Biography of Nathaniel Bacon, the “Virginia Rebel”
Nathaniel Bacon was the controversial leader of the first organized uprising against English officials in the colonies — Bacon’s Rebellion. Bacon was a wealthy plantation owner from Suffolk, England who was educated as a lawyer in London. Very little is known about Bacon’s life, until his arrival in Virginia, where he quickly rose to prominence. Due to his political and family connections to Governor William Berkeley, he was appointed to the Governor’s Council in 1675. However, Berkeley was unpopular and he clashed with Bacon over issues related to the Native American Indian tribes. Soon after, there was an uprising, and Bacon was chosen to lead the rebel forces. Bacon waged war on Indian tribes and issued a “Declaration of the People” that charged Berkeley with treason. Soon after, Bacon marched on Jamestown and burned it to the ground. Unfortunately, Bacon died on October 26, 1676. Without his leadership, the rebellion collapsed, order was restored, and many of the men who helped him lead the uprising were executed. Although Berkeley survived the conflict, he was removed from office by King Charles II and recalled to England.
Quick Facts About Nathaniel Bacon
- Date Born: Nathaniel Bacon was born in Suffolk, England on January 2, 1647.
- Parents: Thomas and Elizabeth Bacon.
- Family: Bacon was married to Elizabeth Duke. They had two children together, both girls.
- Date Died: He died on October 26, 1676, during Bacon’s Rebellion.
Life and Career of Nathaniel Bacon
Early Life and Education
Nathaniel Bacon was born in Suffolk, England in 1647 to Thomas and Elizabeth Bacon. His father was a successful merchant and wealthy landowner. They lived at Friston Hall in Suffolk. Bacon’s maternal grandfather was Robert Brooke of Cockfield Hall, who was a member of the House of Commons from 1624 to 1629. Elizabeth Bacon died in 1649, just two years after Nathaniel was born.
When he was 13, Bacon enrolled at the University of Cambridge. In 1661, he was admitted as a fellow to St. Catharine’s College. However, he was not a good student and his father had him return home where he was tutored by linguist John Ray. When Bacon still showed little interest in education, Ray decided to take him on a trip to the continent. They traveled throughout Europe in 1663 and the early part of 1664.
In April 1664, Bacon returned to England and completed his studies at St. Catharine’s. Afterward, he was admitted to study law at Gray’s Inn — one of the Inns of Court — in London. The Inns of Court is where English lawyers received their training and is made up of four associations — Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, Middle Temple, and Inner Temple.
Marriage to Elizabeth Duke
Although he was connected to the upper class and well-educated, Bacon had a reputation for living beyond his means. He courted Elizabeth Duke, the daughter of Sir Edward Duke of Benhall, who disliked Bacon. When Nathaniel and Elizabeth married, it was against her father’s wishes, and he disowned her. Forced to provide for his new wife, Bacon became involved in several business deals where he earned a reputation as a swindler and cheat.
Bacon’s Father Sends Him to Virginia
After Bacon was accused of cheating someone out of an inheritance, his father decided to ship him to Virginia. He gave him enough money so he could move to Virginia. Elizabeth went with him, along with their two daughters.
Bacon Arrives in Virginia — August 1764
They arrived in August 1674 and stayed with a relative — also named Nathaniel Bacon — who is usually referred to as Nathaniel Bacon the Elder. Bacon the Elder was a member of the House of Burgesses and a member of the Governor’s Council.
The Governor of Virginia at the time was William Berkeley and Bacon happened to have a strong family connection to Berkeley. Berkeley’s wife, Francis, was his cousin. After spending time living with Bacon the Elder, Nathaniel and his family lived at Governor Berkeley’s plantation, Green Spring House.
Curles Neck Plantation
Bacon was able to buy his own plantation, Curles Neck, in Gloucester County, Virginia, on the James River. It was roughly 40 miles upriver of Jamestown — and is still in operation today. When Bacon bought it, the plantation was already established. There was a house, along with outbuildings and fields. Bacon went to work acquiring adjacent lands to make it larger. In 1675, he was licensed by Berkeley to trade with the Indians.
Governor’s Council — March 3, 1765
In 1675, a seat on the Governor’s Council opened up, and Berkeley appointed Bacon to fill it on March 3. The political position, along with the location of the plantation, put him in contact with many of Berkeley’s political enemies. Many of them took a liking to Bacon and became his friends and allies.
William Drummond, Bacon’s Ally
One of the men who forged a friendship with Bacon was William Drummond. He was from Scotland and emigrated to Virginia in 1637 as an indentured servant. He served out his contract and was named Governor of Albemarle Colony in 1664 by Berkeley. Three years later, Drummond went back to Virginia. In 1672, during the Third Anglo-Saxon War, Drummond was selected to build a fort a Jamestown. During the construction, Berkeley and Drummond had a disagreement. From that point on, they were bitter enemies.
Just like Drummond, many of the men who surrounded Bacon were enemies of Berkeley and his political allies. Although many of them also profited from Berkeley’s policies due to their political and business connections, they all had a reason to oppose Berkeley — at least in private. They were not bold enough to stand up to Berkeley and his allies in public.
William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia
By then, Berkeley was an old man and had a poor reputation in the colony. He was viewed as oppressive, uncompromising, and favoring his political allies in the upper class.
He became Governor in 1641 and was a planter himself. He wanted Virginia to diversify its crops beyond tobacco and used his own plantation as an example for others.
But over time, Berkeley worked to put himself in a position where he had complete control of the colony. Once he has the support of the members of the House of Burgesses, he stopped holding elections.
Afterward, he carried out a series of decisions that oppressed the people of Virginia, harmed the economy, and created tension with the Native American Indian tribes. Some of the grievances the people of Virginia had with Berkeley were:
- He enforced a tax and additional restrictions on the shipping of tobacco, which hurt the price of tobacco.
- He made the Church of England supreme in an attempt to drive Baptists, Quakers, and Puritans out of Virginia.
- He gave the best land in the east to his friends in the upper class, forcing the lower class to claim land under Virginia’s Headright System in areas that were close to the Indian tribes.
- He refused to call new elections for the House of Burgesses.
- He passed the Franchise Act of 1670, which restricted voting rights. Only property owners and people who owned houses were allowed to vote.
Berkeley was also responsible for slowing the development of Virginia’s infrastructure and lack of defenses. By that time, there were about 50,000 people living in Virginia, and most of them lived a hard life. There were few roads and most of the buildings — even in Jamestown — were made of wood instead of brick.
Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia
Eventually, the tension between poor planters and the Indian tribes led to the Indian War of 1675–1676. Indians carried out raids against Virginia settlements along the Fall Line, which marked the western edge of the colony. The planters asked Berkeley to provide military support, but he refused. Many of those planters were former indentured servants — black and white — who had completed their servants and been freed.
Disagreement Between Bacon and Berkeley
In September 1675, Bacon and Berkeley had a falling out. Apparently, Bacon tried to give the Governor advice on how to deal with the Indian raids. Berkeley did not appreciate it and told Bacon to leave the Indians to him.
However, Berkeley continued to ignore pleas for help and may have been cautious because New England was embroiled in King Philip’s War at the time. It was a destructive conflict that wreaked havoc on English settlements and disrupted the fur trade. Whatever the reason, many of the landowners and planters in Virginia believed Berkeley was protecting the Indians, instead of the people of Virginia — because he was trying to protect his own interests in the fur trade.
Bacon Takes Leadership of the Rebels — April 1675
The following April, Bacon and his wife were entertaining some of his allies at their home. They started discussing the ongoing Indian attacks. By that time, the Indians had attacked one of Bacon’s properties and killed at least one of his servants. They were aware that some planters — owners of small farms — many of whom had been indentured servants — had armed themselves and camped along the James River, preparing an attack on the Indians. Bacon and his allies went to the campground. When they arrived, the planters asked him to lead them. Legend has it that when they saw him, they cried out, “A Bacon! A Bacon! A Bacon!”
Bacon Attacks Indian Forts Without Berkeley’s Permission
Bacon decided to take action without the Governor’s permission. He led his men into New Kent to attack the Pamunkey Tribe. However, the Pamunkey found out they were coming and took refuge in Dragon Swamp. Bacon decided to go after a group of Susquehannocks instead.
He sent Berkeley a letter to let him know he had taken command of the little army and asked for a commission to attack the Indians, even though he intended to do that anyway.
Bacon and his army allied with the Occaneechi Indians and attacked the Susquehannock Indians. After the successful attack, the force returned to the Occaneechi village. Bacon and his men turned on their allies and destroyed the Occaneechi village.
Nathaniel Bacon the Rebel
Berkeley was outraged by Bacon’s actions. He declared him a rebel and removed him from the Governor’s Council. However, he offered to pardon Bacon and his men if they dispersed and returned to their homes.
On May 10, he issued two proclamations. In the first, he declared Bacon a rebel and removed him from the Governor’s Council. In the second, he dissolved the House of Burgesses and called for a new election. The second proclamation also extended voting rights to all free white men, not just landowners. He also sent letters to the commanders of Virginia’s militia forces and instructed them to go to war with all Indian tribes.
Berkeley’s Demonstration and Remonstrance — May 29, 1676
Berkeley called a meeting of his councilors, which included Nathaniel Bacon the elder. They agreed Bacon was a problem and Berkeley needed to make a statement. On May 29, Berkeley issued a “Declaration and Remonstrance” that justified his actions and vilified Bacon and his men.
Bacon Elected to the New House of Burgesses
Despite being branded a rebel, Bacon was elected to the new House of Burgesses by Henrico County. Bacon and his men marched for Jamestown on June 6.
Bacon Arrives at Jamestown — June 6
Since he was a rebel, Bacon brought some of his men with him to protect him. They sailed from Curles Neck to Jamestown and arrived near Fort James. Bacon sent a messenger to Berkeley to ask if he could take his seat in the Assembly. Berkeley responded by ordering Fort James to fire on Bacon’s boat. As soon as the guns of the fort opened fire, the boat sailed away.
That night, Bacon slipped into town and met with some of his allies, including William Drummond. It was early on the morning of the 7th when he made his way back to his boat. Just as he started to board it, someone saw him and raised the alarm.
His men tried to escape and rowed furiously, however, an armed merchant ship — the Adam & Eve — sailed into the path of the boat and stopped them. The ship’s captain, Thomas Garder, arrested Bacon and turned him over to the sheriff of Jamestown, Theophilus Hone, who threw Bacon in jail.
Bacon Confesses and Asks for Forgiveness
On June 9, Bacon appeared before Berkeley and the Governor’s Council. He took a knee, admitted to being a rebel, and asked for forgiveness. Berkeley did as Bacon asked, but took things further. For some reason, he restored him to his seat on the Governor’s Council. Then he promised to give him a commission to lead Virginia forces against the Indians. Bacon waited for a few days, and no commission was granted. He started to grow suspicious of Berkeley. Then, Jamestown awoke one morning to find that Bacon had fled back to Curles Neck
Bacon Returns to Jamestown — June 23, 1676
On June 23, as the House of Burgesses sat in session, Bacon marched into Jamestown with an army of around 500 men. As they moved into town, some of his men spread out and took positions a Bacon and the main body marched to the statehouse. When Bacon arrived at the statehouse, he had his men surround it.
The shocked members of the House of Burgesses could see Bacon and his men from the windows of the statehouse. Berkeley went outside to confront Bacon, ripped his shirt open, bared his chest, and dared anyone to shoot him. He said, “Shoot me, fore god, fair Mark Shoot.”
No one fired, so Berkeley drew his sword and turned on Bacon, who refused the challenge. Bacon responded by saying, “I came for a commission, and a commission I shall have.” Then he ordered his men to point their guns at the statehouse. 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. For the next month, Bacon and his men occupied Jamestown and went to scout for Indians.
Berkeley Leaves Jamestown and Takes Action
Berkeley left Jamestown and went to Green Spring House. While he was there, he received a letter from the political leaders in Gloucester County, questioning the validity of Bacon’s actions.
Berkeley decided to use it to his advantage. First, he once again declared Bacon was a rebel. Second, he started to raise his own army. He sailed across the Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore and made his way to the home of John Custis — Arlington Plantation.
Bacon’s Manifesto and Declaration of the People — July 30, 1676
When Bacon found out Berkeley was at Arlington House, he marched to the Middle Plantation — present-day Williamsburg, Virginia. He arrived there on July 29.
Aware that there were people throughout Virginia — not just Gloucester County — questioning his actions, Bacon decided to clarify things. On July 30, he issued two documents — his “Manifesto Concerning the Present Troubles in Virginia” and his “Declaration of the People of Virginia.”
In the Manifesto, Bacon acknowledged Berkeley’s complaints against him and his men and explained their actions. In the Declaration, he accused Berkeley of corruption, branded him and his allies as traitors, and listed a set of grievances the people had against him. However, Bacon conveniently failed to point out how he and his own allies had also gained from Berkeley’s policies.
He closed the Manifesto by calling for an audience with King Charles II so “all the world know that we doe unanimously desire to represent our sad and heavy grievances to his most sacred Majesty as our Refuge and Sanctuary…”
The Declaration called for the arrest of Berkeley and a group of men, all identified by name, and called for the political and social leaders in the area to meet on August 3.
Bacon’s Oath of Fidelity
Now that Berkeley was raising his own army, Bacon decided he needed to make sure his men swore allegiance to him. He wrote an “Oath of Fidelity” and made them agree to it. He also convinced members of the Governor’s Council and leading men in the colony to agree to it. By agreeing to the oath, they all swore allegiance to the King and branded Berkeley as a traitor.
Plantation Raids and Bacon’s Castle
In August, Bacon had his men take control of the fortifications along the James River and York River. Afterward, they took control of the homes of at least 19 other men who refused to take Bacon’s Oath of Fidelity and stayed loyal to Berkeley. On August 8, Bacon himself took control of Berkeley’s Green Spring House plantation.
Attack on the Pamunkey
In August, Bacon and his men went looking for the tribal leader of the Pamunkey, Cockacoeske. Cockacoeske and her people had gone into Dragon Swamp, hoping to stay safe from Bacon’s army. It took several weeks to finally find them. Around September 4, they killed at least 8 and captured 45. However, Cockacoeske escaped into the swamp.
Bacon Burns Jamestown — September 19, 1676
By September, Berkeley had gathered his own army and marched back to Jamestown. Bacon was still in Dragon Swamp, but the town was defended by 800-1,000 of his men, under the command of Thomas Hanford.
Berkeley arrived in Jamestown on September 7. He sent a message to Handford and offered to pardon them. Hanford and the men were unsure of what to do. They could not trust Berkeley, and they were afraid of Bacon. They decided the only viable option was to leave Jamestown. The next morning, Berkeley found the town empty, so he occupied it and regained control.
Bacon returned to Jamestown on September 13 and laid siege to the city. Berkeley launched an attack on Bacon’s forces, but it was to no avail. Berkeley’s men were forced to return to the town and take refuge in the buildings. On September 17, Bacon brought up artillery and shelled the town. Berkeley decided to withdraw and on September 18, he marched his men back to safety at Arlington.
Unfortunately, Berkeley was unaware that reinforcements were on the way. However, Bacon found out. Instead of continuing the fight at Jamestown, Bacon decided to set fire to it and ordered his men to “laye itt level with the Ground.” On September 19, Bacon’s men went through Jamestown and set fire to the buildings. William Drummond confirmed his loyalty to Bacon by setting fire to his own home.
Death of Nathaniel Bacon
Bacon and his men returned to the hunt for Indians hiding out in the forest. Bacon was sick and died on October 26, 1676. He died of “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.
Significance of Nathaniel Bacon
Nathaniel Bacon is important to United States History for his leadership of the “Virginia Rebellion” against Governor William Berkeley. Although the incident is sometimes seen as a precursor to the American Revolution, it is more important for how it shaped the growth of Virginia in the early 18th Century. First, the House of Burgesses passes laws that placed limitations on the office of the Governor. Second, Virginia plantation owners dramatically reduced their use of indentured servants for labor and replaced them with enslaved African-Americans.
Interesting Facts About Nathaniel Bacon
In June 1676 — without Bacon in attendance — the House of Burgesses passed a set of laws in response to the causes of Bacon’s Rebellion, some of the events that had taken place, and the grievances of the people of Virginia. The laws, which are referred to as “Bacons Laws” did many things, including:
- Declaring war on the Indians for their “outrages, cruell murders, and violent incursions…”
- Suspending the fur trade with the Indians.
- Designating any lands taken from the Indians during the war would be sold to help pay for the cost of the army, supplies, and anything else needed to conduct the war.
- Giving government officials the authority to suppress “unlawful assemblies, routs, riots, & tumults.” Further, any rebellion would be “suppressed by military force.”
- Requiring people to live in Virginia for three years before they could hold public office.
- Placing heavy fines on any sheriff who was caught falsifying voting records.
- Requiring government officials to pay taxes.
- Restricting “alehouses and tippling houses” to “James Citty, and at each side of the Yorke river at the two great ferries of that river.”
- Pardoning all “treasons, murders…committed between 1st of March and 25th of June” of 1675.
Elizabeth Bacon Remarried After Bacon Died
After her husband died in October 1676, Elizabeth Bacon married Captain Thomas Jarvis of Elizabeth County. They had one son, Thomas.
While Bacon and Berkeley were fighting in Jamestown in September 1676, portions of their forces were fighting throughout the Virginia countryside. Bacon’s men took control of the home of Major Major Arthur Allen. Although there is no evidence Bacon ever visited the house, it came to be known as “Bacon’s Castle.” It is still standing today and is operated by Preservation Virginia.