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Nathaniel Bacon

rebel leader

Nathaniel Bacon

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 raids.

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 Bacon.

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.

Page of Interest

Historic Jamestowne National Park Service

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This page was last updated on January 02, 2019.