Nathaniel Bacon was born into a
well-to-do family in Suffolk, England, on January
2, 1647. After a dispute with his wife's family,
he emigrated to Virginia and purchased two
estates along the James River.
Appointed to the governing
council in 1675, Bacon soon became embroiled in a
serious dispute with Governor William Berkeley
over how the colony should deal with Native
Americans. Berkeley favored maintaining good
relations with as many tribes as possible and the
avoiding of conflict, while Bacon favored ridding
Virginia of all Indians, "good or bad."
In July 1675, Doeg Indians
raided the plantation of Thomas Mathews, in the
Northern Neck section of Virginia, near the
Potomac River. Area colonists then launched a
retaliatory strike, but ended up attacking a
group of friendly Susquehanaugs instead. This
mistake led to a series of large-scale Indian
Berkeley tried to end the raids
by setting up a meeting between the Indians and
colonists. Unfortunately several chiefs were
murdered at the meeting, and the raids continued.
By now Bacon had become the unofficial leader of
local volunteer Indian fighters, and he and his
band began indiscriminate raids against any and
all Indians encountered. Berkeley responded by
declaring Bacon a rebel and relieving him of his
council seat. He then personally led a force of
300 armed men against Bacon's "army,"
forcing Bacon into temporary hiding. After
Berkeley left, Bacon came out of hiding and
resumed his attacks.
In March 1676, still hoping to
stem the crisis, Berkeley called the "Long
Assembly" into session with intentions of
offering Bacon a pardon if he turned himself in
and agreed to be tried in England before King
Charles II. The House of Burgesses refused
Berkeley's compromise, however, and instead
insisted that Bacon publicly acknowledge his
errors and beg the Governor's forgiveness. It
then declared war on all "bad" Indians,
established a strong defensive zone with a
definite chain of command, and established a
government commission to monitor trading with
Indians. Instead of calming tensions, however,
the Burgesses' actions actually added fuel to an
already potentially explosive situation. The
Indian wars resulted in higher taxes, and the
trading commission ended up granting trading
rights to friends of the Governor and other
officials and denying them to most everyone else.
One of those persons denied trading rights was
While the Colonial Assembly was
meeting in Jamestown,
Bacon was elected to the House of Burgesses by
land owners supportive of his Indian campaigns.
In June 1676, Bacon arrived in Jamestown to take
his seat in the House, but was instead arrested
and taken before Berkeley to fulfill his
"obligation" to apologize and beg
forgiveness. Bacon did indeed apologize, and
Berkeley subsequently pardoned him and allowed
him to take his rightful seat. But, Berkeley
still refused to grant Bacon a commission to lead
campaigns against Indians.
One day, while the Assembly was
preparing to again take up the Indian issue, it
was noted that Bacon was not present; he had
apparently left Jamestown to resume his illegal
raids. In reality, Bacon had actually left town
in order to gather a force of men intent upon
either forcing Berkeley to grant Bacon's
commission or removing Berkeley and his friends
from power. Bacon's "army" marched into
Jamestown, surrounded the statehouse, and
demanded that Berkeley give in to their demands.
Berkeley not only refused to give in, but also
demanded that Bacon shoot him. Bacon may have
been tempted, but he did not take the shot. After
a long period of high tensions and serious
threats of violence, Berkeley was finally forced
to grant Bacon his commission. Berkeley
subsequently took refuge on the Eastern Shore,
leaving Jamestown in the hands of Bacon, who then
happily resumed his Indian campaigns.
By September Berkeley had
managed to regain enough support to mount a new
campaign against Bacon and retake Jamestown.
Bacon responded by besieging Jamestown and
kidnapping the wives of several Berkeley
supporters. On September 19, Bacon's men burned
Jamestown to the ground. Although Bacon found it
increasingly difficult to keep his men under
control, the siege of Jamestown continued until
October 26, 1676, when Bacon suddenly died.
Berkeley regained complete
control of Jamestown within days of Bacon's
death. By the time all retaliatory actions were
completed 23 revolutionaries had been executed,
all of them without the benefit of a trial.
Berkeley was subsequently relieved of his
Governorship and recalled to England.
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