Bacon's Rebellion in 1676

At times the English chose to acquire their land through force, and at times the Virginia leaders preferred negotiations. In the General Assembly and in the taverns, the colonial leaders often debated the appropriate strategy - but in 1676, that debate erupted into civil war among the colonists.

In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon claimed to be a champion for those who lived on the frontier and were exposed to the threat of harm by Native Americans. Some who have chronicled Bacon's Rebellion present him as a revolutionary seeking liberty, leading Virginians to fight a colonial governor who had turned into a tyrant and cruel reactionary. Others suggest Bacon was an opportunist who sought to advance his own chance at wealth and power, in part by mobilizing the poor farmers on the frontier to vent their frustrations first by attacking innocent Native Americans and ultimately rebelling against the colonial government.

The innocent victims in 1676 included the Pamunkey tribe, because they were nearby and the rebels were indiscriminate in their attacks. The Pamunkey escaped by fleeing into the swamps near the headwaters of the York River. The equally-innocent Occaneechi tribe, southwest of Fort Henry (modern-day Petersburg) on the trading routes for furs, was less fortunate. Their trading post at modern-day Clarksville, Virginia was destroyed, shrinking their role as the middlemen in the trade between the English forts on the Fall Line and the backcountry in the Roanoke River and even Tennessee River watersheds.

Occaneechi fur trading post, on the Roanoke River (now Kerr Reservoir)
Occaneechi fur trading post, on the Roanoke River (now Kerr Reservoir)
Source: USGS National Atlas

The Dutch seizure of New York in 1673, during the third Anglo-Dutch War of Charles II's reign, led indirectly to Bacon's Rebellion. Maryland anticipated that the Dutch might spur the Iroquois in New York to attack the Susquehannocks at the head of the Chesapeake Bay. The Susquehannocks were induced to move close to the friendly-to-the-Maryland-colonists Dogue tribe on Piscataway Creek in the Potomac River watershed. In 1675-76, a conflict between an overseer in Stafford County and members of the Dogue tribe over some hogs. The overseer was killed, the Native Americans fled across the Potomac River back into Maryland, the Virginians followed with a raid that killed innocent Susquehannocks (not Dogues) despite the promise of a flag of truce, and the Susquehannocks responded by attacking the homes of colonists on the edge of Anglo-Native American settlement (the "frontier").3

The conflict led to "Bacon's Rebellion," a civil war among the Virginians that was fueled by the frontier settlers' frustration with Governor Berkeley's frontier policies. The colonists moving into traditionally Native American spaces on the northern and western edge of the colony (such as Stafford County) were already struggling with low tobacco prices and high taxes. Frustration was exacerbated by the powerful gentry in Jamestown exempting themselves from paying those high taxes, adding to the burden of the small farmers.

The reluctance of Governor Berkeley and his wealthy councilors to provide military protection against attack by Dogues, Susquehannocks, or Iroquois caused the struggling farmers on the frontier to rebel. As described by one of Virginia's first historians, Robert Beverley:4

Four Things may be reckon'd to have been the main Ingredients towards this intestine Commotion, viz.
First, The extream low Price of Tobacco, and the ill Usage of the Planters in the Exchange of Goods for it, which the Country, with all their earnest Endeavours, could not remedy.
Secondly, The Splitting the Colony into Proprieties, contrary to the original Charters; and the extravagant Taxes they were forced to undergo, to relieve themselves from those Grants.
Thirdly, The heavy Restraints and Burdens laid upon their Trade by Act of Parliament in England.
Fourthly, The Disturbance given by the Indians. Of all which I beg Leave to speak in their Order.

The "splitting of the colonies into proprietaries" referred to the land grant by Charles II that ended up as North Carolina, plus the Fairfax Grant. The Northern Neck grant excluded the colonial government in Jamestown from issuing patents (land grants) for property between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers. By the 1670's, land adjacent to a navigable river was getting scarce. Virginia colonists were not happy at the prospect of having to move west of the Fall Line to obtain cheap land. There were no wagon roads, so the cost to haul tobacco to a wharf for export would be high compared to waterfront property.

The "heavy Restraints and Burdens laid upon their Trade by Act of Parliament in England" referred to the Navigation Acts, limiting tobacco sales to non-English buyers. Limiting sales to English merchants, thus reducing competition from the Dutch and others, led to lower tobacco prices paid to Virginians. Virginia colonists also objected to efforts to impose taxes that would be used simply to pay additional money to the tax collectors, which caused the tax collectors to support the governor and his cronies but created no benefits for most colonists.

The "Disturbance given by the Indians" was a one-sided description of the conflict caused by settlers moving into the territories long occupied by the Algonquian-speaking tribes north of the York River. The attacks by Iroquoian-speaking Susquehannocks on the Virginia and Maryland frontier in 1676 were triggered by the Anglo-Dutch war, manipulation of the Susquehannock populations by Maryland colonial officials, and retaliation-without-distinction policies of Virginia colonial officials. Similar "disturbances" in New England erupted in King Philip's War in 1675, between the Wampanoag/Narragansett/allied tribes and Massachusetts/Rhode Island/Connecticut settlers.

Nathaniel Bacon
Nathaniel Bacon was a member of the gentry (the "elite" with political and economic power in the colony). Bacon and Berkeley negotiated unsuccessfully for an official colonial war to remove Native Americans from the frontier. Bacon finally instigated open conflict. His rebels burned the colonial capital of Jamestown, pillaged the houses of Berkeley's rich allies, and forced the governor to flee to the Eastern Shore.
Source: Library of Congress Nathaniel Bacon engraving by T. Chambars

two members of Virginia gentry contested for power and authority over the frontier in 1676 when Governor Berkeley opened his jacket and challenged Nathaniel Bacon: Here shoot me before God, fair mark shoot.
two members of Virginia gentry contested for power and authority over the frontier in 1676 when Governor Berkeley opened his jacket and challenged Nathaniel Bacon: "Here shoot me before God, fair mark shoot."
Source: National Park Service Sidney King painting, Nathaniel Bacon confronts Governor Sir William Berkeley

Nathaniel Bacon, a new immigrant from England who was not caught up deeply in the web of social alliances in Tidewater, demanded a military commission that would authorize him to attack Indians on the frontier. In a dramatic confrontation at the statehouse in Jamestown, Bacon threatened to shoot the governor unless he provided official commissions for Bacon's rebel army. Berkeley responded boldly "Here shoot me before God, fair mark shoot." (Bacon did not kill the governor, but clearly leadership in colonial Virginia was not for sissies...)5

When Bacon threatened to conduct military operations against the Native Americans without authorization, Berkeley declared him a rebel. The response was a public wave of support for Bacon, reflecting discontent over the economic recession at the time as much as concerns about Native Americans.

The public response frightened Berkeley enough to force him to schedule an election for a new House of Burgesses. Bacon was elected, and Berkeley let him take his seat on the Governor's Council of State. However, Bacon quickly left Jamestown, rallied a mob, and attacked innocent Occaneechi, Tutelo, and Saponi Indians at their trading base at modern-day Clarksville at the confluence of the Dan and the Roanoke (Staunton) River.

Bacon forced the Occaneechi to surrender Susquehannocks that Bacon claimed were responsible for "outrages" on frontier farms. Bacon's forces then destroyed the Occaneechi village - even though the Native Americans there had done nothing to threaten frontier settlers. Destruction of Occaneechi Town would disrupt Berkeley's control of the fur trade, weakening him personally and perhaps creating some opportunity for others living on the frontier to make profits through trade.

Bacon marched his small army back to the capital where the House of Burgesses, intimidated by the mob, passed legislation demanded by Bacon. Bacon burned Jamestown, including the statehouse, and plundered the plantation homes of the gentry who supported Governor Berkeley.

third statehouse at Jamestown, burned in Bacon's Rebellion
third statehouse at Jamestown, burned in Bacon's Rebellion
Source: National Park Service, America's Oldest Legislative Assembly and Its Jamestown Statehouse

The governor fled Jamestown and went to John Custis's Arlington plantation in Northampton County, on the Eastern Shore. When Bacon sent a flotilla to attack Berkeley in his last refuge, the governor's forces surprised and captured it. Berkeley sailed back to the west side of the Chesapeake Bay, captured many of the rebels after Bacon died of a "bloody flux," and proceeded to execute many of the top rebel leaders. (Berkeley's harsh response may have been spurred in part by laws that allowed him to seize the wealth of the rebels.)

Among Bacon's rebellious allies was William Drummond, a member of the gentry and a personal enemy of Berkeley. Drummond had been governor of North Carolina (Lake Drummond is named for him). After Drummond was captured, Berkeley greeted him with a malicious "Mr. Drumond! you are very welcome, I am more Glad to See you, than any man in Virginia, Mr. Drumond you shall be hang'd in half an hour." In fact, Drummond's trial did not occur until six days later, but he was hung within several hours of his conviction.6

The officials in London did not support the vindictive retaliation. Charles II is reported to have been surprised at Berkeley's executions, saying "That old fool has hanged more men in that naked country than I have done here for the murder of my father." Charles recalled Berkeley to England, where the governor died.7

Berkeley fled to the original Arlington Plantation in Northampton County
To avoid capture by Nathaniel Bacon's army, Governor Berkeley fled from Jamestown to the original Arlington Plantation, owned by John Custis in Northampton County (route in red). In 1676 the British officials appointed by King Charles II ended up defeating the rebellious colonists. A century later, Lord Dunmore fled Williamsburg at the start of the American Revolution, to attack Norfolk and then to his final base at Gwynn's Island (route in yellow).
Map Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service Wetlands Mapper

Bacon's Rebellion was followed by the Treaty of Middle Plantation in 1677 with the Pamunkey, who were attacked by Bacon even though the tribes were theoretically under English protection since the Treaty of 1646. In 1677, the "Queen of Pamunkey" (Cockacoeske) was granted a reservation in King William County, establishing the legal basis for today's Pamunkey and Mattaponi reservations. Tribes that had not been part of Powhatan's paramount chiefdom also signed the treaty, including the Iroquoian-speaking Meherrin and Nottoway and the Siouan-speaking Saponi.8

Because the Iroquois were mobile, crossing boundaries of multiple colonies, Virginia could not negotiate by itself for frontier peace. In 1684, Virginia Governor Effingham joined with the colonial governor of New York to sign a treaty that brought a temporary easing of tension on the edge of settlement. New York governors would later call for Virginia support of the Iroquois who were assisting in attacks on the French and their allied tribes in Canada, but the Virginians were reluctant to fight just to protect the fur trade capabilities of the New Yorkers.9

Bacon's Rebellion demonstrated, among other things, that the success/failure of English settlement in North America would require cooperation among the colonies - and that success/failure of Native American resistance would require cooperation among the tribes.

Parson Waugh's Tumult

Prelude to Bacon's Rebellion in 1676



1. Hatfield, April Lee, Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century, Universityof Pennsylvania Press, 2004, pp.198-200
2. J. Mills Thornton, III, "The Thrusting out of Governor Harvey: A Seventeenth-Century Rebellion," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 76, No. 1 (January 1968), pp.22-24, (last checked October 13, 2012)
3. April Lee Hatfield, Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004, pp.198-200
4. Robert Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia, 1705, p.66, (last checked October 13, 2012)
5. "Bacon's Rebellion," National Park Service, (last checked October 13, 2012)
6. "William Drummond," Encyclopedia Virginia, (last checked October 13, 2012)
7. Virginia: a guide to the Old Dominion, Virginia Writers' Project, 1950, p. 42, (last checked October 13, 2012)
8. April Lee Hatfield, Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004, pp.212-213
9. April Lee Hatfield, Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004, Footnote 96, p.239

to escape Bacon's troops in 1676, the Pamunkey retreated into the swamps along the Piankatank River, which a 1670 map described as not passable nor inhabitable
to escape Bacon's troops in 1676, the Pamunkey retreated into the swamps along the Piankatank River, which a 1670 map described as "not passable nor inhabitable"
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia and Maryland as it is planted and inhabited this present year 1670 (by Augustine Herrman, with north oriented to the right rather than towards the top of the map)

The Military in Virginia
Virginia Places