A Little Known Byrd of America

   Posted by: rring   in Americana, Classes

[Posted by Susan Hood for “America Collects Itself: From Colony to Empire”]

A reasonable assumption could be made that books by pre-revolutionary Americans were published before 1776. That is not the case with the scant milestone works by Colonel William Byrd of Westover, Esquire (1674-1744), an aristocratic Virginian known to contemporary scholars of American history, literature, and book collecting as William Byrd II.

Byrd’s manuscript of  “A History of the Dividing Line in the Year 1728”–the subject being the disputed border “betwixt the colonial governments of Virginia and North Carolina”–was evidently favorably known among a coterie of early American historians and literati, but his first-hand account of exploration was not published until 1841 by a small firm in Petersburg, Virginia. This report, with other short works by Byrd, was re-printed in a two-volume set in 1866 in Richmond, Virginia, and another iteration, edited by the scholar John Spencer Bassett, ensued in 1901 from the major New York publishing house of Doubleday, Page.

The Watkinson Library holds the 1841 and 1901 editions, and the differences are striking. The 1841 copy is exceedingly slim, printed on what appears to be thin wood-pulp paper, now dark brown and brittle, the acidic content corroding the white thread binding. The type is small and antiquated to contemporary eyes, and the page margins are exceedingly narrow. In contrast, the 1901 volume, of which only 500 were printed, is lavish: the font size is large, the margins unusually wide, even more so at the page bottom (approximately four inches), the creamy-hued paper is intended to look like laid, and is obviously low-acid or perhaps acid-free, for there is no discoloration.

Was the 1841 publication intended for wide distribution? Who was the audience? What explains the reverential and luxurious 1901 edition? I found a hint in a book in my possession, printed circa 1925: “American Literature” by John Calvin Metcalf. In his thumbnail biography of Byrd, Metcalf states “he was only incidentally a writer; perhaps no one would be more surprised than he, could he return and look into a history of American literature, to find his name high among the authors of the colonial period.” Metcalf briefly discusses the “Dividing Line,” and cites the following passage (comments in brackets are mine):

Since the surveyors [charting the latitude] had enter’d the Dismal [Swamp] they had laid eyes on no living creature; neither bird nor beast, insect nor reptile came into view. Doubtless the eternal shade that broods over this mighty bog, and hinders the sunbeams from blessing the ground, makes it an uncomfortable habitation for anything that has life. Not so much as a Zealand frog could endure so anguish a situation. It had one beauty, however, that delight’d the eye, though at the expense of the other senses: the moisture of the soil preserves a continual verdure, and makes every plant an evergreen, but at the same time the foul damps ascend without ceasing, corrupt the air and render it unfit for respiration. Not even a turkey buzzard will venture to fly over it, no more than the Italian vultures will over the filthy lake Avernus or the birds in the Holy Land over the salt sea where Sodom and Gomorrah formerly stood.

In these sad circumstances the kindest thing we cou’d do for our suffering friends was to give them a place in the Litany. Our chaplain for his part did his office, and rubb’d us up with a seasonable sermon. This was quite a new thing for our brethren of North Carolina, who live in a climate where no clergyman can breathe, any more than spiders of Ireland.

The passage demonstrates Byrd’s erudition, his powers of observation, and gives a taste of his keen and occasionally sardonic wit.

Yet reading only a portion of the “Dividing Line” is revelatory, for Byrd could be classified as an early American “nature writer.” To think the “Dividing Line” was penned eight years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, and more than two centuries before Henry David Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond! Byrd tells of parakeets flying into apple orchards in the fall, “apt to be loud and mischevious”; of conch shells found on beaches; of wolves, foxes, and bears; and of a polecat (a relation of the ferret), which despite issuing a noxious odor to repel enemies, was killed, cooked, and eaten by members of his company.

Byrd explains that the surveying commission took 16 weeks and covered 600 miles. They began surveying at the Atlantic coast, sailing among the coastal islands and inlets, and forging rivers. The expedition was conducted in two parts, in the spring and the fall, to avoid rattlesnakes, which are most active and menacing during the heat of the summer. Rattlesnakes obviously posed dangers to his party (on foot most of the time) and their horses (laden with provisions, muskets, gunpowder, tomahawks, and presumably surveying equipment, tents, and scant changes of clothing). He lists a number of venom antidotes that could be concocted from a number of flowering plants categorized as rattlesnake root and a variety of fern.

Byrd also recounts encounters with settlers, and describes how their “homely log-houses” were built. This, from a wealthy patrician who lived in an enormous mansion made of brick! On the trek, his company baptized children of white residents. The party was also regally entertained by what may have been the last remaining Indian village in those parts. He mentions that the natives groomed their hair with bear grease, and that the women were offered as night companions. He appears to have regarded the native people with favor, whereas he deems white North Carolinians as having a “thorough aversion to labor,” and remarks upon the “Slothfulness of the People,” by which he must mean the men, for he mentions that the women begin their work at dawn. He attributes the men’s laziness to the climate.

For those who thought early American writing was nothing but reiterations of hellfire and damnation, turn to the stylish, informative, and humorous Byrd.

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