Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Bacon's Rebellion from Chambers Dictionary of World History

A rising against the royal governor in the American colony of Virginia, rooted in a conflict between small frontier farmers and the indigenous peoples. The rebellion reflected the rift between the western farmers and the eastern aristocracy represented by the colonial government. When Governor William Berkeley, perhaps protecting trading interests with the Native Americans, failed to respond to a Native American attack against western settlers, Nathaniel Bacon led a misguided reprisal against innocent Native Americans. In 1676 Berkeley sought to bring the farmers to trial, but the opposition escalated, resulting in the burning of Jamestown. After Bacon's death, the rebellion collapsed.


Summary Article: Bacon's Rebellion
from Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History

Bacon's Rebellion (1676–77) was an armed revolt against the colonial government of Virginia. Led by local planter Nathaniel Bacon (1647–76), a group of Virginians rose up in challenge of the authority of colonial governor Sir William Berkeley (1605–77) when they were not satisfied by his efforts to curtail attacks by Native Americans and address economic problems. In making their demands, Bacon and his group of supporters eventually seized control of much of the colony, launched attacks on local Indian tribes, and burned down the colonial capital of Jamestown. Although Bacon then died suddenly from illness, the fighting continued for weeks before Berkeley and his loyalist followers reestablished royal control of the colony. Fearful of renewed armed conflict, the large, established planters, who controlled the colonial government, quickly addressed the concerns of Bacon's followers by lowering taxes, reinstituting property qualifications for voting, and adopting a much more aggressive policy against local Indian tribes. More importantly, the large planters increased the importation of African slaves, which helped unite colonial social classes along racial lines with shared interests that were in opposition to the interests of Africans and Native Americans. This change in the labor supply was fundamental in shaping the economic development of Virginia and the emerging Southern colonies.

In 1675 a dispute between planter Thomas Matthew and local Doeg Indians led to a raid by the Indians on Matthew's plantation. In response, a local militia of Virginia colonists attacked the Doeg Indians and also attacked innocent Susquehannock Indians camped nearby. These actions triggered retaliatory raids and led to escalating violence. Together with established, large planters in the colony, Governor Berkeley carried on a lucrative trade with local tribes and was eager to prevent more conflict that would disrupt this relationship. Insisting on a policy of restraint and cooperation, Berkeley planned to use frontier forts and militia patrols to prevent further bloodshed. However, settlers living along the frontier objected to the plan, in part because of its expense. Many of them argued for directly attacking the various tribes of Indians living in the area. Among this faction was Bacon, who had recently arrived in Virginia. He was a cousin of Berkeley by marriage and had a place on the ruling council of the colony.

Bacon requested an official commission from Berkeley to fight the Indians but was refused. Bacon nevertheless raised a volunteer militia and set out to attack local Indian tribes, including tribes that had been the colonists' allies. Learning of Bacon's actions, Berkeley declared Bacon a rebel and removed him from the ruling council. Bacon, meanwhile, gained widespread support for his leadership, and his men took control of a large part of the colony. He was then elected to the legislative House of Burgesses, which had been convened amid calls for governmental reform to meet in Jamestown in June 1676. Before attending the assembly, Bacon was forced to apologize for his unauthorized actions, and Berkeley pardoned him. When Bacon still could not obtain permission to pursue his campaign against the Indians, however, he left Jamestown and returned with a large number of his supporters, who were armed. They intimidated the members of the House of Burgesses into granting Bacon a commission as a military commander. Bacon quickly began to impose his own authority upon the colony, issuing proclamations, circulating declarations against Berkeley, leading attacks against local Indians, and confiscating the property of Berkeley supporters. Meanwhile, Berkeley evaded capture and led a force to regain control of the colony, reoccupying Jamestown in early September. Besieged by Bacon's rebels, Berkeley and his loyalist supporters soon abandoned the capital, however, and Bacon gave the order to burn Jamestown to the ground.

Bacon died suddenly a few weeks later, in October, worn down by dysentery and typhus. The fighting continued until early 1677, when Berkeley reestablished control over the colony. He took reprisals against the rebels, ordering their property to be confiscated and rebel leaders to be hanged. (Berkeley had a total of 23 men hanged for their actions during the rebellion.) Berkeley, then in poor health, was recalled to England, where he died a few months later.

For many years Bacon's Rebellion was portrayed as the first stirrings of the revolution that would end British rule over the American colonies 100 years later. By the late twentieth century, however, historians began to argue that the revolt was not a challenge to English tyranny but a response to the increasing economic and social divide between the different classes of colonists. The colony was outwardly prosperous, but its economy at the time of Bacon's Rebellion was under severe strain from low tobacco prices, high taxes, and England's mercantilist policies enforced through a series of Navigation Acts that required the colony to trade directly with England using English ships.

As these problems deepened, the gap between social classes grew larger, with the small planters in the back country, former indentured servants, and tradesmen increasingly at odds with the wealthy, elite tobacco planters of the Virginia Tidewater—the area around Chesapeake Bay including its Eastern Shore. Back country settlers and their allies, faced with Indian attacks and a proposed defense plan likely to increase their financial burden, willingly joined Bacon in his attempt to wrest control of the colony from the governing elite.

Although unsuccessful in changing the balance of power, Bacon's Rebellion had a lasting effect on the economic and social development of Virginia. Eager to prevent further civil conflict, colonial leaders addressed many of the concerns of Bacon's supporters by lowering taxes and instituting a more aggressive Indian policy. In the years following, the planter elite increasingly replaced white indentured labor with African slaves. This shift began the process of uniting the richer and poorer whites in Virginia in terms of racial identity and greatly increased agricultural production—social and economic factors that shaped the development of Virginia and became the genesis of the Old South.

SEE ALSO Colonial Wealth Distribution; Indentured Servants; Mercantilism; Native American Policy; Navigation Acts; Tobacco Industry; Virginia, Economic History of

BIBLIOGRAPHY
  • Rice, James D. Tales from a Revolution: Bacon's Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America. Oxford UP New York, 2012.
  • Tarter, Brent. “Bacon's Rebellion, the Grievances of the People, and the Political Culture of Seventeenth-Century Virginia.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 119.1 (2011): 2-41.
  • Washburn, Wilcomb E. The Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia. U of North Carolina P Chapel Hill, 1957. Print.
  • Wiseman, Samuel; Michael L. Oberg. Samuel Wiseman's Book of Record: The Official Account of Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia, 1676-77. Lexington Lanham, 2005.
  • COPYRIGHT 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning

    Related Articles


    Full text Article Bacon’s Rebellion
    Britain and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

    Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, a land-owning and political conflict in colonial Virginia, was also a postscript to the English Civil War and an...

    Full text Article Bacon's Rebellion
    Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History

    Bacon's Rebellion (1676–77) was an armed revolt against the colonial government of Virginia. Led by local planter Nathaniel Bacon (1647–76), a group

    Full text Article Bacon’s Rebellion
    Conspiracy Theories in American History

    In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon led a group of planters, small landholders, indentured servants, and slaves first in defiance of, then in assault on the...

    See more from Credo