January 11, 2010
The Bacon Rebellion of 1676 was an interesting combination of Indian war and insurrection against the Crown appointed Governor of Virginia, William Berkeley. Nathaniel Bacon led an unauthorized militia in multiple attacks on Indians in the Virginia Colony in reprisal of supposedly unprovoked wrongs perpetrated by those Indians, as well as attacking the government and its sanctioned militia under Berkeley. Bacon’s expeditions were of a nature that proved that a militia was, when properly motivated, capable of forming and fighting a local threat with some success. Unfortunately, attacking the wrong groups and starting what amounted to the first “revolution” in the new world in the process. (continued below the fold)
With the close of the English Civil War and the restoration of Charles II, the tobacco trade began to suffer. This was caused in part by a ban on trade with France and the prohibition of Dutch ships from making port in Virginia. This in turn, was addressed by the establishment of permanent slavery in order to lower the overhead in tobacco production. Nonetheless, the price continued to wane. Governor Berkeley however seemed less than concerned with the financial wellbeing of the lower classes and more with favoring his friends and allies, to include in many eyes, protecting the Native population unduly. Interestingly Berkeley was earning a tidy sum in trading with the local tribes.
As early as 1674 farmers in lands that were in close contact with Natives complained to the Government and demanded that they be driven from the area. This plea fell on deaf ears. Things began to escalate in 1675 when a farmer refused to pay a group of Doeg Indians for some trade goods that he had received. The Indians then “stole” pigs from the farmer in retribution. This led to a bloody confrontation that killed several Doeg and one settler. This led to the local militia being activated, and led by a pair of men that were already biased against the Natives, a slaughter of friendly Susquehannock ensued.
As the militia killed innocents, including those coming forward under a white flag of parlay at a meeting that was originally sanctioned by Berkeley, the Susquehannock were forced to go to war and began raiding the nearby farms. This in turn led to an outcry amongst the colonists that something must be done. Berkeley had a series of forts built on the frontier and tired to disarm the Natives, while preserving the friendly relationship that he and others had developed with many tribes. However, this was seen as mere appeasement by many and Nathaniel Bacon in particular.
Berkeley’s “Long Assembly” that was instituted to investigate and regulate the issues with the Indians - particularly trade – was soon so regulatory as to ban individual trade and demand that all trade with the Natives be subject to the scrutiny of the Assembly. This led to Bacon publically calling into question Berkeley’s motivation with the commission. This continued the bad blood between him and Berkeley that festered when Bacon was denied a commission in the militia by Berkeley. Bacon was however, elected General of a volunteer unit that was hell bent on killing or driving out the Indians, but only after he promised to foot the bill for the martial campaign.
Soon the volunteers were attacking and slaughtering Indians. But never able to engage the hostiles, Bacon and his men were satisfied with attacking tribes that were not at war with the whites. Starting with the Pamunkey, Bacon began the ethnic cleansing. Berkeley attempted to intervene, riding out in force to stop the campaign after declaring Bacon a rebel. Bacon fled with many of his men, and continued to attack any Indians he could find – killing innocents alone. Seeking peace, Berkeley was willing to compromise and pardoned Bacon, allowing him to take his seat in the House of Burgesses. Bacon’s newfound power however did not slake his thirst for Native blood, and he continued to demand control of all military forces and leave to prosecute his war against them.
In a dramatic episode at the Virginia Statehouse, Bacon demanded his commission yet again, this time with a band of his volunteers and with Berkeley at gunpoint. Finally acquiescing, Berkeley fled Jamestown, to his outlying home, only to return later to attempt to depose the rebel leader. Again, he was run off - this time completely out of the county. Bacon then took the final step into rebellion with his “People’s Declaration” of 30 July 1676. His forces then pressed hard into Indian territory for month on end. Soon however, the tide began to turn. Berkeley’s men infiltrated Bacon’s small fleet of ships and retook Jamestown, along with hostages close to Bacon. Bacon returned to Jamestown with a vengeance, besieging the fortified Statehouse and finally drove Berkeley out once again. However, this time Jamestown was razed to the ground as was Berkeley’s personal estate.
After Bacon withdrew, knowing that he could not hold on in the face of now growing resentment to his actions, he abruptly died in October of dysentery and infestation of body lice. Berkeley quickly and brutally reestablished control and hanged the other leaders of the rebellion, redistributing their estates to his friends and supporters who were affected by Bacon’s aggression. His luck would not hold. An inquiry found him culpable in the whole situation and recalled by the King, being relieved as Governor.
The militia and volunteer units raised and involved in the Bacon Rebellion were the indicative of the self-defense forces of the colonies in America. Regardless of the undeniably chaotic and morally questionable circumstances in which they were used, these units proved the value of citizen-soldiers in the defense of the colonies against threats from within and from the Natives. Later, these units were instrumental in the defense of the individual colonies, as well as the allied colonies in regional conflicts. As a matter of course, these units were key to the success of the Colonial forces in the War for Independence, which were in turn the direct ancestors to today’s citizen-soldiers in the National Guard.
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