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Bacon’s Rebellion was a bizarre and violent event with few truly heroic figures on either side.

Few contemporary or historical accounts of Bacon’s rebellion agree in every particular about the movement’s motivations and outcomes. For the Jacksonian Democrat, George Bancroft, Virginians had enjoyed free government for three generations on the edge of the wilderness. For Bancroft and nationalist historians, this was the prelude to the American Revolution–it was the people seizing their government, its policy‐​making apparatus, and its legitimacy so that the popular interest might once again govern Virginia. However, Twentieth‐​century historians with a more global perspective on British imperial activity recognized Bacon’s Rebellion as a racialized conflict against the Indians which transformed into a vehicle for the expression of popular discontent.


Anthony Comegna: In the early 1660s, England’s restored King Charles the Second harbored a bit of a grudge. Parliament showed the world that kings, too, could die if and when the people demanded it and that was a scary precedent if ever there was one. Charles rounded up the most dangerous regicides and dissenters, executed [00:00:30] the worst offenders against royalty and banished many more to servitude in the new world. Once in Virginia, though, they almost immediately began conspiring amongst themselves to revive the old battles between slavery and freedom.
This is Liberty Chronicles, a project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
[00:01:00] Virginia’s Burgesses and Cavalier governor William Berkeley used the Restoration period to double down on long standing policies of persecution. Charles the First had appointed Berkeley in 1641 shortly before the heavy fighting started at home, but the Commonwealth’s forces compelled Virginia’s submission by 1652 and Berkeley temporarily retired. Re‐​appointed by [00:01:30] Charles in 1660, the governor and the House of Burgesses determined to consolidate control over the colony and reassert Cavalier power in Virginia. The Chesapeake lordlings feared above all else combinations of black and white laborers inspired by antinomian ideas. In 1662, a New Model army vet named George Wilson shared chains and a post with an American Indian. Wilson was guilty of organizing mixed sects [00:02:00] religious meetings but his makeshift congregations included black and white skins. The next year at Poplar Spring, Virginia white indentured servants and African slaves combined forces into what’s called the Servant’s Plot or the Gloucester County Conspiracy.
Sources on the proposed rebellion are scarce and almost nothing survives from the conspirators themselves. It appears their numbers included Muggletonians and Fifth Monarchists, veterans from the New Model [00:02:30] Army, men and women, white and black. The Poplar Spring conspirators planned to revolutionize the colony, revitalizing the Commonwealth spirit in the New World. Their first stop would be Lieutenant Colonel Francis Willis’ plantation to steal arms and drums, essential tools when raising spontaneous armies from the countryside. Whatever language you spoke, whichever you or your ancestors were ripped from, everyone in Virginia knew the sound [00:03:00] of war drums.
Most of them also knew the sting of betrayal. When a servant Birkenhead revealed the plot to the House of Burgesses they awarded him 5,000 pounds of tobacco and declared a colonial holy day. Between the Restoration in 1675, Berkeley’s generation of Cavalier, aristocratic gentleman adventurers in Virginia was gradually replaced by new waves of eager upstart landholders. The most important of these [00:03:30] was Nathaniel Bacon. Whereas Berkeley was a long established Virginian, Bacon only arrived in the colony in 1674. Within a year, Berkeley appointed him to the Council of State and by 1676, Bacon was leading campaigns against Occaneechis, Pamunkeys and other neighboring Indians. Bacon, like Berkeley was a sophisticated Englishman. He graduated from Cambridge and traveled widely in Europe, but after allegedly trying to cheat another young man out of his inheritance, [00:04:00] Bacon’s father purchased him a new life in Virginia.
In his reflections on the rebellion a year later, Berkeley argued that Bacon’s followers encompassed Virginia with rebellion‐​like waters in every respect like that of Masaniello except their leader. Masaniello led a short‐​lived proletarian leveling revolution in Naples in 1647, just a few months before the Putney Debates in England. Throughout the English world Masaniello became a symbol of the [00:04:30] threats posed to propertied interests when common people developed a sense of class consciousness. Berkeley saw Masaniello’s everywhere in Bacon’s race, but Bacon himself was undeniably a fellow aristocrat and all the more fearsome because he was willing to reach across class boundaries to enlist the poor, the dissenter and the slave in his cause.
Few contemporary or historical accounts of Bacon’s Rebellion agree [00:05:00] in every particular about the movements motivations and outcomes. For the Jacksonian Democrat and America’s first real professional historian, George Bancroft, Virginians had enjoyed free government for three generations on the edge of the wilderness. For Bancroft and nationalist historians, this was the prelude to the American Revolution. It was the people, seizing their government, its policy making apparatus and its legitimacy, so that the popular interest might once again govern Virginia.
[00:05:30] For more disinterested observers, including planter and merchant Thomas Matthew of Cherry Point, Northumberland County, Bacon’s Rebellion was a bizarre and violent event with few truly heroic figures on either side. Matthew recalls a mysterious scene in which one Robert Hen was discovered in his doorway with a dead Indian lying beside him. Hen implicated Doeg and immediately died. The English [00:06:00] treated this murder mystery as a mandate to unleash war on the entire frontier zone. Bacon’s Rebellion had officially begun.
Announcer: The beginning, progress and conclusion of Bacon’s Rebellion 1675 to 1676 by Thomas Matthew 1705. About the year 1675 appeared three prodigies in that country which from the attending disasters were looked upon as ominous [00:06:30] presages. The one was a large comet every evening for a week or more at southwest 35 degrees high streaming like a horsetail westwards until it reached almost the horizon and setting towards the northwest. Another was flights of pigeons in breadth nigh a quarter of the mid‐​hemisphere and of their length was no visible end whose weights break down the limbs of large trees whereon these rested at nights of which the fowlers shot [00:07:00] abundance and ate ‘em. This sight put the old planters under the more portentous apprehensions because the like was seen as they said in the year 1640 when the Indians committed the last massacre but not after until that present year 1675. The third strange appearance was swarms of flies about an inch long and big as the top of a man’s little finger, rising out of spigot holes in the earth, which eat the new sprouted [00:07:30] leaves from the tops of the trees, without other harm, and in a month left us.
My dwelling was in Northumberland, the lowest county on Potomac River, Stafford being the utmost where having also a plantation, servants, cattle, et cetera, my overseer there had agreed with one Robert Hen to come thither and be my herdsman who then lived 10 miles above it, but on a Sabbath day morning in the summer Anno 1675, people on their way [00:08:00] to church saw this Hen lying thwart his threshold and an Indian without the door both chopped on their heads, arms and other parts as if done with Indian hatchets.
The Indian was dead, but Hen when asked who did that answered Doegs, Doegs, and soon died. Then a boy came out from under a bed where he had him himself and told them Indians had come at break of day and done those murders. From this [00:08:30] Englishman’s blood did, by degrees, arise Bacon’s Rebellion with the following mischiefs which overspread all Virginia and twice endangered Maryland as by the ensuing account is evident. Of this horrid action, Colonel Mason who commanded the militia regiment of foot and Captain Brent the troop of horse in that county, both dwelling six or eight miles downwards, having speedy notice, raised 30 or more men and pursued [00:09:00] those Indians 20 miles up and four miles over that river into Maryland where landing at dawn of day, they found two small paths.
Each leader with his party took a separate path and in less than a furlong, either found a cabin which they silently surrounded. Captain Brent went to the Doeg’s cabin as it proved to be, who speaking the Indian tongue, called to have a [matcho komitchaw weewep 00:09:26], i.e. a council called presently such [00:09:30] being the usual manner with Indians. The king came trembling forth and would have fled when Captain Brent catching hold of his twisted lock which was all the hair he wore told him he was come for the murder of Robert Hen. The king pleaded ignorance and slipped loose whom Brent shot dead with his pistol. The Indian shot two or three guns out of the cabin. The English shot into it. The Indians thronged out of the door and fled.
The English shot [00:10:00] as many as they could, so that they killed 10 as Captain Brent told me and brought away the king’s son of about eight years old, concerning whom is an observable passage at the end of this expedition. The noise of this shooting awakened the Indians in the cabin which Colonel Mason had encompassed who likewise rushed out and fled of whom his company supposing from that noise of shooting Brent’s party to be engaged, shot as the Colonel informed me, 14 before [00:10:30] an Indian came who with both hands shook him friendly by one arm saying ““Susquehannas netoughs” (i.e., “Susquehanna friends”), and fled.
Whereupon he ran amongst his men crying out “For the Lord’s sake, shoot no more. These are our friends, the Susquehannas.” The Susquehannas were newly driven from their habitations at the head of Chesapeake Bay by the Seneca Indians down the head of the [00:11:00] Potomac where they sought protection under the Piscataway Indians who had a fort near the head of that river and also were our friends. These escaped Indians, forsaking Maryland, took their route over the head of that river, and thence over the heads of Rappahannock and York Rivers, killing whom they found of the upmost plantations, until they came to the head of James River, where (with Bacon and others) they slew Mr. Bacon’s overseer, whom he much [00:11:30] loved, and one of his servants, whose blood he vowed to revenge if possible.
In these frightful times the most exposed small families withdrew into our houses of better numbers, which we fortified with palisades and redoubts; neighbors in bodies joined their labors from each plantation to others alternately, taking their arms into the fields, and setting sentinels; no man stirred out of door unarmed. Indians were ever and [00:12:00] anon espied, three, four, five or six in a party, lurking throughout the whole land, yet (what was remarkable) I rarely heard of any houses burnt, though abundance was forsaken, nor ever of any corn or tobacco cut up, or other injury done, besides murders, except the killing a very few cattle and swine.
Frequent complaints of bloodsheds were sent to Senior William Berkeley, then governor, from the heads of the rivers which were as often answered [00:12:30] with promises of assistance. These at the heads of James and York Rivers (having now most people destroyed by the Indians’ flight thither from Potomac) grew impatient at the many slaughters of their neighbors and rose for their own defense, who choosing Mr. Bacon for their leader sent oftentimes to the Governor, humbly beseeching a commission to go against those Indians at their own charge, which his Honor, as they promised but did not send.
The mysteries of these delays were wondered at, and which [00:13:00] I never heard any could penetrate into, other than the effects of his passion, and a new, not to be mentioned, occasion of avarice, to both which he was, by the common vogue, more than a little addicted: whatever were the popular surmises and murmurings, viz., — “That no bullets would pierce beaver skins;”, “Rebels’ forfeitures would be loyal inheritances,” etc.
During these protractions and people often slain, most or all [00:13:30] the officers, civil and military, with as many dwellers next the heads of rivers as made up 300 men, taking Mr. Bacon for their commander, met, and concerted together the danger of going without a commission on the one part, and the continual murders of their neighbors on the other part (not knowing whose or how many of their own turns might be next), and came to this resolution, viz., to prepare themselves with necessaries for a march, but interim to send again [00:14:00] for a commission, which if could or could not be obtained by a certain day, they would proceed, commission or no commission.
Anthony Comegna: Twentieth century historians with a more global perspective on British imperial activity recognize Bacon’s Rebellion as a racialized conflict against the Indians which transformed into a vehicle for the expression of popular discontent. Two months into his leadership over the Indian campaigns, a newly elected Virginia [00:14:30] Assembly passed a series of Bacon’s laws which proclaimed and provided for war against the Indians, prohibited trade with them and declared Indian lands deserted and ready for expropriation. The laws democratized the vestry or local parish government, expanded suffrage to freemen and punished tumults or routs, et cetera. Seeking an official commission against the Indians, Bacon visited Jamestown on June 6th, 1676. Berkeley arrested [00:15:00] him for his independent actions during the previous month but pardoned him two days later. The governor even restored his natural class ally to his seat on the council of state. Bacon fled Jamestown, gathered his forces and returned to the capitol within two weeks of the pardon. The House of Burgesses granted the commission and Bacon’s army spent the next several months once again raiding Indian villages.
Sensing revolution in the winds, Berkeley withdrew to the eastern shore and Bacon returned [00:15:30] to burn the capitol on September 19th. A few weeks later, the bloody flux or the lousy disease killed him and effectively ended his movement. In England King Charles dispatched a 1,000 man army and a royal commission to investigate the causes of rebellion. The Assembly repealed Bacon’s laws. Colonel Herbert Jeffreys assumed the governorship and William Berkeley sailed to England to deliver a personal report before the king. Virginia concluded peace treaties with [00:16:00] the Indian tribes by May 29th, 1677. Berkeley died a few weeks later, successfully returned to England but without having briefed his king.
Marxist historians, Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh see two Bacon’s Rebellions. The first is a white freeholder’s war for even bigger freeholds. This was the Bacon’s Rebellion identified by our earlier document. The second Bacon’s Rebellion however harkened [00:16:30] back to that September night when exiled dissenters and African slaves joined hands in the Servant’s Plot. By September 1676, Bacon promised slaves freedom and servants land. These were the Masaniellos everywhere Berkeley feared so much, the rabble, the scum of the country who were so much more alien than Cambridge’s own Nathaniel Bacon. This abolitionist army was the one pillaging Jamestown and mourning their leader’s [00:17:00] death. The king’s negotiator Thomas Grantham arrived in January 1677 to face a 400 man force of black and white rebels. Grantham promised the white servants a better deal if they would desert the African slaves and sure enough, most of them took the out. The last Baconian holdouts included 80 African slaves and just 20 white servants, a near reversal of the original black to white ratio in the army.
Grantham captured their ships [00:17:30] during an attempted escape. He re‐​enslaved the lot. The ancient strategy divide and conquer rose to a new level of sophistication after Bacon’s Rebellion. Continuing early patterns and building upon a developing cultural distinction between white liberties and black slavery, Virginia officials consciously used the decades after the rebellion to drive a permanent wedge between white servants and black slaves. In 1680, [00:18:00] the Virginia legislature constricted black liberties with a Negro Insurrections Act. A 1682 law declared that all slaves imported by water, that is from Africa, were condemned to slavery for life. All those imported by land, that is, Native Americans, were bound to a 12 year period of indenture. The average term for white indentures remained about four to five years.
Planters and legislators [00:18:30] even shifted to discouraging more poor whites from flooding the colony and replaced unfree white labor with chattels from Africa. By 1705, the Act Concerning Servants and Slaves fully institutionalized race. When once it was merely a set of vague cultural notions about Christian and non‐​Christian people’s, race was now and indication of your naturalized and necessary position within a developing new social [00:19:00] order. Virginia took differences of skin color and made the irrevocable markers of social, political and economic status. The Virginia Slave Codes became the model virtually all British colonies adopted in succeeding decades. They created the modern concept of race just as they were creating the modern world.
But still, there was the libertarian promise of the commons, the frontier and the world’s remaining ungovernable spaces [00:19:30] where the servant and the slave could escape and live together on their own terms. On Roanoke Island, far to the south of Jamestown and the lordly plantations, men and women of every description from pirates and slaves to escaped convicts clustered together in Tuscarora Indian country. They freely fished and picked, traveled where they wilt, married without race boundaries. It was Virginia’s own Merrymount or Rhode Island [00:20:00] and corners like it kept alike the leveling antinomian flame for later generations of rogues and radicals.
Liberty Chronicles is a project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. To learn more about Liberty Chronicles, visit lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.