Bacon’s Rebellion

Virginia planters led by Nathaniel Bacon responded to their inability to acquire new land by rising up against both Virginia’s governor and local Native Americans. Though ultimately contained, the rebellion resulted in a restructuring of Virginia’s government by the English crown.

Summary of Event

Instability was an unavoidable side effect of the rapid growth of the English population in Virginia Virginia;English and Native Americans after 1640. Competition for political power and social position increased after 1660, as the earlier settlers entrenched themselves in local political offices. Land hunger was also a problem: Since the end of the second Powhatan War in 1646, the Powhatans Powhatans had held the land north of the York River, which had the effect of hemming in English expansion. Land ownership was a requirement for the vote as well as the key to personal fortune. Later settlers, many of whom had come to Virginia as indentured servants, found high land prices and limited opportunities, and they began to view the land held by the Powhatans as the answer to their problem. At the same time, the return of the Susquehannocks Susquehannocks to the northern Chesapeake meant the extension of their war with the Iroquois into the area. That European settlers should be caught in the crossfire of this war was inevitable and also helped fuel frustrations. [kw]Bacon’s Rebellion (May 10-Oct. 18, 1676)
[kw]Rebellion, Bacon’s (May 10-Oct. 18, 1676)
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 10-Oct. 18, 1676: Bacon’s Rebellion[2610]
Government and politics;May 10-Oct. 18, 1676: Bacon’s Rebellion[2610]
Agriculture;May 10-Oct. 18, 1676: Bacon’s Rebellion[2610]
American Colonies;May 10-Oct. 18, 1676: Bacon’s Rebellion[2610]
Bacon’s Rebellion (1676)[Bacons Rebellion (1676)]
Bacon, Nathaniel
Ingram, Joseph
Berkeley, Sir William
Beverly, Robert
Berry, John
Moryson, Francis
Jeffreys, Herbert

A prosperous economy might have counteracted unstable political and social conditions, but Virginia’s economy stagnated after 1660. Chronic overproduction of an inferior quality of tobacco Tobacco;Virginia , aggravated by restrictive features of the Navigation Acts, drove the price of tobacco down. Expensive experimentation with methods of diversifying the economy and the need for defense measures against the Dutch and the natives resulted in high taxes. In 1674, the colonists were further taxed to send agents to London to lobby against proprietary land grants. Circumstances conspired to exacerbate the planters’ miseries, and Governor Sir William Berkeley’s Berkeley, Sir William ineffectual leadership led to a general disaffection toward the government. Berkeley’s own comfortable circumstances, derived in part from a profitable monopoly in the fur trade with local tribes, seemed to prove his indifference to the planters’ troubles.

The events immediately leading to the rebellion of 1676 grew out of a dispute between a planter and members of the Doeg Doegs tribe in June, 1675. After forces of Virginians pursuing the Doegs murdered numbers of friendly Susquehannocks on two separate occasions, the Indians increased the intensity of their raids throughout the fall and winter. Governor Berkeley angered the planters in the frontier settlements when he countermanded the order for a force to proceed against the marauding warriors. In keeping with Berkeley’s overall American Indian policy, the Assembly committed the colony to a defensive war, and the governor ordered the erection of a chain of forts on the frontier. Berkeley’s solution was no solution in the planters’ view, as the forts would add to the burden of taxation and hemmed in further settlement. The settlers’ worst fears about Berkeley had been confirmed.

In April, an impatient group of upcountry planters persuaded one of their number, Nathaniel Bacon, Bacon, Nathaniel to lead a band of volunteers against the Indians. What followed on May 10 was a war of extermination, in which Native Americans of all tribes, friendly or hostile, were killed. Bacon, the son of an English gentleman and related to Berkeley through marriage, had not arrived in Virginia until 1674, but he had already been appointed to the Council of State. Governor Berkeley refused Bacon’s request for a commission to raise volunteers and sent several letters warning him against becoming a mutineer. Unable to head off Bacon with his force of three hundred men, Berkeley, on May 26, 1676, declared him a rebel. On the same day, the governor dissolved the Long Assembly and called for the first general elections in fifteen years, promising that the new Assembly would deal with the American Indian threat and any other grievances.

Nathaniel Bacon confronts the Virginia General Assembly.

(Gay Brothers)

Bacon’s success in killing some natives prompted the residents of Henrico County to send him to Jamestown as one of their new burgesses, but the governor ordered his capture before he could take his seat. Bacon confessed his error and received a pardon from the governor. Several days later, he slipped off to Henrico. The June Assembly met for twenty days and passed a series of acts dealing with the prosecution of the war with the natives and with various local problems, especially concerning the misuse of political power. Although Bacon has often been credited with pushing through reform legislation, he did not return to Jamestown until June 23, when the session was nearly over. Arriving with five hundred armed men, he terrorized the governor and the burgesses into granting him a commission to fight the natives.

As soon as Bacon marched toward the falls of the James River, Berkeley again proclaimed him a rebel and, together with his lieutenant, Robert Beverly, Beverly, Robert tried to raise a force against him. Failing in his attempt, Berkeley fled to the eastern shore, leaving Bacon in control of the western shore. Upon arriving in Middle Plantation, Bacon issued a manifesto, the Declaration of the People, which accused the governor of numerous offenses against the colonists and called for his surrender. While Bacon then proceeded to seek out and attack the friendly Pamunkey Pamunkeys Indians, Berkeley returned to Jamestown and, having reached an agreement with Bacon’s garrison, took possession of the capital. Several days later, Bacon arrived with six hundred troops and besieged the town. The faintheartedness of Berkeley’s men forced the governor to concede the town. Bacon burned it on September 19. A little more than a month later, the rebellion fell apart at the news of Bacon’s sudden death of the “bloody flux” and “lousey disease,” possibly dysentery.


On January 29, the royal commissioners John Berry, Berry, John Francis Moryson, Moryson, Francis and Sir Herbert Jeffreys Jeffreys, Herbert arrived from England along with one thousand English soldiers to investigate the uprising and restore order. Berkeley nullified the royal pardons that they brought for the rebels and ordered the execution of twenty-three men. His extreme cruelty was criticized by the commissioners, and Jeffreys formally took over the government in April upon Berkeley’s recall by the Crown. Although Bacon was dead, the disorder and protest continued under the leadership of Joseph Ingram Ingram, Joseph . It would not end until 1683, with the reconfiguring of imperial government in Virginia. The rebellion had demonstrated that a nominal democracy in which land was the key to enfranchisement could not work if newcomers had no realistic hope of gaining land for themselves.

Further Reading

  • Billings, Warren M. Sir William Berkeley and the Forging of Colonial Virginia. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004. A biography of the governor who declared Bacon a rebel and crushed Bacon’s Rebellion.
  • Fausz, J. Frederick. “Merging and Emerging Worlds: Anglo-Indian Interest Groups and the Development of the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake.” In Colonial Chesapeake Society, edited by Lois Green Carr et al. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. Details the changing English view of the Native Americans in the Chesapeake from “noble savages” to important trading partners.
  • Horn, James. Adapting to a New World: English Society in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. A scholarly but lively study of the extent to which English colonists in the Chesapeake were influenced by their homeland in their attitudes about race, authority, and other matters.
  • Middlekauff, Robert. Bacon’s Rebellion. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964. A good collection of the primary documents associated with the uprising, beginning with Berkeley’s American Indian policy and concluding with the official report submitted to London.
  • Mouer, L. Daniel. “Digging a Rebel’s Homestead.” Archaeology 44, no. 4 (July/August, 1991): 54. Describes the causes of Bacon’s Rebellion and the rebellion’s implications for archaeology.
  • Tate, Thad W., and David L. Ammerman. The Chesapeake in the Seventeenth Century: Essays on the Anglo-American Society. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979. An essential collection of articles addressing race relations, class structure, and the demographics of the seventeenth century Chesapeake. Includes a historiographic discussion of Bacon’s Rebellion.
  • Washburn, Wilcomb E. The Governor and the Rebel. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957. A classic study of the small details of the uprising; generous in its forgiveness of Governor Berkeley.
  • Webb, Stephen Saunders. 1676: The End of American Independence. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. Places the rebellion in a larger context, as a prerevolutionary condition, while providing a detailed study of the events of 1676-1677.

Jamestown Is Founded

Introduction of Tobacco Farming in North America

First General Assembly of Virginia

Africans Arrive in Virginia

Powhatan Wars

British Navigation Acts

Related articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Nathaniel Bacon; John Smith. Bacon’s Rebellion (1676)[Bacons Rebellion (1676)]