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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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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.

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