One hundred years afterwards, Bacon's Rebellion was cited by many of the Founding Fathers -- Thomas Jefferson, especially -- as the first stirrings of democratic revolt against the monarchy, and to the extent that the event is remembered at all nearly 350 years later, that is how it has been framed. Except that, as with much of history, the popular version is at odds with the facts.
Bacon is usually portrayed as a "man of the people" who led an "army" of tenant farmers, European indentured servants, and free and enslaved Africans against Berkeley's tyrannical rule. While his "army," which is better characterized as a "mob" was indeed made up of the laboring and servant classes, Bacon was a member of the colonial aristocracy and plantation owner.
His father was a wealthy member of the landed gentry, a lawyer, and member of parliament. As a young man, Bacon had studied at Cambridge, travelled extensively in Europe, and been accepted into chambers at Gray's Inn to read the law in 1664. He married well, also, his wife Elizabeth Duke was the daughter of Sir Edward Duke of Benhall, another prominent politician. By all appearances, Nathaniel, the only son of the Bacon family, was set to assume his father's role as a country squire and politician.
The twist of fate that sent Bacon across the Atlantic was a scandal , or rather his father's desire to avoid one. The younger Bacon was accused of having cheated another man out of an inheritance. The precise details have been lost to time, but before the matter could become widely known, the father packed the son off to the Virginia colony, providing him with 1,800 pounds (more that $500,000 in modern terms), which Bacon used to purchase two plantations and set himself up in Jamestown, where he soon became a member of Governor Berkeley's council. Berkeley was considerably older than Bacon and they were distantly related through the Governor's wife.
Bacon quickly learned that despite his connections with the Governor, he was not easily accepted by the established members of Virginia's colonial elite. The colony was entering its third generation, and those who could trace their lines back to the early days of the settlement were suspicious of newcomers like Bacon who purchase their positions, rather than having earned them. It soon became clear that despite their connection, Berkeley was not inclined to show any favoritism to Bacon, who in turn found the Governor to be tedious and an impediment to Bacon's plans to expand his holdings by encroaching on the lands of allied Indian tribes.
Bacon was not alone in his desire for more land. Many of the landless European settlers had come to the colony as indentured servants with the expectation that, like those who had come before, they would be rewarded with a land grant at the end of the contracts of indenture. However, as land close into the Tidewater region became scarce, the colonial authorities opposed the expansion of settlement further up the James and into the Northern Neck, which by treaty belonged to tribes of natives who Berkeley viewed as creating a buffer between the colonials and the hostile tribe further inland. Nonetheless, squatters moved into the allied tribes territories and sometimes further in to the interior, creating friction with both friendly and hostile tribes alike.
Bacon soon found himself attracted to the cause of those who wanted to, in his words, "ruin and extirpate all Indians in General." Bacon also so an opportunity to use the popular support of this faction to gain more power, being elected to the House of Burgesses . The first act of violence occurred a large number of colonists marched on Jamestown, forcing Berkeley to flee and setting fire to the settlement. Order was quickly restored when the captains of the armed merchant vessels in the Hampton Roads lent their support to Berkeley. Peace was maintained for several years.
After an overseer at one of his plantations was alleged to have been killed by two Indians, Bacon sought Berkeley's permission to lead the militia on a retaliatory raid. Berkeley refused to authorize the action, doubting that the killing had been the result of an Indian attack, but was more likely committed by the slaves of the plantation who used the tale of an Indian raid to cover their crime.
When a rumor spread that another Indian raid was being planned, Berkeley again refused to call of the militia and denied Bacon's request to be granted a Colonel's commission. Nonetheless, Bacon went out to a makeshift camp of farmers and others with a quantity of brandy; after it was distributed, he was elected leader. Against Berkeley's orders, the group struck south until they came to the Occaneechi people. After convincing the Occaneechi warriors to leave and attack the Susquehannock, Bacon and his men murdered most of the Occaneechi men, women, and children remaining at the village. Upon their return, Bacon's faction discovered that Berkeley had called for new elections to the burgesses to better address the Native American raids.
The recomposed House of Burgesses enacted a number of sweeping reforms, subsequently known as Bacon's Laws, although Bacon was not actually sitting but was at his plantation. The new laws limited the powers of the governor and restored suffrage to landless freemen.
After passage of these laws, Nathaniel Bacon arrived with 500 followers in Jamestown to once again demand a commission to lead militia against the Native Americans. The governor, however, refused to yield to the pressure. When Bacon had his men take aim at Berkeley, he responded by "baring his breast" to Bacon and told Bacon to shoot him. Seeing that the governor would not be moved, Bacon then had his men take aim at the assembled burgesses, who quickly granted Bacon his commission. When it was reported that their had been a raid by Indians in Henrico (now Richmond) that had killed 8 settlers, Bacon blamed Berkeley, arguing that had the militia not been in Jamestown seeking to force the Governor to act, it could have defended the frontier.
On July 30, 1676, Bacon and his army issued the "Declaration of the People". The declaration criticized Berkeley's administration in detail. It leveled several accusations against Berkeley:
- that "upon specious pretense of public works [he] raised great unjust taxes upon the commonality";
- that he advanced favorites to high public offices;
- that he monopolized the beaver trade with the Native Americans;
- that he was pro-Native American.
After months of conflict, Bacon's forces, numbering 300–500 men, moved on Jamestown, which was occupied by Berkeley's forces, besieging the town. Bacon's men captured and burned to the ground the colonial capital on September 19. Outnumbered, Berkeley retreated across the river. His group encamped at Warner Hall, home of the speaker of the House of Burgesses, Augustine Warner Jr., who had sided with the rebels.
Although word of the rebellion had been sent to England and a Royal Navy squadron had been dispatched, before it arrived at Jamestown, Bacon suddenly died. Although John Ingram, one of the indentured servants who had been denied his land grant attempted to assume command on the rebel forces, he lacked Bacon's ability to stir populist sentiment. Supported by the merchant ships, Berkeley launched a series of counterattacks against the disorganized rebels.
The news of the rebellion being quelled did not soften King Charles II's frustration with Berkeley for having failed to prevent it in the first place. Berkeley was recalled to England, but died en route back. Going forward, the new administration of the colony adopted a policy favoring the expropriation of Indian land for European (but not African) freedmen.