In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon led a group of planters, small landholders, indentured servants, and slaves first in defiance of, then in assault on the colonial government of Virginia.
Accusing the royal governor Sir William Berkeley, his cousin by marriage, of conspiring with hostile Native Americans to enrich himself and his cronies, Bacon and his adherents launched a campaign of genocidal violence along the frontier, plundered the estates of Berkeley’s supporters, and burned the colonial capital, Jamestown, to the ground.
Berkeley, who fled the capital and only returned when British troops arrived to restore order after the rebellion’s failure, accused his rebellious relation of a conspiracy to overthrow the government of Virginia.
As in most agrarian resistance movements in colonial America, Bacon’s Rebellion found its roots in a mix of economic, regional, and racial tensions. In the 1660s and 1670s, the pressure of former indentured servants migrating west in search of land and independence escalated social and political tensions along the colony’s western frontiers.
The context of falling tobacco prices, declining opportunities for landownership, high taxes, lack of political representation, and political favoritism in the Indian trade cemented an unlikely alliance of small landowners, frontier planters, indentured servants, and slaves. The depredations of the Anglo-Dutch wars underscored a climate of violent political struggle. The resulting instability threatened dangerous consequences and opened the way for a demagogic insurrection.
In 1675, a dispute between indigenous Doegs and a frontier farmer touched off a series of bloody attacks, providing a catalyst for the conflicts and resentments within Virginia’s colonial population. Bacon forced a commission from Berkeley, raised a vigilante force, and launched a campaign of indiscriminate reprisals against indigenous people, butchering innocent Susquehannocks alongside enemy Doegs.
Threatened by Bacon’s disobedience, the governor called the colony’s first election in fifteen years. Bacon was elected to the House of Burgesses, but Berkeley had him arrested when he arrived in Jamestown to take his seat.
Berkeley soon released Bacon, sending him out to recruit an anti-Indian militia and defend the frontiers. When Bacon took his commission as a mandate for the large-scale slaughter of the region’s native peoples, Berkeley reversed his position and declared Bacon a traitor.
Accusing Berkeley of sacrificing the safety of European settlers in the interest of kickbacks and profits from the Indian trade, and fearing that Berkeley and his followers were conspiring to assassinate him, Bacon made true his traitor’s label, turning his force on the capital.
His militias looted and pillaged the properties of Berkeley supporters, burning the capital to the ground in the process. Bacon and his men gained de facto control over the colony until his untimely death from dysentery in October 1676.
Bacon’s Rebellion proved the largest and most successful rebellion in colonial history before the American Revolution. Whether the act of a powerhungry political opportunist or a freedom fighter (albeit of a staunchly undemocratic character), Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion foreshadowed growing socioeconomic and political tensions in the developing colonies—an environment ripe for resistance, revolt, and intrigue.