Surprising or Otherwise Interesting Primary Sources, Part VI: "Our Indians having no notion of the Sabbath . . ."

Randall Stephens

I've been reading a used copy I picked up of The Prose Works of William Byrd of Westover: Narratives of a Colonial Virginian, edited by Louis B. Wright. Byrd's compulsive scribbling might seem tedious to some. I like his rambling style and I'm intrigued--maybe esp. because I'm no colonialist--by what it tells of us of the Virginia gentry in the early part of the 18th century. "A Journey to the Land of Eden, 1733," his account of a meandering survey trip through the Old Dominion offers a glimpse into his privileged world.

Not knowing too much about Byrd, I've been struck by some of his personal ticks. He was a creature of his many habits. Byrd often pointed out the laziness of others--subordinates, Indians, slaves--while relying on their muscle to, for instance, paddle him up a river here or there. Improvident fellows are controlled by their appetites, indolent, toad-like, he sniffs.

Byrd makes passing mention of Sabbath observance in "Land of Eden." Curious stuff. A couple of selections here:

Near the camp grew several large chestnut trees very full of chestnuts. Our men were too lazy to climb the trees for the sake of the fruit, but, like the Indians, chose rather to cut them down, regardless of those that were to come after. Nor did they esteem such kind of work any breach of the sabbath, so long as it helped to fill their bellies. One of the Indians shot a bear, which he lugged about half a mile for the good of the company. These gentiles have no distinction of days, but make every day a sabbath, except when they go out to war or a hunting, and then they will undergo incredible fatigues. . . .

Our Indians having no notion of the sabbath, went out to hunt for something for dinner, and brought a young doe back along with them. They laughed at the English for losing one day in seven; though the joke may be turned upon them for losing the whole seven, if idleness and doing nothing to the purpose may be called loss of time. . . .

The sabbath was now come round again, and although our horses would have been glad to take the benefit of it, yet we determined to make a Sunday's journey to Brunswick church, which lay about eight miles off. Though our landlord could do little for us, nevertheless, we did him all the good we were able, by bleeding his sick negro, and giving him a dose of Indian physic. We got to church in decent time, and Mr. Betty, the parson of the parish, entertained us with a good honest sermon, but whether he bought it, or borrowed it, would have been uncivil in us to inquire. Be that / as it will, he is a decent man, with a double chin that sits gracefully over his' band, and his parish, especially the female part of it, like him well. We were not crowded at church, though it was a new thing in that remote part of the country. What women happened to be there, were very grim and tidy in the work of their own hands, which made them look tempting in the eyes of us foresters. When church was done, we refreshed our teacher with a glass of wine, and then receiving his blessing, took horse and directed our course to major Embry's. . . .


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