Skip to Main Content

Bacon’s Rebellion

Written by: W.E. White, Christopher Newport University

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain how and why environmental and other factors shaped the development and expansion of various British colonies that developed and expanded from 1607 to 1754
  • Explain causes and effects of transatlantic trade over time
  • Explain how and why the different goals and interests of European leaders and colonists affected how they viewed themselves and their relationship with Britain

Suggested Sequencing

This Narrative should follow The English Come to America and The Anglo-Powhatan War of 1622 Narratives. After reading this Narrative, students should be assigned the Primary Source offering the views of Bacon vs. Berkeley on Bacon’s Rebellion, 1676. Students can further explore tensions between English settlers and American Indians in the Decision Point on King Philip’s War.

By the 1670s, the English had expanded throughout the Chesapeake region. Steadily, the settlers in Virginia encroached on American Indian lands, and wherever the two groups came into contact, there was friction. In 1675, a Potomac River planter named Thomas Mathew had a trade disagreement with the Doeg Indians. It escalated when Matthew and his neighbors killed several Doegs attempting to steal livestock. The Doeg retaliated by killing an Englishman. The local militia marched in pursuit. They followed the Doeg to their cabin and attacked them. Then the militiamen came upon a cabin of peaceful Susquehannock hunters and attacked them as well. This action prompted a war with the Susquehannock, who raided frontier settlements and killed dozens of English settlers over the next few months.

The governor, Sir William Berkeley, his council, and Virginia’s legislative body, the House of Burgesses, met in Jamestown to debate the war against the Susquehannock. The leadership of the colony planned a series of fortifications and patrols along the frontier. Many, however, disagreed with that strategy. First, it was expensive. Virginians, in particular middle-class and poor Virginians, were suffering economically. Second, it seemed to many that the strategy was insufficiently aggressive. By the 1670s, a significant number of English settlers believed all American Indians were enemies, even groups allied with the English. Many also felt entitled to expand onto Indian lands. They advocated all-out war. The governor’s strategy, it seemed to them, protected the enemy and prevented farmers from acquiring more land. These war advocates found an ally in a young leader named Nathaniel Bacon. Bacon was a recent but influential immigrant from a prominent, wealthy family. Upon arriving in Virginia, he had received an appointment to the governor’s council.

When Indians attacked one of his plantations and killed one of his overseers, Bacon raised the militia of Henrico and Charles City Counties. He demanded that Governor Berkeley give him a commission to war against the Indians. The governor described Bacon as a “young, unexperienced, rash, and inconsiderate person” and refused. Bacon played on popular fears, charging that the governor was corrupt and secretly aiding the Indians. Ignoring Berkeley’s authority, Bacon, with three hundred men, pursued the Susquehannock as far as the Roanoke River. There, he persuaded the Occaneechi nation (long-time trading partners and English allies) to attack the Susquehannock. When the Occaneechi returned with Susquehannock captives, Bacon turned on them as well and killed men, women, and children.

Governor Berkeley declared Bacon a rebel, thereby making him an outlaw. He expelled Bacon from the council and called for a new General Assembly election. Unfortunately for Berkeley, however, Bacon’s actions had struck a chord with many poorer Virginians, and his movement grew. His followers demanded more than just a harsher Indian policy. Tobacco prices had fallen in recent years, making it more difficult to pay taxes, and small farmers struggled. Berkeley’s plan to levy more taxes and build a series of forts would make these farmers’ financial situation even worse. In addition, many of them depended on trade relationships with the very gentlemen planters who ran the local and colonial government that levied the taxes. More settlers came to believe that Berkeley and other gentlemen were not looking out for the common Virginian.

Even though Bacon was an outlaw, the people of Henrico County elected him their representative to the General Assembly. He sailed to the capital with fifty armed bodyguards and on June 6 arrived at Jamestown to take his seat. After a force loyal to the governor fired on his vessel, however, Bacon surrendered to Berkeley and was jailed. The next day, Bacon apologized to the governor on his knees and swore allegiance to the government. Berkeley, thinking he had made his point, readmitted Bacon to the governor’s council. When some demanded that the governor give Bacon a commission to wage war against the Indians, Berkeley refused and expelled Bacon from the council.

Bacon fled Jamestown and assembled a force of five hundred supporters who marched on the government, arriving in Jamestown on June 23. The rebels formed up in front of the state house and drew their arms. Governor Berkeley appeared before them. In a dramatic moment, he bared his chest and dared Nathaniel Bacon to kill him. Bacon’s followers menacingly aimed their muskets at the windows of the House of Burgesses. Members of the General Assembly intervened. They agreed to grant the commission and name Bacon commander of the army to pursue the Indians. In addition, Bacon gained a pardon for himself and his men for all acts of rebellion since March 1.

An engraving of Governor William Berkeley and Nathaniel Bacon talking with one another in a crowd of people.

This engraving from an 1895 history textbook artistically imagines Governor William Berkeley baring his chest and daring Nathaniel Bacon to kill him. The caption in the book reads, A Fair Mark – Shoot!

Tensions between Berkeley’s supporters and Bacon’s allies continued, however. In July, Berkeley again declared Bacon a rebel. This time, Bacon marched his army to Middle Plantation (known as Williamsburg today) and issued a declaration of grievances against Berkeley’s misrule. Indentured servants and slaves joined the rebel army, alarming wealthy loyalist planters. Berkeley, with a group of his supporters, fled to Virginia’s eastern shore. In August, he called a gathering of the colony’s leading men, and seventy of them swore allegiance to him. Bacon, acting the part of Virginia’s self-appointed governor, called for the election of a new House of Burgesses. He also confiscated the lands of Berkeley loyalists.

Bacon expanded his war on American Indians and attacked the Pamunkey even though they were allies of the English. The Pamunkey retreated into the swamps of Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, and Bacon’s forces slogged through the mire, unable to capture their adversary. Finally, they stumbled on an encampment and attacked. Forty-five Pamunkey were captured. The remaining fled or were killed.

Bacon also dispatched a small fleet of ships that summer to find and capture Berkeley and his forces. When they located him in Northampton County, however, the governor deftly captured the ships and executed a handful of rebels. The remaining members of the ships’ crews joined Berkeley. The governor now commanded upward of fourteen ships and controlled Virginia’s waterways. He sailed for Jamestown and on September 8 took the town without firing a shot. Bacon, not far away, laid siege to the governor’s army at Jamestown. Berkeley could not hold the position. On September 18, the governor again retreated to the eastern shore. Bacon retook the town, but knowing he did not have the forces to hold it, he burned it to the ground instead. Jamestown, the capital of the colony of Virginia, had been reduced to ashes.

Bacon led his army out again to attack Indians and loot the property of suspected Berkeley loyalists. That fall, however, he fell ill with dysentery, and he died on October 26. The rebellion continued despite his death and degenerated into harsh fighting between neighbors. Despite loyalist raids, the rebels continued to control much of Virginia until late December. Finally, in January, Governor Berkeley was able to return to Jamestown and his plantation at Green Spring.

A photograph of “Bacon’s Castle.” A brick style two-level home with several chimneys is shown.

This Surry County, Virginia, home, built in 1665, became known as “Bacon’s Castle” after followers of Nathaniel Bacon occupied it during Bacon’s Rebellion. It has the distinction of being the oldest documented brick dwelling in the nation.

In February, English troops and an investigative commission sent by King Charles II arrived. Twenty-three rebels were tried and executed by Berkeley and the commission. Although the commission found that Berkeley had again gained control of the colony, it faulted his handling of the situation. Stung by the commission’s criticisms, Berkeley returned to London. He intended to vindicate himself and defend his actions in an audience with the king, but he was a sick man and died before he could do so.

In the decades following Bacon’s Rebellion, the wealthy planters, fearing increased royal control, cut taxes, expanded the suffrage, and pushed the frontier boundaries for land in the hope of creating a more stable society and staving off royal oversight. This continued expansion caused more conflict with American Indians, who found themselves pushed ever farther westward. With better economic conditions in England, the number of people migrating as indentured servants greatly diminished. The large and small planters instead invested in African slaves as a source of labor. Slavery was codified into law, and the number of enslaved persons increased from three hundred in 1650 to thirteen thousand in 1700. Plantations served as community hubs in rural Virginia and the political, economic, and cultural power of the gentry grew in the early eighteenth century. Small and large farmers enjoyed greater prosperity due to rising tobacco prices during that time.

Review Questions

1. Who was the governor of Virginia at the time of Bacon’s Rebellion?

  1. Nathaniel Bacon
  2. William Bradford
  3. Sir William Berkeley
  4. John Rolfe

2. Which of the following statements best describes the role of Nathaniel Bacon during the late seventeenth century?

  1. Bacon desired and worked for peaceful relations with the American Indians.
  2. Bacon was a steadfast supporter of William Berkeley’s policies in governing colonial Virginia.
  3. Bacon came from a family of wealth and privilege but rallied poor farmers to oppose the wealthy and elite leaders in Virginia.
  4. Bacon was born into a poor yeoman farmer’s family on the Virginia frontier and fought to overcome the injustice of the social system.

3. Nathaniel Bacon carried out which of the following actions?

  1. He returned to England to stand trial for treason.
  2. He burned the capital city of Jamestown.
  3. He demanded the colonial government cease its war against local American Indians.
  4. He attempted to return William Berkeley to the governorship of Virginia.

4. What was the first representative legislative body of Virginia (created in 1619)?

  1. House of Representatives
  2. House of Commons
  3. House of Lords
  4. House of Burgesses

5. Which of the following describes a significant result of Bacon’s Rebellion?

  1. The wealthy planter class gained greater control of Virginia politics and economics.
  2. Yeoman frontier farmers gained seats on the governor’s council.
  3. Slaves and indentured servants who joined the rebellion were granted amnesty and emancipation.
  4. William Berkeley was granted additional lands in the Ohio Valley for his service.

6. Which of the following describes a long-term result of Bacon’s Rebellion?

  1. By the end of the seventeenth century, African slaves had largely replaced indentured servants as the main labor force for the wealthy planter class.
  2. Coastal plantations were divided to grant lands to newly arrived colonists from England.
  3. By the end of the seventeenth century, Catholics were forced to flee Maryland.
  4. Demand for slaves in Virginia decreased and a long debate to end slavery in Virginia began.

7. Which of the following was a major complaint of Nathaniel Bacon and his followers?

  1. Maryland Catholics were a threat to the existence of the Virginia colony.
  2. Frontier farmers had too much control of the colonial government in Richmond.
  3. The king of England did not fully support Berkeley’s plan to deal with the Indian threat.
  4. All American Indian tribes were a threat to English colonists and must be eliminated.

8. Which of the following is an accurate overall description of Bacon’s Rebellion?

  1. Spanish-led raids on southern colonies such as South Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia to gain slaves and raw materials
  2. A clash between the eastern shore’s landed gentry who controlled the colonial government and the poorer, frontier-based small farmers, along with slaves and servants
  3. A war between the New England colonies and the southern colonies over the extent of Puritan control over colonial government
  4. An uprising of Virginia colonists to show their displeasure against King James II and their desire for his removal from the throne

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain how Bacon’s Rebellion illustrated conflicts between classes in colonial Virginia.
  2. Explain the effects of Bacon’s rebellion on slavery and American Indians.

AP Practice Questions

“In Virginia prior to Bacon’s Rebellion we . . . have black planters and white planters, black indentured servants and slaves, we have white people who are indentured servants and living in un-freedom. In that kind of world, distinctions between black and white are of course made. But very few people talk about black people as being stupid or dull or ignorant or dirty or lazy. . . . When we move into the post-Bacon’s Rebellion world where slavery and the plantation economy are in place, where black people are arriving in large numbers from Africa, the view of black people changes very rapidly. It is not simply slavery that transforms notions of race. It is this plantation slavery, the advent of the plantation and disciplined, exploitative labor that begins to transform notions of race. And it is that which I am concerned with here. It’s not the origins of ideas of race but how race is continually transformed and giving different meanings in different circumstances.”

Edited transcript, PBS Interview with Dr. Ira Berlin

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. According to the excerpt provided, which is most accurate description of colonial Virginia prior to Bacon’s Rebellion?

  1. Virginia in the 1600s had fewer racial stigmas than it did in the 1700s.
  2. Virginia was so heavily tied to the plantation system based on slave labor that no other form of labor existed in the colony.
  3. Africans were not permitted to enter the colony of Virginia.
  4. Virginia was a largely Catholic colony.

2. According to the excerpt provided, what does Dr. Berlin believe the period after Bacon’s Rebellion brought about in Virginia?

  1. A diversified economy that saw industrialization begin to replace the slavery plantation system
  2. A plantation system of agriculture that still largely relied on indentured servants as the prime labor force
  3. A period of increased political rights and economic prosperity for blacks in the colony of Virginia
  4. A colony dominated economically by a plantation system with a racially defined slave labor force

‘Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman should be slave or [free], Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present grand assembly, that all children borne in this country [shall be] held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother, And that if any christian shall [commit fornication] with a negro man or woman, [he or she so] offending shall pay double the [fines] imposed by the former act (Hening 1809 ’23 Vol 2:170). [Under English law a child received his or her status from his father. This Virginia colonial law of December 1662 made a child of an enslaved mother a slave for life.]”

Enactment of Hereditary Slavery Law Virginia 1662-ACT XII

Refer to the excerpt provided

3. According to the 1662 law in the excerpt provided, what is the status of the child of an enslaved mother and an Englishman in Virginia?

  1. The child was born a free child.
  2. The child had to be emancipated by age 21 years.
  3. The child was born a slave.
  4. The child had the full rights of an Englishman.

4. The excerpt provided can be accurately described as an example of

  1. indentured codes
  2. slave codes
  3. manumission codes
  4. the headright system

Primary Sources

Declaration of Nathaniel Bacon in the Name of the People of Virginia:

Suggested Resources

Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: Norton, 1975.

Rice, James D. Tales from a Revolution: Bacon’s Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. New York: Penguin, 2001.

Washburn, Wilcomb. The Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957.

Williams, Tony. America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character. Lanham: Rowman, Littlefield, 2010.

Related Content