Bacon's Rebellion Date

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Bacon's Rebellion

Date: 1676–1677
From: Disasters, Accidents, and Crises in American History.

On June 23, 1676, Nathaniel Bacon and a rebel army of 500 colonists stormed Jamestown, the capital of Virginia. Under the threat of loaded muskets, Governor William Berkeley and the House of Burgesses conceded to Bacon's populist demands. The legislative assembly passed a series of acts, granting Bacon full authority to battle Native Americans, extending voting rights, and dismantling monopoly on trade. Governor Berkeley branded the newly appointed General Bacon a rebel and ordered his capture. Bacon then issued a "Declaration of the People," which reflected farmers' cries of economic corruption and neglect within the Berkeley governorship. He later burned Jamestown. Berkeley could not amass sufficient military support to suppress the rebellion until the arrival of the English navy. With Bacon's death in October, Berkeley finally regained control over Virginia in January 1677 and hanged 23 of the rebels. Though short-lived, Bacon's rebellion showed the extent to which impoverished colonists, mainly black and white farmers, servants, and slaves, were willing to challenge a government they deemed oppressive.

Virginia's economy stagnated in the 1670s. As Berkeley noted in 1676, "six parts of seaven at least are Poore Endebted Discontented and Armed." Berkeley and the wealthy elite, known as the Tidewater gentry, owned the best farmland in the tidewater areas, leaving commoners to farm less prosperous land on the frontier. The majority of the population—small farmers, indentured servants, and slaves—lived in poverty. Dry summers, hurricanes, and hail led to low production of tobacco—the colony's cash crop—which in turn made it difficult for colonists to pay the numerous taxes required by the colonial government; competing colonial markets in Maryland and the Carolinas lowered the selling price of tobacco, while England's mercantile economy raised the price of goods sent to Virginia.

The influx of colonial farmers along the frontier, and the harsh economic conditions they faced, strained relations with Native Americans on whose lands they were encroaching. Colonists shared the perception that Berkeley's policies with the Native Americans focused not on the safety of the frontier populace but on balancing relations in order to preserve the Tidewater gentry's monopoly on beaver trade. Consequently, frontiersmen typically ignored Berkeley's nonaggression policies, and Natives retaliated in equal or greater force.

In July 1675, a clash between the Doeg Indians and Thomas Mathew, a plantation owner in the Northern Neck region of Virginia, started a chain of reciprocal raids. Thirty militiamen went after a Doeg war party, killing 24 Natives from both the Doeg and Susquehannock tribes. A surge of violence followed, killing 300 colonists, including men, women, and children, by the spring of 1676.

In March, Berkeley ordered the construction of 10 forts to defend the frontier. Berkeley and the legislative assembly understood the concerns of the colonists, but they also wanted peace with the Susquehannock. This policy did nothing to allay fears on the frontier; rather, it enraged farmers, who viewed the forts as expensive and useless.

Nathaniel Bacon, an educated Englishman who had arrived in Henrico County, Virginia, in 1674, shared the fear and frustration of his frontier neighbors. Bacon vowed to lead them against the Natives, with or without Berkeley's consent. Bacon quickly became a chosen leader of the common people, and by May, hundreds enlisted to join his campaigns against the Pamunkey and Occaneechee tribes. By June 1, Bacon was elected a burgess by Henrico County.

Berkeley declared Bacon a rebel, and on June 10, Bacon was brought to Jamestown as a prisoner. Upon hearing of his capture, nearly 2,000 supporters gathered in Jamestown; however, they dispersed after hearing that Berkeley had pardoned Bacon and promised a commission to battle natives. Bacon never received his commission, and on June 23, he entered Jamestown with a volunteer rebel army of 400 infantry and more than 100 cavalry.

With Bacon's army outside the statehouse, the House of Burgesses passed a series of acts addressing the economic oppression and general neglect of Berkeley's governorship. These acts set out the means for fighting Natives with an army instead of forts, led by newly appointed General Bacon, and funded, in part, by the spoils of war with Natives; the right of all free men to vote; limitations on trade with Natives; and term limitations on county executives, mainly sheriffs.

With newly granted authority, Bacon left Jamestown to continue war against the Native Americans, gathering nearly 1,300 men by August. Berkeley simultaneously raised a small army to capture Bacon, again proclaiming him a rebel, but Bacon responded by issuing a "Declaration of the People." He declared Berkeley and several others as enemies and gave a list of reasons for rebellion. In late August, Bacon headed back to Jamestown, plundering the Tidewater areas along the way. He found that Berkeley had fortified Jamestown. After a five-day siege, Berkeley and his men retreated, and on the night of September 19, Bacon burned Jamestown.

By October, Bacon had the upper hand: He had support from the assembly and the majority of Virginians. The rebellion abruptly changed, however, when Bacon died of dysentery in late October. With help from the English navy, Berkeley ended the rebellion by January. In the following months, the remaining Bacon followers were captured, slaves and servants were returned to their owners, and 23 rebels were hanged.

With Jamestown in ruins, Virginia made Williamsburg its new, temporary capital. But Bacon's rebellion had a far wider impact on colonial America. No factor was more catalytic than the violent relations between settlers and Native Americans, but economic and political oppression fueled Bacon's rebellion. The popular uprising demonstrated to England and the colonies that rebellion could facilitate change. Colonists ignored government policy, forced new elections, and, after invading the capital, forced legislation to address grievances. Their example galvanized future government support of western expansion and increased the influx of slaves. Slave labor would alleviate the economic woes of poor white settlers but at the expense of blacks. Poor whites, situated above slaves and allied to the government in pursuing western expansion, were now less likely to rebel. A hundred years would pass before another uprising, the American Revolution, echoed the spirit of Bacon's rebellion.

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