|The Burning of Jamestown by Howard Pyle, ca. 1905.|
|Parties to the civil conflict|
|Colonial settlers||Royal Colonial Governor|
|Nathaniel Bacon||William Berkeley|
|Deaths: 23 hanged
Bacon's Rebellion was an armed rebellion in 1676 by Virginia settlers led by young Nathaniel Bacon against the rule of Governor William Berkeley. The colony's lightly organized frontier political culture combined with accumulating grievances, especially regarding Indian attacks, to motivate a popular uprising against Berkeley. He had failed to address the demands of the colonists regarding their safety. The rebellion was first suppressed by a few armed merchant ships from London whose captains sided with Berkeley and the loyalists. Government forces from England arrived soon after and spent several years defeating pockets of resistance and reforming the colonial government to one more directly under royal control.
It was the first rebellion in the American colonies in which discontented frontiersmen took part; a similar uprising in Maryland took place later that year. About a thousand Virginians of all classes rose up in arms against Berkeley. The immediate cause was his recent refusal to retaliate for a series of Indian attacks on frontier settlements. This prompted some to take matters into their own hands, attacking Native Americans, chasing Berkeley from Jamestown, Virginia, and ultimately torching the capital. Modern historians have suggested it may in fact have been a power play by Bacon against Berkeley and his favoritism towards certain members of court. Bacon's financial backers included men of wealth from outside Berkeley's circle of influence.
The alliance between former indentured servants and Africans disturbed the ruling class, who responded by hardening the racial caste of slavery. While the farmers did not succeed in their goal of driving Native Americans from Virginia, the rebellion did result in Berkeley being recalled to England.
Historian Warren Billings used court records to identify three main factors causing the rebellion. First was social and political instability caused by a weak, decentralized government, compounded by rapid and uneven political and social mobility. Second was a slowly worsening economy, which affected nearly all the settlers. Finally Berkeley had diminished control over the colony because of his fading personal prestige and his weak leadership. Against this background, Berkeley's refusal to take aggressive action against Indian raids led colonists to grumble and finally to organize to overthrow him.
Historian Peter Thompson argues that Bacon's motivation was a personal vendetta between him and Berkeley. However, Bacon's followers used the rebellion as an effort to gain government recognition of the shared interests among all social classes of the colony in protecting the "commonalty" and advancing its welfare.
The Rebellion 
When Berkeley refused to go against the Native Americans, farmers gathered around at the report of a new raiding party. Nathaniel Bacon arrived with a quantity of brandy; after it was distributed, he was elected leader. Against Berkeley's orders, the group struck south until they came to the Occaneechi tribe. After getting the Occaneechi to attack the Susquehanock, Bacon and his men followed by killing most of the men, women, and children at the village. Upon their return, they discovered that Berkeley had called for new elections to the Burgesses in order to better facilitate the Indian problem.
The recomposed House of Burgesses enacted a number of sweeping reforms. (Bacon was not serving his duty in the House; rather, he was at his plantation miles away.) It limited the powers of the governor and restored suffrage rights to landless freemen.
After passage of these laws, Bacon arrived with 500 followers in Jamestown to demand a commission to lead militia against the Indians. The governor, however, refused to yield to the pressure. When Bacon had his men take aim at Berkeley, he responded by "bearing his breast" to Bacon and told Bacon to shoot him himself. Seeing that the Governor would not be moved, Bacon then had his men take aim at the assembled burgesses, who quickly granted Bacon his commission. Bacon had earlier been promised a commission before he retired to his estate if he could only be on "good" behavior for two weeks. While Bacon was at Jamestown with his small army, eight colonists were killed on the frontier in Henrico County (where he marched from) due to a lack of manpower on the frontier.
On July 30, 1676, Bacon and his army issued the "Declaration of the People of Virginia." The declaration criticized Berkeley's administration in detail. It accused him of levying unfair taxes, appointing friends to high positions, and failing to protect frontier settlers from Indian attack.
Beginning to move against the Indians, Bacon and his men attacked the innocent (and friendly) Pamunkey. The tribe had remained allies of the English throughout other Indian raids. They were supplying warriors to aid the English when Bacon took power.
After months of conflict, Bacon's forces, numbering 300-500 men, moved to Jamestown. They burned the colonial capital to the ground on September 19, 1676. Outnumbered, Berkeley retreated across the river. Before an English naval squadron could arrive to aid Berkeley and his forces, Bacon died from dysentery on October 26, 1676. John Ingram took over leadership of the rebellion, but many followers drifted away. The Rebellion did not last long after that. Berkeley launched a series of successful amphibious attacks across the Chesapeake Bay and defeated the rebels. His forces defeated the small pockets of insurgents spread across the Tidewater. Thomas Grantham, a Captain of a ship cruising the York River, used cunning and force to disarm the rebels. He tricked his way into the garrison of the rebellion, and promised to pardon everyone involved once they got back onto the ship. However, once they were safely ensconced in the hold, he trained the ship's guns on them, and disarmed the rebellion. Through various other tactics, the other rebel garrisons were likewise overcome.
The 70-year-old governor Berkeley returned to the burned capital and a looted home at the end of January 1677. His wife described Green Spring in a letter to her cousin:
Bacon's wealthy landowning followers returned their loyalty to the Virginia Government after Bacon's death. Governor Berkeley returned to power. He seized the property of several rebels for the colony and executed 23 men by hanging, including the former governor of the Albemarle Sound colony, William Drummond. After an investigative committee returned its report to King Charles II, Berkeley was relieved of the governorship, and recalled to England. "The fear of civil war among whites frightened Virginia’s ruling elite, who took steps to consolidate power and improve their image: for example, restoration of property qualifications for voting, reducing taxes and adoption of a more aggressive Indian policy."
Charles II was reported to have commented, "That old fool has put to death more people in that naked country than I did here for the murder of my father." No record of the king's comments have been found; the origin of the story appears to have been colonial myth that arose at least 30 years after the events.
Indentured servants both black and white joined the frontier rebellion. Seeing them united in a cause alarmed the ruling class. Historians believe the rebellion hastened the hardening of racial lines associated with slavery, as a way for planters and the colony to control some of the poor.
See also 
- Webb, Stephen Saunders (1995). 1676: The End of American Independence. Syracuse University Press. pp. 87–93. ISBN 978-0-8156-0361-0. Retrieved 1 February 2013.
- Webb, Stephen Saunders (1995). 1676: The End of American Independence. Syracuse University Press. pp. 10–13. ISBN 978-0-8156-0361-0. Retrieved 1 February 2013.
- Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty!: An American History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), p. 100.
- "Bacon's Rebellion", Africans in America, Part 1, PBS, accessed 25 Mar 2009
- "Green Spring Plantation". Historic Jamestowne, National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-25-30.
- Billings, 1970
- Peter Thompson, "The Thief, the Householder, and the Commons: Languages of Class in Seventeenth-Century Virginia," William and Mary Quarterly (2006) 63#2 pp 253-280 in JSTOR
- John Berry, Francis Moryson, and Herbert Jefferys, "A True Narrative of the Rise, Progress and Cessation of the Late Rebellion in Virginia, Most Humbly an Impartially Recorded by His Majesties Commissioners, Appointed to inquire into the Affairs of the Said Colony", Ed. by Charles Andrews, in Narrative of the Insurrections 1675 to 1690, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1915), pp. 111–113.
- The literatures of colonial America. Blackwell Publishing. 2001. p. 225. ISBN 978-0-631-21125-9.
- John Berry, Francis Moryson, and Herbert Jefferys, “A True Narrative of the Rise, Progress and Cessation of the Late Rebellion in Virginia, Most Humbly an Impartially Recorded by His Majesties Commissioners, Appointed to inquire into the Affairs of the Said Colony.” Ed. by Charles Andrews, in Narrative of the Insurrections 1675 to 1690, (Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1915), 116.
- A history of the United States. Macmillan. 1908. p. 88.
- Bragdon Kathleen J., The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Northeast, Columbia University Press, 2005, p. 112.
- Narratives of the Insurrections, 1675–1690, ed. Charles McLean Andrews, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1915, p. 139.
- Zinn, Howard (1997). A People's History Of The United States. New York, NY: The New York Press. p. 281. ISBN 1-56584-724-5.
- "Green Spring Plantation". Historic Jamestowne. Retrieved 2008-25-30.
- Waldrup, Carole Chandler, Colonial Women: 23 Europeans Who Helped Build a Nation, McFarland, 1999, p. 86.
- Geiter, Mary K., William Arthur Speck, Colonial America: From Jamestown to Yorktown, Macmillan, 2002, p. 63
- Tyler, Lyon G., Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography, Lewis historical publishing company, 1915, Vol. I p. 226
- Fiske, John, Old Virginia and Her Neighbours, Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1902, p. 110
- Washburn, The Governor and the Rebel, p. 139
- Cooper, William J, Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860, Univ of South Carolina Press, 2001, p. 9.
Further reading 
- Billings, Warren M. "The Causes of Bacon's Rebellion: Some Suggestions," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1970, Vol. 78 Issue 4, pp. 409–435
- Cullen, Joseph P. "Bacon's Rebellion," American History Illustrated, Dec 1968, Vol. 3 Issue 8, p. 4 ff.
- Tarter, Brent. "Bacon's Rebellion, the Grievances of the People, and the Political Culture of Seventeenth-Century Virginia," Virginia Magazine of History & Biography (2011) 119#1 pp 1-41.
- Thompson, Peter. "The Thief, the Householder, and the Commons: Languages of Class in Seventeenth-Century Virginia," William & Mary Quarterly (2006) 63#2 pp 253-280 in JSTOR
- Webb, Stephen Saunders (1995). 1676, the end of American independence. Syracuse University Press. ISBN 978-0-8156-0361-0.
- Wertenbaker, Thomas Jefferson. Torchbearer of the Revolution: The Story of Bacon’s Rebellion and its Leader (Princeton University Press, 1940)
- Washburn, Wilcomb E. The Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia (University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1957)
Primary sources 
- Wiseman, Samuel. Book of Record: The Official Account of Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia, 1676–1677 (2006)