What Led to Bacon’s Rebellion?

One of the most impactful events of colonial British North America was a 17th century rebellion led by a man named Nathaniel Bacon. Just what led to Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 and how did it shape the colony’s history?

At the time the Virginia colony was still in its infancy. The city of Jamestown was founded in 1607 and was one of the first successful English colonies in America after the success of the tobacco crop attracted more settlers and investment.

By the late seventeenth century, settlers had expanded far beyond Jamestown along the coast and into the interior. These settlers increasingly sought lands held by Native Americans and a series of wars were fought for control.

The colonists succeeded in driving the natives further away, but by the very nature of the available land, settlers and natives were in constant friction. The governors of the British colonies attempted to keep the peace with natives as best they could.

Frontier wars were expensive and a burden. Peaceful relations where natives and colonists traded freely were much preferred. Some merchants were able to take advantage of the lucrative fur trade with bordering natives acting as the middle men.

It is against this backdrop that the first major rebellion against British authority in North America occurred. The causes of Bacon’s Rebellion were many. An economic depression, increasing conflicts with the natives, and discontent over the governor’s policies were but a few among several other likely causes.

The 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion has often been characterized by those as the first glimpse of revolutionary sentiment in the Americas. On the surface such a comparison seems worthy, though further analysis shows little comparison.

While Bacon’s Rebellion was short-lived, it had a lasting impact on colonial life and the beginning of the new American nation.

What is Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676?

Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 was a large-scale armed rebellion by Virginia settlers against the colonial government. At the time, the colonial governor was directly appointed by the King of England.

Hence, Bacon’s Rebellion can be seen as one of the first armed rebellions against British authority in the North American colonies.

From 1660-1677 the Virginia colonial governor was Sir William Berkely. Berkeley was widely popular during his first term as governor (1642-1652) but he was much less effective in his second term.

Governor William Berkeley via Wikimedia

Berkeley’s critics labeled him as a tyrant and his government corrupt. In reality, Berkeley wielded little power given the highly decentralized nature of the Virginia colony.1

His ineffectiveness can also be partly explained due to his advanced age (seventy in 1676) and failing health. In fact, as early as 1667 Berkeley wrote to acquaintances in England how he desired to return to England and retire.1

A combination of other factors would lead to a highly discontented state in the colony. These various factors formed the perfect concoction a charismatic leader could take advantage of for his own personal ambition.

That person emerged as Nathaniel Bacon, whom the rebellion is named after. Bacon was a young, energetic, rich planter who came to the Americas after being sent away from England by his father.

Bacon bought land for a plantation along the James River and was treated generously by Governor Berkeley. Berkeley even appointed Bacon to the governor’s council upon arrival.

As a young upstart, Bacon challenged the entrenched elite class for more status and power, only to be turned away. Colonial precedence at the time meant that you had to work your way up and/or marry into the ruling class.

Instead, Bacon aligned with influential men on the frontier and rapidly made a name for himself.

What Led to Bacon’s Rebellion?

One of the primary factors that led to Bacon’s Rebellion was a depressed economy that left scores of settlers in financial hardship. These settlers sought to place the blame on Berkeley for their troubles, even though many reasons behind the faltering economy were beyond his control.

Firstly, the economy of the Virginia colony was primarily based upon a single cash crop: tobacco. From 1660-1676 tobacco prices sharply declined, rebounded, then declined again leading to inconsistent and irregular pricing expectations.

The wild variations and general decline of tobacco prices were the result of several factors. Firstly, Virginia colonists both over-produced tobacco and supplied a low-quality product.1

The more settlers that stretched inland and into the frontier, the more tobacco crops were planted. Eventually, the market was saturated with tobacco, especially as other colonies began planting the crop as well.

In their haste to make quick profit, new Virginia planters only had a rudimentary understanding of growing tobacco and the best methods to make it last. Tobacco from Virginia often showed up at English ports rotten or damaged, leading to an inferior product.

Bacon's Rebellion causes and aftermath chart tobacco prices

Governor Berkeley recognized the sole reliance on a single crop could be dangerous to the colony. Unfortunately his attempts at crop diversification failed as planters were unwilling to shift to less profitable crops.

Another commonly-cited cause of Bacon’s Rebellion were high taxes issued from the tyrannical Berkeley government. While it is true that taxes may have increased, Berkeley’s influence over the colony was vastly overstated.

A vast majority of taxes at the time were issued by the county judiciary. Some counties were more affluent than others or had more public services, thus higher taxes. In general, Berkeley had little control over most of the taxation of the Virginians.

County level records from the era show that taxes fluctuated greatly from year to year. Various events such as raising the militia, building defensive fortifications, and supporting legislative assembly members all raised taxes at the county level.

Many planters were highly in debt over the purchase of land, equipment, and labor. Fluctuating tobacco prices and high taxes all combined to squeeze settlers into increasingly dire financial situations.

The level of financial desperation was a major cause that eventually culminated in Bacon’s Rebellion.

Where did Bacon’s Rebellion Occur?

Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 occurred primarily in the Virginia colony. Some aspects of the raids against natives spanned other colonies, though a vast majority of the action occurred in Virginia.

As discontentment over the depressed economy and Berkeley’s ineffective policies simmered in the background, the spark that lit the rebellion occurred when neighboring natives from the Dueg nation raided frontier settlers, killing two men after a settler had cheated the Dueg out of owed goods.

When the settlers retaliated over the attack, they launched their own raid against the natives. The settlers blundered and attacked the wrong tribe, the Susquehannock.

With the Susquehannock now dragged into the conflict, the spark had the makings of an all out frontier war. The colony was poorly-defended and a drawn out frontier war with natives could prove devastating.

Berkeley knew all this, and thus attempted to make peace with the natives and maintain existing alliances.2 He also took a defensive posture, preferring to build a series of forts on the frontier manned by militia men.

Bacon seized the opportunity and loudly criticized Berkeley for inaction against the natives. He also was concerned the maintenance of frontier forts would merely raise taxes even higher.

A depiction of Berkeley standing his ground and refusing Bacon a commission via Wikimedia

Bacon thus demanded a military commission from Berkeley to attack the natives and drive them out of the Virginia colony’s territory. Berkeley refused the commission, hoping to prevent escalating the conflict.

Instead of backing down, Bacon raised a sizable force of frontier men and marched against the natives anyways. It was in direct conflict with Berkeley’s orders, and Bacon was named an outlaw in June 1676.

Eventually Bacon returned and was arrested. Berkeley chose to pardon him, though that mistake would prove his undoing.

By this time, Bacon’s popularity extended across all social classes as thousands joined the rebellion. Berkeley had no choice but to flee the capital as Bacon’s forces returned in September 1676 and laid siege to the city.

The Aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion

By this time, England had caught word of the state of affairs in Virginia. A fleet was sent to put down the rebellion that Berkeley had failed to contain.

However, before the fleet could arrive, Nathaniel Bacon suddenly died in October, likely from the flux and body lice. Just as quickly as the rebellion had started, it fizzled out without its charismatic leader.

In the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion, Sir William Berkeley regained control of the colony and ordered the hanging of twenty-three leaders of the rebellion. The rebellion would have major impacts on society in the American colonies in the years afterwards.

In the immediate aftermath the ruling elites enacted a set of laws to prevent a similar rebellion in the future. Bacon’s rebellion was unique as the rebels included members from all social classes: frontier elite, merchants, indentured servants, and slaves all banded together.

The fact that black slaves and white indentured servants would rise up together concerned the ruling elites. They proposed a new law that would help to separate these lower classes to ensure they would not band together again.

In doing so, they gave up some of their power, extending additional rights to landless white settlers and white indentured servants. This came at the expense of black indentured servants, free black men and black slaves who saw their rights slashed.3

The elites sought to use race to drive a wedge between the poorest members of society. The passage of the Virginia Slave Codes in 1705 further entrenched the new idea that black people were not people, but property.

virginia slave codes 1705
An excerpt from the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705 via Encyclopedia Virginia

The legacy of Bacon’s Rebellion itself is a mixed one. However, by the 19th and 20th centuries, American writers searched for new meanings behind the rebellion.

Many attributed Bacon’s Rebellion as a prelude to the American Revolution that took place almost exactly one-hundred years later. Bacon was labeled as a true patriot, one who idealized freedom and opposed the tyrannical English rule in the colony.4

Regardless of how Bacon’s Rebellion is portrayed, the reality is always more complicated. On its face the rebellion was a short lived power struggle between two ambitious men that would have major implications for life in the colonies.

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To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.

Sources

1) Billings, Warren M. “The Causes of Bacon’s Rebellion: Some Suggestions.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 78, no. 4, Virginia Historical Society, 1970, pp. 409–35, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4247595.

2) Rice, James D. “Bacon’s Rebellion in Indian Country.” The Journal of American History, vol. 101, no. 3, [Oxford University Press, Organization of American Historians], 2014, pp. 726–50, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44286295.

3) Tatum, Dale Craig. “Donald Trump and the Legacy of Bacon’s Rebellion.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 48, no. 7, Sage Publications, Inc., 2017, pp. 651–74, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26574529

4) Stearns, Bertha Monica. “The Literary Treatment of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 52, no. 3, Virginia Historical Society, 1944, pp. 163–79, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4245298

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