A History of Bacon’s Rebellion in Six Sources

In September 1676, Jamestown went up in flames, literally. A man named Nathaniel Bacon, along with an army of about 150 colonists, gleefully watched it burn to “cinders and ashes.” How did the situation in Virginia get so bad that the king’s subjects set fire to the colony’s capital?

The story of Bacon’s Rebellion does, ironically, start with pigs. Bacon’s Rebellion broke out in 1676 in response to the growing resentment of settlers living on the colony’s frontier. Their proximity to unfriendly and non-tributary indigenous tribal groups resulted in scattered skirmishes from which they felt they received no protection from the colonial government. One such conflict began when Doeg Indians took pigs from Thomas Mathew’s plantation in response to a trading dispute. The conflict escalated after the Virginia militia mistakenly killed 14 Susquehannock Indians, a tribe that lived in Maryland and was at peace with the Virginia government, in reprisal. The Susquehannock retaliated, killing several Virginia colonists. This reaction provided an opportunity that some colonists had been looking for: to go to war with Virginia Indians and weaken them so that settlers could move onto their lands. The governor of Virginia, William Berkeley, wanted to avoid a costly war and favored using diplomacy with indigenous groups instead. Berkeley wanted to stay true to a treaty agreement from 1646, under which some Virginia Indians were tributary to the colonial government. They paid an annual tribute tax to maintain peace and for the protection of the English, and also fought with the English against hostile non-tributary tribes. Berkeley stayed firm in this stance even as colonists begged him to send a show of force against the Susquehannock.

Some colonists rallied around newcomer Nathaniel Bacon to resist Berkeley. Bacon, who arrived in Virginia in 1674, had powerful relatives in the colony, including Governor Berkeley who made him part of Virginia’s political elite by appointing him to the governor’s council. But Bacon and Berkeley’s disagreement over how to handle the conflict with the Susquehannock quickly put them at odds. Bacon quickly amassed followers, many of whom lived on the fringes of the colony and were also discontent about falling tobacco prices and local taxation rates. They went to war on two fronts: with the Virginia Indians—including the Pamunkey, one of the colonial government’s closest allies—and with the Virginia government led by Governor Berkeley.

Nathaniel Bacon’s war on Governor Berkeley and the colonial government was fueled by dissatisfaction with how Berkeley was running the colony of Virginia. Bacon’s followers wanted to see change in their government: they wanted lower taxes, elections held for the House of Burgesses, voting to extend to all free men (rather than just land owners), and permission to go to war with all indigenous people in the colonies. Some simply wanted freedom: Bacon promised freedom to enslaved and indentured individuals who joined his cause. While the political and military advantage went back and forth between sides during the rebellion, Bacon’s army was able to deal a crushing blow when his men burned Virginia’s capital, Jamestown, in 1676. The town would never be the same. Yet, when Nathaniel Bacon died soon after the victory of a “bloodie flux” (dysentery) and “lousey disease,” (lice), his army faltered. Without his leadership, Berkeley’s army was able to crush the rebellion.

Bacon’s war on indigenous people was much more devastating. Bacon and his army spent more time in the woods pursuing and killing them than they did fighting Berkeley or his forces. At one point, they convinced a group of Occaneechee Indians to attack the neighboring Susquehannock, only to turn around and slay the Occaneechee themselves. Bacon also relentlessly pursued the Pamunkey, who had been a tributary tribe to the Virginia government since 1646. Their leader, Cockacoeske, narrowly escaped when 45 members of her tribe were captured and enslaved. Even after Bacon’s death and Berkeley’s smothering of the rebellion, the idea of pushing Virginia Indians off of their traditional lands and away from the areas of English settlement persisted and eventually Bacon’s mindset won out over Berkeley’s commitment to cooperation in government policy.

Bacon’s Rebellion helped usher in a new era in Virginia. By the time of Bacon’s Rebellion, the enslavement of individuals captured in Africa not only existed but continued to grow in Virginia. Indigenous people’s land rights were already being threatened. However, Bacon’s Rebellion fanned the flames of these trends and a new era of Virginia history ensued: one where the idea of limited rights for individuals of African descent and Virginia Indians became law. This culminated in 1705 with the passage of the Virginia Slave Code, which severely restricted the rights of both enslaved Africans and their descendants and Virginia Indians.

Learn more about Bacon’s Rebellion, the people who were involved, and the moments that defined it through these primary sources.

6 Primary Sources

Colonists Meet with Cockacoeske, Queen of the Pamunkey

June of 1676 was very eventful in the course of Bacon’s Rebellion. Nathaniel Bacon had become so popular that he was unanimously elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Despite being a rebel, he arrived at Jamestown in June to attend the meeting of the assembly. Governor Berkeley publicly pardoned him for his rebellion and Bacon was even restored to his former seat on the governor’s council, which had been stripped from him at the beginning of the rebellion. Meanwhile, a committee of burgesses was appointed to decide how to conduct the war with Virginia Indians.

As part of their duty, the committee met with Cockacoeske, queen of the Pamunkey Indians, who were longtime allies as a tributary tribe of the colonial government. Cockacoeske boldly reminded the men in the room that her tribe had already made great sacrifices in their treaty alliance, including the death of her own husband during a battle alongside the English against hostile Indian invaders from the North. Citing the English lack of gratitude for her people’s losses, she refused to commit her full fighting force to their cause.

Source: The Beginning, Progress, and Conclusion of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia, In the Years 1675 and 1676. T.M., a planter from Northumberland and an Assembly member. The committee’s chairman “… rudely push’d againe the same question ‘what Indians will you now contribute’… of this disregard she… answered with a low slighting voice in her own language ‘twelve’, tho’ she then had a hundred and fifty Indian men, in her town, and so rose up and gravely walked away, as not pleased with her treatment.” (View full source at Virtual Jamestown.)

Bacon’s Laws

In June of 1676, Bacon and Berkeley were both vying for power. Although Bacon was a burgess in the colonial government, he had to flee Jamestown under threat of arrest. Lawmakers went to work writing the laws for the session, as they always did. Many of the laws they wrote related to the war with indigenous peoples in Virginia. The laws did not completely support Bacon and his rebellion, but they did not reject it outright either. The laws declared war on any indigenous people who had wronged the English and raised an army to conduct the war. They also said that any indigenous people taken captive in the war could be enslaved. They did not extend the war to all tribes, but encouraged allied groups to join them and offered compensation for their efforts. The laws also declared that the governor had the authority to suppress any rebellion, a direct reference to Bacon’s Rebellion.

Source: An act for carrying on a warre against the barbarous Indians. “WHEREAS the many outrages, cruell murders, and violent incursions dayly committed perpetrated and made by the barbarous Indians in divers places of this country, hath inevitably drawne us upon a necessity of declareing warr against them, and of prosecuting the same as wee hope by Gods blessing may be effectuall, but forasmuch as wee are not altogether satisfied that all Indians are combined against us, and are our enemies, and that wee are taught as well by the rules of our sacred religion, as those of humanitie, that we ought not to involve the innocent with the guiltie.” (See full source from VAGenWeb.)

The Declaration of the People

In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon was in the thick of fighting his two-front war. In August, he issued a list of “grievances,” outlining why he was rebelling. After complaining that Berkeley rose taxes unfairly without using them to help strengthen the colony or its defenses, he moved to his complaints about Berkeley’s Virginia Indian policy. Bacon disagreed with Berkeley’s “monopoly” over the beaver trade and claimed that Berkeley’s desire to continue profiting from that trade kept him from confronting any indigenous group in the colony, which left the colonists defenseless against what Bacon called “the Barbarous Heathen.” Most of Bacon’s grievances related to Berkeley’s decisions during the conflict with the Susquehannock. He even went so far as to directly blame Berkeley for the deaths of colonists murdered in the conflict, since those deaths could have been avoided if Berkeley had just sent an army to destroy their indigenous enemies in Virginia. This source did not just list grievances against the governor. It also listed demands. For example, Berkeley must “Surrender” himself, or he and anyone hiding him would have his or her property taken away.

The grievances were signed “Nathaniell Bacon Generall, by Consent of the People.” We are used to the idea of government through consent of the people in modern-day America, but this was an extraordinary statement for a subject of England to make in 1676, a time when the English king’s rule was sanctioned by divine right.

Source: “For having upon specious Pretences of publick Works raised unjust Taxes, upon the Commonaltie, For advancing of Private Favourites. And other sinister Ends, but noe visible Effect, in any … For having, Protected, favoured, and Emboldned the Indians against his Maties: most Loyall Subjects; never Contriving, requiring, or appointing any due or proper Meanes of Satisfaction; for theire many Incursions, Murthers, and Robberies, Committed upon Us.” (See full source from Virtual Jamestown.)

Liberty Proclamation

In September, Governor Berkeley was growing desperate to end the rebellion. So desperate that he decided to offer a pardon to all rebels. He also offered liberty to all servants and slaves belonging to rebels if they ran away and joined the governor’s forces, and to free any servants or enslaved people of rebels who did not accept the pardon. But Nathaniel Bacon quickly issued his own proclamation. In it, Bacon offered liberty to any indentured or enslaved individuals who joined his cause. Bacon’s army nearly doubled in size after his proclamation, and at least one account from the time claimed servants and enslaved people made up most of his fighting force. Not long after, Bacon’s army marched to Jamestown and burned it to the ground. Even after Bacon’s death, nearly 100 men in Bacon’s army initially refused to surrender, knowing that they would be returned to servitude or slavery if they did. Royal forces promised them freedom in order to gain their surrender. The promise was quickly broken: most were eventually returned to their indenture holders or enslavers anyway.

Source: By the King. A Proclamation For the Suppressing in a Rebellion lately raised within the Plantation of Virginia (from the Papers of Sir William Berkeley) “And His Majesty doth hereby further Declare, That to the said Nathaniel Bacon in the said Rebellion, shall not accept of this His Majesties gracious offer of Pardon, but shall after the said Twenty days expired, persist and continue in the said Rebellion, That then such of the Servants or Slaves of such Persons so persisting and continuing such Rebellion, as shall render themselves to, and take up Arms under his Majesties Governor, Deputy Governor, or other Commander in Chief of His Majesties forces within the said Plantation, shall have their Liberty, and be for ever Discharged and Free from the service of the said Offenders.” (See full source from Google Books.)

The Treaty of Middle Plantation

Nathaniel Bacon and his army spent a good deal of energy on their conflict with Governor Berkeley, but they spent even more energy searching for and engaging in conflict with indigenous peoples. During the course of the Rebellion, Bacon and his army attacked the Susquehannock, the Occaneechee, the Pamunkey, and other indigenous groups.

The war put the Pamunkey in a grave position by the time the rebellion ended and the king sent commissioners to negotiate a treaty with certain Virginia Indian nations. Still, the 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation gave concessions to each side and reinforced much of the previous treaty signed in 1646. In the landmark document, certain Virginia Indians agreed that King Charles II of England was their sovereign, that they were entitled to protection from the colonial government, and that they would support colonists against enemy indigenous groups. The English stated that these Virginia Indians maintained the rights to their homelands and could continue to fish and hunt there. The Treaty of Middle Plantation was not completely successful in maintaining peace in Virginia. It did not totally end skirmishes with native groups on the fringes of the colony, nor did it keep the English settlement from spreading onto lands legally designated for the Virginia Indians. By 1700, the population of Virginia’s tributary tribes had dwindled and the lands to which they were entitled by the colonial government had been greatly reduced.

Source: “That the respective Indian Kings and Queens do from henceforth acknowledge to have their immediate Dependency on, and own all Subjection to the Great King of England, our now Dread Sovereign, His Heirs and Successors, when they pay their Tribute to His Majesties Governour for the time being.” (See full source from Encyclopedia Virginia.)

The Humble Petition of Sarah Drummond

Sarah Drummond and her husband William supported Nathaniel Bacon during the Rebellion. The Drummonds were well connected and among the colony’s elite. They had one of the finest houses on Jamestown Island as well as a commodious plantation on the adjacent Governor’s Land that they leased from Governor Berkeley. However, after Bacon’s Rebellion ended, Berkeley hanged Sarah’s husband for his prominent role in the Rebellion and confiscated his Governor’s Land property. Sarah spent years afterward petitioning to regain access to her property, which also included crops and other goods that had been seized. She capitalized on the sympathy that officials would feel for a widow with five children who was turned out of her home and, of course, downplayed her own support for Nathaniel Bacon. She eventually did recover property that she believed was owed to her.

Source: The Humble Petition of Sarah Drummond “…soe great was the said Governor’s inveteracy against your peticioners husband, that hee not only took away his life, but caused his small Plantation to bee seized and given to himselfe by the Council; his goods to bee removed and imbezled, and forced Your petr, with her five poor Children, to fly from their habitation, and wander in the Deserts and Woods, till they were ready to starve…” (See full source from Encyclopedia Virginia.)

Suggested Reading