Bacon's Rebellion

From Academic Kids

Bacon's Rebellion, also known as the Virginia Rebellion, was an uprising in 1676 in the colony of Virginia, led by Nathaniel Bacon. It was the first in the American colonies in which discontented frontiersmen took part; a similar uprising in Maryland occurred in the same year.



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Nathaniel Bacon, engraving

The end of the 17th century in the northern American colonies brought about the rise of the merchant classes, who took control of the land, to the discontent of the majority of the population who were small farmers, often dissenters in religion, and barely able to make a living from their property. In addition these people held land that was closest to the frontier and subject to frequent Indian attacks; they were furthest from, and had poor communication with, markets to sell their produce; and often their land was held by eastern speculators. Taxes were high, especially on tobacco after 1660, and to make matters worse, the Governor, Sir William Berkeley, had given only property holders the vote - disenfranchising the small farmers. There were also many problems caused by the weather: hailstorms, floods, dry spells, and hurricanes occurred within the course of a single year.

The Rebellion

With all this discontent, matters came to a head when, in 1676, troubles with the Indians escalated. One particular attack had already taken place on the plantation of Thomas Mathews, located in the Northern Neck section of Virginia near the Potomac River. The frontiersmen retaliated, but attacked the wrong tribe; and large-scale Indian attacks now began. The settlers appealed to the Governor to be able to take such action against any or all of the tribes, but Berkeley refused, no doubt from a purely commercial point of view, since such measures would inevitably cause lucrative markets to be damaged.

Instead an investigation took place into the reasons for the attacks, during which Berkeley pleaded for restraint on all sides. One settler, Nathaniel Bacon, disregarded the Governor's direct orders by seizing some friendly Appomattox Indians on a charge of stealing corn: he was reprimanded and his fellow farmers were aggrieved at this seemingly one-sided action. In attempting to find a compromise, the Governor called what was known as the Long Assembly which declared war on all the so-called "bad Indians" by setting up a strong defensive zone around the state. In order to do this, higher taxes were raised to the disgust of the frontiersmen; and there was a strong feeling among them that "favoured traders" were allowed to trade with the Indians at the expense of regular traders who had dealt with the Indians for generations.

In all of this Bacon came out as leader of those most in opposition to the policies now being pusued by Berkeley, and he became the elected "General" of a group of local volunteer Indian fighters, having promised to bear the cost of the campaigns. From the forest to which he had fled, Bacon led attacks on the Indians; although these proved successful in overcoming the tribes, the Governor nonetheless denounced them as rebels.

Bacon and the House of Burgesses

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Governor Berkeley confronts Bacon

Bacon and his men continued to launch attacks on the tribes. The Governor was now forced into agreeing to issue a pardon if Bacon turned himself in, but that he would then be sent to England to be tried before King King Charles II. Many of the members of the House of Burgesses were sympathetic to Bacon's cause, and this led to him being elected as a member of the House.

Bacon, by virtue of this election, attended the important Legislative Assembly of June 1676: at which time he was made to apologize for his previous actions. Berkeley immediately pardoned Bacon and allowed him to take his seat in the assembly. Although several reform laws were passed at the meeting, Bacon's only cause was his campaign against the Indians. Matters came to a head when, during a debate on the Indian situation, Bacon and his men surrounded the state house, and forced the Governor to gave in to Bacon's demands for campaigns against the Indians without government interference. This concession, too, was short-lived, and when Berkeley renaged on the commission, the rebels took over Jamestown, if only for a brief period, between July and September 1676.

When Berkeley returned to recapture the town, aided by the English militia, Bacon burned it to the ground. Although, for a short period of time, Nathaniel Bacon had been ruler of Virginia, this success was quickly ended. On October 26th, 1676, Bacon abruptly died of the "Bloodie Flux" and "Lousey Disease" (body lice). It is thought that his soldiers burned his contaminated body because it was never found. Many of the rebels were executed or had their property confiscated.

Berkeley himself was replaced as Governor by a commission sent from England: he died there on 9 July 1677.

Effects of the Rebellion

Bacon's rebellion (and others which followed: see War of the Regulation in Carolina) was the result of discontent among back-country farmers who had taken the law into their own hands. Many of the farmers were debtors: borrowing on the strength of paper money was stopped by the British Government, leading to even more discontent against the merchant classes. In 1763 the end of the French and Indian War caused a serious depression, when farm prices fell and farmers found themselves subject to heavy taxation and mortgage foreclosures. Those factors, and the addition of the presence of British soldiers intent on tightening control over the colonies, were enough to lead to the Revolutionary War.

Historian Helen Hill Miller has pointed out that one of the most important reforms made during Bacon's government was the recognition of the right to bear arms, so that the common man could defend himself from hostile Indians, but also so that he may oppose a despotic regime. After Berkeley's resumption of power, this right was one of the first he repealed. She suggests it was Bacon's Rebellion that may have served as one of the major motivations for later colonists' intense appreciation of the right to bear arms, and one of the reasons colonists were so upset a hundred years later when they were denied that right, so outraged, in fact, that the Second Amendment in the new Constitution recognized it.

External link

  • The full story of the Rebellion can be found here (



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