Kevin Joel Berland: William Byrd II, Archiving Colonial Virginia’s Natural History

The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of WestoverAfter his 1728 Virginia-North Carolina boundary expedition, Virginia planter and politician William Byrd II composed two very different accounts of his adventures. The Secret History of the Line was written for private circulation, offering tales of scandalous behavior and political misconduct. Whereas, The History of the Dividing Line was intended for the London literary market though not published in his lifetime. Collating all extant manuscripts, Kevin Joel Berland’s landmark scholarly edition of these two histories provides wide-ranging historical and cultural contexts for both, helping to recreate the social and intellectual ethos of Byrd and his time. The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover, published by UNC Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, is now available.

Byrd belonged to an early scholarly organization called the Royal Society, which consisted of prominent natural scientists and philosophers of the time. Berland recently shared in his blog, Netwallah Revividus, how Byrd’s membership in the Royal Society informed The History of the Dividing Line.

Berland writes:

William Byrd II of Westover
William Byrd II of Westover

Over the years when he was preparing his History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina for publication—hoping to capture the notice of the London literary marketplace—William Byrd sat in his library and added all sorts of materials he thought would please his readers. Since he was positioning himself as the preeminent expert on Virginia, he made sure his narrative featured information about the topography and natural history of the region. In this sense Byrd was participating in the mission of the Royal Society; he had been a member since 1696. In the early days of the Royal Society Robert Boyle prepared a framework on which roving philosophers could “superstruct” a solid natural history, a set of “heads” or categories of general inquiry for organizing observations. Boyle first enjoined travelers to observe the air (latitude, longitude, the length of the shortest and longest nights, the climate, what stars and constellations may be seen, the temperatures of the air, its clarity and seasonal variation, the duration of the several kinds of weather, “meteors” such as lightning, wind, contagious sickness, and suitability to human temperaments). Then he instructed the observer to consider the water (the depth, tides, and currents of the sea; the course, length and width, flooding, and quality of the water; lakes, ponds, and springs; the fish that stock the various bodies of water). Boyle then directed the observer to consider the configurations of the earth itself, and then its inhabitants and productions. Topographical considerations included plains, valleys, hill, and mountains, the presence of volcanoes, mineral deposits, the quality of soil, and the grains, fruits, and other useful plants that grow there. The products of the earth—grasses, grains, herbs, flowers, fruit and timber trees—all favor certain conditions of soil and climate, which Boyle directed the observer to record. Animals, both wild and domesticated, were also to be studied. Further, the observer must examine “subterraneal” productions of the earth: beds of stone and quarries, clay for the potter, medicinal earths, salt-springs, chemicals, ores and mines. Finally, Boyle turned to the population, who though “above the ignobler Productions of the Earth” must also be studied. Travelers meaning to report their discoveries back to the Royal Society routinely carried and referred to Boyle’s instructions, often in a more detailed version commissioned by Boyle, John Woodward’s Brief Instructions for Making Observations in all Parts of the World. [1] Byrd’s method in observing (and borrowing information about) natural phenomena can be understood as a response to Boyle’s recommendations.

As a member of the intellectual elite in the Virginia colony, how did William Byrd II understand weather, the seasons, and their effects on the land? Berland explores these ideas and more. Read the full post at Berland’s blog.

  1. [1]General Heads for a Natural History of a Countrey, Great or Small,” Philosophical Transactions, I (1665-1665), pp. 186-89. An expanded version of the article was published separately as General Heads for the Natural History of a Country Great or Small; Drawn out for the Use of Travellers and Navigators (London, 1692). See also John Woodward, Brief Instructions for Making Observations in all Parts of the World (London, 1696). Ralph Bauer points to Boyle’s “Heads” in his Cultural Geography of Colonial American Literatures (Cambridge, 2003), Chapter 3 and pp. 186-187. Bauer interprets Boyle as the practitioner of an earlier form of empiricism superseded by “Newtonian” method, though without providing a clear account of his distinction.