Daily Life on a
He wrote his diary in a secret code
- an archaic form of shorthand known only to the most educated
of his day. Because it was encoded, he was confident that no one
would ever read his revealing portrait of the world he lived in.
He was wrong. It took over 300 years, but in 1939 his code was
cracked and the observations of William Byrd II became known to
all. Because he never intended it to be read by others, his diary gives us an unvarnished view of life on a colonial
plantation in the early 18th century.
William Byrd II was born in Virginia in 1674 but was soon taken
to England where he was educated. He remained there until his father's
death in 1704. He returned to the colony and took over the management
of Westover, the family plantation on the James River. He became
an influential member of the Virginia aristocracy and was appointed
to the colony's Council of State in 1708. He owned vast amounts
of land (approximately 179,000 acres) and numerous plantations.
He founded two cities - Richmond and Appomattox - on his land.
He died in 1744.
Byrd kept a daily journal throughout
most of his life. In the following entries he reveals the routine
of his daily life:
I rose at 5 o'clock this morning and read a chapter in Hebrew and
200 verses in Homer's Odyssey. I ate milk for breakfast. I said
my prayers. Jenny and Eugene [two house
slaves] were whipped. I danced my dance [physical
exercises]. I read law in the morning and Italian in the
afternoon. I ate tough chicken for dinner. The boat came from
Appomattox [another plantation] and
was cut in the evening I walked about the plantation. I said
my prayers. I had good thoughts, good health, and good humor
this day, thanks be to God Almighty.
I was out of humor with my wife for trusting Anaka [a
house slave] with rum to steal when she was so given to
drinking, but it was soon over.
My wife was indisposed again but not to much purpose. In the afternoon
I beat Jenny [a house slave] for
throwing water on the couch.
My wife was much out of order and had frequent return of her pains.
...in the evening I took a walk about the plantation and when
I returned I found my wife very bad. I sent for Mrs. Hamlin and
my cousin Harrison about 9 o'clock and I said my prayers heartily
for my wife's happy delivery...I went to bed about 10 o'clock
and left the women full of expectation with my wife.
About one o'clock this morning my wife was happily delivered of a
son, thanks be to God Almighty. I was awake in a blink and rose and
my cousin Harrison met me on the stairs and told me it was a boy.
We drank some French wine and went to bed again and rose at 7 o'clock.
I rose at 6 o'clock and said my prayers and ate milk for breakfast.
Then I proceeded to Williamsburg, where I found all well. I went
to the capitol where I sent for the wench to clean my room and
when she came I kissed her and felt her, for which God forgive
Then I went to see the President, whom I found indisposed in
his ears. I dined with him on beef. Then we went to his house and
played at piquet [a card game for two players] where
Mr. Clayton came to us. We had much to do to get a bottle of French
About 10 o'clock I went to my lodgings. I had good health but
wicked thoughts. God forgive me.
In the spring of 1710 Byrd's son -
Parke - was 8 months old, his daughter - Evelyn - 2 1/2 years
old. We rejoin his diary as he arrives at his manor and discovers
his infant son suffering from a fever:
It was very hot this day, and the first day of summer...my wife
and I took a walk about the plantation; when we returned we found
our son very sick of a fever and he began to break out terribly.
We gave him some treacle water [a medicinal
compound used as an antidote for poison].
My son was a little worse, which made me send for Mr. Anderson [the
parish minister]. My express met him on the road and he
came about 10 o'clock. He advised some oil of juniper which did
|William Byrd II
The child continued indisposed. In the evening we walked home and
found Evie in great fever and to increase it [they] had given
In the evening the children were a little better.
I sent for my cousin Harrison to let Evie blood who was ill. When
she came back she took about four ounces. We put on blisters
and gave her a glister [an enema] which
worked very well. Her blood was extremely thick, which is common
in distemper of this constitution. About 12 o'clock she began
to sweat of herself, which we prompted by tincture of saffron
and sage and snakeroot. This made her sweat extremely, in which
she continued little or more all night.
Evie was much better, thank God Almighty, and lost her fever. The
boy was likewise but was restless.
Evie was better but the boy was worse, with a cold and fever for
which we gave him a sweat which worked very well and continued
Evie took a purge which worked but a little and my son had a little
fever. I went about 11 o'clock to Colonel Randolph's to visit
him because he was sick...and took my leave about 5 o'clock and
got home about 7 where I found the boy in his fever but Evie
was better, thank God Almighty.
The boy continued very ill of the fever.
I rose a 6 o'clock and as soon as I came out news was brought that
the child was very ill. We went out and found him just ready
to die and he died about 8 o'clock in the morning. God gives
and God takes away; blessed be the name of God. ...My wife was
much afflicted but I submitted to His judgment better, not withstanding
I was very sensible of my loss, but God's will be done.
About 2 o'clock we went with the corpse to the churchyard and as
soon as the service was begun it rained very hard so that we
were forced to leave the parson and go into the church porch
but Mr Anderson stayed till the service was finished. About 3
o'clock we went to dinner. The company stayed till the evening
and then went away. Mr. Custis and I took a walk about the plantation.
Two of the new negroes were taken sick and I gave each of them
a vomit which worked well."
Rumors of an invasion by the French
spread through the colony in the summer of 1711. The invasion
threat never materialized but the Tuscarora Indians attacked
settlements in North Carolina and threatened the same in Virginia.
In response, a local militia was raised with Byrd as its commander.
Byrd describes an expedition in October that was intended as
a show of force calculated to intimidate the Tuscaroa's into
I rose at 7 o'clock and my wife shaved me with a dull razor...About
11 o'clock we went to the militia court... We fined all the Quakers
and several others [for their refusal to
take up arms]... I spoke gently to the Quakers which gave
them a good opinion of me and several of them seemed doubtful
whether they would be arrested or not for the future. I told
them they would certainly be fined five times in a year if they
did not do as their fellow subjects did.
I rose about 7 o'clock and read nothing because I prepared myself
to ride to Major Harrison's...About 10 o'clock I got over the
river and proceeded on my journey but went a little out of my
way. However I got there about one o'clock and found the Governor,
Colonel Harrison, and Colonel Ludwell, which last had been sick...
About 2 o'clock we went to dinner and I ate boiled beef for my
part. After dinner we sat in council concerning the Indians and
some of the Tributaries came before us who promised to be very
faithful to us. It was agreed to send Peter Poythress to the Tuscaroras
to treat them and to demand the Baron Graffenriedt who was prisoner
among the Indians.
plantation on the James River
I rose about 6 o'clock and found it cold. We drank chocolate with
the Governor and about 9 o'clock got on our horses and waited on
the Governor to see him put the foot in order.
...About 3 o'clock the Tuscarora Indians came with their guard
and Mr. Poythress with them. He told the Governor that the Baron
was alive and would be released but that Mr. Lawson was killed
because he had been so foolish as to threaten the Indian that had
About 6 o'clock we went to dinner and I ate some mutton. At night
some of my troop went with me into town to see the girls and kissed
them without proceeding any further, and we had like to be kept
out by the captain of the guard. However, at last they let us in
and we went to bed about 2 o'clock in the morning.
I rose about 6 o'clock and drank tea with the Governor, who made
use of this opportunity to make the Indians send some of their
great men to the College, and the Nansemonds sent two, the Nottoways
two, and the Meherrins two. He also demanded one from every town
belonging to the Tuscaroras.
...Then we went and saw the Indian boys shoot and the Indian
girls run for a prize. We had likewise a war dance by the men and
a love dance by the women, which sports lasted till it grew dark.
Then we went to supper and I ate chicken with a good stomach.
We sat with the Governor until about 11 o'clock and then we went
to Major Harrison's to supper again... Jenny, an Indian girl, had
got drunk and made us good sport. I neglected to say my prayers
and had good health, good thoughts, good humor, thank God Almighty.
We drank chocolate with the Governor and about 10 o'clock we took
leave of the Nottoway town and the Indian boys went away with
us that were designed for the College. The Governor made three
proposals to the Tuscaroras: that they would join with the English
to pursue those Indians who had killed the people of Carolina,
that they should have 40 shillings for every head they brought
in of those guilty Indians and be paid the price of a slave for
all they brought in alive, and that they should send one of the
chief men's sons out of every town to the College.
About 4 we dined and I ate some boiled beef. My man's horse was
lame for which we drew blood. At night I asked a negro girl to
kiss me, and when I went to bed I was very cold because I pulled
off my clothes after lying in them so long."
Byrd's account is found in: Bryd, William The Secret Diary
of William Bryd of Westover 1709-1712 (Louis Wright and Marion Tinling, eds)
How To Cite This Article:
"Daily Life on a Colonial Plantation, 1709-11," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com