Bacon's Rebellion was the largest popular uprising prior to the American Revolution. The rebellion began as a dispute among English settlers in Virginia over American Indian policy. At its height, however, it erupted into a civil war pitting anti–American-Indian western settlers (including many servants and slaves) against Governor William Berkeley and his allies who encouraged more conciliatory policies toward indigenous peoples. Although the rebellion took the name of Nathaniel Bacon, who arrived as young man in Virginia in 1674 and was immediately welcomed into elite society, the causes and consequences of the rebellion, like all wars, were more profound than the ideas and leadership of a single man.
When Bacon migrated to Virginia in search of personal gain he entered a precarious world wherein American Indians, free and enslaved blacks, and English colonists (including many indentured servants) struggled to coexist. By the 1670s there were only four thousand American Indians, divided into twenty different tribes, who continued to live in close proximity to the European settlers. Many of these had long since accepted a dependent status as subjects of the English crown, but tensions between the natives and newcomers continued.
Governor Berkeley strove to treat American Indians equitably and to distinguish carefully between American Indian allies and foes. Regardless, many colonists, particularly those located on the western frontier, were deeply suspicious of all American Indians. The frontier situation was particularly complicated by the presence of more powerful native peoples, like the Susquehannocks, who resisted English encroachments on their lands. Anglo–American-Indian relations were further exacerbated by a depressed tobacco economy, anger over what were perceived to be excessive taxes, and displeasure with the restrictions on trade as a result of England's Navigation Acts. The larger economic and political issues, then, contributed to the volatile nature of colonial society and made American Indians convenient scapegoats for all manner of grievances.
The details of the rebellion are fairly straightforward. In July 1675 a violent dispute erupted over a misunderstanding between a band of Doegs and English settlers in the Potomac River Valley. In late August, Governor Berkeley's efforts to facilitate a peaceful resolution were hampered by angry colonists who chose to take matter
into their own hands. By early 1676 (at precisely the same moment that word began to arrive in the colony about King Philip's War in New England), a full-scale war threatened to tear apart the colony.
Berkeley sought to contain the situation, but his attempt to balance the interests of both American Indians and Englishmen proved untenable. When frontiersmen began looking for a leader more willing to condone their virulent anti–American-Indian measures, Nathaniel Bacon embraced the opportunity to elevate his local standing and agreed to lead volunteer militia units. The governor, however, was suspicious of the young man's real intentions and refused to authorize his command.
Western settlers were undeterred and in June 1676 Bacon secured (by threat of force) a commission from Governor Berkeley to lead his volunteers in military action against the American Indians. Berkeley soon insisted that he had granted the commission under duress, leading Bacon to attack the governor and his small band of allies, forcing a retreat across the Chesapeake from Jamestown to the Eastern Shore. By July the Old Dominion was firmly in Bacon's hands. His forces crushed a group of friendly Occaneechees and scattered a bedraggled band of Pamunkeys hiding out in a swamp, but they were never able to do anything about the Susquehannocks beyond their frontier. Berkeley temporarily regained control of Jamestown in early September, only to see Bacon's forces return and burn the capitol to the ground. In subsequent weeks, rebels looted and burned the homes of numerous loyalists. When Bacon died in late October, however, the rebellion collapsed. By January Berkeley was back in Jamestown, where he proceeded to hang a number of the remaining rebel leaders, but he was soon recalled to England and replaced by a more conciliatory administration.
Bacon's Rebellion redefined the domestic landscape of seventeenth-century Chesapeake. What began as an external conflict with American Indians rapidly developed into a domestic insurrection among predominantly western settlers who rejected the accommodationist policies of the eastern establishment. As it developed, however, Bacon's Rebellion took on a tenor of class warfare as his forces, increasingly composed of runaway servants and slaves, plundered the property of Berkeley's allies in the Tidewater. Some historians have argued that class conflict and racial egalitarianism among Bacon's rebels prompted tobacco planters to replace white indentured servants with African slaves, thus sowing the seeds of the racial divide that would define the South and much of America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The rebellion also decimated the remaining tribes in Virginia and forced many of the survivors to flee the colony. Bacon's Rebellion therefore illustrates the racism that would spill so much American Indian blood in the future, ultimately leading to the subjection of native peoples in the expanding United States.
Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: Norton & Co., 1975.
Washburn, Wilcomb E. The Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957.
Webb, Stephen Saunders. 1676: The End of American Independence. New York: Knopf, 1984.
Michael J. Guasco
In the spring of 1676, Nathaniel Bacon Jr. (1647–1676) led a revolt against the governor of Virginia and local Indian tribes. Over the course of months, events unfolded into a significant uprising known as Bacon's Rebellion. The immediate events that sparked the rebellion concerned a political disagreement between Governor William Berkeley (1606–1677) and Bacon, who was a member of Berkeley's council. It remains uncertain what other factors caused Bacon to take such drastic actions.
Unfolding of events
During the summer of 1675, there were several Indian raids against the colonists of Virginia. When a group of Virginians took revenge by murdering some Indians, the tribes increased their attacks. Governor Berkeley refrained from sending troops to counter the attacks and opted instead to build a chain of forts along the frontier.
A group of angry planters persuaded Bacon to lead a band of volunteers against the Indians, aggressive and friendly alike. Bacon petitioned the governor for a commission to organize the volunteers. Afraid of a full-scale war, the governor declined and warned Bacon that further action would define him as a rebel.
Governor Berkeley's warnings went unheeded, and in May 1676 Bacon set off with a force of three hundred men to the southern frontier. There they slaughtered and plundered a friendly tribe. Governor Berkeley declared Bacon a rebel for his actions and demanded that he be captured.
Bacon was imprisoned temporarily. He confessed his error and received a pardon from the governor. Days later, he slipped back to his home. He returned to the government in June with five hundred armed men. He forced Berkeley and the House of Burgesses (Virginia's legislative body) to grant him a formal commission to fight the Indians.
When Governor Berkeley attempted to raise forces to assert his own authority, Bacon turned on him. Civil war ensued. Berkeley was driven to the eastern shore of Virginia, leaving Bacon in charge of the western border. Bacon proceeded against another friendly tribe as Governor Berkeley took control of the capital, Jamestown . When Bacon arrived in Jamestown in September with six hundred men, he forced the governor's retreat and burned the town. A little more than a month later, Bacon suddenly fell ill and died. Governor Berkeley was able to return to confront Bacon's forces and suppress the rebellion. By February 1677, Governor Berkeley had reestablished his authority over Virginia.
In January 1677, royal commissioners (justices conducting an investigation on behalf of England) and one thousand English troops arrived in Virginia to investigate the uprising and to restore order. They arrived with royal pardons for the rebels, but Governor Berkeley rejected them. He ordered the execution of twenty-three rebels. The commissioners viewed the governor's actions as cruel, and they removed him from his post. Berkeley returned to England in May to defend himself but died before seeing the king.
While historians argue over the exact causes of Bacon's Rebellion, a few factors are considered to be particularly important. Virginia was a rapidly growing, but unstable, society at the time. Competition for political and social positions increased in the midst of such instability.
Social instability was further complicated by a slow economy. Overproduction of inferior tobacco and high taxes led to financial difficulties and hardships. Governor Berkeley's leadership was ineffective, and many were generally dissatisfied with the government. The known disagreement between Berkeley and Bacon over the governor's Indian policy was probably exaggerated by each of these factors.
BACON'S REBELLION was a revolt in Virginia in 1676 led by Nathaniel Bacon Jr., a young planter, against the aged royal governor, Sir William Berkeley. The revolt has usually been interpreted as an attempt at political re-form directed against the allegedly oppressive rule of the governor. Bacon's Rebellion, so the argument goes, was prologue to the American Revolution. Late-twentieth-century scholarship, however, has questioned this thesis and emphasized controversy over Indian policy and class divisions within the colony as fundamental causes of the rebellion. The ensuing civil war exposed deep social rifts between the poor whites and the Anglo-American elites of the Chesapeake region.
When Indian attacks occurred on the northern and western frontiers late in 1675 and early in 1676, Bacon demanded the right to lead volunteers in retaliation against all Indians, even those living peacefully within the colony. Berkeley, fearing unjust dispossession and slaughter of the friendly Native American tribes, refused. Bacon ignored the governor's restriction and in May 1676 led volunteers to the southern frontier, where he slaughtered
and plundered the friendly Occaneechee Indians. When the governor attempted to call him to account, Bacon marched to Jamestown and, at gunpoint, forced the House of Burgesses of June 1676 to grant him formal authority to fight the Indian war. The burgesses and the governor, powerless before the occupying army and eager to be rid of it, quickly acquiesced. Bacon then marched against another nonhostile tribe, the Pamunkey.
When Berkeley attempted to raise forces to reestablish his own authority, Bacon turned on the governor with his volunteers. Civil war ensued. Berkeley was driven to the eastern shore of Virginia. Jamestown, the capital, was burned. For a few months Bacon's word was law on the mainland. Bacon's rebels retained the loyalty of many indentured servants and small landholders. The colony depended heavily on supplies from England, however, and the sea captains and sailors sided with Berkeley.
The rebellion, already flagging, came to an abrupt end when Bacon died in October 1676. Berkeley, having recruited forces on the Eastern Shore, returned to the mainland, defeated the remaining rebels, and by January 1677 had reestablished his authority. Soon thereafter, eleven hundred troops, sent by Charles II to suppress the rebellion, arrived, accompanied by commissioners to investigate its causes. Berkeley's strict policy toward the defeated rebels was severely censured by the commissioners, who attempted to remove him from the governorship. Berkeley returned to England in May 1677 to justify himself, but died on 9 July before seeing the king. Charles II installed Colonel Herbert Jeffreys as governor and promised a plan of internal reform. These reforms erased much of the political autonomy built during Berkeley's regime and reasserted imperial control over Virginia.
Frantz, John B., ed. Bacon's Rebellion: Prologue to the Revolution? Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1969.
Webb, Stephen Saunders. 1676, The End of American Independence. New York: Knopf, 1984.
Wilcomb E.Washburn/a. r.
Smallholders on Virginia's frontier had long‐running disputes with the Susquehannocks north of the James River and with the colony's elite. The sources of the free men's anger converged in 1676 when Governor William Berkeley, fearing the outbreak of Indian war, discountenanced Bacon's plans to lead a frontier army against the Indians and refused him a commission. Bacon planned to exterminate the Indians in the colony, and attack those beyond its border; Berkeley reasonably insisted on distinguishing between friendly and hostile Indians. In June, Bacon and five hundred men traveled to Jamestown to confront Berkeley. The governor eventually granted the commission and authorized Bacon to raise an army; Berkeley then fled Jamestown and sent to England for troops.
While Bacon's followers sought out Indians to enslave or massacre, Berkeley and Bacon waged a recruiting war, vying for the loyalty of servants and small landowners. In October, Bacon died and his rebellion fizzled. British troops arriving in 1677 confronted a puny rebel force: eighty slaves and twenty servants.
A class brawl within an Indian conflict, Bacon's Rebellion revealed the mixed motivations and tangled outcomes of warfare in colonial America. The revolt changed little within the colony; gentlemen continued to monopolize the best land, the highest offices, and the most slaves. The Indians suffered the most. Those within the colony lost population and land; the Susquehannocks to the north were decimated by Iroquois warriors, who seized the opportunity to attack. By the 1680s, the Susquehannocks existed only as Iroquois dependents, and the Iroquois were free to sell their lands to colonial planters.
[See also Colonial Rebellions and Armed Civil Unrest; Native American Wars: Wars Between Native Americans and Europeans and Euro‐Americans.]
Wilcomb E. Washburn , The Governor and the Rebel, 1957.
Edmund S. Morgan , American Slavery, American Freedom, 1975.
Jon T. Coleman