomac River. Other grants of 50,000 acres fanned out from the Greenbrier and Potomac tracts. Patton died in 1755. He had put settlers along the Kanawha, but he never received the other 100,000 acres.
Everyone concerned with grants and land titles had a close call on January 30, 1747, when the capitol building in Williamsburg caught fire. The symmetrical two-winged structure, in which Secretary Nelson kept the colony’s records, was consumed. By God’s mercy, the Council said, those records were “plucked out of the Devouring Flames.” Finding that the fire had started in a remote upstairs room with neither a chimney nor wainscotting, yet had spread quickly, officials suspected arson. Burgesses and councillors quarreled about whether to keep the government in Williamsburg, but they quickly approved Secretary Nelson’s proposal to erect a new building for his records. Loss of these would lead to “endless Strife and Confusion.”
One member of the Council who had received no grants in 1745 concluded by 1747 that he and his friends ought to share the new prospects of the Ohio Valley. From the north windows of Stratford Hall, Thomas Lee could see the Potomac River. Near bluffs on its south bank, tobacco vessels dropped anchor to take on board hogsheads from his plantation. He and Lawrence Washington looked upstream, beyond Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, beyond rocks and falls, to the river’s upper reaches, where flatboats could float within 45 miles of a branch of the Ohio. They heard from Indian traders that lands along the Ohio and its tributaries were “vastly rich.”
Lee and his associates petitioned the Council on October 20, 1747, for a grant of 200,000 acres along the Allegheny River. Secretary Nelson, still a young man not yet on the Council, joined Lee’s petition; but after watching what happened in the following months, he withdrew, having learned that he could not befriend both Thomas Lee and Speaker Robinson. Virginia’s resident governor, Sir William Gooch, had authority to approve grants, as he had done with those made to the Robinsons. In response to Lee’s petition, however, Sir William wrote to the Board of Trade, asking for instructions from the Privy Council. An exchange of letters meant further delay. Governor Gooch wrote that he only wished to avoid conflict with the French. He predicted that “a considerable Time” would pass before Lee could people western lands because the petitioners planned to seek tenants in Europe. The governor also recommended that Thomas Nelson be appointed to the Council.
While the Board of Trade considered its report to the Privy Council, Thomas Lee asked his associate and merchant in London, John Hanbury, to use his influence on their behalf. On September 4, 1748, Thomas Lee, by seniority, became president of Virginia’s Council. The following month he and his associates made plans for trade with Indians in the Ohio Valley and “for procuring Foreign Protestants to settle the Land.” They called themselves the Ohio Company. Their goals were the “public good and the King’s service,” as well as “Justice to the Indians,” Lee promised. “I have noe partial Views.”
In December the Board of Trade drafted instructions for the Privy Council to send to Governor Gooch, authorizing a grant of 200,000 acres to the Ohio Company. By the time the Privy Council received this draft, they also had received from John Hanbury a petition on behalf of the company, seeking a grant of 500,000 acres. The Board of Trade interviewed Hanbury, then drew up new instructions. In them the Privy Council, on March 16, 1749, ordered Sir William to grant the Ohio Company 500,000 acres, 200,000 at once and the remainder after the company began settlements and built a fort.
Landon Carter recalled a few years later that “a Certain Person … had in his day drank very large drafts of Rancour and Revenge against Colo. Lee.” That person, of course, was Speaker Robinson. In 1749 he drank one of those drafts. He set out to teach Thomas Lee a lesson.
Virginia’s Council renewed the Greenbrier grant to the Robinsons, Thomas Nelson, and others for four years on April 14. Nelson joined the Council the following week. John Blair and the men who had received a grant of 100,000 acres along the upper Potomac in 1745 petitioned for a four-year renewal, too, but Governor Gooch said on May 5 that they must wait until the Crown’s instructions arrived. Later in May, Lee heard from Hanbury that the Ohio Company’s grant had won the Privy Council’s approval. Within a week or two, “Mr Secretary Nelson told him … that he desired to be Excused and did not Intend to be one of the Ohio Company.” The instructions to Governor Gooch arrived in June; he and the Council complied with them on July 12. The Nelson brothers missed that meeting.
The Council stayed in session on July 12 after making the grant to Lee, Hanbury, and their associates. It then granted 100,000 acres to Speaker Robinson’s brother-in-law, Bernard Moore, and nine colleagues. It granted 50,000 acres to another group. It renewed James Patton’s grant along the Kanawha for John Tayloe and others. It granted 400,000 more acres along a branch of the Kanawha called New River to eighteen men, including Speaker Robinson’s closest allies, Peyton Randolph, Benjamin Waller, and Edmund Pendleton, as well as Robert Tucker, mayor of Norfolk, and his brother, John. To Councillor John Lewis and the men who formed the new Loyal Company, including Edmund Pendleton, the Council granted 800,000 acres “beginning on the Bounds between this Colony and North Carolina, and running to the Westward and to the North so as to include the said Quantity.” The Nelson brothers soon joined this company. If ability to obtain land was a measure of power in Virginia, the Council’s actions on July 12 held a message for Thomas Lee.
Long afterward, Edmund Pendleton gave one of the Greenbrier heirs “a circumstantial detail of the whole business” of the early land grants. His story was “voluminous.” Later in 1749, Governor Gooch retired and returned to England. Thomas Lee became acting governor but died the following year. Yet Speaker Robinson kept his grudge against Lee alive, Landon Carter said, “so pleasing is Revenge that it seems as if an opportunity was wanted to exercise it on his Memory.”
In 1749 the Council chose two members of the Loyal Company, Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson, to extend the line dividing Virginia from North Carolina. It would also be the southern border of the Loyal Company’s grant. With two surveyors from North Carolina, they began on Peter’s Creek, a tributary of the Dan River near Byrd’s Land of Eden. Working westward, they forded creeks, climbed the Blue Ridge, and descended into the valley of the New River. They stopped at a tributary of the Holston River, 88 miles west of Peter’s Creek. Before winter came, Fry and Jefferson returned to Williamsburg to give the Council a report, with new maps of the line.
Members of the Loyal Company wished to know much more than where North Carolina started. Their grant contained five words not in the Ohio Company’s text. These words—“in one or more Surveys”—meant that the Loyal Company’s 800,000 acres need not lie in one continuous tract, combining mountains and river bottoms, but could cover scattered smaller plots of the best soil surveyors found. The partners needed to know how the land lay west of the Allegheny Mountains and north of Fry and Jefferson’s line. In 1750, to find out, they sent one of their own, Dr. Thomas Walker.
Two years earlier, Walker had explored with James Patton’s party farther west than Fry and Jefferson ran their line. Soon afterward, he left Patton to join the much larger Loyal Company. Dr. Walker had shown on his first trip that he had stamina. A thin, wiry man about five feet seven inches tall, he enjoyed exertion. He advised a friend: “use as much exercise as you can without fateage.” He followed his own counsel and seldom showed fatigue. He had the strength of a large man with the agility of a smaller one. A connoisseur of rattlesnake meat, he dined only on the snakes he caught live. He practiced medicine, which he had studied as a young man in Williamsburg while living with his sister and her husband, Dr. George Gilmer. He was also a surveyor, a tobacco planter, and a man whose blue eyes looked across many western vistas.
Nine years before heading west on behalf of the Loyal Company, Thomas Walker got married to Mildred Thornton Meriwether, a widow who brought to the union her late husband’s estate, Castle Hill—15,000 acres not far east of the Blue Ridge. By 1750, the Walkers had four children. Dr. Walker’s father-in-law, Francis Thornton, was a member of the Loyal Company, as was John Thornton, Walker’s brother-in-law, and John’s son, Francis. Dr. George Gilmer was a partner, too. Within a few years of its founding, the Loyal Company became a web of kinsmen. The six Lewises were related to the seven Meriwethers, who were related to the Thorntons. James Maury was married to Thomas Walker’s niece. Kinship and marriage created some ties almost invisible to an outsider. Elizabeth Baylor Walker, widow of Dr. Walker’s older brother, took as her second husband Obadiah Marriott, an attorney who served both Secretary Nelson and Speaker Robinson. After arriving in Virginia as a newlywed, a young woman from Philadelphia wrote to her sister: “They are all Brothers, Sisters, or Cousins; so that if you use one person in the Colony ill, you affront all.”
In the third week of March 1750, Thomas Walker, with five other men, eight horses, and a pack of dogs, crossed the New River along its upper reaches near the North Carolina line and headed southwestward, down the valley of the Holston River. For the Loyal Company they were “to discover the Country, and look for fit Places for Settlements.” Their travels lasted four months, making a long loop westward, turning back to the east a few miles short of a point from which they could have seen Kentucky’s rich, level land.
Snow fell along the Holston in the last week of March. Dr. Walker saw snow-covered mountains to the northwest. The horses climbed out of the valley, along a ridge covered with pine, then descended into the valley of the Clinch River. To cross the Clinch, the men made a raft for their baggage, letting horses and dogs swim. The next day, Ambrose Powell was bitten by a bear. Walker and his men killed and ate bears, deer, and wild turkeys, as well as a few bison and elk.
They pushed westward, carving their names into beech trees and twice using shelters left by Indians. Following an Indian route northward, they entered a pass, winding between cloud-covered mountains. Vistas of mountain ranges opened to the east and to the west. To compliment the king’s son, the Duke of Cumberland, Walker called the pass Cumberland Gap. Reaching a river flowing southwestward out of the mountains, Walker named it the Cumberland River. He saw recent tracks of seven or eight Indians, but the Virginians did not overtake them.
In May and June, Dr. Walker’s party traveled northeastward, from the tributaries of the Kentucky River to the Kanawha. He took notes on the quality of the land, climbing a tree to get a better look. He named rivers after his men and a creek for Ambrose Powell’s dog, Tumbler, killed by a bull elk the dogs chased. Sometimes the men hacked their way through thick vines and brush with tomahawks. During their descent into the valley of the Big Sandy River, wolves howled around them all night. In the morning Dr. Walker found that his camp had cut off the wolves from their pups. Three days later a hailstorm blew down Walker’s tent and felled large trees within thirty yards of him. By the end of June, in their eastward return, they reached the Kanawha River, just below the mouth of the Greenbrier. Walker and two others stripped and waded in to find a fording place. Ten days later his party came upon houses along a tributary of the James River. The next day they visited invalids taking the waters at Hot Springs. On the 11th, they covered 30 miles to Augusta Court House. Walker reached home about noon on Monday, July 13. Within two weeks Mildred Walker was pregnant.
The Loyal Company did not begin surveys at once, but its members acted. The Meriwethers and the Lewises designed an executive committee. The partners went to court to stop Secretary Nelson from issuing patents for western land to James Patton, who felt aggrieved at being excluded from a movement he had begun. He and other critics accused the company of planning to take only the most fertile soil, using many surveys. The Loyal Company’s rivals had their own designs on “that western world, that Land of promise.” But its members conceived a still larger vision. Working in secret in 1753, councillors and partners planned to send men, led by Dr. Thomas Walker, beyond the Mississippi River to find the Missouri River, then follow it to discover, if possible, a connection by water with the Pacific Ocean. Walker would “make exact reports of the country.” By the Council’s order he drew up a list of necessary equipment and an estimate of expenses. The expedition was prevented by the start of fighting between Virginians and the French in 1754. Thus was lost, “for the present,” an avenue to “the rich and costly products of the East.” A member of the company wrote: “What an exhaustless fund of wealth would here be opened, superior to Potosi and all the other South American mines!”
At the expiration of the Loyal Company’s first four-year grant, the Council renewed it in June 1753. Thomas Walker took the title of agent and became “the chief person in this scheme.” He offered the company’s land for sale at £3 per 100 acres. In February, Walker had contracted to buy Joshua Fry’s share for half that price. He sent out surveyors, who soon completed ninety surveys. By the autumn of 1754 he had sold land to about two hundred families already living on the tracts before the company arrived.
William Byrd spoke in 1720 with men who had traveled partway up the Mississippi River and some of its branches. They described good soil and a fine climate. Byrd did not wish the region to fall into the hands of the French. He did not live to see Fry and Jefferson extend his dividing line or to learn about the west from Dr. Walker. Byrd wrote his will after Christmas in 1743. He attended his last Council meeting in June 1744. He died in August, at the age of seventy.
Byrd had freed himself from debts he incurred in his division of Daniel Parke’s legacy with John Custis and in his purchases of land. He bequeathed the bulk of his property to his son. Maria Byrd had been pregnant when her husband left Westover to mark the dividing line on both sides of the Dismal Swamp. She had been near childbirth as he left again to continue the survey in September. The baby was named William, after his father and his grandfather. As a boy, he became “the Peculiar Care of his Father.” Byrd played bowls and cards and billiards with him and raced him over frost-covered ground when the father was sixty-six and the son eleven. Byrd brought a tutor from England and heard his son recite lessons, “but was ever Stealling some good Things into Him besides the Languages.”
The younger William Byrd was almost sixteen when his father died. He had to wait until he turned twenty-one to come into his inheritance, but his mother did not stint him. He spent more than a year in London, where he was admitted to the Middle Temple, though he found gambling and other entertainments more attractive than the study of law. He returned to Virginia at the age of nineteen and got married to a girl not yet seventeen: Elizabeth Carter, daughter of the late Secretary John Carter and granddaughter of King Carter.
Byrd inherited more than 179,000 acres, about 1,000 slaves, and other properties. He and his wife lived at Belvidere, a small house on high ground with a view of the falls of the James River, where it flowed through “a prodigious extent of wilderness,” much of which he owned, passing the village his father had imagined as the city of Richmond.
Fire broke out at Westover on Tuesday night, January 7, 1749, consuming clothing, silver plate, liquor, furniture, and other valuables. The dead William Byrd’s manuscripts and books survived in their separate building. Later that year the younger Byrd turned twenty-one, and Westover plantation became his, with his mother retaining use of it. Perhaps with help from the Carters, whose houses showed their familiarity with the new London fashion of Palladian architecture, Byrd began the mansion anew. For several years craftsmen, some from Britain, shaped fancy brickwork, rooms full of wainscotting, impressive fireplaces and furniture, and delicate plasterwork. Byrd bought the best billiard table in Virginia. The lost plate was replaced and enhanced with silver candlesticks, trays, castors, punch bowls, coffeepots, and an epergne for the center of an already gleaming table. Within a few years of the fire, Byrd had given his mansion the same “expensive neatness” that his symmetrical gardens and groomed meadows displayed. Long afterward an old slave told a visitor to Westover that the mansion was about fifty years old in 1803.
William Byrd, Unknown Artist. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia. The younger William Byrd surrounded himself with beautiful grounds, rooms, objects, and clothing.
Byrd read in his father’s will instructions to sell the Land of Eden in North Carolina, as well as lots in Richmond and other property, to pay bequests. He found a buyer named Maxwell, who gave £500 for the Land of Eden, sight unseen. The following spring, just before Maxwell’s first trip to the tract, the Dan River flooded. He found more than one-third of his purchase, almost 10,000 acres, under water. Returning to Westover, he expressed “dissatisfaction.” Byrd repaid him and resumed title.
Throughout Byrd’s life, his civility, his polished manners, and his dignity impressed people. His round face and soft eyes resembled those of his mother, with no sign of his father’s sly mask. He was appointed to the Council in May 1754, at the age of twenty-five, succeeding John Lewis, founder of the Loyal Company. Listing nominees, the colony’s new resident governor, Robert Dinwiddie, gave Carter Burwell first place, then realized this was a mistake. One councillor, Philip Grymes, was the brother of Burwell’s wife; another, William Nelson, was married to Burwell’s sister; and the president was Burwell’s brother, Lewis. Dinwiddie advised the Board of Trade not to create a Council with four members who were brothers or brothers-in-law. On the Board of Trade’s recommendation, the Privy Council chose Byrd to join the body his father had left ten years earlier. In property, in society, in government, the son now held his father’s place.
Many years later, looking back on the younger William Byrd’s life after 1754, one could easily see that this elegant, charming man had neither inherited nor learned “the power of self-denial.” He spent most of his life deeply in debt. His creditors in England heard from their agent in Virginia: “Col. Byrd has a high Sense of Honor and I believe woud not make a promise but where he thought he could perform it, but a warm Imagination supplies many things.”