essays

This is part of a series

JUL 13, 1705

Bacon’s Rebellion: Revolution & Counter-Revolution

Charles M. Andrews' Narratives of the Insurrections

After Bacon’s Rebellion, Virginia’s lawmaking elite institutionalized race—a counter-revolutionary tool to prevent combinations of black and white.

Editor’s Note

Mathew continues his narrative of Bacon’s Rebellion with the story’s main character on the lam. Having escaped from Berkeley’s forces at Jamestown, Bacon regathered his strength before returning to the capitol. The “People’s Governor” and the Crown’s Governor were both staunch royalists, but they represented distinctly different generations within Virginia. Bacon’s forces were men on the make, including people of means as well as indentured servants and—conspicuously absent from Mathew’s narrative—African slaves. Berkeley’s forces were paid by the Crown, they favored stability over expansion, and they feared potential and real fusions of Commonwealth radicalism with servile rebellion.

The two sides face off at the State House, each making brash displays of their bravery and manliness. Bacon’s men surrounded the building and their general demanded an official commission. Berkeley fled to the eastern shore and Bacon eventually returned to raiding Indians. After some time campaigning, Bacon took ill with a “flux” and died shortly after returning to Jamestown. The movement steadily fell apart without its most important leader. When His Majesty’s royal forces finally arrived to relieve the colony, they confronted an army of white and black rebels. The king’s agent offered amnesty to the white soldiers if they deserted their slave allies. Most of them took the out and Virginia’s leadership began building upon this critical example of “divide and conquer.” For the next several decades, the colony pioneered legislation that defined race in the modern era.

The Slave Codes were specifically intended to drive a class wedge between those with different skin colors. Race became a legally-defined category relating to one’s status as either a slave or a free person. The institutional force of law separated the interests of black and white colonists throughout the British Empire, and over time interested parties naturalized these legal distinctions. Scientists, historians, theologians, and philosophers in the Enlightenment built their ideas about race out of distinctly unnatural categories created by law. They explained the African’s servile status with reference to his or her hair type, or skin tone, or muscle density, or height, and on and on, because few ever questioned where this idea that only Africans should be slaves actually originated from in practice.

To George Bancroft and the nationalist historians, Bacon’s Rebellion was merely a precursor to the Revolution a century later. It was yet another “ominous presage” unimportant except to the extent that it helped found the United States of America. To Charles M. Andrews and the “Imperial School,” it was one of many resistance movements throughout the empire and reducing it to a prelude misunderstands the actual events in question. To social and economic historians, Bacon’s Rebellion reflected profound changes in the Early Modern world and popular resistance to new forms of elite control over common people. Bacon’s Rebellion was no mere reflection, though—no simple reprisal of the failed Gloucester County Conspiracy. It was a profoundly transformative moment when a large portion of the colonial ruling class seriously feared for their survival. They responded by orchestrating one of the most successful counterrevolutions in recent centuries. So successful, in fact, race remains the sociological “master category” with which to understand American life.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

NARRATIVES OF THE INSURRECTIONS 1675 — 1690

Ed. Charles M. Andrews

THE BEGINNING, PROGRESS, AND CONCLUSION OF BACON’S REBELLION, 1675-1676

By Thomas Mathew

In Three or Four daies after this Escape, upon News that Mr. Bacon was 30 Miles up the River, at the head of four hundred Men, The Governour sent to the Parts adjacent, on both Sides James River for the Militia and all the Men could be gotten to Come and Defend the Town. Express’s Came almost hourly of th’ Army’s Approaches, who in less than 4 daies after the first Account of ‘em att 2 of the Clock entred the Town, without being withstood, and form’d a Body upon a green, not a flight Shot from the End of the Statehouse, of Horse and Foot, as well regular as Veteran Troops, who forthwith Possest themselves of all the Avenues, Disarming all in Town, and Comming thither in Boats or by Land.

In half an hour after this the Drum beat for the House to meet, and in less than an hour more Mr. Bacon came with a file of Fusileers on either hand near the Corner of the Statehouse where the Governour and Councill went forth to him; We Saw from the Window the Governor’ open his Breast, and Bacon Strutting betwixt his Two files of Men with his Left Arm on Kenbow flinging his Right Arm every Way both like men Distracted; and if in this Moment of fury, that Enraged Multitude had fal’n upon the Governour and Council We of the Assembly Expected the same Immediate fate; I Stept down and amongst the Crowd of Spectators found the Seamen of my Sloop, who pray’d me not to Stir from them, when in Two Minutes, the Governour Walk’d towards his Private Apartm. a Coits cast Distant at th’ other end of the Statehouse, the Gentlemen of the Council following him, and after them Walked Mr. Bacon with outragious Postures of his Head, Arms, Body, and Leggs, often tossing his hand from his Sword to his Hat and after him came a Detachment of Fusileers (Musketts not being there in Use) Who with their Cocks Bent presented their Fusils at a Window of the Assembly Chamber filled with faces, repeating with Menacing Voices, “We will have it. We will have itt,” half a Minute when as one of our house a person known to many of them. Shook his Handkercher out at the Window, Saying “You shall have it, You shall have itt,” 3 or 4 times; at these Words they sate Down their fusils, unbent their Locks and stood Still untill Bacon coming back, they followed him to their Main Body; In this hubub a Servant of mine got so nigh as to hear the Governours Words, and also followed Mr. Bacon, and heard what he Said, who came and told me. That When the Governour opened his Breast he Said, “Here! Shoot me, foregod, fair Mark, Shoot,” often Rehearsing the same, without any other Words; Whereto Mr. Bacon Answer’d “No May it please your honor. We will not hurt a hair of your Head, nor of any other Mans, We are Come for a Comission to save our Lives from th’ Indians, which you have so often promised, and now We Will have it before we go;” But when Mr. Bacon followed the Governour and Councill with the forementioned impetuos (like Delirious) Actions whil’st that Party presented their Fusils at the Window full of Faces, He said ” Dam my Bloud, I’le Kill Governr Councill Assembly and all, and then He Sheath my Sword in my own heart’s bloud”; and afterwards ‘twas Said Bacon had Given a Signall to his Men who presented their fusils at those Casing out at the Window, that if he shoud draw his Sword, they were on sight of it to fire, and Slay us, So near was the Masacre of us all that very Minute, had Bacon in that Paroxism of Phrentick fury but Drawn his Sword, before the Pacifick Handkercher was Shaken out at Window.

In an hour or more after these violent Concussions Mr. Bacon came up to our Chamber and Desired a Commission from us to go against the Indians; Our Speaker sat Silent, When one Mr. Blayton a Neighbour to Mr. Bacon and Elected with him a Member of Assembly for the same County (Who therefore durst Speak to him,) made Answer, “ ‘twas not in our Province, or Power, nor of any other, save the Kings Vicegerent our Governour”; he press’d hard nigh half an hours Harangue on the Preserving our Lives from the Indians, Inspecting the Publick Revenues, th’ exorbitant Taxes and redressing the Grievances and Calamities of that Deplorable Country, Whereto having no other Answer, He went away Dissatisfied.

Next day there was a Rumour the Govemour and Councill had agreed Mr. Bacon shou’d have a Commission to Go Generall of the Forces, We then were raising. Whereupon I being a Member for Stafford, the most Northern frontier, and where the War begun. Considering that Mr. Bacon dwelling in the most Southern Frontier County, might the less regard the Parts I represented, I went to Coll. Cole (an active Member of the Councill) desiring his Advise, if Applicacions to Mr. Bacon on that Subject were then Seasonable and safe, which he approving and earnestly Advising, I went to Mr. Laurence who was esteemed Mr. Bacons Principall Consultant, to whom he took me with him, and there left me where I was Entertained 2 or 3 hours with the particular relacions of diverse before recited Transactions; and as to the matter I spake of, he told me, that th’ Governour had indeed promised him the Command of the forces, and if his Honour shou’d keep his Word (which he doubted) He assured me the like care shoud be taken of the remotest Corners in the Land, as of his own Dwelling-house, and pray’d me to Advise him what Persons in those parts were most fit to bear Commands. I frankly Gave him my Opinion that the most Satisfactory Gentlemen to Governour and People, woud be Commanders of the Militia, wherewith he was well pleased, and himself wrote a List of those I Nominated.

That Evening I made known what had past with Mr. Bacon to my Colleague Coll. Mason (whose bottle attendance doubled my Task), the matter he liked well, but questioned the Governours approbacion of it.

I Confess’d the Case required Sedate thoughts, reasoning, that he and such like Gentlemen must either Command or be Commanded, and if on their denials Mr. Bacon shoud take distast, and be Constrained to Appoint Commanders out of the Rabble, the Governour himself with the Persons and Estates of all in the Land woud be at their Dispose, whereby their own Ruine might be owing to themselves; In this he agreed and said “If the Governour woud give his own Commission he woud be Content to Serve under Generall Bacon, (as now he began to be Intituted,) but first would Consult other Gentlemen in the same Circumstances; who all Concur’d ‘twas the most safe barrier in view against pernicious Designes, if such shoud be put in Practice; With this I acquainted Mr. Laurence who went (rejoicing) to Mr. Bacon with the good tidings, that the Militia Commanders were inclined to serve under him, as their Generall, in Case the Governour woud please to Give them his own Commissions.

Wee of the House proceeded to finish the Bill for the War which by the Assent of the Governour and Councill being past into an Act the Governour sent us a Letter Directed to his Majesty, wherein were these Words “I have above 30 Years Governed the most flourishing Country the Sun ever Shone over, but am now Encompassed with Rebellion like Waters in every respect like to that of Massanello Except their Leader,” and of like Import was the Substance of that Letter, But We did not believe his Honour Sent us all he Wrote to his Majesty. Some judicious Gentlemen of our house likewise penn’d a Letter or Remonstrance to be sent his maj’tie Setting forth the Gradations of those Erupcions, and Two or Three of them with Mr. Mings our Clerk brought it me to Compile a few Lines for the Conclusion of it, which I did, tho’ not without regret in those Watchfull times, when every Man had Eyes on him, but what I wrote was with all possible Deference to the Governour and in the most Soft terms My Pen cou’d find the Case to Admit.

Col: Spencer being my Neighbour and Intimate friend, and a prevalent Member in the Council I pray’d him to Intreat the Governour we might be Dissolved, for that was my first and shoud be my last going astray from my wonted Sphere of Merchandize and other my private Concernments into the dark and Slippery Meanders of Court Embarrassments; He told me the Governour had not (then) Determined his Intention, But he wou’d Move his Honor about itt, and in 2 or 3 dayes we were Dissolved, which I was most heartily Glad of, because of my getting Loose againe from being hampered amongst those pernicious Entanglements in the Labyrinths and Snares of State Ambiguities, and which untill then I had not seen the practice nor the dangers of, for it was Observ’d that severall of the Members had secret badges of Distinction fixt upon ‘em, as not docill enough to Gallop the future Races, that Court seem’d dispos’d to Lead ‘em, whose maximes I had oft times heard Whisper’d before, and then found Confirm’d by diverse Considerate Gentlemen vizt. “That the Wise and the Rich were prone to Faction and Sedition but the fools and poor were easy to be Governed.”

Many Members being met One Evening nigh Sunsett, to take our Leaves each of other, in order next day to return homewards, came Genl. Bacon with his hand full of unfolded Papers, and overlooking us round, walking in the Room Said “Which of these Gentlemen shall I Intreat to write a few Words for me,” where every one looking aside as not willing to Meddle; Mr. Lawrence pointed at me Saying ” That Gentlemen Writes very well,” Which I Endeavouring to Excuse, Mr. Bacon came stooping to the ground and said ” Pray Sr. Do me the Honour to write a Line for me.”

This Surprizing Accostment Shockt me into a Melancholy Consternation, dreading upon one hand, that Stafford County woud feel the smart of his Resentment, if I shoud refuse him whose favour I had so lately sought and been generously promis’d on their behalf; and on th’ other hand fearing the Governours Displeasure who I knew woud soon hear of it; What Seem’d most Prudent at this Hazadous Dilemma, was to Obviate the present impending Peril; So Mr. Bacon made me Sit the Whole Night by him filling up those Papers, which I then Saw were blank Commissions Sign’d by the Govemour incerting such Names and Writing other matters as he Dictated; which I took to be the happy Effects of the Consult before mentioned, with the Commanders of the Militia, because he gave me the Names of very few others to put into these Commissions, and in the Morning he left me with an hours worke or more to finish, when Came to me Capt. Carver, and said he had been to wait on the Generall for a Comission, and that he was resolved to adventure his old Bones against the Indian Rogues with other the like discourse, and at length told me that I was in mighty favour — and he was bid to tell me, that whatever I desir’d in the Generals power, was at my Service, I pray’d him humbly to thank his Honour and to acquaint him I had no other Boon to Crave, than his promis’d royal instruction and proclamation, and by formal act of the assembly which met at Green Spring, February 20, 1677.

Kindnesse to Stafford County, for beside the not being worthy, I never had been Conversant in Military matters, and also having lived tenderly, my Service cou’d be of no benefit because the hardships and fatigues of a Wilderness Campaigne woud put a speedy Period to my dales, little Expecting to hear of more Intestine Broiles, I went home to Patomack, where Reports were afterwards various; We had Account that Generall Bacon was March’d with a Thousand Men into the Forest to Seek the Enemy Indians, and in a few dales after our next News was, that the Govemour had Summoned together the Militia of Glocester and Middlesex Counties to the Number of Twelve Hundred Men, and proposed to them to follow and Suppress that Rebell Bacon; whereupon arose a Murmuring before his face “Bacon Bacon Bacon,” and all Walked out of the field, Muttering as they went “Bacon Bacon Bacon,” leaving the Governour and those that came with him to themselves, who being thus abandon’d Wafted over Chesepiacke Bay 30 Miles to Accomack where are two Counties of Virginia.

Mr. Bacon hearing of this Came back part of the Way, and sent out Parties of Horse Patrolling through every County, Canying away Prisoners all whom he Distrusted might any more molest his Indian Prosecucion, yet giving liberty to such as Pledg’d him their Oaths to return home and live quiet; the Copies or Contents of which Oaths I never Saw, but heard were very Strict, tho’ little observed.

About this time was a Spie Detected pretending himself a Deserter who had twice or thrice Come and gone from Party to Party and was by Councill of Warr sentenced to Death, after which Bacon Declared openly to him, That if any one Man in the Army wou’d Speak a Word to save him, he shou’d not suffer, which no man appearing to do, he was Executed. Upon this Manifestation of Clemency Bacon was applauded for a Mercifull Man, not willing to Spill Christian Bloud, nor indeed was it said, that he put any other Man to Death in Cold Bloud, or Plunder any house; Nigh the same time came Majr. Langston with his Troop of horse and Quartered Two Nights at my house who (after high Compliments from the Generall) told me I was desired to Accept the Lieutenancy for preserving the peace in the 5 Northern Counties betwixt Patomack and Rappahanock Rivers. I humbly thank’d his Honour Excusing my self; as I had done before on that Invitation of the like Nature at James Town, but did hear he was mightily offended at my Evasions and threatened to Remember me.

The Govemour made a 2d. Attempt comming over from Accomack with what men he coud procure in Sloops and Boats, forty Miles up the River to James Town, which Bacon hearing of. Came againe down from his Forest Persuit, and finding a Bank not a flight Shot long. Cast up thwart the Neck of the Peninsula there in James Town, He Stormed it, and took the Town, in which Attack were 12 Men Slaine and Wounded But the Governour with most of his followers fled back, down the River in their Vessells.

Here resting a few dales they Concerted the Burning of the Town, wherein Mr. Laurence and Mr. Drummond owning the Two best houses save One, Set fire each to his own house, which Example the Souldiers following Laid the whole Town (with Church and Statehouse) in Ashes, Saying, The Rogues shoud harbour no more there.

On these reiterated Molestacions Bacon Calls a Convention at Midle Plantation 15 miles from James Town in the Month of August 1676, Where an Oath with one or more Proclamations were formed, and Writts by him Issued for an Assembly; The Oaths or Writts I never Saw, but One Proclamation Commanded all Men in the Land on Pain of Death to Joine him, and retire into the Wildernesse upon Arivall of the forces Expected from England, and oppose them untill they shoud propose or accept to treat of an Accommodation, which we who lived Comfortably coud not have undergone, so as the whole Land must have become an Aceldama if Gods exceeding Mercy had not timely removed him.

During these Tumults in Virginia a 2d Danger menaced Maryland by an Insurrection in that Province, Complaining of their heavy Taxes etc. Where 2 or 3 of the leading Malecontents (Men otherwise of Laudable Characters) were put to death which Stifled the father Spreading of that flame, Mr. Bacon (at this time) press’t the best Ship in James River Carrying 20 Guns and putting into her his Lieutenant-Generall Mr. Bland (a Gentleman newly come thither from England to possesse the Estate of his Deceased Uncle late of the Council) and under him the forementioned Capt. Carver formerly a Commander of merchants Ships with men and all necessaries, he sent her to ride before Accomack to Curb and Intercept all small Vessells of War Comission’d by the Govemour Coming often over and making Depredations on the Western Shoar, as if we had been Forreign Enemies…

Mr. Bacon now returns from his last Expedicion Sick of a Flux, without finding any Enemy Indians, having not gone far by reason of the Vexations behind him, nor had he one dry day in all his Marches to and fro in the Forrest whilst the Plantations (not 50 Miles Distant) had a Summer so dry as stinted the Indian Com and Tobacco etc. Which the People Ascribed to the Pawawings, i. e. the Sorceries of the Indians, in a While Bacon dyes and was succeeded by his Lieutenant Genii. Ingram, who had one Wakelet next in Command under him, Thereupon hasten’d over the Governour to York River, and with him they Articled for themselves and whom else they Could, and so all Submitted and were Pardoned Exempting those Nominated and otherwise Proscribed, in a Proclamacion of Indemnity, the principall of whom were Lawrence and Drummond.

Mr. Bland was then a Prisoner having been taken with Carver, as before is noted, and in few dales Mr. Drumond was brought in, when the Governour being on board a Ship came Immediately to Shore and Complimented him with the Ironicall Sarcasm of a low Bend, saying ” Mr. Drumond ! You are very welcome, I am more Glad to See you, than any man in Virginea, Mr. Drumond you shall be hang’d in half an hour;” Who Answered ” What your honour pleases,” and as soon as a Council of War cou’d meet, his Sentence be dispatcht and a Gibbet erected, (which took up near Two houres) He was Executed.

This Mr. Drumond was a sober Scotch Gentleman of good repute with whome I had not a particuler acquaintance, nor do I know the Cause of that rancour his honour had against him, other than his Pretensions in Common for the publick but meeting him by Accident the Morning I left the Town, I advis’d him to be very Wary, for he saw the Governour had put a brand upon him. He (gravely expressing my Name) Answered, “I am in over Shoes, I will be over Boots,” which I was sorry to heare and Left him.’

The last Account of Mr. Laurence was from an uppermost plantation, whence he and Four others Desperado’s with horses pistolls etc. March’d away in a Snow Ancle Deep, who were thought to have Cast themselves into a Branch of some River, rather than to be treated like Drummond.

Bacons Body was so made away, as his Bones were never found to be Exposed on a Gibbet as was purpos’d. Stones being laid in his Coffin, Supposed to be done by Laurence.

Near this time Arrived a small Fleet with a Regiment from England Sr. John Berry Admirall, Col : Herbert Jefferies Commander of the Land forces and Collo. Morrison who had One Year been a former Governour there, all Three Joined in Commission with or to Sr. William Barclay, Soon after when a Generall Court and also an Assembly were held, where some of our former Assembly (with so many others) were put to Death, diverse whereof were Persons of honest reputations and handsome Estates, as that the Assembly Petitioned the Governour to Spill no more bloud, and Mr. Presley at his Coming home told me, he believed the Governour would have hang’d half the Countrey, if they had let him alone. The first was Mr. Bland whose Friends in England had procured his pardon to be sent over with the Fleet, which he pleaded at his Tryall, was in the Governours Pocket, (tho’ Whether ‘twas so, or how it Came there, I know not, yet did not hear ‘twas openly Contradicted,) But he was Answered by Collo. Morrison that he Pleaded his pardon at Swords point, which was look’d upon an odd Sort of Reply, and he was Executed (as was talked) by private Instructions from England, The Duke of York having Sworn “By God Bacon and Bland shoud Dye.”

The Governour went in the Fleet to London, (whether by Command from his Majesty or Spontaneous I did not hear) Leaving Col : Jefferyes in his Place, and by next Shipping Came back a Person who waited on his Honour in his Voyage, and untill his Death, from whom a report was Whisper’d about, that the King did Say ” That old fool has hang’d more men in that naked Country, than he had done for the Murther of his Father,” whereof the Governour hearing dyed soon after without having seen his Majesty; Which shuts up this Tragedy…

 

 

Further Reading: 

 

Andrews, ed. Narratives of the Insurrections, 1675-1690, available from Archive.org.

Frantz, John (ed.) Bacon’s Rebellion: Prologue to the Revolution? Lexington (MA): D. C. Heath and Company. 1969.

Frederickson, George. Racism: A Short History. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2002.

Rediker & Linebaugh. Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press. 2000.

This is part of a series