|Nathanial Bacon and his followers watch James Town Burn.|
The episode named Bacon’s Rebellion is a mere footnote in American Colonial history, yet some historians have claimed to divine the early stirrings of the spirit of liberty. More have placed the blame on the ego clash between a stubborn and out of touch Royal Governor and a reckless upstart schemer. While the later is more likely, the fact was that despite the manifest defects of the rebellion’s leader, his cause united the genuinely discontented from all parts and levels of Virginia society from a disgruntled planter elite to the vulnerable and exposed small farmers on the frontier and included bonded and indentured servants both Black and White as well as the small class of tradesmen and artisans.
Sir William Berkeley, 70 years of age, was the Royal Governor in 1676. He was in the second of two long terms, interrupted by the accession of Cromwell and the Roundheads to power in the Mother Country. He was a devoted royalist and Cavalier who had gained his first appointment in 1740 for loyal service to Charles I in peace and war. With the governorship came a generous grant and he built his plantation Green Spring near the capital of Jamestown. Colonial administration was not then an onerous duty, so Berkeley had plenty of time to dedicate to his plantation, on which he was determined to find and grow suitable crops to diversify the colony’s near total economic dependence on tobacco. As governor he was popular and respected.
When deposed by a Roundhead fleet in 1652, Berkeley was allowed to remain free on his plantation. With the Restoration, Charles II was quick to restore him to power in 1660. At first his second administration seemed destined to match the success of the first. At least he had the full and enthusiastic support of the planter class who governed the colony hand in hand with him through their absolute control of the Council and of House of Burgesses. A cornerstone of the Governor’s administration was his policy toward the native tribes. He cultivated the loyalty of several tribes still inhabiting parts of the Tidewater country and their related tribes further inland as allies against other, more aggressive tribes who harassed settlers on the exposed frontier. It was actually a sensible policy and prevented a disastrous general uprising like the Powhatan Uprising of 1622 which had almost driven the colony back into the sea.
But after several years in office, there was trouble in paradise. The colony was coming up against pile-up of problems and disasters. Despite Berkeley’s patient efforts, his fellow planters had resisted all his efforts to induce them to diversify their crops. Now the oldest of the plantations were beginning to lose their fertility—tobacco leached nutrients out of the soil like nobody’s business—and with new competition from Maryland and North Carolina the price in England was falling. The English economy was wracked by taxation in support of a series of mostly losing naval wars with the Dutch. Prices of imported manufactured goods on which the planter lifestyle relied, were skyrocketing. And the Crown’s increasingly mercantile barred trade with other potential customers and suppliers. The Virginia economy was in a shambles. Meanwhile, on the frontier there were more frequent clashes with hostile tribes and friendly tribes were being alienated by deceitful trading practices and sometimes the outright theft of valuable fur pelts. Then in the span of a single year the colony was ravaged by hurricanes, floods, hail, and a tobacco blight.
Under the circumstances discontent was growing in all levels of society. Berkeley hardly seemed to notice. Enter just the man to stir the pot and take advantage of all that malaise.
Nathaniel Bacon was a very wealthy young man of 28 years when he landed in Virginia in 1675. Although he arrived with a handsome fortune of £1800, the gift of his father, he had essentially been shipped to the colonies in disgrace for reckless shenanigans at home. He had wed the daughter of a wealthy Peer, Sir Edward Duke, without permission and in some way had fleeced an acquaintance out of his inheritance. It seems his father got him out of the country one step ahead of the Sheriff.
It turned out the Governor Berkeley’s wife, Frances Culpeper, was Bacon’s first cousin by marriage. The cousin was a leading militia colonel and close adviser to the Governor. Berkeley warmly welcomed the young man to the colony’s elite, helped him secure two fine plantations, and appointed him to the Governor’s Council. That was a rapid ascent to the highest levels of society in record time.
Bacon had no interest in running his plantations. He left their management to overseers and settled in Jamestown to best advance his cause and a career. Almost immediately he pressed for an appointment to a Militia command.
The spark that set off what became a rebellion was a raid on the plantation of Thomas Mathews located in the Northern Neck section of Virginia near the Potomac River by members of the Doeg tribe in July of 1675. Two of Mathew’s men and several tribesmen were killed. Out raged local raised a force and pursued the Indians across the river into Maryland and attacked the wrong tribe—the peaceful Susquehanaugs. That led to reprisal raids and then a joint attack by Virginia and Maryland Militia on a main Susqueanaug fortified village. When five chiefs were invited to a peace parley they were murdered by the Militiamen.
That set off a general frontier war with several tribes or elements of tribes joining the Doge Susquehanaugs in raids on both sides of the Potomac. Within a month 60 whites were dead in Maryland and 35 in Virginia. Raiding spread as far as the James and York Rivers well into the Tidewater country. Panic spread across the frontier along with demands for action from Berkeley who up to this point had refused to commit troops under his authority to the war.
With his peace policy now in a shambles, Berkeley desperately tried to salvage his policy. His pleas for restraint fell on deaf ears as self-organized militia units rampaged indiscriminately against any Indians they could find. Young Bacon was making a name for himself as a self-appointed captain on some of these raids. When he fell on a band of long friendly Appomattox for supposedly stealing corn, he took several hostages and threatened to execute them. Berkeley demanded their release. Bacon refused. Instead, he demanded a regular commission in the official Militia and a carte blanch to conduct unrestricted war on all of the tribes to drive them out of Virginia. The Governor refused that demand.
In March of 1676 the Governor convened the so-called Long Assembly to deal with the rising crisis and assuage his critics on the frontier who were siding with the rebellious Bacon. The Assembly declared war on the “outlaw” tribes but offered protection to loyal tribes who would prove their trustworthiness by surrendering their weapons. To deal with the war crisis, the Assembly leveled unpopular taxes to raise an army and to build a string of frontier forts to which he urged isolated settlers to retreat to. He hoped the forts would create a strong defensive zone around the core of the colony with a defended by a disciplined armed force accountable to the Governor and Assembly.
Since an investigation of the initial incident at Miller’s plantation revealed that the Doge had attacked after Miller had stolen pelts from them and shorted them on promised trade goods, Berkeley also ordered that all trade with the tribes be conducted by licensed traders under strictly regulated conditions. This gored the oxen of many frontier planters who doubled as traders, and of Bacon who had his plantation overseers conducting trade. Frontiersmen found the measures inadequate and did not want to abandon their farms. The Tidewater aristocrats, as always, were outraged by the heavy taxes necessary to raise the army and build the forts. Bacon began playing the resentments of all like a fiddle.
Bacon now began to move in the direction of rebellion. When western settlers convened a meeting to discuss what to do about the governor’s fortress plan, Bacon, a stranger to most of them, showed up with a few dozen of his own men and several hogsheads of Brandy. He convinced the settlers to elect him General for operations against the natives in defiance of the Governor’s policy.
Gathering a force of a few hundred men, Bacon struck first against a fat, easy target—the undefended villages of the peaceful Pamunkeys, longtime allies who possessed valuable lands in the Tidewater. Berkeley reacted with unexpected firmness. He personally took command of 300 well-armed gentlemen and rode on Bacon’s camp at Henrico sending the rebellious general fleeing into the forests with a couple of hundred loyalists, some of whom promptly abandoned him. The governor issued proclamations formally branding Bacon a Rebel but offering amnesty to any of his followers who would surrender. Bacon was formally removed from the Council but promised transportation to England for a fair trial.
Bacon’s answer was another attack on a peaceful tribe, this time against the Occaneecheee along the Roanoke River, the border between Virginia and North Carolina. His prize was a large and valuable cache of beaver pelts.
Up to this point the issue of the rebellion centered on demands for a vigorous campaign to expel the tribes from the colony. But the taxes levied to support the Governor’s new armed force and build his chain of forts not only pinched the Tidewater planters, they also hit tradesmen—and by extension their apprentices and bond servants. A hue and cry went up accusing the governor of being a ruthless tyrant, of playing favorites with his appointment—for instance refusing to give Bacon a commission, and of corruption for appointing cronies as tax collectors and approved traders. Agitation for a broader extension of the franchise to reduce property qualifications and to include most free holding yeomen farmers and tradesmen of property and for new election added to the general turmoil in the colony.
For his part, the tyrant Berkeley was willing to compromise. With his support the Long Assembly did broaden the franchise—perhaps not as much as all had hoped—and called new elections for the Burgesses. Despite his official outlaw status Bacon was elected and although an aristocrat with no interest in reform for the common mob, the General became the leader of a broader social movement that he could not really control. More flocked to his banner, including workers, apprentices, and even bond servants that hoped a general reform would somehow benefit them as well.
At this point a word on the status of servitude in colonial Virginia of this era is important. At the time there was no lifelong, generationally transmittable chattel slavery. Early in the colony’s history natives captured in war were enslaved, but they proved to be highly unsatisfactory, especially as laborers on tobacco plantations—they tended to run off quickly or die. Those who did survive, including many in domestic service, were held for their lifetimes only. Neither their mates nor children were automatically enslaved. By this time relatively few remained as slaves, although the current war was rounding up new candidates.
To meet the labor needs the planters turned to indentured servitude. Labor was recruited in England from the impoverished classes and even among the younger sons and daughters of the middle class who had no hope for an inheritance or a career. In exchange for passage to the New World and a chance to start over there, they pledged their labor for a period of years—usually seven. During that time in addition to labor for a master, they could farm a small plot for their own subsistence and profit and even earn wages for work when not required by their masters. At the end of their service, the former bondsman or woman was free, hopefully having saved enough money to establish himself. Some did succeed in earning money enough, and were among those who dared establish farms on the exposed edges of settlement. Many, however, were reduced to becoming day laborers, thieves, and in cases of many women, prostitutes.
The first Blacks arrived in Jamestown as early as 1619. But they and those who followed from Africa and the Caribbean were also indentured and could achieve their freedom. By 1650 a little more than 1% of the colony’s population was Black, about half of those having already achieved their freedom. The pace of new arrivals hat picked up since then and a larger, but still minority, portion of bondsman were of African origin by the time of the uprising.
White, Black, and Indian bondsmen worked side by side, lived side by side, and mixed freely—including intermarriage. Having more in common with each other than with their masters, or even with the free yeomanry this class and those who had emerged from it to gain their freedom, flocked to the Rebels although none of the reform proposals seemed to be of direct benefit to them. Their growing presence in the un-official militias alarmed the rebels more patrician supporters, but some thought, like Bacon, that they could be safely employed.
Emboldened by his election to the House of Burgesses, Bacon came to the capital in June of 1676 to claim his seat during deliberations on several reforms, including additional expansion of the franchise for free holders and term limits for office holders. He also hoped to force his commission as general in charge of the Indian war. Berkeley had him arrested, hauled before the house and forced him to make a humiliating confession. Then, in a grand gesture meant to be conciliatory, Berkeley pardoned Bacon for his offenses, allowed him to take his seat, and even promised to consider his commission if he remained on good behavior.
|Gov. Berkeley bares his breast to the Rebel.|
Bacon would not have it. He abruptly left the House in the midst of a heated debate on Indian policy. Short days later he returned at the head of 500 armed men who surrounded the Statehouse. Berkeley personally emerged to confront him. Bacon stepped forward and leveled a pistol at the Governor demanding that he be made General. The governor then defiantly bared his breast and demanded “Here shoot me before God, fair mark shoot.” The bluff had been called. Bacon could not shoot down a Royal Governor in cold blood and hope to avoid the relentless wrath of the Crown and the headsman’s ax as a traitor.
Bacon lowered his pistol but ordered his men to turn their arms on the members of the House who had spilled out of the building behind the governor, who quickly gave in to his demands for a wider war and for Generalship. Berkeley, his authority in taters, retreated inside.
While his army was threatening the legislature, it left the frontier exposed and eight colonists were killed on in Henrico County. Rather than rush to the defense Bacon kept most of his forces close to the capital. On July 30 he issued a proclamation, the Declaration of the People of Virginia which criticized Berkeley’s administration in detail. It accused him of levying unfair taxes, appointing friends to high positions, and failing to protect frontier settlers from Indian attack.
Berkeley, however, was allowed to leave Jamestown and once again retire to Green Spring where he plotted his own counter moves. He briefly attempted a counter coup against Bacon but failed and was forced to flee to Accomack County on the Eastern Shore where he found allies among the alarmed planters and especially among the merchants who possessed armed merchantmen and large crews.
Bacon was forced to attend to attacks on the Frontier or lose his support. He attacked the Pamunkey, a tribe had remained allies of the English throughout other Native American raids and had been supplying warriors to aid the English when Bacon took power.
While he was gone, Berkeley’s merchant allies infiltrated the crews of Bacon’s small fleet and captured the men and ships. The governor then re-occupied the capital and fortified it with new palisades. Knowing that Bacon was returning to Jamestown with a large force, Berkeley arrested the wives and family members of leading rebels, including Bacon’s mother, and forced them to stand on the ramparts as the Rebels approached on September 19, 1676,
Outraged, Bacon ordered the fortress and the city burned to the ground. Berkeley and his followers managed to escape. The rebels pursued him and burned Green Spring, but the governor slipped away.
It probably did not take Bacon long to realize that he had over played his hand. Burning a capital was as bad as executing a governor. Not long after he left the smoldering ruins and his troops for his estate. He met an end lacking in any grace or dignity. On October 26th, 1676, Bacon abruptly died of the Bloodie Flux—dysentery—and Lousey Disease—body lice. It is possible his soldiers burned his contaminated body because it was never found. Of course this gave rise to the usual legends of the return of a great hero when his people need him. But fewer and fewer were regarded him as a hero.
John Ingram assumed leadership of the Rebellion, but found many of his supporters and forces drifting away. By the time reinforcements arrived from England resistance was isolated in a few pockets which Berkeley’s forces soon crushed. Score were arrested and the property and estates of leaders were seized. Berkeley hanged 23 men including William Drummond, the former governor of the Albemarle Sound colony.
Back in England, Charles II was appalled by the vendetta. Berkeley was recalled and replaced by Richard Bennett. The King by totally unconfirmed legend supposedly quipped, “That old fool has put to death more people in that naked country than I did here for the murder of my father.” Berkeley died in disgrace on July 9, 1677.
Back in Virginia the new governor secured a peace with the warring tribes, but sustained Berkeley defensive plan, including the frontier forts and the establishment of a Virginal Regiment. Nearly a century later a young officer named George Washington would become Colonel of the Virginia Blues and conduct campaigns against hostile tribes from similar forts, now pushed further west.
The new administration undertook more reforms to assuage unhappiness, but the Royal Governor also now asserted far more authority than was ever the case under Berkeley. Despite claims, diligent historians have found no direct links between Bacon’s Rebellion and the Revolutionary generation a century later.
On the other hand the Tidewater elite had been terrified by the united participation of the Black and White bondsmen. Eventually, to break up social equality and collusion among this class, real chattel slavery was introduced, driving a wedge between White laborers, and the “cheap competition” of Black slaves. There was the codification of slave codes and the introduction of a plantation system on a grander scale than ever. By1776 the Virginia economy and way of life was utterly dependent on slavery.
The rebellion was just the first of a long series of uprisings on the frontiers from New England south to Georgia that would periodically erupt. Failure to protect settlers from Native harassment was a frequent cause, but so was the sense the colonial and later state and Federal governments did not understand their needs or were actively oppressing them. Examples include the Green Mountain Boys’ long paramilitary campaign to break what became Vermont away from claims by New York, Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts, the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania, and attempts by settlers in the trans-Appalachian west to establish a breakaway country or align with the Spanish in New Orleans in the early years of the 19th Century.
But Nathaniel Bacon as the great hero of a popular democratic uprising? Well, that fat just won’t fry…