From Indian War to Civil War
The rebellion traces its origins to 1675 and a trading dispute between the Algonquian-speaking Doeg Indians and the Potomac River planter and merchant Thomas Mathew. As relations worsened, Mathew and his neighbors killed several Indians as they were making away with livestock. The Doegs retaliated by killing one of Mathew’s herdsmen. Virginia militia pursued the Doegs to Maryland and attacked their cabin, along with the cabin of innocent Susquehannock hunters, who were taken completely by surprise. In the ensuing war the Iroquoian-speaking Susquehannocks were forced from their town in southern Maryland, taking refuge in the southern piedmont of Virginia and raiding the English frontier.
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.
Bacon took command of a band of volunteer militiamen from Charles City and Henrico counties and repeatedly demanded from the governor a commission to “go out forth against the Indians.” This behavior greatly annoyed Berkeley, who failed to understand why anyone would allow themselves to be “seduced and carried away by soe young, unexperienced, rash, and inconsiderate person” as Bacon. As if he were attempting to live up to that assessment, Bacon proceeded without a commission, pursuing the Susquehannocks to the Roanoke River. There he persuaded the Occaneechi nation, which had long been an important partner in the Virginia trade in skins, furs, and Indian slaves, to attack the Susquehannocks. After the Siouan-speaking Occaneechis returned with Susquehannock prisoners Bacon turned on his allies, indiscriminately killing Occaneechi men, women, and children, and looting their town.
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. Women played a role in the rebellion, helping to spread the word about Bacon’s plans and urging their husbands to join him.
The rebels arrived in Jamestown on June 6, but when Bacon attempted to take his seat in what has come to be known as Bacon’s Assembly he was captured and, on bended knee, he capitulated. Berkeley returned him to his seat on the governor’s Council, but when an assembly member called for Bacon to be granted his long-sought-after commission to fight the Indians, the governor, after some back and forth, refused. Expelled from the Council a second time, Bacon fled Jamestown, assembled a 500-man volunteer army, and returned to the capital on June 23, just as the assembly was wrapping up its business.
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.
A war of words followed, with each side making its case in public proclamations and appeals to key officials in London. Encouraged by inhabitants’ complaints about Bacon’s heavy-handed recruitment and requisitioning of supplies for the Indian war, Berkeley again declared Bacon a rebel late in July. Upon hearing of this, Bacon marched his army to Middle Plantation (present-day Williamsburg), and Berkeley fled to the Eastern Shore. On July 30, Bacon issued the first of a number of declarations of his grievances, which he signed “Generall, by the consent of the People.” And on August 3 he gathered at Middle Plantation many of the colony’s leading men, securing the sworn allegiance of seventy of them. The next day, thirty of those seventy called for a new assembly under Bacon’s authority. In the meantime, the rebels confiscated the property of twenty leading Berkeley loyalists, whom they identified as “traytors.” The Susquehannock War had become a civil war.
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.
Early in September, flush with their respective victories and unaware of the other’s success, Bacon and Berkeley both prepared to transfer their troops to Berkeley’s Green Spring plantation, about three miles from Jamestown. Berkeley arrived first, retaking Jamestown without a shot on September 8. Six days later, Bacon laid siege, forcing Berkeley, on the evening of September 18, to abandon the town for the Eastern Shore. The rebels entered Jamestown the next morning, but decided they could neither hold the capital nor allow the governor to retake it. Instead, Bacon resolved to “laye itt level with the Ground.” His men ran from building to building with burning brands, torching numerous homes as well as the statehouse complex, warehouses, taverns, and even the church. Berkeley and the loyalist refugees, anchored just downstream, watched the glow of the flames.
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
On October 27, 1676, unaware that Bacon was already dead, Charles II signed a proclamation for putting down the rebellion led by “Nathaniel Bacon the Younger.” (Bacon’s elder relative of the same name was a longtime member of the governor’s Council and adamantly supported Berkeley. He reportedly had offered his kinsman a portion of his estate on the condition that “hee would lay downe his Armes.”) While offering to pardon Bacon’s men, the king ordered a thousand soldiers, under Colonel Herbert Jeffreys, and a fleet of ships, under Sir John Berry, to Virginia along with a three-man commission to investigate and report on the disturbances in the colony. Joining Jeffreys and Berry on the commission was Francis Moryson, Virginia’s lobbyist in England. Berry and Moryson sailed on November 19, while Jeffreys, accompanied by Berkeley’s wife, Frances Culpeper Stephens Berkeley, who had been in England on her husband’s behalf, weighed anchor on December 3.
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.
Personal slights and insults increasingly crept into correspondence between Berkeley and the commissioners, culminating with an April 22 incident in which the commissioners visited Green Spring to say farewell to Berkeley. As they prepared to leave in Berkeley’s coach, they recognized their driver as the “Common hangman.” Noticing that Lady Berkeley was watching through the window, presumably to judge their reactions, the men chose to walk the several miles to their landing on the James rather than endure the insult.
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.
From the American Revolution to the 1950s, the most common understanding of Bacon’s Rebellion was that it was a precursor of the American Revolution, a premature revolt against British tyranny that represented but a temporary setback for American liberty. Best encapsulated in Thomas Wertenbaker’s Torchbearer of the Revolution: The Story of Bacon’s Rebellion and Its Leader (1940), this interpretation still enjoys some popularity. Since the 1950s, however, historians have soundly rejected this interpretation for the simple reason that there is no evidence to support it and much evidence to the contrary. Bacon himself worked hard at presenting his rebellion as being in the king’s interests, repeatedly representing it as an uprising against a corrupt governor and his followers, who were the real traitors against the Crown.
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.
Considered from the perspective of Virginia society, the conflict brought to a head problems that had been brewing long before the rebellion. In his History and Present State of Virginia (1705), Robert Beverley Jr., the son of a loyalist officer who was at the forefront of the fighting during the winter of 1676–1677, attributed the rebellion to three major causes in addition to “the disturbance given by the Indians”:
First, The extreme low price of tobacco, and the ill usage of the planters in the exchange of goods for it, which the country, with all their earnest endeavors, could not remedy. Secondly, The splitting the colony into proprieties, contrary to the original charters; and the extravagant taxes they were forced to undergo, to relieve themselves from those grants. Thirdly, The heavy restraints and burdens laid upon their trade by act of Parliament in England.
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.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.
The rebellion had also taken place in the midst of a fundamental shift in Virginia’s labor force, several decades after leading planters had collectively decided to replace white indentured servants with more easily controlled enslaved Africans, but roughly twenty years before the supply of slaves would make that possible. By 1700 the slave population had soared, British immigration had slowed, and many poor whites had either become better established or had departed the colony. At the turn of the century white Virginians were increasingly united by white populism, or the binding together of rich and poor whites through their sense of what they considered their common racial virtue and their common opposition to the interests of Indians and enslaved Africans. Thus Bacon’s Rebellion was, as one writer has put it, a critical element in “the origin of the Old South.”