People & Events
1675 - 1676
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"[We must defend ourselves] against all Indians in generall, for that they were all Enemies." This was the unequivocal view of Nathaniel Bacon, a young, wealthy Englishman who had recently settled in the backcountry of Virginia. The opinion that all Indians were enemies was also shared by a many other Virginians, especially those who lived in the interior. It was not the view, however, of the governor of the colony, William Berkeley.
Berkeley was not opposed to fighting Indians who were considered enemies, but attacking friendly Indians, he thought, could lead to what everyone wanted to avoid: a war with "all the Indians against us." Berkeley also didn't trust Bacon's intentions, believing that the upstart's true aim was to stir up trouble among settlers, who were already discontent with the colony's government.
Bacon attracted a large following who, like him, wanted to kill or drive out every Indian in Virginia. In 1675, when Berkeley denied Bacon a commission (the authority to lead soldiers), Bacon took it upon himself to lead his followers in a crusade against the "enemy." They marched to a fort held by a friendly tribe, the Occaneechees, and convinced them to capture warriors from an unfriendly tribe. The Occaneechees returned with captives. Bacon's men killed the captives They then turned to their "allies" and opened fire.
Berkeley declared Bacon a rebel and charged him with treason. Just to be safe, the next time Bacon returned to Jamestown, he brought along fifty armed men. Bacon was still arrested, but Berkeley pardoned him instead of sentencing him to death, the usual punishment for treason.
Still without the commission he felt he deserved, Bacon returned to Jamestown later the same month, but this time accompanied by five hundred men. Berkeley was forced to give Bacon the commision, only to later declare that it was void. Bacon, in the meantime, had continued his fight against Indians. When he learned of the Govenor's declaration, he headed back to Jamestown. The governor immediately fled, along with a few of his supporters, to Virginia's eastern shore.
Each leader tried to muster support. Each promised freedom to slaves and servants who would join their cause. But Bacon's following was much greater than Berkeley's. In September of 1676, Bacon and his men set Jamestown on fire.
The rebellion ended after British authorities sent a royal force to assist in quelling the uprising and arresting scores of committed rebels, white and black. When Bacon suddenly died in October, probably of dysentery, Bacon's Rebellion fizzled out.
Bacon's Rebellion demonstrated that poor whites and poor blacks could be united in a cause. This was a great fear of the ruling class -- what would prevent the poor from uniting to fight them? This fear hastened the transition to racial slavery.
Timothy Breen on the relationship between black slaves and white indentured servants
Margaret Washington on Virginians' concerns about white and black servants
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