Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia
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Mary Willing Byrd

MARY WILLING BYRD (1740–1814)

Pratt, Matthew, Mary Willing Byrd (Mrs. William Byrd III) Oil Painting Original. Virginia State Artwork Collection: acquired 1920, Library of Virginia.

Mary Willing Byrd was a wealthy widow during most of the American Revolution. With unwavering determination she protected her husband's estate from plundering troops during the fighting and preserved the inheritance of her numerous children.

Willing was born on September 10, 1740, probably in Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin was one of her godfathers, and when she was a child, he sent her books from Europe. In 1761 she married William Byrd (1728–1777), a man who is now sometimes known as William Byrd III. William Byrd had five children when they married, and the couple had ten children together. In 1762 they moved from Philadelphia to Charles City County, Virginia, to live at Westover, William Byrd's elegant estate.

After William Byrd died, debt-ridden and suspected of Loyalist tendencies, in 1777, Mary Willing Byrd paid off his creditors, settled his estate, and protected her children's inheritance. Using her shrewd economic judgment, Mary Willing Byrd preserved the Westover estate by selling off many of William Byrd's remaining assets, including a large number of slaves, western lands, and the extensive and well-known library of his father.

Soon however, the fighting of the American Revolution came to Mary Willing Byrd. In January 1781, British troops under Benedict Arnold, whose wife was Byrd's first cousin, took over and occupied Westover. After the British left Westover, taking with them slaves, horses, and two ferryboats, Byrd attempted to regain some of her property under an American flag of truce. This action embroiled her in a controversy, as some Americans believed her to be trading with the enemy. On February 21, 1781, a company of American infantry raided Westover, seizing her papers.

Two days later Byrd wrote a letter to Governor Thomas Jefferson defending her loyalty: "I wish well to all mankind, to America in particular. What am I but an American? All my friends and connexions are in America; my whole property is here—could I wish ill to everything I have an interest in?"* She was brought up on charges but her case never went to trial.

Mary Willing Byrd died sometime during March 1814, but her exact death date was not recorded. In 1813 she wrote a will in which she was able to provide handsomely for her children and grandchildren.

*Quotation from a lost letter recorded in the Thomas Jefferson Papers, Vol. 5 page 691.

Suggested Reading:

Kneebone, John T., et al., eds. Dictionary of Virginia Biography. 3 vols. to date. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001, 2:457–458.

Arthur, Mildred H. "The Widow of Westover and Women's Rights." Colonial Williamsburg 12 (Summer 1990): 28–34.

Related Links:

Working Out Her Destiny: Women's History in Virginia