Bacon’s Rebellion pitted Governor William Berkeley’s forces against hundreds of disaffected tobacco plantation owners, enslaved Africans, and poor whites united under the leadership of Nathaniel Bacon. Bacon took advantage of a dispute between Algonquian-speaking Doeg Indians and a Northern Neck plantation owner and rising anti-Native sentiment to lead unauthorized militia attacks against members of the Susquehannock and Occaneechi tribes, who were allies of the colony’s leadership. This led to a civil war between Bacon’s followers and Berkeley loyalists that resulted in the death and capture of Native people from multiple nations, and widespread destruction throughout the colony, including the burning of the capital of Jamestown by Bacon’s forces. After Bacon’s sudden death in late October 1676, fighting continued into 1677 before Loyalist forces quelled the rebellion.
Today Bacon’s Rebellion is viewed as a crisis of social, economic, and political arrangements in colonial Virginia that ultimately allowed a white planter–enslaver elite to consolidate power. While the rebellion remains a turning point in Virginia’s colonial history, the story of Bacon’s Rebellion developed separate significance over three centuries.
Bacon’s Rebellion was a topic of government reports, personal accounts, and literature for decades after the uprising. These documents became the historical foundation for later mythology surrounding the rebellion. However, contemporary authors were far from unanimous in their assessment of Bacon. Depending on their political interests, chroniclers saw Bacon either as the colonists’ guardian against a self-interested governor and the Native aggressors whom the governor protected, or as an egotistical, charismatic leader who took advantage of lesser men’s fears and financial miseries. Bacon duped “the poorer sort,” eighteenth-century historian John Cotton, who wrote a contemporary account of the rebellion, chronicled Bacon’s strategic decision to place the wives of Berkeley loyalists between his forces and the governor’s men during a standoff at Jamestown, creating a “white garde to the Divell” of innocent women shielding morally reprehensible rebels. Governor Berkeley, upon hearing of Bacon’s death in 1676, famously gloated, “Bacon is Dead/I am sorry at my hart/that Lice and flux/should take the hangmans part.”said in his History and Present State of Virginia (1705), taking “care to exasperate them to the utmost, by representing all their Misfortunes.” Official accounts painted the rebellion itself and actions taken by the rebels as illegitimate even as colonists’ economic and security concerns, as well as government missteps, were noted as causes for the hostilities. Other chroniclers condemned specific extralegal and dishonorable acts of violence perpetrated or ordered by Bacon. Berkeley loyalist Philip Ludwell, among others, reported atrocities committed by Bacon against friendly Algonquians, whom he “w[i]th much Horror & cruelty put to Death.”
These accounts, it should be noted, were written from the perspectives of royal commissioners, colonial officials, and white landowners. Historians have few written accounts from indentured servants, enslaved Black people, and Indigenous people about their experiences and actions during the rebellion. The memory of the rebellion did survive, however, in various forms. A letter from 1774 chronicled the death of 106-year-old Nan, who had been enslaved in Isle of Wight County, who “could give a circumstantial Account of Bacon’s Rebellion.” Echoing experiences of Native displacement across the Southeast, the Weyanokes and Chowans told white settlers about having moved to safer locations during the rebellion, presumably to avoid the fray. The Treaty of Middle Plantation, signed by English representatives and Native nations following the rebellion, affirmed control of existing Native land and guaranteed hunting and fishing rights to tribes who paid tribute. The treaty still is recognized annually at Thanksgiving with the gift of a deer from Virginia Indian tribes to the governor and has been evoked when Virginia Indian lands face modern environmental threats.
Bacon’s Rebellion in History
Impressions of the rebellion changed as popular opinion about English rule shifted after the American Revolution. In the early Republic, writers eager to put Virginia at the center of the Revolution reimagined Bacon’s Rebellion as a prelude to independence. Thomas Jefferson, an avid collector of books and manuscripts, provided historians with colonial sources that made their way into the hands of Virginian newspaper editors and historians who wrote the state’s history.
Bemoaning the brief coverage of Bacon’s Rebellion in history books published in England, in 1804 the editor of the Richmond Enquirer published a seventeenth-century. Newspapers beyond Virginia reprinted this account, introducing readers to “a memorable transaction in Virginia, called Bacon’s Rebellion, which broke out just an hundred years previous to the Americanrevolution” [sic], suggesting a historical link between the two events.
As writers and statesmen like John Marshall compiled the story of the young United States and the Commonwealth of Virginia, they included these accounts and positioned Bacon as the hero of the story. John Daly Burk’s History of Virginia (1804), written with the help of Jefferson’s sources, painted Bacon as “a youth amiable and popular; of bright hopes and shining talents, and already advanced to the first offices in the government.” Bacon’s enemy Governor Berkeley, true to his anti-democratic roots, “wanted something of the softened graces and just proportions of the classic orders.” Burk argued that when confronted with a choice between a prototypical American man like Bacon and an aging English bureaucrat like Berkeley, Virginians chose Bacon, “an asserter of human rights and a leader of the armies of freedom.”
Novelists also picked up these histories of Bacon’s Rebellion and added color to the image of Bacon as an originator of a United States safe from Native people and royal tyranny. While they wrote fiction, these authors bolstered their credibility with footnotes from chronicles like Burk’s. Emerson Bennett, who wrote The Fair Rebel: A Tale of Colonial Times (1855), called his book “a web from our mental loom, with a warp of fact and a woof fiction.” Echoing the language of the Declaration of Independence, William A. Caruthers’s two-volume The Cavaliers of Virginia (1834) follows Bacon in his fight against Governor Berkeley for “life, freedom, and property.” In this telling, the fictional Bacon made the South safe for plantations through the expulsion of Native people, who were portrayed as implacably violent, declaring, “I have been the first to maintain the impossibility of the two species living together in peace.” At a time when Indigenous people were being forcibly expelled from the Southeastern United States, Caruthers’ hero spoke of acting upon “the necessity which is driving your red brethren to the far west,” linking the rebellion to nineteenth-century American Indian removal policy.
Violent acts that were condemned in some seventeenth-century accounts were glorified in nineteenth-century fictional romances in which Bacon’s supposed destruction of the Native presence in the colony safeguarded English families. Not surprisingly, indentured and enslaved rebels played little to no role in these accounts, except as loyal servants. The Cavaliers of Virginia and other mid-nineteenth-century novels about Bacon found national attention and financial success, enrapturing audiences across the expanding country with this version of Bacon and his colonial setting.
Bacon and Post–Civil War Virginia
After the Civil War, proponents of the Lost Cause emphasized Bacon’s identity as a rebel, and historians, authors, memorial societies, and educators recast Bacon’s Rebellion as a central event in the mythology of the antebellum South. As Lost Cause rhetoric shaped southern society and perceptions of the region and major shifts such as increased immigration and industrialization changed life across the country, readers, tourists, and other consumers of history were receptive to a nostalgic retelling of an ordered, southern colonial past. William Sage’s A Maid of Old Virginia: A Romance of Bacon’s Rebellion (1915) was one of a number of stories in which Bacon and his men saved white women from the dangers posed by Black or Native men, reinforcing the Jim Crow racial order. At the same time, a growing number of novels and short stories represented seventeenth-century Virginia using imagery of Plains Indians and leather-fringed frontiersmen familiar to readers of popular novels about the American West, connecting Bacon to what was seen as the inevitable westward expansion of white settlement. In this attenuated version of history, Bacon became the prototypical white southern gentleman. Escott Lynn, author of Rebels of the Green Cockade (1923), described Bacon as “a perfect cavalier—an intrepid horseman, a dead shot, and a finished swordsman. … brave as a lion, and strong as a horse.” It was this Bacon who marched across the continent to schools, libraries, and bookstores throughout the country. Mary Newton Stanard’s popular 1907 novel The Story of Bacon’s Rebellion was reviewed by newspapers from New York to Los Angeles and as far afield as London.
Textbook authors, many of whom espoused Lost Cause ideology, foregrounded Bacon’s Rebellion as a central moment in the commonwealth’s history. They leaned into popular frontier imagery and simplistic explanations of events that would have meant little to seventeenth-century Virginians. Their version reduced the rebellion to a feud between Governor Berkeley and Bacon in which Berkeley was an autocratic ruler who failed to protect the colonists from Native incursions, while Bacon and his men, according to, “fought for their firesides, and for that liberty of opinion and action, the love of which the free life in the wide forests of the New World seems to have inspired in the hearts of the colonists since the earliest settlement in Virginia.” Textbooks typically left out the actions of enslaved people, who were relegated to a separate section on slavery, and Indigenous people beyond their supposed instigation of the violence. Authors did not distinguish between Native nations—distinctions necessary to understanding of the full story—and if they did, regularly misidentified and mischaracterized them. History of Virginia for the Use of Schools asserted that, thanks to Bacon, “Indian power in Virginia was forever broken,” which denied Virginia Indians’ continued physical and political presence in the commonwealth.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Bacon and his rebellion were memorialized at sites across Virginia by organizations like the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, which installed a fictionalized stained-glass portrait of Bacon in Williamsburg’s colonial powder magazine with much fanfare in 1900. (The window now hangs in Bacon’s Castle, so named because the home was occupied by Bacon’s forces. Reenactments, plays, and other programming about the rebellion continue there today.) The Society of the Colonial Dames of America donated a plaque honoring Bacon as “A great Patriot Leader of the Virginia People who died while defending their rights October 26, 1676” that was mounted in the House of Delegates chamber of the Virginia Capitol in 1916. That same year, the United Daughters of the Confederacy dubbed Bacon “the First American Rebel”—a colonial iteration of a Lost Cause hero. The Nathaniel Bacon Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution laid a marker in his honor in Richmond in 1925. These actions further tied Bacon to patriotism, Virginia history, and the Revolution, and cast him as part of a centuries-long narrative of honorable Virginia rebels.
The story of Bacon’s Rebellion and the belief that it foretold the Revolution remained powerful into the twentieth century, as typified by Thomas Wertenbaker’s history Torchbearer of the Revolution: The Story of Bacon’s Rebellion and Its Leader (1940). By mid-century, elementary schools and Liberty ships were named in honor of Bacon.
In the following decades, however, historians severed the connection between the events of 1676 and 1776 and changed how the rebellion is understood today. In American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975), Edmund Morgan pointed to Bacon’s Rebellion as a key moment in the history of race, as white elites recognized the dangers posed by an alliance of indentured servants and enslaved Blacks.
Bacon’s Rebellion (2019)
Today, scholars and members of descendant communities continue to search for evidence in archives, archaeology sites, and beyond to explore how Black and Native people shaped the rebellion and aftermath and to question the centrality of Nathaniel Bacon and the Virginia colony to histories of the seventeenth century.