It was about the end of April, when the glad sight of the countryside bursting into life and blossom and throbbing with the fair promise of spring doubtless added buoyancy to hearts already cheered by the hope of brighter days, that Nathaniel Bacon at the head of three hundred men-in-arms, set out upon the Indian warpath. Sir William Berkeley, in a rage at their daring to take steps for their own defense without a commission from him, but powerless to put a stop to such unheard-of proceedings, promptly proclaimed leader and followers "rebels and mutineers," and getting a troop of soldiers together, set out toward the falls of James River, in hot pursuit, resolved either to overtake and capture "General" Bacon, or to seize him on his return. This proved to be a wild-goose chase, however, for the little army of "rebels" had already crossed to the south side of James River and was marching "through brush, through briar," toward the haunts of the savages, whither the Governor's train-bands had little appetite to follow.
The enraged Berkeley, finding his will thwarted, waited patiently for the return of the doughty three hundred, taking what grim satisfaction he could find in telling young Mistress Elizabeth Bacon that her hushand would hang as soon as he came back, in issuing, upon May 10, another proclamation against the "young, inexperienced, rash and inconsiderate," general and his "rude, dissolute and tumultuous" followers, and in deposing Bacon from his seat in the "honorable Council" and from his office as a magistrate.
Meanwhile, Nathaniel Bacon and his men, regardless of the anxiety with which Governor Berkeley watched for their return, were pressing on through the wilderness. When they had marched "a great way to the south"-had crossed into Carolina, indeed-and their supplies were nearly spent, they came upon a little island (probably in Roanoke River) seated by the Ockinagee Indians, one of the tribes said to have been protected by Berkeley for sake of the fur trade, and doubtless the same as the Mangoaks, rumors of whose great trade with the Indians of the northwest, for copper, had been brought to Sir Walter Raleigh's colony. These Ockinagees, who were very likely a branch of the great Dakota family of Indians, were evidently a most enterprising people, and their isle was a veritable center of commerce among the red-skin inhabitants of that region. It was described as "commodious for trade, and the mart for all the Indians for at least five bundred miles" around. Its residents had at that time on hand no less than a thousand beaver skins of which Sir William Berkeley and his partners. would in due time, doubtless, have become possessed, and it was supposed to have been through trade with these Islanders that arms and ammunition were passed on to the fierce Susquehannock braves.
When Bacon reached the island he saw at once that it would be nothing short of madness to pit his handful of foot-sore and half-starved men agalnst the combined strength of the Ockinagees and the Susquehannocks, so, adopting a policy patterned after the savages' own crafty methods of warfare, he made friends with one tribe and persuaded them to fall upon the other. The result was a furious battle between the two tribes in which thirty Susquehannock warriors and all of their women and children were killed. By this time Bacon's men were in a sorry plight for the want of provisions. They offered to buy food from their new-made friends, the Ockinagees, who promised them relief on the morrow, but when the next day came put them off again with talk of still another "morrow." In the mean time, they were evidently making preparations for battle. They had reinforced their three forts upon the island, and were seen to grow more and more warlike in their attitude as the pale faces grew weaker in numbers and in physical strength. To add to the desperate situation, there came a report that the Indians had received private messages from Governor Berkeley.
Bacon's men had, in their eagerness to procure food, "waded shoulder deep through the river," to one of the island forts, "still entreating and tendering pay for the victuals," but all to no avail. While the half-starved creatures stood in the water, with hands stretched out, still begging for bread, one of them was struck by a shot fired from the mainland, by an Indian. The luckless shot proved to be the signal for a hideous battle. Bacon, knowing full well that retreat meant starvation for himself and his devoted little band of followers, believing that the savages within the fort had sent for others to cut them off in their rear, but not losing the presence of mind that armed him for every emergency, quickly drew his men close against the fort where their enemies could get no range upon them, and ordering them to poke their guns between the stakes of the palisades, fired without discrimination- without mercy. All through the night and until late into the next day the wilderness echoed with the yells of the wounded and dying. savages and with the gun-shots of the hunger-crazed palefaces.
Let us not forget that this battle was the last resort of an army which championed the cause of the people of Virginia, and upon whose steps the horrors of murder, torture, and starvation waited momently. Let us also not forget that the time was the seventeenth century, the place a wilderness, the provocation an attempt not merely to shut the Anglo-Saxon race from the shores of the New World, but to wipe out with hatchet and torch the Anglo-Saxon homes which were already planted there.
When at last, after a loss of eleven of their own hardy comrades, the exhausted Baconians withdrew from the fray, the island fort had been entirely demolished and vast numbers of the Indians slain.
While Sir William Berkeley possessed his soul in as much patience as he could command at the Falls of the James? Lying in wait for Bacon's return, the inhabitants farther down toward Jamestown began to "draw into arms," and to proclaim against the useless and costly forts. Open war with the Indians was the one thing that would content them, and war they were bent upon having. They vowed that they would make war upon all Indians who would not "come in with their arms" and give hostages for their fidelity and pledge themselves to join with the English against all others. "If we must be hanged for rebels for killing those that will destroy us," said they, "let them hang us; we will venture that rather than lie at the mercy of a barbarous enemy and be murdered as we are."
In a "Manifesto," defending the rights of the people, issued soon after his return, Bacon made a scornful and spirited reply to Governor Berkeley's charges of rebellion and treason. "If virtue be a sin," said he, "if piety be 'gainst all the principles of morality, goodness and justice be perverted, we must confess that those who are now called rebels may be in danger of those high imputations, those loud and several bulls would afright innocents and render the defence of our brethren and the inquiry info our sad and heavy oppressions treason. But if there be, as sure is, a just God to appeal to, if religion and justice be a sanctuary here, if to plead the cause of the oppressed, if sincerely to aim at his Majesty's honor and the public good without any reservation or by-interest, if to stand in the gap after so much blood of our dear brethren bought and sold, if after the loss of a great part of his Majesty's colony, deserted and dispeopled, freely with our lives and estates to endeavor to save the remainders, be treason, Lord Almighty judge and let the guilty die." Can it be that these words were in the mind of Patrick Henry, when, nearly a hundred years later, he cried, "If this be treason, make the most of it"?