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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
The Bacon Rebellion
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[The tyranny that was instituted by Andros in New England was paralleled by despotic proceedings in some of the other colonies. In Virginia these led to a rebellion which was for a time successful. Unlike the inhabitants of the more northerly colonies, the Virginians were stanch advocates of the Church of England and partisans of the king, and were intolerant alike of religious and democratic heresies. When Charles I. was executed the planters of Virginia declared for his son, and only submitted under show of force to the Commonwealth. They gladly welcomed Charles II. to the throne, and accepted with acclamation a royal governor, Sir William Berkeley. It was not long, however, ere they found reason for a change of opinion. Despotic measures were put in force, the Assembly, instead of being re-elected every two years, was kept permanently in session, and the inhabitants became the prey of venal office- holders. Commercial laws were instituted which bore severely upon the planters. Tobacco could be sent to none but English ports, and every tobacco-laden ship had to pay a heavy duty before leaving Virginia, and another on reaching England. Berkeley had the true composition of a tyrant, as is shown in his memorable utterance, "I thank God there are no free schools, nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience into the world, and printing has divulged them and libels against the best governments. God keep us from both!"

To the evils above mentioned were added a series of Indian depredations, which grew in extent till more than three hundred of the settlers had been killed. The government showed little disposition to repress these savage outrages, and the people grew exasperated. At this juncture a young man named Nathaniel Bacon came forward as a leader, and the people readily supported him in what soon assumed the proportions of a rebellion against the constituted authorities. The story of this outbreak is well told in Campbell's "History of Virginia," from which we select its leading particulars.]

"About the year 1675," says an old writer, "appeared three prodigies in that country, which, from the attending disasters, were looked upon as ominous presages. The one was a large comet, every evening for a week or more at southwest, thirty-five degrees high, streaming like a horsetail westward, until it reached (almost) the horizon, and setting towards the northwest. Another was flights of wild pigeons, in breadth nigh a quarter of the mid-hemisphere, and of their length was no visible end; whose weights broke down the limbs of large trees whereon these rested at nights, of which the fowlers shot abundance, and ate them; this sight put the old planters under the more portentous apprehensions because the like was seen (as they said) in the year 1644, when the Indians committed the last massacre; but not after, until that present year, 1675. The third strange phenomenon was swarms of flies about an inch long, and big as the top of a man's little finger, rising out of spigot-holes in the earth, which ate the new-sprouted leaves from the tops of the trees, without other harm, and in a month left us."

[These prodigies undoubtedly appeared to the superstitious inhabitants as omens of the disasters which at this time fell upon them in murdering incursions of the Indians. A large body of men proceeded against the Susquehannocks, whom they charged with these outrages. But the violent measures which they adopted only inflamed the passions of the savages, who at once broke into open hostilities.]

At the falls of the James the savages had slain a servant of Nathaniel Bacon, Jr., and his overseer, to whom he was much attached. This was not the place of Bacon's residence: Bacon Quarter Branch, in the suburbs of Richmond, probably indicates the scene of the murder. Bacon himself resided at Curles, in Henrico County, on the lower James River. It is said that when he heard of the catastrophe he vowed vengeance. In that time of panic, the more exposed and defenceless families, abandoning their homes, took shelter together in houses, where they fortified themselves with palisades and redoubts. Neighbors, banding together, passed in co-operating parties from plantation to plantation, taking arms with them into the fields where they labored, and posting sentinels to give warning of the approach of the insidious foe. No man ventured out of doors unarmed. Even Jamestown was in danger. The red men, stealing with furtive glance through the shade of the forest, the noiseless tread of the moccasin scarce stirring a leaf, prowled around like panthers in quest of prey. At length the people at the head of the James and the York, having in vain petitioned the governor for protection, alarmed at the slaughter of their neighbors, often murdered with every circumstance of barbarity, rose tumultuously in self- defence, to the number of three hundred men, including most, if not all the officers, civil and military, and chose Nathaniel Bacon, Jr., for their leader. According to another authority, Bacon, before the murder of his overseer and servant, had been refused the commission, and had sworn that upon the next murder he should hear of he would march against the Indians, "commission or no commission.".

Bacon had been living in the colony somewhat less than three years, having settled at Curles, on the lower James, in the midst of those people who were the greatest sufferers from the depredations of the Indians, and he himself had frequently felt the effects of their inroads.. At the breaking out of these disturbances he was a member of the council. He was gifted with a graceful person, great abilities, and a powerful elocution, and was the most accomplished man in Virginia; his courage and resolution were not to be daunted, and his affability, hospitality, and benevolence commanded a wide popularity throughout the colony.

The men who had put themselves under Bacon's command made preparations for marching against the Indians, but in the mean time sent again to obtain from the governor a commission of general for Bacon, with authority to lead out his followers, at their own expense, against the enemy. He then stood so high in the council, and the exigency of the case was so pressing, that Sir William Berkeley, thinking it imprudent to return an absolute refusal, concluded to temporize. Some of the leading men about him, it was believed, took occasion to foment the difference between him and Bacon, envying a rising luminary that threatened to eclipse them. This conduct is like that of some of the leading men in Virginia who, one hundred years later, compelled Patrick Henry to resign his post in the army.

Sir William Berkeley sent his evasive reply to the application for a commission, by some of his friends, and instructed them to persuade Bacon to disband his forces. He refused to comply with this request, and, having in twenty days mustered five hundred men, marched to the falls of the James. Thereupon the governor, on the 29th day of May, 1676, issued a proclamation declaring all such as should fail to return within a certain time rebels. Bacon likewise issued a declaration, setting forth the public dangers and grievances, but taking no notice of the governor's proclamation. Upon this the men of property, fearful of a confiscation, deserted Bacon and returned home; but he proceeded with fifty- seven men.. The movement was revolutionary,-a miniature prototype of the revolution of 1688 in England, and of 1776 in America. But Bacon, as before mentioned, with a small body of men proceeded into the wilderness, up the river, his provisions being nearly exhausted before he discovered the Indians. At length a tribe of friendly Mannakins were found intrenched within a palisaded fort on the farther side of a branch of the James. Bacon endeavoring to procure provisions from them and offering compensation, they put him off with delusive promises till the third day, when the whites had eaten their last morsel. They now waded up to the shoulder across the branch to the fort, again soliciting provisions and tendering payment. In the evening one of Bacon's men was killed by a shot from that side of the branch which they had left, and, this giving rise to a suspicion of collusion with Sir William Berkeley and treachery, Bacon stormed the fort, burnt it and the cabins, blew up their magazine of arms and gunpowder, and, with a loss of only three of his own party, put to death one hundred and fifty Indians. It is difficult to credit, impossible to justify, this massacre.. Bacon with his followers returned to their homes, and he was shortly after elected one of the burgesses for the County of Henrico.. Bacon, upon being elected, going down the James River with a party of his friends, was met by an armed vessel, ordered on board of her, and arrested by Major Howe, High Sheriff of James City, who conveyed him to the governor at that place, by whom he was accosted thus: "Mr. Bacon, you have forgot to be a gentleman." He replied, "No, may it please your honor." The governor said, "Then I'll take your parole;" which he accordingly did, and gave him his liberty; but a number of his companions, who had been arrested with him, were still kept in irons.

On the 5th day of June, 1676, the members of the new Assembly, whose names are not recorded, met in the chamber over the general court, and, having chosen a speaker, the governor sent for them down, and addressed them in a brief abrupt speech on the Indian disturbances, and, in allusion to the chiefs who had been slain, exclaimed, "If they had killed my grandfather and my grandmother, my father and mother, and all my friends, yet if they had come to treat of peace they ought to have gone in peace." After a short interval, he again rose, and said, "If there be joy in the presence of the angels over one sinner that repenteth, there is joy now, for we have a penitent sinner come before us. Call Mr. Bacon." Bacon, appearing, was compelled upon one knee, at the bar of the house, to confess his offence, and beg pardon of God, the king, and governor.

.. When Bacon had made his acknowledgment, the governor exclaimed, "God forgive you, I forgive you;" repeating the words thrice. Colonel Cole, of the council, added, "and all that were with him." "Yea," echoed the governor, "and all that were with him." Sir William Berkeley, starting up from his chair for the third time, exclaimed, "Mr. Bacon, if you will live civilly but till next quarter court, I'll promise to restore you again to your place there" (pointing with his hand to Mr. Bacon's seat), he having, as has been already mentioned, been of the council before those troubles, and having been deposed by the governor's proclamation. But, instead of being obliged to wait till the quarter court, Bacon was restored to his seat on that very day; and intelligence of it was hailed with joyful acclamations by the people in Jamestown. This took place on Saturday. Bacon was also promised a commission to go out against the Indians, to be delivered to him on the Monday following. But, being delayed or disappointed, a few days after (the Assembly being engaged in devising measures against the Indians) he escaped from Jamestown. He conceived the governor's pretended generosity to be only a lure to keep him out of his seat in the house of burgesses, and to quiet the people of the upper country, who were hastening down to Jamestown to avenge all wrongs done him or his friends. .

In a short time the governor, seeing all quiet, issued secret warrants to seize him again, intending probably to raise the militia, and thus prevent a rescue.

Within three or four days after Bacon's escape, news reached James City that he was some thirty miles above, on the James River, at the head of four hundred men. Sir William Berkeley summoned the York train-bands to defend Jamestown, but only one hundred obeyed the summons, and they arrived too late, and one-half of them were favorable to Bacon. Expresses almost hourly brought tidings of his approach, and in less than four days he marched into Jamestown unresisted, at two o'clock P. M., and drew up his force (now amounting to six hundred men), horse and foot, in battle-array on the green in front of the state-house, and within gunshot. In half an hour the drum beat, as was the custom, for the Assembly to meet, and in less than thirty minutes Bacon advanced, with a file of fusileers on either hand, near to the corner of the state-house, where he was met by the governor and council. Sir William Berkeley, dramatically baring his breast, cried out, "Here! shoot me -- 'fore God, fair mark; shoot!" frequently repeating the words. Bacon replied, "No, may it please your honor, we will not hurt a hair of your head, nor of any other man's; we are come for a commission to save our lives from the Indians, which you have so often promised, and now we will have it before we go." Bacon was walking to and fro between the files of his men, holding his left arm akimbo, and gesticulating violently with his right, he and the governor both like men distracted. In a few moments Sir William withdrew to his private apartment at the other end of the statehouse, the council accompanying him. Bacon followed, frequently hurrying his hand from his sword-hilt to his hat; and after him came a detachment of fusileers, who, with their guns cocked and presented at a window of the Assembly chamber, filled with faces, repeated in menacing tone, "We will have it, we will have it," for half a minute, when a well-known burgess, waving his handkerchief out at the window, exclaimed, three or four times, "You shall have it, you shall have it;" when, uncocking their guns, they rested them on the ground, and stood still, till Bacon returning, they rejoined the main body. It was said that Bacon had beforehand directed his men to fire in case he should draw his sword. In about an hour after Bacon re-entered the Assembly chamber and demanded a commission authorizing him to march out against the Indians.

The Assembly went on to provide for the Indian war, and made Nathaniel Bacon, Jr., general and commander-in-chief, which was ratified by the governor and council. An act was also passed indemnifying Bacon and his party for their violent acts; and a highly-applausive letter was prepared, justifying Bacon's designs and proceedings, addressed to the king and subscribed by the governor, council, and Assembly. Sir William Berkeley at the same time communicated to the house a letter addressed to his majesty, saying, "I have above thirty years governed the most flourishing country the sun ever shone over, but am now encompassed with rebellion like waters, in every respect like that of Masaniello, except their leader."

[The new general, who found himself strongly supported by the Assembly and the colonists, at once proceeded with energy to fulfil the duties of his position.]

His vigorous measures at once restored confidence to the planters, and they resumed their occupations. Bacon, at the head of a thousand men, marched against the Pamunkies, killing many and destroying their towns. Meanwhile the people of Gloucester, the most populous and loyal county, having been disarmed by Bacon, petitioned the governor for protection against the savages. Reanimated by this petition, he again proclaimed Bacon a rebel and a traitor, and hastened over to Gloucester. Summoning the train-bands of that county and Middlesex, to the number of twelve hundred men, he proposed to them to pursue and put down the rebel Bacon,--when the whole assembly unanimously shouted, "Bacon! Bacon! Bacon!" and withdrew from the field, still repeating the name of that popular leader, the Patrick Henry of his day, and leaving the aged cavalier governor and his attendants to themselves. The issue was now fairly joined between the people and the governor. .

Bacon, before he reached the head of York River, hearing from Lawrence and Drummond of the governor's movements, exclaimed, that "it vexed him to the heart that, while he was hunting wolves which were destroying innocent lambs, the governor and those with him should pursue him in the rear with full cry; and that he was like corn between two millstones, which would grind him to powder if he didn't look to it." He marched immediately back against the governor, who, finding himself abandoned, again, on the twenty-ninth of July, proclaimed Bacon a rebel, and made his escape, with a few friends, down York River and across the Chesapeake Bay to Accomac, on the Eastern Shore.

[A series of events of secondary importance succeeded, which we cannot particularize. It will suffice to say that the movement was diverted more and more from an expedition against the Indians to a civil war, in which the adherents of Bacon took strong ground against Berkeley and advised his forcible deposal. A successful operation against the Baconites induced the governor to return to Jamestown, from which the friends of Bacon retired.]

During these events Bacon was executing his designs against the Indians. As soon as he had despatched Bland to Accomac, he crossed the James River at his own house, at Curles, and surprising the Appomattox Indians, who lived on both sides of the river of that name, a little below the falls (now Petersburg), he burnt their town, killed a large number of the tribe, and dispersed the rest. .

From the falls of the Appomattox, Bacon traversed the country to the southward, destroying many towns on the banks of the Nottoway, the Meherrin, and the Roanoke. His name had become so formidable that the natives fled everywhere before him, and, having nothing to subsist upon, save the spontaneous productions of the country, several tribes perished, and they who survived were so reduced as to be never afterwards able to make any firm stand against the Long-knives, and gradually became tributary to them.

Bacon, having exhausted his provisions, had dismissed the greater part of his forces before Lawrence, Drummond, Hansford, and the other fugitives from Jamestown joined him. Upon receiving intelligence of the governor's return, Bacon, collecting a force variously estimated at one hundred and fifty, three hundred, and eight hundred, harangued them on the situation of affairs, and marched back upon Jamestown, leading his Indian captives in triumph before him. The contending parties came now to be distinguished by the names of Rebels and Royalists. Finding the town defended by a palisade ten paces in width, running across the neck of the peninsula, he rode along the work and reconnoitred the governor's position. Then, dismounting from his horse, he animated his fatigued men to advance at once, and, leading them close to the palisade, sounded a defiance with the trumpet, and fired upon the garrison. The governor remained quiet, hoping that want of provisions would soon force Bacon to retire; but he supplied his troops from Sir William Berkeley's seat, at Greenspring, three miles distant. He afterwards complained that "his dwelling-house at Greenspring was almost ruined; his household goods, and others of great value, totally plundered; that he had not a bed to lie on; two great beasts, three hundred sheep, seventy horses and mares, all his corn and provisions, taken away."

Bacon adopted a singular stratagem, and one hardly compatible with the rules of chivalry. Sending out small parties of horse, he captured the wives of several of the principal loyalists then with the governor, and among them the lady of Colonel Bacon, Sr., Madame Bray, Madame Page, and Madame Ballard. Upon their being brought into the camp, Bacon sends one of them into Jamestown to carry word to their husbands that his purpose was to place their wives in front of his men in case of a sally. Colonel Ludwell reproaches the rebels with "ravishing of women from their homes, and hurrying them about the country in their rude camps, often threatening them with death." But, according to another and more impartial authority, Bacon made use of the ladies only to complete his battery, and removed them out of harm's way at the time of the sortie. He raised by moon light a circumvallation of trees, earth, and brushwood around the governor's outworks. At daybreak next morning the governor's troops, being fired upon, made a sortie; but they were driven back, leaving their drum and their dead behind them. Upon the top of the work which he had thrown up, and where alone a sally could be made, Bacon exhibited the captive ladies to the views of their husbands and friends in the town, and kept them there until he completed his works.

[As a result of these active proceedings, the followers of Berkeley, though superior in numbers to those of Bacon, and well intrenched, hastily retired, leaving their antagonist master of the situation. Bacon at once determined to burn the town, so that the "rogues should harbor there no more." It was accordingly set on fire and laid in ashes. Jamestown, at this period, consisted of a church and some sixteen or eighteen well-built brick houses. Its population was about a dozen families, since all the houses were not inhabited.]

Bacon now marched to York River, and crossed at Tindall's (Gloucester) Point, in order to encounter Colonel Brent, who was marching against him from the Potomac with twelve hundred men. But the greater part of his men, hearing of Bacon's success, deserting their colors declared for him, "resolving, with the Persians, to go and worship the rising sun." Bacon, making his head-quarters at Colonel Warmer's, called a convention in Gloucester, and administered the oath to the people of that county, and began to plan another expedition against the Indians, or, as some report, against Accomac, when he fell sick of a dysentery brought on by exposure. Retiring to the house of a Dr. Pate, and lingering for some weeks, he died. Some of the loyalists afterwards reported that he died of a loathsome disease, and by a visitation of God; which is disproven by T. M.'s Account, by that published in the Virginia Gazette, and by the Report of the King's Commissioners. Some of Bacon's friends suspected that he was taken off by poison; but of this there is no proof. .

The place of Bacon's interment has never been discovered, it having been concealed by his friends, lest his remains should be insulted by the vindictive Berkeley, in whom old age appears not to have mitigated the fury of the passions. According to one tradition, in order to screen Bacon's body from indignity, stones were laid on his coffin by his friend Lawrence, as was supposed; according to others, it was conjectured that the body had been buried in the bosom of the majestic York, where the winds and the waves might still repeat his requiem.

[The death of Bacon ended the rebellion, though disastrous consequences to his adherents followed. Berkeley sated his revengeful spirit upon those who fell into his hands, many of whom were executed. The governor had sent to England for troops, and employed them in executing his schemes of revenge. The Assembly at last insisted that these executions should cease. Nothing decisive was gained by the rebellion, yet it clearly showed the spirit of resistance to tyranny in the Virginians.

The determination not to submit to tyranny, of which we have particularized several instances in the colonies, declared itself in the Carolinas at the same period. Several open revolts there took place, which may be briefly described. Many of the adherents of Bacon had taken refuge in North Carolina, where they were welcomed, and it is probable that their influence intensified the democratic sentiment of the people, who soon after broke out into rebellion against the arbitrary revenue laws. A vessel from New England was seized as a smuggler, upon which the people flew to arms, and imprisoned the president of the colony and six of his council. The people chose their own governors for several years thereafter. In 1688 another revolt occurred against Seth Sothel, one of the proprietors, and governor of the province. He was tried for oppressing the people, and banished from the colony. Revolts of a like character took place in South Carolina. Governor Colleton, who sought to carry out Locke's system of government, and to collect the rents claimed by the proprietors, drove the people into a rebellion. They took possession of the public records, and held an Assembly despite the governor, who thereupon called out the militia and proclaimed martial law. This increased the exasperation of the colonists, and the governor was impeached and banished. He was succeeded by Seth Sothel, who had been banished from North Carolina. In 1692, after two years of tyranny, this governor was also deposed and banished. The "Grand Model" of government of Locke had by this time very effectually lost its potency.]

Charles Campbell

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