Several years after the landing of the colonists at Jamestown in 1607, a private English company undertook to settle lands further upstream along the James River. Such settlements then were known as "Hundreds," so called because of the desired number of persons to be settled. Included among the leaders of these settlers were John Rolfe, husband of Pocahontas, and Francis, John and Nathaniel West (brothers of Lord Delaware, the first colonial governor of Virginia).
As early as 1616, John Rolfe wrote about West and Shirley Hundreds (now Westover and Shirley). Westover probably got its name from the West brothers. In 1637, the Colonial Governor patented 2,000 acres of the plantation called Westover to a Captain Thomas Pawlett, who thus became the plantation's first recorded owner. Captain Pawlett sold to the Blands. Richard Bland sold Westover to William Byrd I in 1688.
History, until recently, has supported William Byrd II as the builder of the current house, an opinion shared by many. In recent years, however, dendrochronologic (tree-ring dating) testing on beams in the attic showed that they perhaps dated to circa 1750, thereby making William Byrd III the builder.
William Byrd II, founder of the city of Richmond, is known for the diaries he kept in which he documents his life in Virginia and England. His library at Westover was the largest in the colonies, with 4,000 volumes. The property passed to his son, William Byrd III, upon his death in 1744 and remained in the Byrd family until 1817. Both William Byrd I and II are buried at Westover.
William Byrd II's tombstone is located in the center of the garden. His epitaph begins on the north side of the monument:
Here lyeth the Honourable William Byrd Esq being born to one of the amplest fortunes in this country he was sent early to England for his education where under the care and instruction of Sir Robert Southwell and ever favored with his particular instructions he made a happy proficiency in polite and various learning; by the means of the same noble friend he was introduced to the acquaintance of many of the first persons of that age for knowledge, wit, virtue, birth, or high station, and particularly attracted a most close and bosom friend-ship with the learned and illustrious Charles Boyle Earl of Orrey. He was called to the bar in the Middle Tem-ple, studied for some time in the low countries, visited the court of France and was chosen Fellow of the Royal Society.
It continues on the south side:
Thus eminently fitted for the service and ornament of his Country, he was made Receiver general of his Majesty’s revenues here, was thrice appointed publick agent to the Court and ministry of England, and being thirty-seven years a member at last became President of the council of this Colony to all this were added a great elegancy of taste and life, the well-bred gentleman and polite companion the splendid Oeconomist and prudent father of a family with the constant enemy of all ex-horbitant power and hearty friend to the liberties of his Country, Nat: Mar. 28 1674 Mort. Aug. 26 1744 An. AEtat 70.
Westover grounds include formal gardens, a rare iron clairvoyee, outbuildings such as a five-hole privy, tunnel, and icehouse, several barns of varying ages, and three 18th-century English wrought-iron gates, the finest from the 18th-century in this county. Westover Church originally stood half a mile west of the house and the site still includes burial plots of a number of prominent Virginians, including the first Benjamin Harrison of Berkeley and his wife as well as William Byrd I and his wife and William Byrd II’s daughter, Evelyn Byrd.
The pillars of the iron clairvoyee
on the north side of the house are capped with icons of virtue:
• Pineapple for Hospitality
• Greek Key for Wisdom
• Urn Of Flowers for Beauty
• Cornucopia for Horn of Plenty
• Bee Hive for Industry
• Acorn for Perseverance
After the death of William Byrd III's widow in 1814, Westover was sold out of the Byrd family. Since then, Westover has had eight subsequent owners.
During the American Civil War, Major General George B. McClellan was headquartered at nearby Berkeley Plantation; McClellan’s protégé, Gen. Fitz John Porter was stationed at Westover with his troops. Legend has it that Westover's East wing was hit by a cannon—intended for Union troops—shot by Confederate soldiers on the south side of the James. The wing caught fire and lay in ruin until Mrs. Clarise Sears Ramsey, a Byrd descendent, purchased the property in 1899. She was instrumental in modernizing the house, rebuilding the East wing and adding hyphens to connect the main house to the previously separate dependencies, thereby creating one long building. In 1921, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Crane acquired Westover. Today, Andrea (Richard Crane's great-grandaughter) and Rob Erda and their family make Westover home and care for this special historic landmark.