What started as a dispute between settlers and Indians on the Virginia-Maryland border in the fall of 1675 quickly erupted into a full scale rebellion by Nathaniel Bacon against Governor Sir William Berkeley, a wealthy planter, and his government the following year.
In the late 1600s, elite planters in Virginia relied on indentured servant labor. After their service ended, these individuals moved farther inland from the Tidewater region, often coming into conflict with Native Americans as they pushed into the Piedmont. Fearful of increasing Indian raids and frustrated by years of low tobacco prices and high taxes, the settlers gathered behind Nathaniel Bacon.
Bacon, Governor Berkeley’s cousin by marriage, was a well-connected gentleman recently arrived in the colony. Bacon defied Berkeley’s attempts at brokering peace between the settlers and the Native tribes. He and his followers sought to acquire more land by driving Native peoples out of Virginia completely.
Violence escalated quickly. Faced with the continuing loss of their lands, the Doeg tribe attacked the European settlements. The settlers retaliated, yet attacked the peaceful Susquehannock tribe by mistake, which led to further conflicts. The raids, often led by Bacon himself, led to the killing of many Native peoples. According to historical records, the Pamunkey tribe, led by their queen Cockacoeske, fled into marshlands where they would be harder for the rebels to track.
Throughout these months, Governor Berkeley tried and failed to broker peace. He eventually ordered the building of new forts and restricted trading with Native peoples. However, these decisions were seen as further limiting the power of poor whites and increasing their taxes (funds needed to pay for the new fortifications). Bacon, a newly-appointed member of the Virginia Council, appealed to the people in August 1676 in a searing critique of Berkeley’s rule and corruption of the wealthy elite. Berkeley in turn declared Bacon a rebel and gathered forces to oppose him.
On July 30, Bacon and his 600 followers sent out the “Declaration of the People of Virginia” stating that Berkeley “abused and rendred contemptable the Magistrates of Justice, by advanceing to places of Judicature, scandalous and ignorant favorites.” On September 19, they marched into the capital of Jamestown and burned it as Berkeley fled. The following month, Bacon died of the “Bloody Flux” (dysentery). Without its charismatic leader, the rebellion lost momentum. Berkeley’s loyalists defeated the rebels by January of 1677.
Bacon’s Rebellion was the most serious challenge to royal authority before the American Revolution. Historians often connect this event to the decline of indentured servitude and the corresponding rise of slavery within the British American colonies.