Nathaniel Bacon and his men burning Jamestown by Alfred R. Waud. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
On January 22, 1677, Governor William Berkely returned from exile to his home, Green Spring House, outside of Jamestown, Virginia. He issued a proclamation for the members of the House of Burgesses to meet there, instead of in Jamestown. The town was in ruins — burned to the ground by Nathaniel Bacon and an army of farmers, indentured servants, and slaves. The incident, known as “Bacon’s Rebellion,” started back in September 1676, and is widely considered to be the first rebellion against the authority of English officials in the colonies.
The Early Days of Jamestown
From the time it was first settled in 1607, Jamestown struggled due to famine, disease, and conflict with the local Native American Indian tribes that were part of the Powhatan Confederacy. However, the colony endured due to the leadership of John Smith, the agricultural savvy of John Rolfe, and important reforms such as the establishment of the Headright System and the House of Burgesses.
Although Jamestown — and the Virginia Colony — were able to survive and enjoy some success, a ruling class of planters emerged that took advantage of the system. The system made it difficult for anyone in the lower classes in the colony — landless farmers, indentured servants, and slaves — to prosper. On top of that, the establishment of new settlements and the growth of Jamestown created friction with the Indian tribes.
The Arrival of William Berkeley
In 1641, William Berkeley was appointed Governor of Virginia, and he arrived in Jamestown in 1642. One of the first things he did was build Green Spring House west of Jamestown. Much like John Rolfe, whose experiments with tobacco led to a cash crop that made Jamestown profitable, Berkeley was an agriculturalist. He experimented with different strains of tobacco and various crops in an effort to figure out what would grow best in the Virginia climate.
Berkeley was an ally of King Charles I, who believed in the “divine right of kings” and frequently fought with Parliament for control. In 1642, the English Civil War broke out when the Parliaments of England and Scotland raised armies and clashed with Charles I and his army. King Charles I surrendered in 1645, which led Berkely to offer sanctuary in Virginia to allies of the King. This did not sit well with Parliament, which forced Berkeley to resign.
The Powhatan Wars ended in 1646, effectively establishing Jamestown’s control of the area. Jamestown and the plantations that surrounded it were successful and continued to expand outward. Many indentured servants who finished their contracts were granted land on the fringes of Jamestown — on land that encroached on the territory of the remaining tribes, including the Doeg, Patawomeck, Rappahannock, and Secocowon. The land was essentially worthless to the rich planters because it needed to be cleared or was otherwise in poor condition for planting.
Following the death of Governor Samuel Matthews in 1660, Berkely was reinstated for a second term. For the next five years or so, Berkeley worked the political system and the trade with the Indian tribes for his benefit — and the benefit of his friends.
Here Comes Nathaniel Bacon
In 1674, his nephew by marriage, Nathaniel Bacon, arrived in Jamestown. At first, Berkeley welcomed him in and even gave him a seat on the Governor’s Council, and Bacon purchased 800 acres of land at Curles Neck. If Berkeley had any idea of what would become of Bacon, he likely would have never even allowed him into his home.
Despite the personal success of Berkeley and his friends, there were factors at work that made life difficult for nearly everyone else living in Jamestown and Virginia. The price of tobacco dropped due to competition from planters in Maryland and the Carolinas, which cut into the profits of the colonists in Virginia. England was also engaged in a war with the Netherlands for control of the high seas, which disrupted trade.
The Trouble Begins
In 1675, a dispute between a Virginia planter, Thomas Mathew, and members of the local Doeg Tribe led to violence. The Virginians, seeking retribution, suspected the Doegs had fled to Maryland and were hiding with the Susquehannock Tribe. A military expedition was sent to bring the Doegs back to Virginia. However, during a meeting between the leaders of the expedition and the Susquehannocks, several of the Susquehannocks were killed. Soon after, the Susquehannocks sought revenge by raiding Virginia settlements on the frontier.
The “Shadow” of 1676
The year 1676 dawned in Virginia. The colonists found themselves at war once again with the Indians — and there were also signs that led the people to believe more trouble was coming:
The year 1676 dawned upon troublous scenes in Virginia. Being a time when men were wont to see in every unusual manifestation of Nature the warning shadow cast ahead by some coming event, the colonists darkly reminded each other how the year past had been marked by three ‘Prodigies.’ The first of these was ‘a large comet every evening for a week or more, at southwest, thirty-five degrees high, streaming like a horse’s tail westwards, until it reached (almost) the horizon, and setting towards the northwest.’ The second consisted of ‘flights of pigeons, in breadth nigh a quarter of the mid-hemisphere, and of their length was no visible end, whose weight break down the limbs of large trees whereon they rested at nights, of which the fowlers shot abundance and ate ’em,’ and the third, of ‘swarms of flies about an inch long, and big as the top of a man’s little finger, rising out of spigot holes in the earth, which ate the new sprouted leaves from the tops of the trees, without other harm, and in a month left us.’— Mary Newton Stanard, The Story of Bacon’s Rebellion, 1907
News also came from New England of an Indian uprising, and rumors the Indians up and down the coast of North America were organizing attacks against the English colonists.
Berkeley Refuses to Fight the Indians
The settlers — many who had been indentured servants, both black and white — appealed to Berkeley for help. After one of Bacon’s properties was attacked, he joined the faction that wanted Berkeley to take action. Bacon even offered to lead a military expedition against the Susquehannocks — but Berkeley refused. Instead, he offered a plan to reinforce the forts in the area and suspended trade with any of the Native American Indian tribes.
Bacon’s Rebellion Begins
One night, Bacon and some of his friends met with the leaders of a small group of men who were planning to attack the Indians. By the end of the night, Bacon had been chosen as their leader. Soon after, he led a small army of about 200 men and attacked the Susquehannock, and then the Occaneechi.
The attack on the Occaneechi infuriated Berkeley because he viewed them as allies — and important partners in the local fur trade — which, of course, he controlled and benefitted from. In May, he declared that Bacon was in rebellion. He removed him from the Governor’s Council and called for an election for the House of Burgesses. Berkeley wanted the new assembly to meet on June 5. Showing their support for Bacon, the residents of Henrico Country elected Bacon as their representative to the new session of the House of Burgesses.
When Bacon arrived in Jamestown on June 6, Berkeley had him arrested. Bacon promptly apologized and, for some reason, Berkeley freed him — and also restored him to his seat on the Governor’s Council.
Bacon and Berkeley Square Off in Jamestown
Despite the apology, Bacon still wanted permission to wage war on the Indians, and decided to force was the only way to convince Berkeley and the House of Burgesses to agree. Bacon left Jamestown, gathered around 500 men, and marched back. On June 23, he surrounded the town. Bacon walked to the statehouse and Berkeley met him outside. An argument ensued, and Berkeley ripped his shirt open, bared his chest, and dared Bacon to shoot him. Berkeley shouted, “Shoot me, fore god, fair Mark Shoot!.” Bacon refused and had his men point their weapons at the statehouse. The Burgesses surrendered and agreed to give Bacon his commission. Berkeley left Jamestown and went to Green Spring House, leaving Jamestown under Bacon’s control.
Civil War in Virginia Colony
For the next few months, Virginia was in a state of civil war. Berkeley raised an army while, Bacon, aware there were people questioning his actions, decided to clarify his position. On July 30, he issued two documents — his “Manifesto Concerning the Present Troubles in Virginia” and his “Declaration of the People of Virginia.” He laid out the grievances against Berkeley and called for the arrest of Berkeley and his supporters. Soon after, Bacon made his own supporters swear their loyalty to him.
Over the course of the next six weeks, Bacon waged war on the Indians and Berkeley’s forces. Meanwhile, Jamestown was defended by 800-1,000 men. Berkeley decided to march back to Jamestown. When he arrived, he offered full pardons to Bacon’s supporters. Instead of joining Berkeley, they simply abandoned the town — turning it back over to Berkeley.
Nathaniel Bacon Burns Jamestown to the Ground
On September 13, Bacon returned to Jamestown with his army and laid siege to the town. On September 17, Bacon brought up artillery and shelled the town. Berkeley decided to withdraw and on September 18, he marched his men away. Bacon decided to set fire to Jamestown and ordered his men to “laye itt level with the Ground.” On September 19, his men went through the town and set fire to the buildings. William Drummond confirmed his loyalty to Bacon by setting fire to his own home. Afterward, Bacon and his men went back out to the frontier to hunt for Indians.
King Charles II Intends to Put the Rebellion Down
News of the rebellion made its way to England. King Charles II issued a proclamation on October 26 for “Suppressing a Rebellion” in Virginia. He sent ships, full of regular troops, to restore order. The ships were under the command of Sir John Berry. The troops were under the command of Colonel Herbert Jeffreys. They were joined by three commissioners who were supposed to investigate the incident and report back to the King.
Bacon Dies in a Swamp
The same day the proclamation was issued, about six weeks after he burned Jamestown, Nathaniel Bacon died in a swamp. He suffered from “bloody flux” — dysentery — and “lousy disease” — lice. His men buried his body in a secret place, so it could not be desecrated by Berkeley and his followers. Some of Bacon’s allies, like William Drummond, tried to keep the uprising intact, but the army scattered. Berkeley was able to move through Virginia and eliminate any further armed resistance.
What Happened After Bacon Died?
Following the investigation, Berkeley was recalled to England and removed from office.
In the aftermath of what is known as “Bacon’s Rebellion,” Virginia plantation owners transitioned away from using indentured servants and gravitated toward expanding the use of African slaves. The planters wanted workers they could have more control over — and who would not work against the planters after they completed their contracts. One of the results of the increase in slavery was the stark division between whites and blacks in the South. Most blacks were slaves and were therefore viewed as property.
At one time, Bacon’s Rebellion was viewed as a precursor to the American Revolution. However, over time, historians have come to represent it as more of a fight for control of the colony between Bacon and Berkeley — which led to Jamestown being burned to the ground in 1676.