Colonial Period: Bacon’s Rebellion And America’s Turning Point on Race
Bacon’s Rebellion is the fourth lesson in the Colonial Period unit with The Great Awakening and French and Indian War to follow. It was preceded by the Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Marquette and Joliet.
The pre-Colonial Period saw European explorers, through the use of triangular trade and particularly the Atlantic Slave trade, colonize indigenous people while establishing indentured servitude and slavery as sources of labor. In mainland North America, settlers would establish thirteen colonies, areas that are now the states known as:
- New York
- New Jersey
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- New Hampshire
- Rhode Island
There were other scattered colonies like St. Augustine in what is now known as Florida. In the early days of the colonial period, the settlers did not know how to live in the wilderness, and they faced many hardships.
In Massachusetts, for example, the Plymouth settlers, spent most of their first winter (1620–21) on board the Mayflower. The following winter, the Pilgrims lived on land but in wigwams and sailcloth tents. Many were sick and all were hungry, with nearly one-quarter of them dying, before a ship from England brought fresh supplies.
In time, the colonists learned how to live in the wilderness — through trial and error and the help of some of the more friendly Native American tribes. By the 1700s, small cities and towns were well established. The colonists slowly developed their own customs and lifestyles. Eventually they began to feel that this new land was now their true home.
Life In Colonial America
Life in colonial America centered around the family. Most people worked, played, learned, and worshiped at home. A large family was necessary in colonial days to get all the work done.
The father was considered the head of the household. He made all of the decisions concerning their families and earned money through farming and jobs outside the home. Women worked in the home, raising the children, preparing the meals, sewing clothes, preserving food for the winter, scrubbing laundry, fetching water, and stoking fires.
Most children in early colonial times never saw the inside of a schoolhouse. Instead, colonial children usually learned about the adult world by doing things the way their parents did. But, just because they didn’t go to school, their lives were not easy.
Children were expected to help with a share of the family’s work. Boys helped their fathers and girls did chores at home. By a time a girl was four she could knit stockings!
By the time they had reached age 14, most children were already considered adults. Boys would soon take up their father’s trade or leave home to become an apprentice. Girls learned to manage a house and were expected to marry young, probably by the time they were 16 and surely before they were 20.
Bacon’s Rebellion was an armed rebellion held by Virginia settlers that took place in 1676. It was led by Nathaniel Bacon against Colonial Governor William Berkeley.
Starting in the 1650s, as colonists began to settle the Northern Neck frontier, then known as Chicacoan (Secocowon), some Doeg, Patawomeck and Rappahannock began moving into the region as well and joined local tribes in disputing the settlers’ claims to land and resources. In July 1666, the colonists declared war on them. By 1669, colonists had patented the land on the west of the Potomac as far north as My Lord’s Island (now Theodore Roosevelt Island in Washington, DC). By 1670, they had driven most of the Doeg out of the Virginia colony and into Maryland—apart from those living beside the Nanzatico/Portobago in Caroline County, Virginia.
It was the first rebellion in the North American colonies in which discontented frontiersmen took part (a somewhat similar uprising in Maryland involving John Coode and Josias Fendall took place shortly afterward). The alliance between European indentured servants and Africans (a mix of indentured, enslaved, and free Blacks) disturbed the colonial upper class. They responded by hardening the racial caste of slavery in an attempt to divide the two races from subsequent united uprisings with the passage of the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705. While the farmers did not succeed in their initial goal of driving the Native Americans from Virginia, the rebellion resulted in Berkeley being recalled to England.
Modern historians have suggested that the rebellion was a power play by Bacon against Berkeley and his favoritism towards certain members of the court. While Bacon was on the court, he was not within Berkeley’s inner circle of council members and disagreed with him on many issues. Bacon’s followers used the rebellion as an effort to gain government recognition of the shared interests among all social classes of the colony in protecting the “commonality” and advancing its welfare.
Thousands of Virginians from all classes (including those in indentured servitude) and races rose up in arms against Berkeley, chasing him from Jamestown and ultimately torching the settlement. The rebellion was first suppressed by a few armed merchant ships from London whose captains sided with Berkeley and the loyalists. Government forces arrived soon after and spent several years defeating pockets of resistance and reforming the colonial government to be once more under direct crown control.
When Sir William Berkeley refused to retaliate against the Native Americans, farmers gathered around at the report of a new raiding party. Nathaniel Bacon arrived with a quantity of brandy; after it was distributed, he was elected leader. Against Berkeley’s orders, the group struck south until they came to the Occaneechi people. After convincing the Occaneechi warriors to leave and attack the Susquehannock, Bacon and his men followed by killing most of the Occaneechi men, women, and children remaining at the village. Upon their return, they discovered that Berkeley had called for new elections to the Burgesses to better address the Native American raids.
The recomposed House of Burgesses enacted a number of sweeping reforms (known as Bacon’s Laws). (Bacon was not serving his duty in the House; rather, he was at his plantation miles away.) It limited the powers of the governor and restored suffrage rights to landless freemen.
After passage of these laws, Nathaniel Bacon arrived with 500 followers in Jamestown to demand a commission to lead militia against the Native Americans. The governor, however, refused to yield to the pressure. When Bacon had his men take aim at Berkeley, he responded by “baring his breast” to Bacon and told Bacon to shoot him. Seeing that the governor would not be moved, Bacon then had his men take aim at the assembled burgesses, who quickly granted Bacon his commission. Bacon had earlier been promised a commission before he retired to his estate if he maintained “good” behavior for two weeks. While Bacon was at Jamestown with his small army, eight colonists were killed on the frontier in Henrico County (from where he marched) owing to a lack of manpower on the frontier.
On July 30, 1676, Bacon and his army issued the “Declaration of the People”. The declaration criticized Berkeley’s administration in detail. It leveled several accusations against Berkeley:
- that “upon specious pretense of public works [he] raised great unjust taxes upon the commonality”;
- advancing favorites to high public offices;
- monopolizing the beaver trade with the Native Americans;
- being pro-Native American.
After months of conflict, Bacon’s forces, numbering 300-500 men, moved to Jamestown, besieging the town as it was occupied by Berkeley’s forces. Bacon’s men captured and burned to the ground the colonial capital on September 19. Outnumbered, Berkeley retreated across the river. They encamped at Warner Hall, home of the speaker of the House of Burgesses, Augustine Warner Jr. and caused considerable damage, although the house was left standing.
Before an English naval squadron led by Thomas Larimore could arrive to aid Berkeley and his forces, Bacon died from dysentery on October 26. John Ingram took over leadership of the rebellion, but many followers drifted away. The rebellion did not last long after that. Berkeley launched a series of successful amphibious attacks across the Chesapeake Bay and defeated the rebels. His forces defeated the small pockets of insurgents spread across the Tidewater. Thomas Grantham, captain of the ship Concord cruising the York River, used cunning and force to disarm the rebels. He tricked his way into the garrison of the rebellion, and promised to pardon everyone involved once they got back onto the ship. However, once they were safely in the hold, he turned the ship’s guns on them and disarmed the rebellion. Through various other tactics, the other rebel garrisons were likewise overcome.
Impact of Bacon’s Rebellion
The 71-year-old governor Berkeley returned to the burned capital and a looted home at the end of January 1677. His wife described Green Spring in a letter to her cousin:
It looked like one of those the boys pull down at Shrovetide, and was almost as much to repair as if it had been new to build, and no sign that ever there had been a fence around it…
Bacon’s wealthy landowning followers returned their loyalty to the Virginia government after Bacon’s death. Governor Berkeley returned to power and seized the property of several rebels for the colony. He executed 23 men by hanging, including the former governor of the Albemarle Sound colony, William Drummond, and the collector of customs, Giles Bland.
After an investigative committee returned its report to King Charles II, Berkeley was relieved of the governorship, and recalled to England. “The fear of civil war among whites frightened Virginia’s ruling elite, who took steps to consolidate power and improve their image: for example, restoration of property qualifications for voting, reducing taxes, and adoption of a more aggressive American Indian policy.” Charles II was reported to have commented, “That old fool has put to death more people in that naked country than I did here for the murder of my father.”
No record of the king’s comments have been found; the origin of the story appears to have been colonial myth that arose at least 30 years after the events; the king prided himself on the clemency he had shown to his father’s enemies. Berkeley left his wife, Frances Berkeley, in Virginia and returned to England; she sent a letter to let him know that the current governor was making a bet that the king would refuse to receive him. However, William Berkeley died as soon as he landed in England.
Indentured servants both black and white joined the frontier rebellion. Seeing them united in a cause alarmed the ruling class. Historians believe the rebellion hastened the hardening of racial lines associated with slavery, as a way for planters and the colony to control some of the poor.
Next: The Great Awakening
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