Research Paper: William Byrd History of the Dividing Line

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¶ … produced for a variety of reasons: informational recounting of events, texts, proof of knowledge, and even sometimes as a ticket into a higher class of gentry. Such seems to have been the case of Colonel William Byrd (1674-1744), a planter, author, and the founder of the city of Richmond. Colonial America in the 17th and 18th centuries was still a mass of unknown and undiscovered lands. Much of the population still had strong ties to Britain, even the middle and lower classes.

However, Virginia was one of the first successful American colonies. By the late 17th century, for example, Virginia had a booming cash economy, turning tobacco into a fabulous export. This, in turn, caused more settlers to arrive, some of them quite wealthy. As is often the case, it is the wealthy who first establish the basis for economic culture. These wealthy planters desperately wanted the one thing money could not buy -- acceptance into the upper echelons of society. It was this type of individual that sired Byrd. And it was this type of attitude that Byrd would accept as his own. The wealthy class, though, established large plantations and imported African slaves as Virginia's main labor force.

Dependent almost solely on England for access to European ports, the Virginia economy was inexorably tied with England. Planters shipped directly to England - there were few towns and cities -- which enabled them to ignore the northern ports for a time. This ensured egregious profits, but forming a class hierarchy that forever tried to lose its colonialist label and fit in with British aristocracy. During this time, too, there were high death rates, a younger demographic trend, and a larger divide between the classes than in some of the northern colonies. This, too, separated the social climbers in Virginia who preferred to curry favor with the Crown than necessarily become part of the colonial system.

Brief Biography- it was in this new and less static society that William Byrd was born and prospered. Byrd's father sent him to England at a very young age, where he was mercilessly tormented for being a "colonial." After schooling in England, he returned to Virginia to live in luxury in the family plantation. However, here he was with a fine education, plenty of money, but unhappy. To limit his boredom, Byrd built one of the most prolific libraries of the time. His character is psychologically complex -- while he considered himself an Englishman, being born in Virginia kept him a step or two lower in the view of the British gentry. After his father's death in 1705, he lobbied for appointment to the Virginia governorship. When this was denied he sailed back to England, this time searching for a suitable wife. This, too, was a failed attempt. Most of Britain's upper crust shunned him, professionally and personally. Parliament sent him back to Virginia as a delegate to the government. However, he was chosen to manage the survey of the Virginia-North Carolina border, something in which both Parliament and the colonial governments required. In fact, it was this survey that Byrd thought might just become the means to his eventual acceptance into society and higher levels of colonial politics.

Byrd's Writings as a Reflection of the Colonies -- Much of the literature from the Colonial Period is centered around the New England experience, with heavy doses of Puritan thought. This was not at all the style for Byrd. Instead, his works are filled with irony, humor, sarcasm, and wit. For example, in many of his letters he compares colonial America to Genesis -- but seems troubled by the lack of redemption in the colonies. "Furthermore, while America lacks the refined vices of England, its national blessings of ease and fertility lead to the crude sins of idleness and overindulgence, further encouraged by the importation of slaves and rum. Yet Byrd clearly glories in his own truly biblical mastership over bondmen and his moderate appreciation of alcohol, and he boasts of his own sexual potency under the guise of blaming American women for breeding like rabbits."

However, despite Byrd's use of irony, his writings use a rather strict hierarchy -- he compares New England with Virginia and finds Virginia lacking in industriousness but the Puritans weak willed for their fanatical religion. The North Carolinian crowd is below the Virginians for their inference to structure, yet he admires them for their fertility and freedom. Native populations are lazier and dirtier than even the most common rural colonial, but Native American paganism is preferable to Carolinian indifference. Thus, as a writer he is judgmental, but seemingly balanced. As was customer of the time, though, he found the need to "box" peoples, plants, and animals into safe structures - a continual comparison within a hierarchy.

Too, Byrd had little opportunity to attend dinner parties and sophisticated conversations, or to interact with the best minds of the time other than through their books. So, instead, Byrd decided to use his writings as kind of a dialog between the intended reader and the author. Byrd filled his prose as if he were discussing a concept with a guest; full of wry wit, humor, anecdotes, and even thinly disguised bawdy references.

The Frontier and its Symbols -- Byrd was one of the first colonials to really document and appreciate the greatness of the vast western wilderness. He was a true child of the Enlightenment, and one can tell through his journals that he was quite familiar with Locke, Hobbes, Voltaire, Descartes and Newton. All of these Enlightenment philosophers proposed that the natural world was ordered, and that by discovering the laws of that order, one could understand the concept or entity better.

Because Byrd was educated in Europe, he did not share many of the preconceptions about the American wilderness that many colonials had. "The Judeo-Christian tradition constituted a powerful formative influence on the attitude toward wilderness of the Europeans who discovered and colonized the new World."

Much of the popular view of the wilderness was that it was filled with evil (based on Genesis again) and the unknown should be left to the heathen tribes. Many Puritans thought that the wilderness was akin to being cast out of Eden and that it was punishment to be forced to move there. The Indians, for instance were seen as dark and sinister, the mythical Wild Man, sometimes even the Devil himself. This holdover from feudalism, that wilderness was to be feared, kept many from pushing westward, even though they arrived in droves wanting to immigrate to America for religious, social, and economic reasons.

However European his education and avarice was, though, he struggled to find a way to integrate into his report these two views of the unexplored territories. One, a conception of the wilderness that would be hailed by the British as serving the needs of the Empire, while accepted by the Colonial Governments as a necessary scientific and natural history of the land.

Thus, the real importance of the book, at least for history, was not so much the factual boundaries and surveyors facts; tax collection and property rights, but to the colonial mindset. It is not clear whether Byrd knew he was positioned to change the views of an entire culture, but it seems likely that he hoped to be a major influence in political and social thought as a result of this trip.

In a wonderful prelude to Romanticism, Byrd's text celebrates nature and the wild. Byrd finds beauty and wisdom in much of the wilderness; he finds beauty in nature, and symmetry in the organization that is shown to him in the primordial forests. When refereeing to Byrd's census, one scholar even noted, "This single text, and its treatment through the ages, represents the perception of the American wilderness as a concept, both at home and abroad, over the span of three centuries."

We must not forget, though, that Byrd was an ardent capitalist, by choice (his current fortune) and training. He knew that any rewards he might anticipate for himself or his legacy would only come if there were tangible rewards from the survey. The wilderness, then, could be seen as a source of capital gain through commodities. Byrd describes the land for its ability to yield crops, and catalogs which plant species might be the most profitable the soonest. In a practice quite characteristic of settlers of the time, he notes: "On the other side of this delightful valley… rose a hill in the figure of a semi-circle… This had a most agreeable effect on the eye, and wanted nothing but cattle grazing in the meadow, and sheep and goats feeding on the hill."

In another example, Byrd refers to the wilderness as a mart of commodities. Even the great "dismal" - the name for Virginia's swampland at the time, Byrd notes that, "It would require a great sum of money to drain it, but the public treasure cou'd not be better bestow'd… [END OF PREVIEW]

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