From Indian War to Civil War
Virginians, meanwhile, sharply disagreed over the best way to fight the Susquehannock War. When, in March 1676, Governor Sir William Berkeley and the General Assembly set about planning a series of frontier forts and patrols, many objected, arguing that the forts would be expensive and useless. They suspected all Indians, even allied nations living within the colony, of being enemies of the English. In Nathaniel Bacon, an ambitious young newcomer to Virginia who had recently been appointed to the governor's Council, they found a leader. With William Byrd I, Bacon had engaged in the Indian trade. When the Indian raids reached as far south as the falls of the James River and the overseer at one of Bacon's properties, known as Bacon's Quarter, was killed, Bacon's sympathies forever shifted away from the governor and Council and toward those who wanted immediate action against the Indians.
In May Berkeley declared Bacon to be in rebellion, expelled him from the Council, and called for the election of a new House of Burgesses, to convene June 5. Simultaneously, Berkeley invited the forthcoming assembly to join him in petitioning Charles II for a new governor. (If he were at fault, Berkeley figured, then let the people say as much.) Bacon, still a wanted man, was elected a burgess from Henrico County, and his men now controlled much of the colony. In fact, Bacon's armed retainer in Henrico prevented the sheriff there from reading the governor's proclamation condemning Bacon and his men, and they may have intimidated voters into casting their ballots for him.
In a dramatic scene before the statehouse, burgesses crowded at the windows and watched as Bacon's men drew their arms and Berkeley bared his chest, daring Bacon to shoot him. Up to this point, the burgesses had not been particularly friendly to Bacon, going so far as to issue an endorsement of Berkeley's leadership, but now they feared for their lives. One of the burgesses waved a white handkerchief in surrender, and soon they had agreed to alter the pending legislation to name Bacon "commander in chiefe of the force raised, and to be raised dureing this Indian Warre." Bacon also pushed through a statute pardoning "all treasons" committed since March 1. Berkeley reluctantly agreed.
Dispatching ships to patrol Virginia's waters and to track down Berkeley, Bacon turned his attention once again to the Indians. After a halfhearted gesture toward the Occaneechis and Susquehannocks, whose location was a mystery at this point, Bacon went in hunt of the Pamunkey Indians. Once led by the fearsome Opechancanough, the Pamunkeys had been close allies of the English since their defeat in the Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644–1646). Now they fled their lands on the Pamunkey River above West Point and led the rebels north into the woods and swamps. After weeks of searching, Bacon's soldiers began to look ineffectual, even inept. Early in September they finally stumbled upon the Pamunkey encampment, killing some, capturing forty-five, and scattering the rest.
Meanwhile, in the last days of August Bacon's small navy located Berkeley's hideout on the Eastern Shore and bottled up the loyalists at Arlington plantation, John Custis II's magnificent Northampton County estate near the mouth of Old Plantation Creek. Berkeley, however, outwitted Bacon's officers, capturing their ships and their crews, many of whom had served Bacon only under duress. The rebel commander, William Carver, and four other men were hanged between September 3 and September 6, among the first of Bacon's men to suffer that fate. By then Berkeley's commander, Captain Thomas Larrimore, was already on the Chesapeake Bay gathering a fleet, quickly adding at least ten vessels to the four he had captured from Carver. Suddenly, Berkeley controlled the Chesapeake and its watershed.
With the governor safely on the Eastern Shore, Bacon plunged back into the woods and swamps in a fruitless search for Indians while other groups of rebels looted the estates of suspected loyalists. Then, suddenly, on October 26, 1676, Bacon died. He and the bulk of his following were in Gloucester County at the time, with Bacon staying at the house of Thomas Pate. He had been ill with typhus and dysentery, or what the colonists called the "Bloody Flux." His body was buried at a secret location so that, in the words of Thomas Mathew, it could not "be Exposed on a Gibbet as was purpos'd."
The Rebellion after Bacon
The most bitter and sustained fighting of the rebellion commenced in November. There were local struggles between neighbors in northern Virginia and on the Southside, and a series of loyalist raids on the York River garrisons that brought back dozens of rebels to hang or languish in jails on the Eastern Shore. Despite these raids, however, rebels retained control of nearly all of Virginia outside the Eastern Shore.
Then, late in December, the loyalists gained the upper hand, first routing a garrison of rebels on the Southside on Christmas Day, then convincing the two main rebel commanders to switch sides. Although the fighting continued, the holdouts increasingly were comprised of leaders who expected to hang if captured, or of servants and slaves who did not wish to return to servitude. When Berkeley at last returned to Green Spring on January 22, only a few rebels remained.
Royal commissioners Berry and Moryson sailed into the mouth of the James River on January 29, and Jeffreys arrived on February 11 at the head of the English troops. The commissioners' instructions assumed that the rebels had taken control or that the fighting was still underway, so there was a brief pause while they considered the situation. Friction between Berkeley and the commissioners began almost from the outset. Although they sat with Berkeley as a court, condemning the last eight of the twenty-three rebels to hang, they castigated him for his harshness in suppressing the rebellion.
As their mutual dislike intensified, the commissioners began to favor an interpretation of the king's instructions that would require Berkeley to leave immediately for London, leaving Jeffreys as governor in his place. By late March they had concluded that "those who stile themselves the Loyall Party are the onely chiefe Disturbers and Obstructers of the Peace and Settlement of this calamitous Country." The trouble, they said, was that Berkeley and his men had tried and punished rebels using wartime rules of military justice even though they had been captured after the rebellion, had hanged men who fell under provisions of the king's pardon, and had looted the estates of alleged rebels with no pretense of due process.
For his part, Berkeley noted that the commissioners incorrectly dated the end of the rebellion to late December, so that confiscations during the last month of fighting did not count, for them, as wartime actions. He also denied enriching himself with confiscated goods, insisting that the proceeds had fed loyalist forces fighting for the king.
Berkeley sailed for London several days later, vowing to tell his side of the story to Charles II. He had been in poor health for some time, however, and the voyage did him no good. On June 16 he was invited to see the king, but was already "so unlike to live," the bearer of the invitation reported, that it would have been "inhuman to have troubled him." He died on July 9 without telling his version of the past year's remarkable events.
Moryson and Berry arrived in London later that summer, submitting a final report that included "A True Narrative of the Rise, Progresse and Cessation of the Late Rebellion in Virginia." The report glossed over the deeper causes of the rebellion in favor of a story that blamed a few bad men, such as Bacon, for misleading "the giddy-headed multitude" during the crisis in Indian affairs. This, along with their account of Berkeley's alleged misconduct in aftermath of the rebellion, became the official version of events. Jeffreys, still serving as interim governor, died in office two years later, having made himself profoundly unpopular with Virginians during his term in office.
The causes and consequences of Bacon's Rebellion were not so simple. Considered from the perspective of the Pamunkeys, Occaneechis, and Susquehannocks, it was obviously about Indians. It was sparked by conflicts with Indians, and Bacon and his followers devoted considerable energy to pursuing Indians. Although the rebellion was suppressed, subsequent governors generally heeded the call of Bacon and his successors for a harsher Indian policy. As Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood summarized the situation, "a Governour of Virginia has to steer between Scylla and Charibdis, either an Indian or a Civil War," for Bacon's Rebellion was caused by Berkeley's "refusing to let the People go out against the Indians." Not coincidentally, Virginia Indians' fortunes declined precipitously in the generation following the rebellion.
In short, Virginians faced a combination of falling tobacco prices and a heavy tax burden. Beverley's "splitting the colony into proprieties" referred to the granting of the land on the Northern Neck to private individuals, which prevented the colony from selling it. Faced with this loss of revenue, the General Assembly dispatched agents to London to argue for the grant's revocation. This cost money. So did the General Assembly itself: as the royal commissioners recognized, taxes to pay the members' expenses during frequent assemblies were "Grievous and Burdensom." So too did the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672–1674), when the Crown had forced Virginia to build a useless and expensive fort at Point Comfort.
Berkeley frankly acknowledged the discontent among the populace, particularly among the small planters who could least afford these extraordinary taxes. Much of the discontent, however, focused not on Berkeley but on the local elites who controlled county governments, which actually levied most of the taxes. When the royal commissioners solicited grievances from the counties after Bacon's Rebellion, they were met by a torrent of complaints about high local taxes that did not seem to benefit the people at large and could only be paid in tobacco—a crop the large planters had in abundance, but which others could produce only with great difficulty.
Under these circumstances, Berkeley's plan to build frontier forts struck many frustrated and frightened planters as unhelpful. They figured that it would be cheaper, and perhaps more satisfying, to simply attack Indians wherever they could be found. Bacon's success came largely because of his ability to direct these people's fear and anger toward two targets: Indians and Berkeley, who was, according to Bacon's wife, Elizabeth Duke Bacon, "the Indians' friend and our enemy." Although Virginia's elites were divided over the rebellion and provided the leadership for both sides, small planters who were disproportionately threatened by the Indian war and burdened by taxes tended to lean toward Bacon's side in the conflict.
After Bacon's Rebellion the planter elite consolidated its power over the colony, but there were winners and losers even among the gentry. Losers in the struggle tended to be newer men, like Bacon, who had not been in the colony long and who may have resented the power and privileges of established elites. Those who gained the most were an older gentry who had helped found the colony decades earlier or, most importantly, royalists who had fled to Virginia in the 1650s following the English Civil Wars. These members of the Washington, Randolph, Carter, and Lee families, to name a few, would dominate Virginia for many years to come.
1675 - By this year, Nathaniel Bacon, with William Byrd, is participating in trade with some of the Indians on the southwestern border of settled Virginia. His antipathy of Virginia governor Sir William Berkeley, who also participates in the trade, may date to this time.
December 25, 1676 - Forces loyal to Virginia governor Sir William Berkeley rout a garrison of rebels on the Southside during Bacon's Rebellion. Over the course of the next week, the two main rebel commanders (based on the York River) are persuaded to switch sides.
Summer 1677 - Sir John Berry and Francis Moryson submit to the king their report on Bacon's Rebellion. In "A True Narrative of the Rise, Progresse and Cessation of the Late Rebellion in Virginia" they find blame both in Nathaniel Bacon and Governor Sir William Berkeley.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Rice, J. D. Bacon's Rebellion (1676–1677). (2014, May 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Bacon_s_Rebellion_1676-1677.
- MLA Citation:
Rice, James Douglas. "Bacon's Rebellion (1676–1677)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 May. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: August 25, 2011 | Last modified: May 30, 2014
Contributed by James Douglas Rice, professor of history at SUNY Plattsburgh. He is the author of Nature and History in the Potomac Country: From Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson (2009) and Tales from a Revolution: Bacon's Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America (2012).