Bacon's Rebellion, 1676: A Review of the Sources and Interpretations
Bacon's Rebellion has given rise to an extensive historiographical dialogue during the three centuries since the events so named transpired. Most sources agree on the character of the events themselves, and the primary participants, but there is little uniformity of agreement about the ultimate causes and effects of this episode, and the motives of the people involved. It has engendered wildly varying interpretations about the social, economic and political situation of Virginia during the 1670s, and equally disparate views about the impact of the rebellion on later generations. This depth of historical inquiry and popular interest underscores the importance of studying Bacon's Rebellion. Despite the extensive research, much remains to be discovered about these important events. The paucity of documentation relating to seventeenth century Virginia reiterates the need to examine all available sources of information, including public and family records, land patents and transactions, archaeological investigations, and oral history in order to arrive at a richer understanding of the events and implications of Bacon's Rebellion. The following paper summarizes the rebellion and reviews the available sources that interpret its events and impacts on Virginia's peoples.
There is little doubt that Bacon's Rebellion was a pivotal event in the history of Virginia. It has long been prominent in the annals of Virginia historiography. It has been memorialized in novels and hailed as an event that foreshadowed the American Revolution. Though the rebellion was short-lived, according to its many chroniclers it had rippling effects that variously changed the nature of Virginia colonial government, altered westward settlement practices, fostered ideas of democracy and English liberties that were drawn on during the American Revolution, and radicalized colonial relations with Virginia Indians. Most contemporary accounts of the rebellion were clearly biased, and many later histories were just as weighted towards one side or the other, casting doubts about their reliability. However, the rebellion probably dramatically altered the relationship between Virginia Indians and the colonists, deepening the mistrust and marginalization on the part of the surviving Indians, and exacerbating racial hatred and violence against Native groups by the colonists.
Ostensibly the events known as Bacon's Rebellion began in the spring of 1676, when Nathaniel Bacon, Jr. agreed, without obtaining a commission from Governor William Berkeley, to lead an attack on some Indian groups that had been raiding farmsteads along the fall lines of Virginia's rivers. However, a series of clashes between frontier colonists and several Indian tribes had begun in July 1675, and the violence was escalating. Both Indians and colonists led raids and attacks and committed atrocities for various reasons, emphasizing the fragility of their peaceful coexistence. It was a pattern continuously replayed during the seven decades of English settlement and expansion in Virginia. It was not an arrangement that could long endure. However, the events that become known as Bacon's Rebellion differed from earlier wars with the Indians.
Virginia's English population expanded rapidly during the 1650s and 1660s, with settlers pushing the borders in every direction. The economic motivations of the colonists and the continued influx of new arrivals ensured that conflict would occur. Once the raids began, both sides contributed to the violence, and the colonists often confused, or plainly disregarded the differences between friendly Indian tribes and those outside the bounds of any treaties. The Susquehannahs were ranging from the Potomac to the falls of the James River, displaced from their more northern territory, and colonists responded by attacking them, or sometimes friendlier tribes such as the Piscattaways, Appomattox, or Pamunkey. Governor Berkeley had authorized a force to deal with the problem on the Northern Neck, but the colonists murdered five chiefs who apparently had come out to make peace (Carson 1976:1-11; Morgan 1975:250-255).
Worried that more of this would cause a general rebellion among all the Indians, Berkeley was restrained in addressing the Indian threat at the falls of the James. He called a special session of the assembly and they took measures for the erection of several forts along the frontier to be manned with a standing force of 500 soldiers. These measures would be extremely costly, especially to the poor farmers, and many felt that they would be unlikely to have much effect on the Indians (Morgan 1975:253). Farmers on the Southside and on the upper parts of the James River requested a force to subdue the Indians, and when it was not forthcoming, they were compelled to take matters into their own hands.
When Bacon agreed to lead an angered band of settlers in an attack against the Indians in April 1676, he defied the governor, but seemed to be taking an action that many settlers on the periphery of English colonization felt was necessary. He may or may not have underestimated Berkeley's disapproval, but his actions led to an open war on Virginia Indians and an internal struggle for control of Virginia and its citizens. The subsequent events of 1676 are recounted in numerous sources and need not be detailed here. Bacon's untimely death in October allowed Berkeley to quickly recapture the reigns of power and launch a zealous campaign to punish the participants and recoup any losses. When the royal commissioners arrived in January 1677 order had largely been restored, but Berkeley's departure soon after marked the beginning of a new era.
The ultimate causes of this violent outbreak are numerous and necessary for understanding the reasons and implications of this conflict, and are also objects of contention among historians. The roots of the rebellion seem to have been borne of two primary forces: the continued expansion of English colonists onto Indian lands, and the economic and political oppression wrought by Virginia's wealthy planter elite upon the vast number of small farmers, servants and slaves comprising the bulk of the population. Expansion led to increased contact and increased friction with neighboring Indian tribes. Treaties were either poorly enforced, or flagrantly violated. Colonists living along the so-called frontiers balked at the low level of protection afforded them by the governor and his council, and resented the burden of levies and fees that fell disproportionately on them from the General Assembly, county courts, and vestries (Carson 1976:2-3; Morgan 1975:246-49). The policies that encouraged these results were those of Governor William Berkeley, who had ruled the colony for decades prior to 1676, as well as his small circle of long-serving members of the Council and General Assembly. Corruption and favoritism were key components of Virginia's seventeenth century government, and many in the colony had great cause for complaint. But did they have reason for rebellion?
There are dozens of books and articles addressing the issues of Bacon's Rebellion, but only during the latter half of the twentieth century have historians seriously probed the underlying causes and effects of these key events. The contemporary accounts are strongly biased and influenced by the opinions and atmosphere of Virginia during the 1670s. Historical works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tended to either criticize Bacon for subverting the rightful authority of the governor, or conversely praise him for rebelling against tyrannical leadership, without objectively balancing all the evidence on hand. Several of the modern sources have been examined in depth to summarize the dominant viewpoints and interpretations.
In her detailed overview of sources both historical and fictional concerning Bacon's Rebellion, Jane Carson thoroughly reviews the various contemporary accounts, historical works, plays, and novels, analyzing their diverse opinions and conclusions regarding the events and implications of the rebellion. Though not an exhaustive bibliography, Carson's work comes closer than any other to assembling and categorizing the rich literature concerning the events of 1676, and provides the reader with an indispensable tool for conducting further research. Carson provides a fair and objective account of the sources, but stops short of synthesizing the motives of those involved and the legacy of Bacon's Rebellion.
Wertenbaker, in Bacon's Rebellion, 1676, and other books, places much of his emphasis on the actions of Governor Berkeley, and his role as servant of the king and leader of the colony. He places blame for much of the discontent on the Navigation Acts, which limited colonial trade and decreased the profitability of tobacco. He also blamed Berkeley for reinforcing a system of political favoritism that enriched a few select men through political positions, lucrative fees and levies, and large tracts of land. Wertenbaker concludes that this forced many small farmers, who did not want to work as servants, to acquire property on the frontier and encroach on Indian lands (1957:2-16). Though Bacon took up arms against the Indians, and then led an assault against Berkeley and his supporters, he is commended as a reformer who sincerely wanted to redress the grievances and oppression of Berkeley's administration. Wertenbaker concludes that the rebellion was "a landmark in the development of self-government in Virginia," and that is persuaded future governors and kings to act cautiously in their management of colonial government, lest they awaken the supporters of "English liberty" yet again (1957:58).
In American Slavery American Freedom, Edmund Morgan devotes more than a chapter to the rebellion, from its origin to its implications. His analysis of wealth and social class and structure revealed a number of grievances among the poorer farmers and servants that, if not addressed, could and did threaten the security of the colony. He concludes that the rebellion began as a campaign against Indians that morphed into a rebellion and civil war, and then mostly a looting fest. It did not have many immediate results, but it eventually helped people realize that "resentment of an alien race might be more powerful than resentment of an upper class" (Morgan 1975: 269-270). It influenced the notion of white solidarity against and racism towards other races, namely Indian and African, in order to undermine any feeling of class similarities among the laboring multitude. Racism legitimized slavery and enforced the hegemony of the planter class by labeling poor, Euro-American colonists as better than non-Europeans. It eventually created a cause and an enemy that most white, Euro-Americans could rally around. For Indians and Africans, this realignment of views marginalized them even further, and helped foster an intense emotional enmity towards these groups that continues to be a factor in American society today. The previous system of order in seventeenth century Virginia, based primarily on enforcing deferential attitudes towards the ruling class and created to legitimize its narrow hold on Virginia's economy, was a precarious position which, as Bacon proved, could easily fall to rebellion.
1676, The End of American Independence charts a different course in its explanation of the events of that year. Stephen Webb writes that Bacon's Rebellion was in fact a revolution against the old order, and that its failure ended an era of political independence that would not be achieved again until the American Revolution. He argues that Bacon's Rebellion and other significant events ranging up and down the eastern seaboard, such as King Phillips War, were part of a much more extensive realignment of power between the imperial forces of the Iroquois Confederacy and England, through the administration of Edmund Andros in New York. The Indian tribes caught between the two opposing powers were largely destroyed or subjugated, and the intensity of the conflict wreaked havoc on all sides. It took several generations to return to a level of prosperity that had been achieved by 1676 Webb 1984:xv-xviii, 3-7). His emphasis on the larger sphere of English imperialism seeks to locate Bacon's Rebellion within a more holistic framework of the struggle for control of eastern North America, and emphasizes the roles of both the English and the numerous Indian tribes.
There are many other histories which discuss Bacon's Rebellion, beginning with a lengthy treatment by Robert Beverly in 1705. Most of the early histories are critical of Bacon, but after the American Revolution, numerous nineteenth century American historians praise Bacon's actions and see in him a foreshadowing of 1776 and an independent United States. For a thorough review of these many histories see Carson's, Bacon's Rebellion, 1676-1976. Carson chronicles each work, summarizing the viewpoints they express and the origins of their various conclusions.
In addition to historical works, soon after the conclusion of the rebellion, fictional works began to fill the popular imagination with stories of Bacon and Berkeley. As with nonfiction works, early plays, poems, and stories were often critical of Bacon. With the formation of the United States, authors began to see in Bacon's Rebellion an earlier source for patriotic fervor, and Nathaniel Bacon was turned into a popular hero. They draw a common thread linking Bacon's Rebellion directly to the American Revolution and the ideals of liberty and democracy. A surge of novels appeared in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, all of which, in one way or another, praised Bacon. These romanticized views of colonial life often utilize real characters and events, but most of the stories are highly imaginative. Details of seventeenth-century life, settlement, warfare, and government, are generally inaccurate and have helped to distort the events in the popular imagination. With some exceptions, many of these works also present unflattering views of the Indians and African slaves. In his preface to The Birth of Liberty , Lane summarizes some of this sentiment when he states that Bacon was "a patriot of the highest order, and a born leader of men (Lane 1909:3). Again, Carson provides a very thorough overview of the fictional literature concerning Bacon's Rebellion.
In summary, most sources agree on the general chain of events and immediate implications of Bacon's Rebellion. However, there are vastly disparate views about the substance and long-term effects of this event. Some argue that is was struggle for power between the old governing class and a new group of landowners. Others say it was more of a class struggle between the rich and the masses. Warfare with the Virginia Indians played a major role in the conflict, and the struggle may have been about English dominance over a perceived lesser race, and the lands on which they lived. Finally, some view Bacon's Rebellion as a wellspring of democratic principals and the antecedent to events and ideas that would eventually lead to a much larger rebellion and the formation of the United States. These views often have more to say about the authors and the times in which they lived, than they do about Bacon's Rebellion itself. One viewpoint that is largely lacking in the literature, however, is the role that the Virginia Indians played in this conflict, and the effects that this had on their culture and settlements.
Most of the works written about Bacon's Rebellion are Euro-centric, and they take for granted the ultimate control of the land by European-Americans and the diminishing importance of Indians in colonial and later society. This view minimizes and marginalizes the critical role of Indians in the processes of settlement and conflict, and has allowed historians to largely ignore their contributions. As colonial and American expansionism manifested itself across North America, the Indian inhabitants were removed, either in fact or in print, erasing their roles from the American cultural consciousness. The Euro-centric viewpoint distorts, to some extent, the actual events and fails to show how Bacon's Rebellion affected all of Virginia's cultural and economic groups. The economic exploitation of land and people that drove European colonization of the New World was antithetical to the way of life of most Native Americans. On a smaller scale, many English settlers who came to Virginia for land and profit, settled in a frontier zone where interaction with Indians was commonplace. Differences in language, appearance, foodways, religion, and especially land use and economic motivation, were readily apparent, and perhaps inevitably led to conflict between the different groups.
Based on this review, it appears that there is a lack of consensus among historians about the effects of Bacon's Rebellion. On the one hand, it did usher in a new era of imperial control, but it did not radically change the power structure within the colony. The frontiers shifted further west and Virginia Indians lost more of their lands, power and independence. Though it imparted a disastrous toll on the lives, crops, and livestock of colonial Virginians, Bacon's Rebellion quickly receded behind waves of new English settlement.
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Last Updated: 22-Nov-2006