Bacon, Elizabeth and Sherwood, William

views updated

Bacon, Elizabeth and Sherwood, William

A Letter From Elizabeth Bacon

William Sherwood

"A Narrative of Bacon's Rebellion"

Reprinted in Major Problems in American Colonial History

Published in 1993

Edited by Elizabeth Ordahl Kupperman

"...The Indians taking advantage of these civil commotions, have committed many horrid murders..."

During the seventeenth century trouble began brewing along the frontiers of most colonies, as European settlers expanded onto Native American land. In New England tensions between settlers and Native Americans resulted in the Pequot War (1637). Similar conflicts had been taking place in Virginia since the 1640s, but the situation was complicated by serious problems within the colony. These problems could be traced back to the founding of Jamestown (1607), the first settlement and capital of Virginia (see "The Founding of Jamestown").

The original leaders of Jamestown were English gentlemen (members of the nobility) of high social, economic, and educational standing. Within twenty years, however, this group had either gone back to England or died without leaving descendants to take their place. By the 1630s more rugged, self-made families had risen to positions of authority in Virginia. But, like the earlier leaders, they too failed to pass their power on to the next generation. In the latter half of the seventeenth century a third aristocracy (social and government elite) emerged. Sons of influential English merchants and government officials began to settle in the colony in the mid-seventeenth century.

This new wave of settlers were sent by the king, who wanted to gain more control of Virginia. They were aristocrats whose families owned property or had made investments in the colony. Virginia had originally been owned by the Virginia Company (a group of investors based in London, England), but the colony had been under the control of the British government since 1624, when the Virginia Company declared bankruptcy (went out of business because of lack of funds). Although Virginia was not yet under a royal charter (direct rule of the English king), various monarchs had been trying to take advantage of the huge tobacco profits that could be made in Virginia. (Tobacco was the principal crop in Virginia. A broad-leaf plant grown in warm climates, tobacco was processed and then sold in Europe, where it was in great demand for smoking in pipes.) Planters had become quite prosperous and owned large tracts of land that produced high tax revenues for England. Within ten years the king's plan had succeeded, and a new elite that was favorable to the king dominated Virginia politics.

In 1670 William Berkeley (1606–1677), the royal governor (the highest colonial official, appointed by the king), initiated the Franchise Act. This law gave voting rights only to landowners and people who owned houses. It also enabled Berkeley to appoint a royal council that would move to place the colony's wealth in the hands of a few well-to-do property owners. (The royal council was a committee appointed by the governor—with the approval of the king—that helped administer the colony.) He named this group the Green Spring faction after his Virginia plantation. Before Berkeley took office ten years earlier, the Virginia assembly (House of Burgesses; the first representative government in America) and the royal council had formed a unified government. Now there was a deep division between social classes. Council members, who came from ruling families, were the governor's inner circle and exercised central authority. On the other side of the divide stood the majority of colonists who were not part of the elite class. In an effort to maintain local representation, leaders from settlements throughout Virginia took seats in the House of Burgesses. These actions alarmed the Green Spring faction, who protested that the socially inferior assemblymen were unfit for governing.

In the meantime, more unrest was brewing. By the mid-1600s a high percentage of the Virginia population was composed of male indentured servants (immigrants who signed a contract to work for a specific length of time) or former servants. (See "Servants and Slaves in Virginia.") Most of them had no families—male servants outnumbered female servants by four or six to one—so they did not contribute to the social stability of the colony. In addition they led difficult lives. They were worked extremely hard by masters who were driven by the quest for wealth in a thriving tobacco industry (the death rate among servants was reportedly over forty percent). Servants' lives generally did not change for the better if they survived to gain freedom from their indenture contracts. They could rarely afford to buy farms, even though land was inexpensive, because they did not save enough money for surveyor's fees, livestock, and equipment. As a result, only six percent of ex-servants became successful planters who employed their own workers. The majority were tenant farmers (farmers who rented land), overseers (supervisors), or laborers (traveling workers). Many lived on the frontier, and they had no representation in Virginia society because they did not have the right to vote. Most lived an aimless, rootless existence, spending their time drinking and having wild parties. Colonists looked down on these people as socially inferior and a source of trouble, even danger, in the colony.

Despite these problems, the colony continued to grow (the population was 30,000 in 1670), and soon the borders of the settlement were reaching Native American territory. The rough, unruly frontier settlers did not get along with the native peoples, whom they often accused of stealing from their farms. One of the first serious conflicts occurred in 1675, when members of the Doeg tribe killed an overseer. The Virginia government responded by forming a militia (citizens' army) led by George Mason and John Brent. When the militia attacked two Native American cabins, they did not realize that Susquehannocks were inside instead of Doegs. After killing fourteen Susquehannocks, the militia continued their advance. Five Susquehannock chiefs immediately protested that recently murdered colonists had been killed by a Seneca war party, not by Susquehannocks. The Virginians refused to believe them, claiming Susquehannocks had recently been seen in the area, wearing the clothes of murdered settlers. The Virginians then executed the chiefs (put them to death). In retaliation, the Native Americans launched more attacks. To avoid an outright war, Berkeley told Virginians not to cross the borders of the colony.

This measure was completely ineffective because the boundaries of Native American territory had been lost when colonists began moving west onto native land. The fighting simply escalated, and many frontier colonists, including women and children, were killed by raiding warrior parties. At this point Berkeley tried to end the conflict by declining to launch another attack. Many Virginians protested, accusing him of trying to protect the fur trade with Native Americans. They contended that the fur trade was important to Berkeley because it ensured his support among local wealthy merchants. Berkeley himself had another motive for keeping peace with Native Americans, as he wanted to convert the native peoples to Christianity so that land could eventually be obtained in an orderly manner. The complicated situation only served to distance Berkeley even more from settlers, especially in Charles and Henrico counties. Frontiersmen in these outlying areas continued fighting to protect their property. Since they could get no leadership from Berkeley, they turned instead to Nathaniel Bacon (1647–1676).

Bacon was an unusual figure on the Virginia frontier. He was born into the English aristocracy and attended Cambridge University and Gray's Inn (a law school). After graduating he traveled throughout Europe. In 1673 he married Elizabeth Duke, daughter of Edward Duke. They traveled to Virginia and settled at Curl's Neck in Henrico County, on the James River near the border of Native American territory. Because of Bacon's connections, he quickly gained influence in the colony. His uncle was a member of the royal council, which made it easy for the younger Bacon also to gain a seat on the council. A rebel, Bacon set out to change the system as soon as he took office. He aligned himself with the common people and tried to solve their problems. He charged Berkeley with taking the side of Native American groups against Virginia farmers in conflicts that were becoming more frequent. Bacon then organized a group of frontiersmen, with reinforcements from the Ocaneechee tribe, to go against the Susquehannocks in defiance of Berkeley. The newly formed militia immediately tracked down a group of Susquehannocks and defeated them. Berkeley was furious with Bacon and declared him a traitor (one who betrays his government).

By now Berkeley realized his government was in trouble. Therefore, in May 1676 he ordered new elections and issued a declaration. Defending his own actions as governor, he suggested several measures to resolve the crisis. The assembly met in Jamestown on June 5 to act on Berkeley's proposals, which included three important features. First, he planned to pardon Bacon and give him a commission to raise a militia against Native Americans. Second, Berkeley wanted to draft a measure that permitted Virginians to trade only with "friendly Indians." Finally, he planned to abolish the Franchise Act of 1670, thus restoring the vote to all freemen (former indentured servants who had gained their freedom), not just landowners.

The Virginia legislators approved all of these proposals. Nevertheless, Bacon was dissatisfied because they planned to draw militia members from the entire colony, whereas Bacon wanted to use men from the border territories. He felt they would be more willing to fight and had a greater stake in the conflict because they had farms in the area. Bacon also demanded that the militia be formed immediately instead of waiting for three months until taxes had been raised to fund the operation. On June 23, 1676, Bacon led four hundred armed men up the steps of the Jamestown assembly hall, effectively starting Bacon's rebellion. Immediately there was a confrontation between the legislators and the militia, and Bacon threatened violence. After forcing the assembly to exempt (free or release from liability) him and his men from arrest for causing a disturbance, Bacon and the demonstrators eventually left the assembly hall. Berkeley was humiliated because the legislature had given in to Bacon's demands, so he declared Bacon a traitor once again. Berkeley also called up the colonial militia.

When Bacon and his men returned on July 30, they easily overcame the colonial militia and drove Berkeley out of Jamestown to his plantation on the eastern coast. This time Bacon carried with him a manifesto (statement) titled "in the Name of the People of Virginia," which accused Berkeley of committing numerous injustices. With Berkeley absent, Bacon now had control of Jamestown. The governor sneaked back into Jamestown, however, while Bacon was leading his men out into the country to attack the Pawmunkeys, another Native American tribe. On September 18 Bacon launched a final assault on Jamestown, burning the settlement to the ground. By now lawlessness reigned, and Berkeley escaped once again as looters (robbers) ransacked his plantation at Green Spring.

Bacon's Rebellion: Two opposing views

Although Bacon claimed he had unanimous support for his actions, many Virginians denounced him. Among the most vocal critics of Bacon were colonists who lived on plantations along the coast, away from the frontier regions. They accused Bacon and his men of being troublemakers who were deliberately violating the law and provoking Native Americans so they could seize more land. The planters issued their own protests to Berkeley, demanding protection from Bacon and his ruthless band of lawbreakers. The crisis threatened to shake the foundations of Virginia government, as colonists were not only trying to fend off the Native Americans but were also pitted against one another in a struggle for power.

Eyewitness accounts provide modern readers with a vivid picture of the chaotic events surrounding Bacon's Rebellion. One account is a letter that Elizabeth Bacon, wife of Nathaniel Bacon, wrote to her sister in 1676 at the height of the rebellion. In the letter Elizabeth portrayed Nathaniel as a hero who had the full support of all the colonists. A completely different view was expressed by colonist William Sherwood in a detailed narrative of the conflict, also written in 1676. Defending the actions of Berkeley, Sherwood depicted Bacon as a "perverse man" and his militia as "rabble."

Things to Remember While Reading A Letter From Elizabeth Bacon:

  • Elizabeth and Nathaniel Bacon immediately settled on the frontier when they arrived in Virginia. Therefore Elizabeth had never known the comfort and security of life in Jamestown, which by 1676 had become relatively secure from Native American attacks. Frontier settlers were exposed to the daily threat of Native American raids. Frontier life was especially dangerous for colonial women and children. They were frequently left alone while men worked in the fields or traveled to distant towns to conduct business and buy supplies. Consequently large numbers of colonial women and children were killed or kidnapped by Native Americans (see A Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson) along the American frontier.
  • Problems began when settlers claimed vast tracts of unsettled land, then let their livestock graze in native pastures and cornfields. Contending colonists were violating treaties, Native Americans raided frontier farms, taking cattle and hogs and destroying crops. As the confrontation escalated, many colonists and Native Americans were killed. Neither side would relent, however, each saying they had to defend their treaty rights.
  • Notice the tone of panic in Elizabeth Bacon's letter; she was clearly fearful of being killed. Note, too, that she expressed absolute support for her husband's efforts to help the frontier farmers, an expected sentiment from a loyal wife. Yet she also echoed the outrage of colonists who genuinely felt they had been betrayed by Berkeley's government. Her letter depicts the deep divisions between classes in Virginia. In spite of crops being destroyed and settlers being murdered each day, she wrote, Berkeley had done nothing. In fact, she accused Berkeley of siding with the Native Americans and warning them about Bacon's attack plans: "but the Governour were so much the Indians' friend and our enemy, that he sent the Indians word that Mr. Bacon was out against them, that they might save themselves." Bacon was also bitter toward colonists who supported Berkeley because he had given them political favors: "there was not anybody against him [Bacon] but the Governour and a few of his great men, which have got their Estates by the Governour." And she ridiculed Berkeley for sending his wife (his "Lady") to England to plead the governor's case with the king.

A Letter From Elizabeth Bacon

Dear Sister,

I pray God keep the worst Enemy I have from ever being in such a sad condition as I have been in . . . occasioned by the troublesome Indians, who have killed one of ourOverseers at anoutward plantation which we had, and we have lost a great stock of cattle, which we had upon it, and a good crop that we should have made there, such plantation Nobodydurst comenigh, which is a very great loss to us.


Overseers: Supervisors


Outward: Distant


Durst: Dare


Nigh: Near; nearly


Hinder: Stop


Commission: Appointment that authorizes power to form a militia

If you had been here, it would have grieved your heart to hear the pitiful complaints of the people, The Indians killing the people daily the [Governor, William Berkeley] not taking any notice of it for tohinder them, but let them daily do all the mischief they can: I am sure if the Indians were not cowards, they might have destroyed all the upper plantations, and killed all the people upon them; the Governour so much their friend, that he would not suffer anybody to hurt one of the Indians; and the poor people came to your brother [in-law] to desire him to help against the Indians, and he being very much concerned for the loss of his Overseer, and for the loss of so many men and women and children's lives every day, he was willing to do them all the good he could; so he begged of the Governour for acommission in several letters to him, that he might go out against them, but he would not grant one, so daily more mischief done by them, so your brother not able to endure any longer, he went out without a commission. The Governour being very angry with him put out high things against him, and told me that he would most certainly hang him as soon as he returned, which he would certainly have done; but what for fear of the Governour's hanging him, and what for fear of the Indians killing him brought me to this sad condition, but blessed be God he came in very well, with the loss of a very few men; never was known such a fight inVirginia with so few men's loss. The fight did continue nigh a night and a day without anyintermission. They did destroy a great many of the Indians, thanks be to God, and might have killed a great many more, but the Governour were so much the Indians' friend and our enemy, that he sent the Indians word that Mr. Bacon was out against them, that they might save themselves. After Mr. Bacon was come in he was forced to keep a guard of soldiers about his house, for the Governour would certainly have had his life taken away privately, if he would have


Intermission: Short breaks in activity

had opportunity; but the country does so really love him, that they would not leave him alone anywhere; there was not anybody against him but the Governour and a few of his great men, which have got their Estates by the Governour; surely if your brother's crime had been so great, all the country would not have been for him, you never knew any better beloved than he is. I doverily believe that rather than he should come to any hurt by the Governour or anybody else they would most of them willingly lose their lives. The Governour has sent his Lady [wife] into England with great complaints to the King against Mr. Bacon, but when Mr. Bacon's and all the people's complaints be also heard, I hope it may be very well. Since your brother came in he hath sought to the Governour for commission, but none would be granted him, so that the Indians have had a very good time, to do more mischief. They have murdered and destroyed a great many whole families since, and the men resolving not to go under any but your brother, most of the country did rise in Arms [take up weapons], and went down to the Governour, and would not stir till he had given a commission to your brother which he has now done. He is made General of the Virginia War, and now I live in great fear, that he should lose his life amongst them. They are come very nigh our Plantation where we live.


Verily: Truly

Things to Remember While Reading "A Narrative of Bacon's Rebellion by William Sherwood":

  • Colonist William Sherwood gave a different perspective on Bacon's Rebellion. He accused Bacon and his men of being troublemakers who deliberately violated the law. Even worse, he saw Bacon as nothing more than a power-hungry tyrant who had no real interest in defending frontier farmers. In fact, Sherwood sarcastically commented that "their General Mr. Bacon" neglected his duty; once Bacon received his military commission he did not leave town as the assembly had expected. Instead, he and his men remained in Jamestown "drinking and domineering" for four days. During this time the frontier was left undefended and eight colonists were killed—some of them relatives of Bacon's own men.
  • Sherwood expressed the position of "the most moderate people" (perhaps upper-class colonists) who were appalled by the unruly behavior of frontiersmen. Note that he was distressed by the actions of "Land lopers" who, in defiance of the law, took thousands of acres of land and then did nothing with it. He showed sympathy for Native Americans who were beaten and abused by uncivilized settlers, in spite of Berkeley's direct orders against such treatment. He said this was "one of the great causes of the Indians' breach of peace."
  • Keep in mind that English authorities wanted to convert Native Americans to Christianity. Therefore Sherwood may have been more concerned about "the great scandal upon the Christian Religion" than by any injustices done to Native Americans. Such behavior, he wrote, "makes so few Indian converts."

"A Narrative of Bacon's Rebellion by William Sherwood"

. . .[E]very oneendeavours to get greattracts of Land, and many turn Landlopers, some take up 2000 acres, some 3000 Acres, others ten thousand Acres, nay many men have taken up thirty thousand Acres of Land, and never cultivated any part of it, only set up a hog house to save the Laps, thereby preventing othersseating, so that too many rather than to beTenants, seat upon the remote barren Land, wherebycontentions arise between them and the Indians, yet people are not content, butencroach upon them, taking up the very Towns or Land they are seated upon, turning their Cattle and hogs on them, and if byVermin or otherwise any be lost, then they exclaim against the Indians, beat & abuse them (notwithstanding the Governour's endeavour to the contrary) And this by the most moderate people is looked upon, as one of the great causes of the Indians'breach of peace, for it is the opinion of too many there, (and especially of their General Mr. Bacon) that faith is not to be kept withheathens, this brings great scandal upon the Christian Religion, and makes few Indians converts. . . .


Endeavors: Attempts; strives


Tracts: Large areas of land


Lopers: Trespassers


Seating: Settling


Tenants: One who temporarily occupies property of owned by another


Contentions: Disputes; controversies


Encroach: Advance beyond proper or legal limits


Vermin: Various small destructive or obnoxious animals

Breach of peace

Breach of peace: Breaking of a treaty


Heathens: Uncivilized or irreligious people

. . . . but now Mr. Bacon having aCommission, shows himself in his colours [shows his true nature], and hangs out his flag ofdefiance (that is) Imprisoning several loyal Gentlemen and hisrabble usedreproachful words of the Governour. . . . These threatenings andcompulsions being upon them, theAssembly granted whatever he demanded, so that it was imagined he & his soldiers would march out of Town, yet they continued drinking anddomineering, the frontier Counties being left with very little force [military defense], and the next day came the sad news that the Indians had that morning killed Eight people within thirty Miles of town, in the families of some of them that were with Mr. Bacon, yet they hastened not away, but the next day having forced anAct of Indemnity, and the Assembly being at the Burgesses' request dissolved, Mr. Bacon after four days' stay, marched out of Town. Thus Mr. Bacon having his Commission, men, Arms &provision gave out he would go against the Indians, but that (as it now plainly appeareth) was the last of his thoughts . . .

During Mr. Bacon's thusLording it, and seizing the estates of such as he termsTraitors to the Commonality in which & inrevelling & drinking most of his forces were employed, The Indians taking advantage of these civil commotions, have committed many horrid murders, in most part of the Country, which is altogether unable to resist them, their Arms & Ammunition being seized by Mr. Bacon's rabble for fear they should be employed against him, and daily murders were committed not only in the frontier Counties, but in theinward Counties. . . .


Commission: Appointment that authorizes power to form a militia


Defiance: Challenging authority


Rabble: Disorderly or disorganized crowd of people


Reproachful: Expressing blame


Compulsions: Impulses to act


Assembly: Legislature; House of Burgesses


Domineering: Overbearing

Act of Indemnity

Act of Indemnity: An official act of the legislature, guaranteeing freedom from being held liable


Provision: Military supplies

Lording it

Lording it: Using power irresponsibly

Traitors to the Commonality

Traitors to the Commonality: Betrayers of the common people


Revelling: Having wild parties


Inward: Interior

What happened next . . .

Bacon's Rebellion might have lasted longer if Bacon himself had not become ill and died the following October. After his death, the insurrection (rebellion) was put down by Berkeley, who executed twenty-three of Bacon's men—in spite of a royal order pardoning all participants except Bacon. Berkeley finally gave up his position as governor to Herbert Jeffreys, who appointed a commission to investigate the uprising. The commission members mostly blamed Bacon and his ability to influence the leaderless frontiersmen.

Did you know . . .

  • Historians have long debated the impact of Bacon's Rebellion on colonial American life. In the nineteenth century many thought the insurrection was a bid for American independence from England, and that Bacon was nearly equal in importance to George Washington, a revered leader in the American Revolution (1775–83; a conflict in which American colonists gained independence from British rule). Other scholars point out, however, that Bacon had no clear philosophy of liberation, and he was not fighting the English. They also suggest that the rebellion was mainly personal revenge on the part of Bacon against Berkeley. Therefore, because Bacon considered his own motives a priority over the interests of the colony, he is considered less of a hero. Some historians have even linked Bacon's Rebellion to the full-scale use of slavery in America. They note that after the insurrection, plantation owners decided African slaves were easier to control than indentured servants.

For more information

"Bacon's Declaration in the Name of the People (30 July 1676)" in Documents Relevant to the United States Before 1700. Available September 30, 1999.

Bacon's Rebellion. Available September 30, 1999.

Harrah, Madge. My Brother, My Enemy. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1997.

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1993, pp. 202–05.

Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History, 1585–1776. Second Edition. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 1996, pp. 149–54.

Webb, Stephen Saunders. 1676: The End of American Independence. New York: Knopf, 1984.

About this article

Bacon, Elizabeth and Sherwood, William

Updated About content Print Article