JUL 13, 1705
Bacon’s Rebellion: Ominous Presages & Frontier Warfare
Thomas Mathew of Cherry Point, Virginia describes “three Prodigies” foreshadowing a revolutionary conflict with dark, disturbing outcomes.
We continue historian Charles M. Andrews’ collection of insurrection narratives with our first taste of Bacon’s Rebellion. To Thomas Mathew of Cherry Point and countless other Virginians, 1675 seemed an ominous year. Little more than a decade ago, Virginia officials uncovered “The Servant’s Plot,” one of many similar conspiratorial attempt to overthrow planter-corporatist rule in the colonies. These “Gloucester County Rebels” included Cromwellians in exile from Restoration England, Fifth Monarchist men, New Model Army veterans, and radical Dissenters, but perhaps its most terrifying component were the African slaves. After one of the conspirators betrayed their comrades to the House of Burgesses, he was given four thousand pounds of tobacco and the House declared a holy day.
But in 1675, there “appear’d three Prodigies in that County,” three “Ominous Presages” that signaled a revolutionary—perhaps divinely mandated—shift in the colony’s history. First was the comet (also seen in New England, and believed to presage their own King Philip’s War that almost destroyed the colony). Then came giant flocks of pigeons so fat they destroyed tree limbs while resting. Farmers may have enjoyed the easy shooting (and the easy meals), but they remembered this omen from the last time Indians seriously threatened the colony in 1640. Finally, “Swarms of Flyes about an inch long” (probably cicadas) rose from the earth, consumed as much as they could, and left after a month.
But however strong the psychological impact of these ill omens, human action caused Bacon’s Rebellion. In the Summer of 1675, townspeople in Stafford discovered one Robert Hen lying dead in his doorway next to an Indian. Both were badly injured, and just before he finally expired, Hen managed to implicate the nearby Doeg Indians. “From this Englishman’s bloud did (by Degrees) arise Bacon’s Rebellion,” Mathew wrote. Englishmen across the frontier zone in Virginia and Maryland spontaneously formed Indian-hunting companies that did not discriminate between indigenous peoples. Nathaniel Bacon emerged as the movement’s leader. Educated at Cambridge, well-traveled in Europe, raised in relative gentility, Bacon was a new migrant to Virginia but Governor Berkeley recognized a class ally when he saw one. The Cavalier, Restorationist Governor appointed Bacon to the Council of State in 1675. Within a year, though, Bacon’s upstart, Indian-hunter militia threatened to unleash devastating war on the whole colony. Our selection concludes with the struggles for power between Bacon and Berkeley, where Berkeley attempts to maintain an imperially-dictated balance of corporate power and Bacon attempts to enforce local demands despite imperial interests.
NARRATIVES OF THE INSURRECTIONS 1675 — 1690
Ed. Charles M. Andrews
THE BEGINNING, PROGRESS, AND CONCLUSION OF BACON’S REBELLION, 1675-1676
By Thomas Mathew
[Dedicated to Secretary Robert Harley on] The 13th. July 1705
About the year 1675 appear’d three Prodigies in that Country, which, from th’ attending Disasters, were Look’d upon as Ominous Presages.
The One was a large Comet every Evening for a Week, or more at South- West; Thirty five Degrees high, Streaming like a horse Taile Westwards, untill it reach’ d (almost) the Horrison, 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 brake down the Limbs of Large Trees whereon these rested at Nights, of which the Fowlers Shot abundance and Eat ‘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 th’ Indians Committed the last Massacre, but not after, untill that present Year 1675.
The Third strange Appearance was Swarms of Flyes 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 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 Potomack River, Stafford being the upmost; where having also a Plantation, Servant’s, Cattle, etc. My Overseer there had agreed with one Robt. Hen to come thither, and be my Herdsman, who then Lived Ten Miles above it; But on a Sabbath day Morning in the summer Anno 1675, People in their Way to Church, Saw this Hen lying th’wart his Threshold, and an Indian without the Door, both Chopt on their Heads, Arms and other Parts, as if done with Indian Hatchetts. Th’ Indian was dead, but Hen when ask’d who did that ? Answered “Doegs Doegs,” and soon Died, then a Boy came out from under a Bed, where he had hid himself, and told them, Indians had come at break of day and done those Murders.
From this Englishman’s bloud did (by Degrees) arise Bacons Rebellion with the following Mischiefs which Overspread all Virginia and twice endangerd Maryland, as by the ensuing Account is Evident.
Of this horrid Action Coll. Mason who commanded the Militia Regiment of Foot and Capt. Brent the Troop of Horse in that County, (both dwelling Six or Eight Miles Downwards) having speedy notice raised 30 or more men, and pursu’d those Indians 20 Miles up and 4 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. Capt. Brent went to the Doegs Cabin (as it proved to be) Who Speaking the Indian Tongue Called to have a Matchacomicha Weewhip i. e. a Councill, called presently Such being the usuall manner with Indians. The King came Trembling forth, and wou’d have fled, when Capt. Brent, Catching hold of his twisted Lock (which was all the Hair he wore) told him he was come for the Murderer of Robt. Hen, the King pleaded Ignorance and Slipt loos, whom Brent shot Dead with his Pistoll. Th’ Indians Shot Two or Three Guns out of the Cabin, th’ English shot into it, th’ Indians throng’d out at the Door and fled. The English Shot as many as they cou’d, so that they Kill’d Ten, as Capt. Brent told me, and brought away the Kings Son of about 8 Years old. Concerning whom is an Observable Passage, at the End of this Expedition; the Noise of this Shooting awaken’d th’ Indians in the Cabin which Coll: Mason had Encompassed, who likewise Rush’d out and fled, of whom his Company (supposing from that Noise of Shooting Brent’s party to be Engaged) shott (as the Colli: Inform’d me) Fourteen before an Indian Came, who with both hands Shook him (friendly) by one Arm Saying Susquehanougs Netoughs i. e. Susquehanaugh friends, and fled,
Whereupon he ran amongst his Men, Crying out “For the Lords sake Shoot no more, these are our friends the Susquehanoughs.”
…The Susquehanoughs were newly driven from their Habitations, at the head of Chesepiack Bay, by the Cineka-Indians, down to the head of Potomack, where they sought Protection under the Pascataway Indians, who had a fort’ near the Head of that River, and also were our Friends.
After this unfortunate Exploit of Mason and Brent, one or Two being kill’d in Stafford, Boats of War were Equipt to prevent Excursions over the River, and at the same time Murders being (likewise) Committed in Maryland, by whom not known, on either Side the River, both Countrys raised their Quota’s of a Thousand Men, upon whose coming before the Fort, Th’ Indians sent out 4 of their great Men, who ask’d the Reason of that Hostile Appearance, What they said more or offered, I Do not Remember to have heard; But our Two Commanders Caused them to be (Instantly) Slaine, after which the Indians made an Obstinate Resistance, Shooting many of our Men, and making frequent, fierce and Bloody Sallyes; and when they were Call’d to, or offerd Parley, Gave no other Answer, than ” Where are our four Cockarouses, i. e. Great Men?”
At the End of Six Weeks, March’d out Seventy five Indians with their Women Children etc. who (by Moon light) past our Guards, hollowing and firing att Them without Opposition, leaving 3 or 4 Decrepits in the Fort.
The next Morning th’ English followed, but could not, or (for fear of Ambuscades), woud not Overtake these Desperate fugitives. The Number we lost in that Siege I Did not hear was published…So that ‘twas not taken, untill Famine drove the Indians out of it.
These Escap’d Indians (forsaking Maryland,) took their Rout over the Head of that River, and thence over the heads of Rappahannock and York Rivers, killing whom they found of th’ upmost Plantations untill they Came to the Head of James River, where (with Bacon and others,) they Slew Mr. Bacon’s Overseer whom He much Loved, and One of his Servants, whose Bloud Hee Vowed to Revenge if possible.
In these frightfull times the most Exposed small families withdrew into our houses of better Numbers, which we fortified with Pallisadoes and redoubts, Neighbours in Bodies Joined their Labours from each Plantation to others Alternately, taking their Arms into the Fields, and Setting Centinels; no Man Stirrd out of Door unarm’d, Indians were (ever and anon) espied. Three, 4, 5, or 6 in a Party Lurking throughout the Whole Land, yet (what was remarkable) I rarely heard of any Houses Burnt, tho’ 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 Bloudsheds were sent to Sr. Wm. Berkeley (then Governour,) from the Heads of the Rivers, which were as often Answered, with Promises of Assistance.
These at the Heads of James and York Rivers (having now most People destroyed by the Indians Flight thither from Potomack) grew Impatient at the many Slaughters of their Neighbours and rose for their own Defence, who Chusing Mr. Bacon for their Leader Sent often times to the Governour, humbly Beseeching a commission to go against those Indians at their own Charge which his Honour as often promised but did not send; The Misteryes of these Delays, were Wondred at and which I ne’re heard any coud 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…
During these Protractions and People often Slaine, most or all the Officers, Civill and Military, with as many Dwellers next the Heads of the Rivers as made up 300 Men, taking Mr. Bacon for their Commandr. met, and Concerted together, the Danger of going without a Comissn on the one Part, and the Continuall Murders of their Neighbours on th’ other Part (not knowing whose or how many of their own turns might be next) and Came to this Resolution vizt. To prepare themselves with necessaries for a March, but interim to send again for a Comission, which if could or could not be Obteyned by a certaine day, they woud proceed Commission or no Comission.
This day Lapsing and no [Commission] come. They march’d into the Wilderness in Quest of these Indians after whom the Govemour sent his Proclamacion, Denouncing all Rebells, who shoud not return within a Limited Day, Whereupon those of Estates obey’d; But Mr. Bacon with 57 Men proceded untill their Provisions were near Spent, without finding Enemy’s, when coming nigh a Fort of Friend Indians, on th’ other Side a Branch of James River, they desired reliefe offering paymt. which these Indians kindly promised to help them with on the Morrow, but put them off with promises untill the Third day. So as having then Eaten their last Morsells They could not return, but must have Starved in the Way homeward and now ‘twas Suspected, these Indians had received private Messages from the Governour and those to be the Causes of these Delusive procrastinations ; Whereupon the English Waded Shoulder deep thro’ that Branch to the Fort Pallisado’s still intreating and tendering Pay, for Victuals; But that Evening a Shot from the Place they left on th’ other side of that Branch kill’d one of Mr. Bacons Men, which made them believe, those in the Fort had sent for other Indians to come behind ‘em and Cut ‘em off.
Hereupon they fired the Palisado’s, Storm’d and burnt the Fort and Cabins, and (with the Losse of Three English) Slew 150 Indians. The Circumstances of this expedicion Mr. Bacon Entertain’d me with, at his own Chamber, on a Visit I made him, the occasion whereof is hereafter mencioned.
From hence they return’d home where Writts were come up to Elect Members for an Assembly, When Mr. Bacon was unanimously Chosen for One, who coming down the River was Commanded by a Ship with Guns to come on board, where waited Major Hone the High Sheriff of James Town ready to Seize him, by whom he was Carried down to the Governour and by him receiv’d with a Suprizing Civility in the following Words “Mr. Bacon have you forgot to be a Gentleman?” “No, May it please your Honour,” Answer’d Mr. Bacon; “Then” replyed the Governour “I’le take your Parol,” and Gave him his Liberty, in March 1675-6 Writts came up to Stafford to Choose their Two Members for an Assembly to meet in May; when Colo. Mason, Capt. Brent and other Gentlemen of that County, invited me to stand a Candidate…Col. Mason with my Selfe were Elected without Objection, he at time Convenient went on horseback ; I took my sloop and the Morning I arriv’d at James town after a Weeks voyage, was welcomed with the strange Acclamations of “All’s over. Bacon is taken,” having not heard at home of these southern comotions, other than rumours like idle tales, of one Bacon risen up in rebellion, nobody knew for what, concerning the Indians.
The next forenoon, th’ Assembly being met in a chamber over the generall court and our Speaker chosen, the governour sent for us down, where his honour with a pathetic Emphasis made a Short abrupt Speech wherein were these Words.
“If they had killed my Grandfather and Grandmother, my father and Mother and all my friends, yet if they had come to treat of Peace, they ought to have gone in Peace,” and sat down.
The two chief commanders at the forementioned siege, who Slew the Four Indian great men, being present and part of our Assembly. The Governour stood up againe and said “if there be joy in the presence of the angels over one sinner that repenteth, there is joy now, for we have a penitent sinner come before us, call Mr. Bacon;” then did Mr. Bacon upon one Knee at the Bar deliver a Sheet of paper Confessing his Crimes, and begging Pardon of God the King and the Governour, Whereto (after a short Pause) He Answered “God forgive you, I forgive you,” thrice repeating the same Words; When Colo. Cole (One of the Councill) said, “and all that were with him,” “yea,” said the Governour “and all that were with him,” Twenty or more Persons being then in Irons Who were taken Coming down in the same and other Vessels with Mr. Bacon.
About a Minute after this the Governour, Starting up from his Chair a Third time said, ” Mr. Bacon ! if you will live Civilly but till next Quarter Court…[I] promise to restore you againe to your Place There” pointing with his hand to Mr. Bacons Seat, he having been of the Councill before these troubles, tho’ he had been a very short time in Virginia but was Deposed by the foresaid Proclamacion, and in th’ afternoon passing by the Court door, in my Way up to our Chamber, I saw Mr. Bacon on his quondam Seat with the Governour and Councill, which Seemed a Marvellous Indulgence to one whom he had so lately Proscribed as a Rebell.
The Governour had Directed us to Consider of Meanes for Security from th’ Indian Insults and to Defray the Charge etc. Advising us to beware of Two Rogues amongst us, naming Laurence and Drumond both dwelling at James Town and Who were not at the Pascataway Siege.
But at our Entrance upon Businesse, Some Gentlemen took this opportunity to Endeavour the Redressing severall Grievances the Country then Labour’d under. Motions were made for Inspecting the Publick Revenues, the Collectors Accompts etc. and so far was Proceeded as to name Part of a Committee whereof Mr. Bristol (now in London,) was and my self another, when we were Interrupted by Pressing Messages from the Governour to Medle with nothing, untill the Indian Business was Dispatch’ t.
This Debate rose high, but was Overruled and I have not heard that those Inspections have since then been Insisted upon, tho’ such of that Indigent People as had no benefits from the Taxes groand under our being thus Overborn.
The next thing was a Committee for the Indian Affaires, whereof in appointing the Members, my self was unwillingly Nominated having no knowledge in Martiall Preparations, and after our Names were taken, some of the house moved for sending 2 of our Members to Intreat the governour wou’d please to Assign Two of his Councill to Sit with, and Assist us in our Debates, as had been usuall.
When seeing all Silent looking each at other with many Discontented faces, I adventur’d to offer my humble Opinion to the Speaker “for the Comittee to form Methods as agreeable to the Sense of the house as we could, and report ‘em, whereby they woud more clearly See, on what points to Give the Governour and Councill that trouble if perhaps it might bee needfull.”
These few words rais’d an Uproar; One party Urging hard “It had been Customary and ought not to be omitted;” Whereto Mr. Presley my Neighbour an old Assembly Man, sitting next me, rose up, and (in a blundering manner replied) “tis true, it has been Customary, but if we have any bad Customes amongst us, We are come here to mend ‘em,” which Set the house in a Laughter.
This was huddl’d off without coming to a Vote, and so the Committee must Submit to be overaw’d, and have every Carpt at Expression Carried streight to the Governr.
Our Committee being sat, the Queen of Pamunky (Descended from Oppechankenough a former Emperor of Virginia) was Introduced, who entred the Chamber with a Comportment Gracefull to Admiration, bringing on her right hand an Englishman Interpreter, and on the left her Son a Stripling Twenty Years of Age, She having round her head a Plat of Black and White Wampum peague Three Inches broad in imitation of a Crown, and was Cloathed in a Mantle of dress’t Deerskins with the hair outwards and the Edge cut round 6 Inches deep which made Strings resembling Twisted frenge from the Shoulders to the feet; Thus with grave Courtlike Gestures and a Majestick Air in her face, she Walk’d up our Long Room to the Lower end of the Table, Where after a few Intreaties She Sat down; th’ Interpreter and her Son Standing by her on either side as they had Walked up, our Chairman asked her what men she would Lend us for Guides in the Wilderness and to assist us against our Enemy Indians, She Spake to th’ Interpreter to inform her what the Chairman Said, (tho’ we believed She understood him). He told us She bid him ask her Son to whom the English tongue was familiar, and who was reputed the Son of an English Colonel, yet neither woud he Speak to or seem to understand the Chairman but th’ Interpreter told us, he referred all to his Mother, Who being againe urged She after a little Musing with an earnest passionate Countenance as if Tears were ready to Gush out and a fervent sort of Expression made a Harangue about a quarter of an hour, often interlacing (with a high shrill Voice and vehement passion) these Words, Tatapatamoi Chepiack, i. e. Tata-pamoi dead. Col: Hill being next me. Shook his head. I ask’d him What was the matter, he told me all she said was too true to our Shame, and that his father was Generall in that Battle, where diverse Years before Tatapatamoi her Husband had Led a Hundred of his Indians in help to th’ English against our former Enemy Indians, and was there Slaine with most of his men; for which no Compensation (at all) had been to that day Rendered to her wherewith she now upbraided us.
Her Discourse ending and our Morose Chairman not advancing one cold word towards asswaging the Anger and Grief her Speech and Demeanour Manifested under her oppression, nor taking any notice of all she had Said…He rudely push’d againe the same Question “What Indians will you now Contribute” etc? of this Disregard she Signified her Resentment by a disdainfull aspect, and turning her head half a side, Sate mute till that same Question being press’d, a Third time. She not returning her face to the board, answered with a low slighting Voice in her own Language “Six,” but being further Importun’d She sitting a little while Sullen, without uttering a Word between, Said “Twelve,” tho’ she then had a hundred and fifty Indian men in her Town, and so rose up and gravely Walked away, as not pleased with her Treatment.
Whilst some dales past in Setling the Quota’s of Men Arms and Ammunicion Provisions etc. each County was to furnish, One Morning early a Bruit ran about the Town, “Bacon is fled, Bacon is fled,” Whereupon I went Straight to Mr. Lawrence, Who…Said, “Old Treacherous Villain,” and that his House was Searcht that Morning, at day break, but Bacon was Escaped into the Country, having Intimation that the Governours Generosity in Pardoning him and his followers and restoring him to his Seat in Councill, were no other than Previous Wheadles to amuse him and his Adherents and to Circumvent them by Stratagem, forasmuch as the taking Mr. Bacon again into the Council was first to keep him out of the Assembly, and in the next place the Governour knew the Country People were hastning down with Dreadfull Threatnings to double Revenge all Wrongs shoud be done to Mr. Bacon or his Men, or whoever shou’d have had the least hand in ‘em.
And so much was true that this Mr. young Nathaniel Bacon (not yet Arrived to 30 Yeares) had a Nigh Relation Namely Col : Nathaniel Bacon of Long Standing in the Council a very rich Politick Man, and Childless, designing this Kinsman for his heir, who (not without much Paines) had prevailed with his uneasy Cousin to deliver the forementioned written Recantation at the Bar, having Compiled it ready to his hand and by whose meanes ‘twas Supposed that timely Intimation was Convey’d to the Young Gentleman to flee for his Life, And also in 3 or 4 dales after Mr. Bacon was first Seiz’d I Saw abundance of Men in Town Come thither from the Heads of the Rivers, Who finding him restor’d and his Men at Liberty, retum’d home Satisfied; a few Dales after which the Governour seeing all Quiet, Gave out Private Warrants to take him againe, intending as was thought to raise the Militia, and so to Dispose things as to prevent his friends from gathering any more into a like Numerous Body and Comming down a Second time to Save him.