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.
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.
For a long time, the received view lauded Nathaniel Bacon as a precursor of the American revolutionaries of 1776. But this stands reality on its head. Bacon’s was a rebellion for the king, not against him. Then, suddenly, Bacon died—probably of dysentery—on October 26, 1676. His followers buried the corpse in secret so that it could not be dug up and desecrated by enemies. Berkeley’s favorite epitaph for his foe read: Bacon is Dead I am sorry at my hart / That Lice and flux should take the hangman’s part. But the rebellion did not die with Bacon. Indeed, the fiercest fighting was yet to come. Under Bacon’s successor, Joseph Ingram, clashes continued until January 1677, when the last rebels surrendered.
William Byrd might have been hanged had he not been so nimble and kept a low profile. Others were not so fortunate. Berkeley made sure their executions sowed terror in the hearts of those who witnessed the public spectacles. Some were hanged at Jamestown, others at gibbets erected in remote county seats, more along the York River. One rebel “was suspended in chains on the gallows at West Point, left to die of thirst, starvation, and exposure, then to decay in public view, his rotting corpse and bleaching bones a monument to the fruits of treason.”
Had Berkeley won? An angry Charles II recalled him. Commissioners sent from London to investigate the situation blamed both sides. Berkeley was never able to defend his actions in person; he died on July 9, 1677, just as he got word that King Charles would receive him. Bacon was dead and Berkeley was dead, but the problems the rebellion underscored remained. The Indians, who had the most at stake, still did not know their fate.
Bacon’s heirs saw a threat from Indians intertwined with a Catholic menace, whether from Maryland, England, or what later became French Canada. Here the story becomes more convoluted, tied up with the succession to the British crown. Rumors of conspiracies abounded. A year after Berkeley died, the Popish Plot electrified Protestants in England and America. Finally, a decade later, the Glorious Revolution of Protestant forces under William of Orange overthrew the Catholic James II.
In Virginia, the governor’s council quickly recognized William and Mary. But in Maryland, the council did not, enraging those who feared a Catholic alliance with hostile Indians. These were Maryland men under the leadership of John Coode—the successors of Bacon across the Potomac. If Bacon’s men had lost the first round of their rebellion in 1676-77, their antipopery grew and took hold in both Virginia and Maryland. They feared a grand conspiracy among the pope, the French, the Jesuits, and the Indians. Under both Bacon and Coode, the rebels claimed to support the king against a corrupt colonial government. “Unlike Bacon,” Rice writes, “Coode got away with it.”
Rice believes that Bacon’s followers ultimately won the argument over how to deal with Native Americans. At the time of Bacon’s Rebellion, Indians controlled the frontier and the flow of trade outside the small English riverine settlements. By the early 18th century, all that had changed: “Nathaniel Bacon’s domineering, uncompromising, and indiscriminate approach to Indian affairs, rather than Berkeley’s web of trade and alliances, became Virginia’s default mode.” Eventually, this became the pattern for U.S. policy. As the balance of power shifted from Indians to colonists, more settlers moved onto land previously occupied by native peoples. Gradually, however, Indian slavery and the indentured servitude of Englishmen gave way to African slavery.
By the eve of the American Revolution, Virginia had become the wealthiest and most influential colony. After the war, white migrants flooded across the Appalachians in great numbers and took with them their particular notions of how to establish new communities. This had the effect, Rice argues, of “making Virginian ways a large part of the DNA of American life in general. Bacon’s Rebellion was a critical element in the creation of the Old South, and thus an important passage in the story of race, slavery, freedom, and western expansion in American history.”
Nelson D. Lankford, editor of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the quarterly journal of the Virginia Historical Society, is the author of Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861.