The Magazine

Tragedy in Virginia

An insurrection sets the pattern for relations with the Indians.

Apr 15, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 29 • By NELSON D. LANKFORD
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Thomas Mathew, who farmed on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, remembered the year 1675 as beginning with all manner of fearful portents: a blazing comet, an invasion of millions of carrier pigeons, and a biblical plague of locusts. But it was Mathew himself who helped bring on the calamity thus foretold. He had cheated nearby Doeg Indians, and they responded by stealing his pigs. Mathew and his friends took revenge by attacking the pig thieves. When, several weeks later, another settler was found murdered, suspicion fell on the Doegs. The Stafford County militia was called out to punish Indians they thought were Doegs. However, it turned out they were not Doegs but Susquehannocks, a friendly tribe allied with Virginia. The Susquehannocks, in turn, attacked Virginia and Maryland settlers on both sides of the Potomac. So unfolded the murky prelude to Bacon’s Rebellion, a tit-for-tat conflict between colonists and their Indian neighbors that devolved into civil war among the English settlers.

Bacon's Rebellion

Bacon's Rebellion

In Jamestown, capital of the tobacco plantations that had been scratched out along the tidal rivers of eastern Virginia, the long-serving governor, Sir William Berkeley, favored a tempered response. He advocated for some prosecution of Indians, but for violence well short of an expensive all-out war. He feared angering colonists with the higher taxes a full-scale conflict would entail. In the meantime, more trouble was boiling to the south: Thomas Hegge and his nephew, William Byrd, based their booming Indian trade at the falls of the James River, site of modern-day Richmond. In 1675, Byrd had a new partner, Nathaniel Bacon, freshly arrived from England. Just as conflict on the Potomac erupted, Bacon attacked friendly Appomattox Indians below the James, accusing them of stealing corn. 

Berkeley sought to restrain the headstrong faction led by Bacon. It was, in part, a clash of generations, aggravated by the colony’s gender imbalance: Single young men living along the frontier, armed and full of testosterone, were unlikely to be persuaded by their elders to deal with the Indians in the governor’s fashion. Berkeley favored building forts at the heads of the navigable rivers to protect frontier settlements. The colonists, however, were not to assault any neighboring Indian towns without orders from the governor. But the Indian troubles of the 1670s were more than Berkeley’s measured policies of the past could contain.

Bacon spread a rumor that Berkeley was in league with the Indians. He collected like-minded men to take Virginia’s policy toward the native inhabitants into their own hands. Berkeley seemed to back off, and even called for a new election for the colony’s legislature, the first in 14 years. When Bacon returned to Jamestown after defeating Occaneechees and Susquehannocks near the North Carolina border, he demanded a commission to prosecute the war more fully. Berkeley and his council condemned Bacon’s “rash, illegal, unwarrantable, and most rebellious” actions. Bacon had upset the whole web of relations between white Virginians and their Indian neighbors.

The governor’s men captured Bacon and locked him in jail. Berkeley accepted Bacon’s apology for his actions and forgave him, publicly. In a matter of days after this ritual reconciliation, however, Bacon escaped and marched on the capital at the head of a determined band. Again, he demanded a commission to deal with the Indians; the governor reluctantly agreed. 

Each man then sought to have his version of events presented before the king’s government in Britain. Berkeley’s letter to London accused Bacon of fomenting insurrection at the hands of “young men that have not beene two Yeares in the Country.” Bacon demurred; he had merely allowed himself to be drafted “as the countries friend.” The conflict within the colony now became a chaotic civil war. Berkeley fled the capital; Bacon burned Jamestown to the ground.

According to James D. Rice, author of this new account of Bacon’s Rebellion,

Each leader proclaimed loyalty to the king and declared the other a traitor. The losers were likely to hang when the game of musical chairs finally stopped. Small wonder that there was so much changing of sides, that so many people were anxious to avoid lining up under either of these two uncertain standards.

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