Nathaniel Bacon (Virginia colonist)

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Nathaniel Bacon
Born(1647-01-02)January 2, 1647
DiedOctober 26, 1676(1676-10-26) (aged 29)
Cause of deathDysentery
Known forBacon's Rebellion
Notable work
Declaration of the People
Spouse(s)Elizabeth Duke

Nathaniel Bacon (January 2, 1647 – October 26, 1676) was a colonist of the Virginia Colony, famous as the instigator of Bacon's Rebellion of 1676, which collapsed when Bacon himself died from dysentery.[1][2]

Early life and education[edit]

Bacon was born on January 2, 1647, in Friston Hall in Suffolk, England, to influential landowner parents Thomas Bacon and his wife Elizabeth (daughter of Sir Robert Brooke of Cockfield Hall, Yoxford and his wife Elizabeth).[3] Nathaniel was his father's only son, and had one full sister, and a half-sister by his father's second wife Martha (Reade), his natural mother having died in 1649 when he was two years old.[4] He was educated at the University of Cambridge.[5] He travelled around Europe (Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France, Netherlands) in 1663-1664 with the celebrated naturalist John Ray and fellow pupils Francis Willughby and Philip Skippon.[6] At the end of April 1664, in Naples, Ray and Skippon took ship for Messina, to continue their expedition together to Sicily, leaving Willughby and Bacon to return north to Rome.[7] He was admitted to study law at Gray's Inn in November 1664.[8]

Nathaniel married Elizabeth Duke, the daughter of Sir Edward Duke of Benhall (1604-1671) and his wife Ellenor Panton, reputedly in direct defiance of her father's veto.[9] After accusations that Nathaniel had cheated another young man of his inheritance, Thomas Bacon gave his son the considerable sum of £1,800 and the young man sailed into exile across the Atlantic.[10] Upon arriving in Virginia, Nathaniel Bacon bought two frontier plantations on the James River. Since his cousin was a prominent militia colonel and friend of governor William Berkeley, Bacon settled in Jamestown, the capital. Soon Bacon was himself appointed to the governor's council.[11] Berkeley's wife, Frances Culpeper, may also have been Bacon's cousin by marriage.[12]

Bacon's Rebellion[edit]

The Burning of Jamestown by Howard Pyle, c. 1905

Before the "Virginia Rebellion" (as it came to be called) began in earnest in 1674, some freeholders on the Virginia frontier demanded that Native Americans, including those in friendly tribes living on treaty-protected lands, should be driven out or killed.[11] They also protested against corruption in the government of Governor Berkeley, which has been described as "incorrigibly corrupt, inhumanely oppressive, and inexcusably inefficient, especially in war".[13]

Following a raid by Doeg Indians in Stafford County, Virginia, in which were killed two white men associated with a trader named Mathews (whom later reports found regularly "cheated and abused" Indians), a group of Virginia militiamen raided settlements of the Susquehannock tribe, instead of the Doeg tribe, including some across the Potomac River in Maryland. Maryland Governor Calvert protested against the incursion, and the Susquehannocks retaliated. Maryland militia then joined Virginia forces, and attacked a fortified Susquehannock village. After five chiefs had accepted the Maryland leader's invitation to parley, they were slaughtered, an action which provoked later legislative investigations and reprimands.[14][15] The Susquehannocks retaliated in force against plantations, killing 60 settlers in Maryland and a further 36 in their first assault on Virginia soil. Then other tribes joined in, killing settlers, burning houses and fields and slaughtering livestock as far as the James and York rivers.[16]

Seeking to avoid a larger conflict similar to King Philip's War in New England, Berkeley advocated containment, proposing the construction of several defensive fortifications along the frontier and urging frontier settlers to gather in a defensive posture. Frontier settlers dismissed the plan as expensive and inadequate, and also suspected that it might be a pretext for raising tax rates.[11]

In the meantime, Bacon, whose overseer on a James River plantation had been killed by Indian raiders, emerged as a rebel leader.[17] When Berkeley refused to grant Bacon a military commission to attack all Indians, Bacon mustered his own force of 400–500 men and moved up the James River to attack the Doeg and Pamunkey tribes. Although both had generally lived peaceably with the colonists, and had not attacked the frontier settlements, their cultivated lands were valuable.

In March, Berkeley had attempted to secure warriors from the Pamunkey tribe to fight hostile tribes pursuant to earlier treaties. The Pamunkey queen Cockacoeske passionately reminded the Governor's Council of the deaths 20 years ago of her husband and 100 warriors whom they had provided in a similar situation. The chairman had ignored her complaint, and instead continued to demand more warriors, receiving a promise in return to supply a dozen. Berkeley did arrest Bacon and remove him from the council, but Bacon's men quickly secured his release, and forced Berkeley to hold legislative elections. Meanwhile, Bacon's men continued their offensive against the Pamunkeys, who fled into Dragon Swamp. When the friendly Occoneechee managed to capture a Susquehannock fort, Bacon's forces demanded all the spoils, although they had not assisted in the fighting. They then attacked the Oconeechee by treachery, killing men, women and children.[18]

Despite Bacon's outlaw status, voters of Henrico County elected him to the recomposed House of Burgesses. That body enacted a number of sweeping reforms, limiting the governor's powers and restoring suffrage rights to landless freemen.[11] They also made the sale of any arms to any Indian punishable by the death penalty. Bacon's followers were unmollified, accusing Berkeley of refusing to authorize retaliation against natives to protect his own fur-trading investments and the monopolies which he had granted to his favorites. After a number of verbal altercations, including a quarrel in a Jamestown street, Berkeley retreated to his plantation and signed the military commission Bacon demanded.[19] Scouting parties accordingly set out to requisition supplies, as well as to kill and enslave Indians, prompting protests from citizens of Gloucester County who were subject to the militia's exactions.[20] Bacon's forces retreated to Middle Plantation (later renamed Williamsburg).[citation needed]

On July 30, 1676, Bacon and his makeshift army issued a Declaration of the People,[15] which criticized Berkeley's administration, accusing him of levying unfair taxes, appointing friends to high positions, and failing to protect outlying farmers from Indian attack. They also issued a 'Manifesto' urging the extermination of all Indians, asserting that they did not deserve legal protections because they "have bin for these Many years enemies to the King and Country, Robbers and Thieves and Invaders of his Majesty's Right and our Interest and Estate".[21] Months of conflict ensued, including a naval attempt across the Potomac and in Chesapeake Bay by Bacon's allies to capture Berkeley at Accomac. Bacon himself focused on the Pamunkey in Dragon Swamp; his forces seized 3 horse-loads of goods, enslaved 45 Indians and killed many more, prompting the queen Cockacoeske (who narrowly escaped with her son) to throw herself on the mercy of the Governor's Council. Berkeley raised his own army of mercenaries on the Eastern Shore, and also captured Bacon's naval allies and executed the two leaders. Bacon's forces then turned against the colony's capital, burning Jamestown to the ground on September 19, 1676.[15][22]

Before an English naval squadron could arrive, Bacon died of dysentery on October 26, 1676. Although John Ingram took control of the rebel forces, the rebellion soon collapsed. Governor Berkeley returned to power, seizing the property of several rebels and ultimately hanging twenty-three men, many without trial.[11] After an investigative committee returned its report to King Charles II, criticizing both Berkeley and Bacon for their conduct toward friendly tribes, Berkeley was relieved of the governorship, returned to England to protest, and died shortly thereafter.[15] Charles II later supposedly commented, "That old fool has put to death more people in that naked country than I did here for the murder of my father." This may be a colonial myth, arising about 30 years later.[23]


Despite recent historians' views of the conflict, many in the early United States, including Thomas Jefferson, saw Bacon as a patriot and believed that Bacon's Rebellion was a prelude to the later American Revolution against the control of the Crown.[24][25] This understanding of the conflict was reflected in twentieth-century commemorations, including a memorial window in Colonial Williamsburg, and a prominent tablet in the Virginia House of Delegates chamber of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, which recalls Bacon as "A great Patriot Leader of the Virginia People who died while defending their rights October 26, 1676."[24][25][26]


  1. ^ Nellie Canfield McFee, Inez. "American History Nathaniel Bacon—First American Rebel". Legends of America. Retrieved September 26, 2016.
  2. ^ "Bacon, Nathaniel". The World Book Encyclopedia. World Book. 1992. p. 18. ISBN 0-7166-0092-7.
  3. ^ Tarter, Brent. "Nathaniel Bacon (1647–1676)". Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved August 24, 2015.
  4. ^ P. Watson, 'Bacon, Thomas (c.1620-97), of Friston, Suff. and Wandsworth, Surr.', in B.D. Henning (ed.), The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690 (from Boydell and Brewer 1983), History of Parliament Online.
  5. ^ J.A. Venn and J. Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses Vol. I Part 1 (Cambridge University Press 1922), p. 65 (Internet Archive).
  6. ^ P. Skippon, 'An Account of a Journey Made through part of the Low-Countries, Germany, Italy and France', in A. and J. Churchill (ed.), A Collection of Voyages and Travels, Some Now First Printed from Original Manuscripts, 6 vols (J. Walthoe, London 1732), VI, pp 359-736, and Index (Google)
  7. ^ Skippon, Account of a Journey, p. 609 (Google).
  8. ^ J. Foster (ed.), The Register of Admissions to Gray's Inn, 1521-1889 (Hansard, London 1889), p. 298 (Hathi Trust).
  9. ^ T.J. Wertenbaker, Bacon's Rebellion 1676 (Williamsburg, 1957), p. 9 (Google).
  10. ^ Alfred A. Cave, Lethal Encounters: Englishmen and Indians in Colonial Virginia (2011) University of Nebraska Press at p. 154.
  11. ^ a b c d e James A. Henretta; David Brody; Lynn Dumenil (2007). America's History: Volume 1: To 1877 (6th ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's. pp. 53–54. ISBN 978-0-312-45285-8.
  12. ^ "Bacon's Rebellion". Retrieved July 17, 2015.
  13. ^ Alfred A. Cave, Lethal Encounters: Englishmen and Indians in Colonial Virginia (University of Nebraska Press, 2011) p. 152 citing Stephen Saunders Webb, 1676: The end of American Independence (New York, Alfred A Knopf, 1984) pp. 13–21
  14. ^ Cave, pp. 148–49.
  15. ^ a b c d McCulley, Susan (June 1987). "Bacon's Rebellion". National Park Service. Retrieved October 6, 2015.
  16. ^ Cave, at p. 150
  17. ^ "Bacon's Rebellion". The World Book Encyclopedia. World Book. 1992. p. 19. ISBN 0-7166-0092-7.
  18. ^ Cave, pp. 154–155
  19. ^ Cave pp. 151–153.
  20. ^ Cave p. 159–160
  21. ^ Cave, at p. 160 citing text in Virginia Magazine, I (1893) pp. 55–58
  22. ^ Cave, pp. 161–163
  23. ^ Washburn, The Governor and the Rebel, p. 139
  24. ^ a b Gardner, Andrew G. (Spring 2015). "Nathaniel Bacon, Saint or Sinner?". Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Retrieved May 30, 2018.
  25. ^ a b "Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia in the years 1675 & 1676 | Virginia Museum of History & Culture". Retrieved May 30, 2018.
  26. ^ "About the Capitol – High School". Virginia General Assembly – Capitol Classroom. Retrieved May 30, 2018.

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