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Bacons Rebellion of 1676 - Jamestown Colony

Updated on December 15, 2016
Phyllis Doyle profile image

Early American history is of special interest to Phyllis, for it is what shaped our country.

Nathaniel Bacon and the Burning of Jamestown

The Burning of Jamestown by Howard Pyle, ca. 1905.
The Burning of Jamestown by Howard Pyle, ca. 1905. | Source

Tensions Leading to the First Colonial Rebellion

The first rebellion in the American colonies began with an uprising, commonly referred to as Bacon's Rebellion, led by Nathaniel Bacon in 1676, in Jamestown, Virginia.

The earlier wars between the settlers and the powerful Powhatan tribes, led by Chief Powhatan, ended with a treaty that brought a semblance of peace.

The treaty of October 1646 established set guidelines and boundaries for the settlers and the new chief, Necotowance, and sub-tribes of what was once a powerful paramountcy. Governor William Berkeley of Jamestown developed and maintained friendly relations with the remaining Indian tribes and a relative peace reigned for thirty years after the end of the third war with the Powhatan tribes.

Coronation of Chief Powhatan

Powhatan, oil on canvas, John Gadsby Chapman, 1835
Powhatan, oil on canvas, John Gadsby Chapman, 1835 | Source

Bacon's Rebellion

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Nathaniel Bacon

This fragile peace was sadly broken down when a young man by the name of Nathaniel Bacon started an uprising that nearly destroyed the colony of Jamestown and incited animosity between many factions. The ruling class, the farmers, former indentured servants, Africans, and the traders who had been there long before the colonists, all had their own thoughts on the Indian tribes, attacks from both sides, the tension, and what should be done about it.

In the case of the traders, there had been independent ones for generations who had worked well with the Indian tribes. When Berkeley established a commission to monitor trading and put a stop to individual traders, Bacon accused him of favoring the traders who were Berkeley's personal friends. Bacon was one of the traders adversely affected by Berkeley's order.

The ruling class feared an uprising or rebellion due to the alliance between the former indentured servants and African slaves.

The farmers were getting more and more demanding of the Governor to do something. Even with the outward appearance of peace, small raids on the farming settlements and their retaliations were still going on.

Nathaniel Bacon

Nathaniel Bacon Engraving by T. Chambars
Nathaniel Bacon Engraving by T. Chambars | Source

Sir William Berkeley

Sir William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia, 1660 - 1677
Sir William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia, 1660 - 1677 | Source

Yeoman Farmers

The yeoman farmers demanded that the Indians who lived on the protected lands of the treaty be driven out or killed. Conflicts were frequent. Allegations from farmers, like Thomas Mathews, who claimed the Doeg Indians stole his hogs because he failed to pay for some trade goods, resulted in the killing of several Indians by the colonists.

Retaliations went back and forth among the tribes, farmers, and other colonists. Two militia captains, who had ill feelings towards Indians in general, went out after the Doeg tribe and, not making any careful distinctions between tribes, killed fourteen Susquehannock Indians who had been friendly to the colonists and farmers.

John Washington, with Maryland militia, had the Susquehannock fort surrounded for six weeks. Five chiefs of the tribes finally came out to talk, hopefully to come to terms without fighting. All five chiefs were killed before negotiations even began.

In an effort to prevent an escalation of more wars, Governor Berkeley wanted a policy that would contain the tribes. He proposed more defensive forts along the frontier. The settlers did not agree, thinking it was only a way for Berkeley to raise taxes.

Nathaniel Bacon

In the midst of all this dissension and conflict, up steps Nathaniel Bacon.

Nathaniel Bacon was born in 1647 in Suffolk, England. His father, Thomas Bacon, was financially well off as a landowner. Not happy with his son's character, troublemaker ways, and lack of motivation to continue his education, Thomas Bacon sent his only son to the colony in Virginia with the hope that Nathaniel would mature and settle down.

So, Nathaniel Bacon was packed off with a fairly good fortune in his pockets and settled in Virginia in 1673. It was not long before he became a wealthy landowner like his father. It was his father's money that enabled Bacon to become the owner of two large estates near the James River.

Within his first year in Virginia, Bacon was appointed as a member of Governor William Berkeley's council. Bacon was Berkeley's cousin by marriage, so Berkeley wanted to help the young man establish himself in good standing within the colony. The Governor's wife, Lady Frances Culpeper, was Bacon's cousin.

It was soon apparent that Bacon did not agree with Berkeley's policies and leadership -- plus he was disgruntled when Berkeley denied him a position of a leader in the militia.

Bacon took control of vigilante groups and made unauthorized attacks on tribal villages. In June 1676, at the General Assembly, a reconciliation was expected and Bacon thought he would be restored to office and be able to renew his campaign against the tribes. When Berkeley refused to acquiesce, the struggles started up again. Bacon fled Jamestown, regrouped with his forces and attacked Jamestown, threatening to burn it down and shoot Governor Berkeley. Bacon and his vigilantes ran Berkeley out of the town and took over.

With the aid of England, new forces were sent to help Berkeley. Bacon was captured and would have stood trial under the appellate of England had he not died of dysentery. The other leaders of the rebellion were executed. Governor Berkeley was recalled to England.

Jamestown Ruins

1878 depiction of the ruins of Jamestown following its burning during Bacon's Rebellion.
1878 depiction of the ruins of Jamestown following its burning during Bacon's Rebellion. | Source

© 2013 Phyllis Doyle Burns

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    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Greetings, Pat. It is always good to hear from you. I, too, think Nathaniel Bacon was a little misguided. He probably could have been a good organizer and of help to the governor and the colonists, but, was a bit of a hothead, in my opinion. Thanks for your visit, and vote, Pat. I so appreciate it.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Nate. Yes, it was a fascinating time in our history. A lot of things were going on. There is still debate today as to whether Nathaniel Bacon was a hero or a spoiled and bored troublemaker. Thanks for your visit and comment -- I appreciate it.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      Good evening Phyllis

      Jamestown is an old stamping ground of my youth as I grew up very close to that town and went to camp there for many years. We often were given history lessons about the area even at camp and it was presented in such a way as to be of interest.

      When looking back into history, I see more than a few 'what were they thinking moments' but of course I only know the stories from what was written or passed down. It does indeed seem Mr. Bacon was misguided to say the least.

      Well done, as usual, Phyllis. Voted up and shared

      Angels are on the way ps

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 4 years ago from California, United States of America

      That is fascinating, the kind of things that were happening during that time in our history. Interesting the interactions and problems between the various groups, the early and on-going problems concerning natives (including the well-known history of unthinking killing of them), and the personal story of Bacon himself; he seemed a rather privileged guy trying to get his way. Fascinating story!