Bacon was born on January 2, 1647, at Friston Hall in Suffolk County, England, the seat of his father. He was the only son and one of several children of Thomas Bacon and Elizabeth Brooke Bacon; his mother died shortly after his birth. Bacon matriculated at Saint Catherine’s College, Cambridge University, on May 5, 1661, but two years later his father withdrew him from school, probably due to his inattention to his studies, and hired a tutor to teach him. He made a tour of the Continent in the company of his tutor, was admitted to Gray’s Inn on November 22, 1664, and returned to Cambridge, where he received his M.B. in 1667.
In May 1670 he married Elizabeth Duke, daughter of Sir Edward Duke, who so disapproved of the match that he disinherited her. Although the couple nonetheless had sufficient property for a comfortable living, Bacon became involved in a fraudulent scheme to sell a parcel of land, which resulted in a lawsuit that persisted for several years after his death. Probably as a consequence, he moved to Virginia in the summer of 1674 with his wife and possibly their two daughters, whose birth dates are unknown. His father sent him off with £1,800 to start his life anew.
In August 1674 Bacon purchased 820 acres of land at Curles Neck in Henrico County from Thomas Ballard (d. 1690) and probably moved into an existing house on the site soon thereafter. He also acquired from Ballard a smaller tract of land near the falls of the James River that became known as Bacon’s Quarter. Bacon was related by blood or marriage to several of the most influential people in Virginia, including his cousin(1620–1692), a member of the governor’s Council; Governor Sir William Berkeley; and Frances Culpeper Stephens Berkeley, the governor’s wife. Bacon was well connected, well educated, intelligent, tall, and handsome, although somewhat melancholy and, in the view of some Virginians, unpleasantly arrogant. On March 3, 1675, in spite of the brevity of Bacon’s residence in Virginia, the governor appointed him one of several new members of the Council.
The rebellion Bacon led against the governor erupted suddenly the next year following a long period of unsettled politics, economic hardship, and, more proximately, a series of genuinely frightening incidents. Skirmishes in 1675 between frontier settlers and Doeg and Susquehannock Indians in the Potomac River valley stimulated a widespread fear of organized Indian raids, fears that were heightened after Virginians learned of the outbreak in New England of what came to be called King Philip’s War. By then Bacon had begun participating with(1652–1704) in trade with some of the Indians on the southwestern border of the settled parts of Virginia and, as some writers later charged, one result may have been his growing antipathy toward the governor, who was also a significant participant in the Indian trade and therefore a competitor. Bacon’s animosity toward the Indians, however, appears to have been the mainspring of his conduct. In September 1675 he seized some friendly Appamattuck Indians whom he accused of stealing corn, for which “rash heady action” the governor rebuked him.
In March 1676 the General Assembly met to prepare for defending the colony and enacted laws to erect forts along the fall line, to try to keep friendly Indians at peace with the colonists, and to cut off the Indian trade temporarily to reduce contacts that might flare into conflicts. By then Indian raids had reached the falls of the James River, and Bacon’s own overseer at Bacon’s Quarter had been killed in a raid that triggered new alarms. The causes of the rebellion later adduced by royal commissioners included public resentment of the requisite high taxes, which the people believed had bought no real protection. In this charged atmosphere Bacon became the leader of the angry and frightened militiamen in the upper reaches of the James River valley, and he requested permission from the governor to lead an expedition against the hostile Indians. Berkeley’s denial of the request increased the resentment of the frontier settlers, augmented Bacon’s local popularity, and produced a breach between the governor and the councillor after Bacon went ahead with preparations to attack local, friendly Indians. In May, Berkeley expelled Bacon from the Council and branded him a rebel, at the same time offering to pardon Bacon’s followers if they would return to their homes.
Berkeley also called for the election of a new House of Burgesses and convened the new assembly as soon as possible in order to take necessary additional steps to secure the safety of the colony. Bacon, meanwhile, led his men southwest to one of the main Occaneechi villages. He persuaded the Occaneechi to attack a nearby party of hostile Susquehannocks, but the allies soon quarreled and, after a pitched battle, Bacon and his men devastated the Occaneechi village. Berkeley condemned Bacon’s actions, but Bacon’s men now controlled much of the colony and actually prevented the sheriff of Henrico County from reading the governor’s proclamation of condemnation there. Moreover, the Henrico voters elected Bacon and one of his principal lieutenants,, to the House of Burgesses for the assembly that gathered on June 5 and has historically been referred to as Bacon’s Assembly.
On June 6, 1676, Bacon and a company of armed men arrived in Jamestown. Berkeley’s agents seized Bacon and carried him before the governor and the assembly, where he apologized on bended knee for his misdeeds and presented a written petition for a pardon. The governor then announced that he was pardoning Bacon and restoring him to his seat on the Council. At this point an assembly member urged that Bacon be made a general to command the campaign against the Indians, and the large crowd of angry men who had descended on Jamestown took up the cry. The governor vacillated, first agreeing to the appointment but then changing his mind, revoking his pardon of Bacon, and again expelling him from the Council.
Bacon left Jamestown, but on June 23 he stormed back into the capital with about 500 men and demanded that the governor commission him as a general to lead the colony against the Indians. A dramatic and dangerous scene ensued, with Bacon’s men drawing their arms against the assembled burgesses and the governor literally baring his chest and daring Bacon’s men to shoot him. Berkeley nevertheless yielded to the demands of Bacon and his supporters, and the assembly rapidly completed work on the laws of the session. Although later writers referred to these statutes as “Bacon’s laws,” the extant evidence indicates that he took little or no interest in the proceedings of the assembly.
Suppression of Bacon’s Rebellion
Bacon withdrew upriver in search of Indians to attack, but late in July the governor again reversed course, once again declared Bacon a rebel, and went to Gloucester County to recruit men to fight him. Bacon and his army marched to Middle Plantation, the site of present-day Williamsburg, while Berkeley retreated to the Eastern Shore. About July 30 Bacon issued the first of a series of declarations of grievance and complaint against Berkeley, together with justifications of his own actions, which he signed as “General, by the consent of the people.” Bacon compelled or cajoled many people to subscribe to his declarations accusing the governor of fomenting a civil war and endangering the safety of the colony, and he sent riders into various parts of Virginia to gather signatures to an oath of loyalty to the rebellion and to summon leading men to meet him at Middle Plantation. On August 3, 1676, Bacon obtained the endorsement of seventy of them to his leadership against the Indians, and the next day thirty signatories assented to a more radical declaration that a new assembly was to be chosen under his authority rather than recalling the one that had met in June. Bacon then marched his men into the Dragon Swamp on the lower reaches of the Rappahannock River, where they attacked the friendly Pamunkey Indians.
Early in September the governor returned to Jamestown with a small force and issued another proclamation against Bacon, whereupon Bacon marched there and laid siege to the capital. On the evening of September 18, 1676, Berkeley abandoned Jamestown, and Bacon’s men occupied and burned it the next morning. Bacon’s forces in and out of Jamestown were by then beyond control. Many of them apparently spent much of their time ransacking the estates of men identified as loyal to the governor.
By autumn letters from Virginia had arrived in London apprising royal officials of the rebellion. King Charles II formed a three-member commission to assist the governor in suppressing the revolt and to inquire into its causes. On October 27 the king signed a proclamation for putting down the rebellion led by “Nathaniel Bacon the Younger.” The king offered to pardon Bacon’s lieutenants, whom he characterized as “Persons of mean and desperate Fortunes,” if they speedily surrendered. With respect to Nathaniel Bacon, the proclamation was already a dead letter. On October 26, 1676, the day before the king signed the proclamation, Bacon and the bulk of his following were in Gloucester County where, at the house of Thomas Pate, Nathaniel Bacon died of the “Bloody Flux” (dysentery) and a “Lousey Disease.” The place of his burial is not known. Without his impetuous leadership the rebellion soon collapsed, and Berkeley later hanged several of Bacon’s most active followers.
Bacon’s Rebellion has inspired much writing, including more than a dozen works of fiction, and scholarly interpretations of Nathaniel Bacon’s motivations and his significance vary widely. Early in the nineteenth century the Virginia historian John Daly Burk presented Bacon as a patriotic precursor to the American revolutionaries of 1776, an influential interpretation repeated by other writers, most notably Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker in his Torchbearer of the Revolution: The Story of Bacon’s Rebellion and Its Leader (1940). Governor Berkeley has had his defenders, too. In The Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia (1957), Wilcomb E. Washburn presented Bacon as the ambitious and impetuous leader of a mob of Indian-hating frontiersmen. However one may interpret him, the rebellion itself preceded significant changes for Virginia. The colonists came under much closer English supervision than before 1676 and, by century’s end, they had embraced an economy based on enslaved labor. Bacon’s Rebellion is one of the most important and controversial events of Virginia’s history, and scholars continue to debate its causes and its significance.