Bacon’s Rebellion was the first armed uprising by colonists against English government officials in the British colonies in North America. It took place from 1676 to 1677 and led to a significant increase in the number of enslaved African-Americans in Virginia.
Summary of Bacon’s Rebellion
Bacon’s Rebellion was a violent uprising led by Nathaniel Bacon that took place in colonial Virginia in 1676 and 1677. The rebellion was the result of a political dispute between Governor William Berkeley and Virginia colonists, led by landowner Nathaniel Bacon, over how to deal with Native American Indian tribes. It was the first rebellion in the colonies where colonists took up arms against English government officials. Near the end of the conflict, Bacon died and English troops were sent to restore peace. As a result of the rebellion, the Virginia House of Burgesses outlawed indentured servitude, which contributed to an increase in the use of enslaved African-Americans in Virginia.
Quick Facts About Bacon’s Rebellion
- Location: Bacon’s Rebellion took place in Virginia Plantation (the Colony of Virginia).
- Date Started: The conflict started in 1676.
- Date Ended: The conflict ended in 1677.
- Result: Colonial forces loyal to Governor William Berkeley defeated rebel forces led by Nathaniel Bacon.
- English Monarch: The English monarch at the time was King Charles II.
This illustration depicts the Burning of Jamestown that took place during Bacon’s Rebellion. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
History of Bacon’s Rebellion
Indian War of 1675–1676
One of the direct causes of Bacon’s Rebellion was a dispute between members of the Doeg Tribe and Thomas Mathew, a plantation owner, that took place in 1765. The Doeg thought Mathew had cheated them in a trade so they raided his plantation and took some livestock.
In September 1765, Colonel John Washington, George Washington’s grandfather, led Virginia militia on an attack against the Susquehannock Tribe, who were believed to be providing shelter to the Doeg.
Siege of Fort Piscataway
The Susquehannock were located in Maryland and lived in a fortified village at Piscataway Creek. Maryland militia forces helped carry out the attack, which was repulsed. Then the colonial militia laid siege to the fort for six weeks.
In November, a truce was agreed to, so the two sides could negotiate. The Susquehannock representatives arrived under a flag of truce but were attacked by the colonists attacked. Five Susquehannock chiefs were killed.
The siege came to an end when the Susquehannock devised a way to escape, which they successfully carried out. Afterward, the Susquehannock carried out raids against Virginia settlements along the Fall Line. At the time, the Fall Line marked the western edge of colonial settlements in the colony. The settlers living on the western frontier appealed to Governor Berkeley for military protection. Many of the settlers were former indentured servants — black and white — who had completed their service and been freed.
Nathaniel Bacon Joins the Governor’s Council
Prior to the Indian raids, landowner Nathaniel Bacon was an ally of Governor Berkeley. Bacon had moved to Virginia in 1674 and bought the Curles Neck Plantation, a tobacco plantation, in Henrico County. Bacon had a reputation for being well-spoken and smart, but he was also known as a troublemaker. Despite his shortcomings, Bacon was also related to Berkeley by marriage and the Governor appointed him to the Virginia Council of State — the Governor’s Council — on March 3, 1765.
Bacon and Berkeley Disagree
In one of the raids, the Indians attacked one of Bacon’s properties, known as Bacon’s Quarter and one of his employees was killed. As a result, Bacon turned on Berkeley and joined in with the others in demanding the Governor take military action against the Indians.
Bacon and others may have seen it as an opportunity to eliminate all the tribes, not just the Susquehannock, and take their land.
On the other side, Berkeley may have been trying to protect his interests in the fur trade, which relied on maintaining strong ties to the Indians. He may have also been concerned about the conflict growing into something larger, and more dangerous, like King Philip’s War, which was going on in New England.
Bacon offered to lead the expedition against the tribes, but Berkely refused. In order to avoid hostilities, Berkeley proposed Virginia build a series of forts to help protect against the Indian raids, which the assembly agreed to. Trade with the Indians was also temporarily suspended.
This illustration depicts colonists asking Governor Berkeley for aid in fending off Indian raids in Virginia. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Virginia Colonists Take Action
When Berkeley failed to satisfy the demands of the colonists, they formed their own militia force of volunteers from the area of Charles City and Henrico County. Bacon was elected to lead the force and he led it in pursuit of the Susquehannock. Bacon’s forces, which numbered about 200, included a significant number of enslaved African Americans and white indentured servants.
Berkeley Calls for a New Election
Along the way, he convinced another tribe, the Occaneechi, to help him. He had them launch an attack on the Susquehannock, which was successful. However, when the Occaneechi returned, Bacon turned on them. He attacked their town and killed men, women, and children.
Berkeley was outraged by Bacon’s treachery against the Occaneechi and 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.
The residents of Henrico Country elected Bacon as their representative to the new session of the House of Burgesses. Bacon and his men set out for Jamestown and arrived on June 6.
When Bacon tried to take his seat he was captured and he surrendered. He apologized to Berkeley for his actions, and the Governor restored him to his seat on the Governor’s Council. However, there was another disagreement over the relationship with the Indians and Berkeley removed him from the council again.
Bacon Confronts Berkeley at the Statehouse
Bacon left Jamestown, gathered an army of around 500 volunteers, and returned. He arrived on June 23 and Berkeley confronted him in front of the statehouse. The burgesses watched the entire scene from inside the building. Berkeley ripped his shirt open, bared his chest, and dared Bacon to shoot him. The burgesses were afraid for their own safety and one of them waved a white handkerchief from the window, indicating they surrendered. The burgesses agreed to allow Bacon to carry out his war against the Indians and pardoned him for his crimes.
In July, Berkeley declared Bacon a rebel for the second time. When Bacon heard about it, he marched his army to Williamsburg. Berekely fled the city and took refuge on the Eastern Shore.
On July 30, Bacon issued a “Declaration in the Name of the People.” He accused Berkeley of being corrupt and provided details on how the Governor had benefited from the actions he had taken. However, Bacon conveniently failed to point out how he had also gained from the same policies.
On August 3, he met with the leaders of the colony at Jamestown. 70 of them swore an oath of allegiance to him. The next day, some of them called for a new assembly to be formed with Bacon as their leader. Bacon’s military forces also went out and took the property of some of the prominent leaders who were still loyal to Berkeley.
Bacon Attacks the Pamunkey and Hunts for Berkeley
Bacon sent ships out along the coast to find Berkeley, and he took his army and went looking for the Pamunkey Indians. Bacon and his men searched for several weeks and finally found them in the early part of September. Bacon attacked the tribe. Some were killed, many were captured, and the rest fled. Bacon and his men started their march back to Jamestown.
In late August, Bacon’s ships found Berkely hiding on the plantation of John Custis II. However, Berkeley and his men captured all the ships and their crews. A few days into September, Berkeley had the commander of the fleet, William Carver, and some others hanged. Berkeley also started to make his way back to Jamestown.
Bacon Lays Siege to Jamestown
Berkeley arrived on September 8 and took control of the city without any hostilities. Bacon arrived on September 14 and laid siege to Jamestown. On September 18, Berkeley abandoned Jamestown and retreated.
Bacon knew he could not retain control of the city, and he could not allow Berkeley to have it either. Bacon ordered his men to “laye itt level with the Ground.” On September 19, Bacon’s men went through the town and set fire to the buildings.
From there, Bacon and his men returned to the hunt for Indians hiding out in the forest. Bacon was sick and died on October 26, 1676. His men buried his body in a secret place, so it could not be desecrated by Berkeley and his followers.
British Troops Sent to Virginia
On October 26, 1676, King Charles II issued a proclamation for “Suppressing a Rebellion” in Virginia. The King sent ships, full of soldiers, to put down the rebellion. 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.
Although Bacon was gone, the rebellion continued. Fighting between Berkeley’s followers and the rebels continued in November and December. On December 25, two rebel leaders decided it was in their best interest to change sides. Within a month, the fighting was basically over, and the English forces started to arrive on January 29.
Bacon’s Rebellion Significance
Bacon’s Rebellion was most important because led to the end of the indentured servitude policy in colonial Virginia, and an increase in the practice of slavery.
Important Facts About Bacon’s Rebellion
- Bacon’s Rebellion was the first full-scale, armed insurrection in the colonies.
- It grew out of disputes between colonists and Native American Indian tribes over trade, which led to both sides conducting raids.
- Governor William Berkeley and the owners of large plantations along the east coast wanted to keep peace and favored building forts to protect the frontier.
- Nathaniel Bacon and others who lived inland and operated smaller farms wanted to attack the Indians and eliminate them.
- The rebellion was a revolt against the Governor’s policies, which favored his wealthy friends.
- The rebellion was not an attempt to form a new government and it was not a cause of the American Revolution or the War for Independence.
Causes of Bacon’s Rebellion
In 1705, Robert Beverley, Jr. published “History of the Present State of Virginia.” Beverley identified three main causes of Bacon’s Rebellion.
- The low price of tobacco. This left the planters feeling like they were being taken advantage of.
- The government officials in the colony and counties had levied high taxes on the citizens.
- The restrictions and duties that had been levied by Parliament on colonial trade.
Effects of Bacon’s Rebellion
- The House of Burgesses passed a law that banned indentured servitude. This forced small farmers to find an alternative source of cheap labor, which was slavery.
- The additional use of enslaved people made Jamestown a major port in the slave trade and dramatically increased the number of African Americans in the colony.
- The House of Burgesses restored the headright system, which promised 50 acres of land to Freeman. The land was usually taken from the Native American Indian Tribes. This led to an increase in hostilities against the Indians.
Bacon’s Rebellion — Timeline of Events
This timeline of Bacon’s Rebellion presents significant events of the incident in chronological order.
- March 3 — Governor Berkeley appoints Bacon to the Governor’s Council.
- July 1675 — Virginia settlers clash with Doeg and Susquehannock Indians.
- March — The assembly decides to build forts to defend the frontier.
- May — Berkeley removes Bacon from the Council.
- June 5 — House of Burgesses convenes in Jamestown.
- June 6 — Bacon is arrested and apologizes to Berkeley for his rebellion.
- June 23 — Bacon marches on Jamestown and confronts Berkeley.
- July — Berkeley declares Bacon a rebel.
- July 30 — Bacon issues his “Declaration.”
- September 3–6 — Berkeley captures Bacon’s fleet and hangs five men.
- September 7 — Berkeley retakes Williamsburg.
- September 13 — Bacon lays siege to Williamsburg.
- September 18 — Berkeley abandons Jamestown.
- September 19 — Bacon burns Jamestown.
- October 26 — Bacon dies.
- October 27 — King Charles II signs a proclamation to put down the rebellion in Virginia.
- November 19 — English forces sail for Virginia.
- December 25 — Rebel forces are routed by forces loyal to Berkeley.
- January 22 — Berkeley returns to Jamestown.
- January 29 — First English forces arrive.
- February 11 — English troops arrive.