Jamestown was once the bustling capital of the Colony of Virginia. It was a smoldering ruin, and Nathaniel Bacon was on the run. Charismatic and courageous, he had spent the last several months leading a growing group of rebels in a bloody battle against William Berkeley, the colonial governor, and wasn’t about to stop now.

Forces were coming from England in an attempt to take his militia down. But Bacon and his men couldn’t surrender. Hunker down, he told them. Hide in the woods for the time being, but keep up the fight when they arrive.

Soon Bacon was dead and his militia defeated. The rebellion he led is commonly thought of as the first armed insurrection by American colonists against Britain and their colonial government. A hundred years before the American Revolution, Bacon and his armed rebels ransacked their colonial capital, threatened its governor and upended Virginia’s social order. Many were executed for their actions.

Right after the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson and others upheld the event as a brave stand by embattled colonists. Today, though, historians see it as a tussle over the ownership of the colonial frontier and an effort to further drive Native Americans off their lands. 

Lean Times Lead Up to Bacon's Rebellion

Tobacco in Jamestown
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Settlers roll barrels of tobacco up a ramp and onto a ship in preparation for export from Jamestown, Virginia.

At the time, wealthy settlers had built profitable tobacco plantations and used their crops to pay high colonial taxes. But for poorer Virginians, times were lean. Only people who owned land could vote, and the indentured servants and poorer Virginians who did not felt disenfranchised.

Poor farmers had been hit hard by falling tobacco prices, and many on the borders of the colony’s frontier wanted to expand westward. There, they faced threats from Native Americans intent on protecting their ancestral lands. When the colonists called on their governor for military support, he refused.

Berkeley had long tried to balance his colonists’ wishes against those of the tribes on Virginia’s borders. But his attempts to appease all sides failed, especially when he used new trade rules to increase his wealthy friends’ fortunes. Bacon, who had recently arrived in Virginia and was Berkeley’s cousin by marriage, was disgusted by what he viewed as the governor’s disloyalty and unfairness.

In March 1676, after attacking a friendly tribe and falsely accusing them of stealing his corn, Bacon insisted that the governor finance and support a militia to attack Native Americans on the colony’s border.

Berkeley refused, infuriating Bacon. He began to amass a militia of his own. Drunk on brandy and the prospects of the land to which they thought they were entitled, Bacon and his men headed south. There, they met a group of Occaneechi people, whom they enlisted to help them fight a group of Susquehannocks.

The Occaneechi helped but met with a brutal reward. After the skirmish, Bacon and his men turned on them, slaughtering most of the Occaneechi and decimating their village.

Bacon Declared a Rebel by Virginia Governor

Bacon's Rebellion
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Nathaniel Bacon (right) and his rebel followers confront Virginia governor Sir William Berkeley with his failure to protect them from Native American attacks.

In response, Berkeley declared Bacon a rebel and scheduled elections for a new assembly to solve the problem for good. But Bacon was immediately elected to that legislative body, and when he headed to Jamestown to begin his tenure there, was met with a chilly welcome.

As the assembly convened, Bacon got on his knees and apologized to the governor. His supporters erupted with cries for the governor to let him lead a new campaign. The governor eventually kicked him out of the assembly.

Humiliated and furious, Bacon gathered his troops. A few weeks later, he marched toward Jamestown with 500 supporters and another demand to lead the colony into war against the Native Americans. As Bacon’s men stood off with Berkeley’s, the governor opened his shirt and showed Bacon his bare chest. “Here, shoot me!” yelled Berkeley, daring Bacon to shoot.

Instead, Bacon retreated and began traveling throughout Virginia, recruiting other disgruntled rebels. Berkeley accused him of rebellion and treason, and Bacon responded with heated proclamations of his own, accusing the governor of having sold “his [friends], country and the liberties of his loyal subjects to the barbarous heathen.” 

He accused Berkeley of trying to force the colonists into a civil war—while fomenting one of his own. Bacon and his men began conducting their own raids around the colony, attacking friendly tribes like the Pamunkey people, and gathering more supporters as they went. Among the mob were Black and white indentured servants.

In September, matters came to a head. Governor Berkeley had been traveling throughout Virginia to recruit supporters of his own, and returned to Jamestown to issue a final proclamation condemning Bacon.

In response, Bacon and his men rushed into Jamestown, burning and pillaging as they went. On the night of September 19, they torched the entire town, burning it to the ground. As the embattled governor fled, Bacon’s supporters terrorized what remained of the town and the governor’s supporters.

Rebellion Fizzles Upon Bacon's Death

Finally, the Crown intervened. News had taken months to travel to England, and Charles II took until late October to respond. By then, Bacon’s rebellion was falling to pieces. The day before Charles II’s proclamation about the rebellion, Bacon died of dysentery. Without their leader, the rebels floundered. Berkeley, assisted by an English naval squadron, soon defeated the remainder of the rebels, and Berkeley returned to Jamestown.

There, he exacted his final revenge against Bacon. At Berkeley’s insistence, 23 of Bacon’s supporters were hanged. “The governor would have hanged half the country if they had let him alone,” remarked one observer.

Berkeley didn’t get the chance. Charles II’s commission clashed with the governor, whose authority had been undermined and whose 27 years of governance ended in disgrace. After arguing with the commissioner, who had been given authority to end Berkeley’s governorship, Berkeley went to England to beg Charles II to let him keep his post.

“Sick, and weakened by the crossing, six weeks later Berkeley landed in London a broken man,” writes historian Warren M. Billings. “Gone were his allies at court. The old governor's one desire was to clear himself with the king. There was no opportunity.” Berkeley died before he ever saw the king.

How Bacon's Rebellion Planted the Seeds of Race-Based Slavery

In the aftermath of the rebellion, white planters reacted with alarm to the anger they had seen among the Black Virginians who had joined Bacon’s rebellion. “The planters had not been able to control this rowdy labor force of servants and slaves,” historian Ira Berlin told PBS. “But soon after Bacon's Rebellion they increasingly distinguish between people of African descent and people of European descent. They enact laws which say that people of African descent are hereditary slaves.”

Planters feared what their white indentured servants could do, so they slowly eliminated the system, relying instead on enslaved Black people to work their plantations. Backlash from Bacon’s rebellion is credited with helping kick off the racial distinctions that defined the colonies and the United States that followed.

As for the Native Americans caught in the crosshairs of Bacon and Berkeley’s feud, after the massacre, the few Occaneechi people who remained fled their traditional lands. Eventually, they merged with another tribe. In 2004, a small group of Occaneechi descendants bought back a 25-acre parcel of their traditional lands—the first time Occaneechi people have owned land as a tribe for over 250 years.

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