Mary Willing Byrd (Mrs. William Byrd III), 1758
This portrait was painted in Philadelphia three years before Mary Willing (1740–1814), a daughter of a former mayor of that city, met and married the older William Byrd III (1728–1777). In 1760–61, Byrd was in Philadelphia at winter quarters, at the close of an uneventful military career of five years duration that had carried him far and wide in service against the French and the Indians. The heir to the Westover dynasty had entered the military as a less than subtle way of abandoning his first wife, Elizabeth Hill, of nearby Shirley, who was said to be even more immature and spoiled than he was. In 1760 she was accidentally killed (or possibly committed suicide). Early in his life, Byrd had started on a wayward course, when in England he had begun the dissipation of a sizable inheritance. A favorite vice of his was high-stakes gambling on horse racing.
William and Mary Byrd lived briefly in Philadelphia before moving to Virginia. There Mary found her English-born mother-in-law "a most sensible, cheerful woman, always gay and amiable." With reference to the network of Virginia dynasties, Mary added, "She is the only person I dare open my heart to. They are all brothers, sisters, or cousins; so that if you use one person in the colony ill, you affront all; except the governor's family, and my mother." The new bride received Byrd's two youngest children by his first wife with the same warmth, and she was more than pleased as well with the Westover estate: "This is the most delightful place in the world. . . . The library would delight you."
In sixteen years of married life, Mary Willing Byrd gave birth to ten children. But her husband's retirement brought a return to extravagant spending. Mary's rapport with her mother-in-law cooled. By 1769 Byrd was insolvent. A Loyalist, the events of the Revolution "greatly disturb[ed] [his] Peace of Mind." In 1777 he shot and killed himself, leaving Mary to raise a family and run a large plantation on her own, deprived of the family fortune. For the next thirty-seven years she proved equal to the task.