Chronicles of America 

Nathaniel Bacon

To add to the uncertainty of life in Virginia, Indian troubles flared up again. In and around the main settlements the white man was safe enough from savage attack. But it was not so on the edge of the English world, where the white hue ran thin, where small clusters of folk and even single families built cabins of logs and made lonely clearings in the wilderness.

Not far from where now rises Washington the Susquehannocks had taken possession of an old fort. These Indians, once in league with the Iroquois but now quarreling violently with that confederacy, had been defeated and were in a mood of undiscriminating bitterness and vengeance. They began to waylay and butcher white men and women and children. In self protection Maryland and Virginia organized in common an expedition against the Indian stronghold. In the deep woods beyond the Potomac, red men and white came to a parley. The Susquehannocks sent envoys. There was wrong on both sides. A dispute arose. The white men, waxing angry, slew the envoys -- an evil deed which their own color in Maryland and in Virginia reprehended and repudiated. But the harm was done. From the Potomac to the James Indians listened to Indian eloquence, reciting the evils that from the first the white man had brought. Then the Native American, in increasing numbers, fell upon the outlying settlements of the pioneers.

In Virginia there soon arose a popular clamor for effective action. Call out the militia of every county! March against the Indians! Act! But the Governor was old, of an ill temper now, and most suspicious of popular gatherings for any purpose whatsoever. He temporized, delayed, refused all appeals until the Assembly should meet.

Dislike of Berkeley and his ways and a growing sense of injury and oppression began to quiver hard in the Virginian frame. The King was no longer popular, nor Sir William Berkeley, nor were the most of the Council, nor many of the burgesses of that Long Assembly. There arose a loud demand for a new election and for changes in public policy.

Where a part of Richmond now stands, there stretched at that time a tract of fields and hills and a clear winding creek, held by a young planter named Nathaniel Bacon, an Englishman of that family which produced "the wisest, greatest, meanest of mankind." The planter himself lived farther down the river. But he had at this place an overseer and some indentured laborers. This Nathaniel Bacon was a newcomer in Virginia -- young man who had been entered in Gray's Inn, who had traveled, who was rumored to have run through much of his own estate. He had a cousin, also named Nathaniel Bacon, who had come fifteen years earlier to Virginia "a very rich, politic man and childless," and whose representations had perhaps drawn the younger Bacon to Virginia. At any rate he was here, and at the age of twenty-eight the owner of much land and the possessor of a seat in the Council. But, though he sat in the Council, he was hardly of the mind of the Governor and those who supported him.

It was in the spring of 1676 that there began a series of Indian attacks directed against the plantations and the outlying cabins of the region above the Falls of the Far West. Among the victims were men of Bacon's plantation, for his overseer and several of his servants were slain. The news of this massacre of his men set their young master afire. Even a less hideous tale might have done it, for he was of a bold and ardent nature.

Riding up the forest tracks, a company of planters from the threatened neighborhood gathered together. "Let us make a troop and take fire and sword among them!" There lacked a commander. "Mr. Bacon, you command!" Very good; and Mr. Bacon, who is a born orator, made a speech dealing with the "grievances of the times." Very good indeed; but still there lacked the Governor's commission. "Send a swift messenger to Jamestown for it!"

The messenger went and returned. No commission. Mr. Bacon had made an unpleasant impression upon Sir William Berkeley. This young man, the Governor said, was "popularly inclined" -- had "a constitution not consistent with" all that Berkeley stood for. Bacon and his neighbors listened with bent brows to their envoy's report. Murmurs began and deepened. "Shall we stand idly here considering formalities, while the redskins murder?" Commission or no commission, they would march; and in the end, march they did -- a considerable troop -- to the up-river country, with the tall, young, eloquent man at their head.

News reached the Governor at Jamestown that they were marching. In a tight-lipped rage he issued a proclamation and sent it after them. They and their leader were acting illegally, usurping military powers that belonged elsewhere! Let them disband, disperse to their dwellings, or beware action of the rightful powers! Troubled in mind, some disbanded and dispersed, but threescore at least would by no means do so. Nor would the young man "of precipitate disposition" who headed the troop. He rode on into the forest after the Indians, and the others followed him. Here were the Falls of the Far West, and here on a hill the Indians had a "fort." This the Virginia planters attacked. The hills above the James echoed to the sound of the small, desperate fray. In the end the red men were routed. Some were slain; some were taken prisoner; others escaped into the deep woods stretching westward.

In the meantime another force of horsemen had been gathered. It was headed by Berkeley and was addressed to the pursuit and apprehension of Nathaniel Bacon, who had thus defied authority. But before Berkeley could move far, fire broke out around him. The grievances of the people were many and just, and not without a family resemblance to those that precipitated the Revolution a hundred years later. Not Bacon alone, but many others who were in despair of any good under their present masters were ready for heroic measures. Berkeley found himself ringed about by a genuine popular revolt. He therefore lacked the time now to pursue Nathaniel Bacon, but spurred back to Jamestown there to deal as best he might with dangerous affairs. At Jamestown, willy-nilly, the old Governor was forced to promise reforms. The Long Assembly should be dissolved and a new Assembly, more conformable to the wishes of the people, should come into being ready to consider all their troubles. So writs went out; and there presently followed a hot and turbulent election, in which that "restricted franchise" of the Long Assembly was often defied and in part set aside. Men without property presented themselves, gave their voices, and were counted. Bacon, who had by now achieved an immense popularity, was chosen burgess for Henricus County.

In the June weather Bacon sailed down to Jamestown, with a number of those who had backed him in that assumption of power to raise troops and go against the Indians. When he came to Jamestown it was to find the high sheriff waiting for him by the Governor's orders. He was put under arrest. Hot discussion followed. But the people were for the moment in the ascendant, and Bacon should not be sacrificed. A compromise was reached. Bacon was technically guilty of "unlawful, mutinous and rebellious practises." If, on his knees before Governor, Council, and Burgesses, he would acknowledge as much and promise henceforth to be his Majesty's obedient servant, he and those implicated with him should be pardoned. He himself might be readmitted to the Council, and all in Virginia should be as it had been. He should even have the commission he had acted without to go and fight against the Indians.

Bacon thereupon made his submission upon his knees, promising that henceforth he would "demean himself dutifully, faithfully, and peaceably." Formally forgiven, he was restored to his place in the Virginia Council. An eyewitness reports that presently he saw "Mr. Bacon on his quondam seat with the Governor and Council, which seemed a marvellous indulgence to one whom he had so lately proscribed as a rebel." The Assembly of 1676 was of a different temper and opinion from that of the Long Assembly. It was an insurgent body, composed to a large degree of mere freemen and small planters, with a few of the richer, more influential sort who nevertheless queried that old divine right of rule. Berkeley thought that he had good reason to doubt this Assembly's intentions, once it gave itself rein. He directs it therefore to confine its attention to Indian troubles. It did, indeed, legislate on Indian affairs by passing an elaborate act for the prosecution of the war. An army of a thousand white men was to be raised. Bacon was to be commander-in-chief. All manner of precautions were to be taken. But this matter disposed of, the Assembly thereupon turned to "the redressing several grievances the country was then labouring under; and motions were made for inspecting the public revenues, the collectors' accounts," and so forth. The Governor thundered; friends of the old order obstructed; but the Assembly went on its way, reforming here and reforming there. It even went so far as to repeal the preceding Assembly's legislation regarding the franchise. All white males who are freemen were now privileged to vote, "together with the freeholders and housekeepers."

A certain member wanted some detail of procedure retained because it was customary. "Tis true it has been customary," answered another, "but if we have any bad customs amongst us, we are come here to mend 'em!" "Whereupon," says the contemporary narrator, "the house was set in a laughter." But after so considerable an amount of mending there threatened a standstill. What was to come next? Could men go further -- as they had gone further in England not so many years ago? Reform had come to an apparent impasse. While it thus hesitated, the old party gained in life.

Bacon, now petitioning for his promised commission against the Indians, seems to have reached the conclusion that the Governor might promise but meant not to perform, and not only so, but that in Jamestown his very life was in danger. He had "intimation that the Governor's generosity in pardoning him and restoring him to his place in the Council were no other than previous wheedles to amuse him."

In Jamestown lived one whom a chronicler paints for us as "thoughtful Mr. Lawrence." This gentleman was an Oxford scholar, noted for "wit, learning, and sobriety . . . nicely honest, affable, and without blemish in his conversation and dealings." Thus friends declared, though foes said of him quite other things. At any rate, having emigrated to Virginia and married there, he had presently acquired, because of a lawsuit over land in which he held himself to be unjustly and shabbily treated through influences of the Governor, an inveterate prejudice against that ruler. He calls him in short "an old, treacherous villain." Lawrence and his wife, not being rich, kept a tavern at Jamestown, and there Bacon lodged, probably having been thrown with Lawrence before this. Persons are found who hold that Lawrence was the brain, Bacon the arm, of the discontent in Virginia. There was also Mr. William Drummond, who will be met with in the account of Carolina. He was a "sober Scotch gentleman of good repute" -- but no more than Lawrence on good terms with the Governor of Virginia.

On a morning in June, when the Assembly met, it was observed that Nathaniel Bacon was not in his place in the Council -- nor was he to be found in the building, nor even in Jamestown itself, though Berkeley had Lawrence's inn searched for him. He had left the town -- gone up the river in his sloop to his plantation at Curles Neck "to visit his wife, who, as she informed him, was indisposed." In truth it appears that Bacon had gone for the purpose of gathering together some six hundred up-river men. Or perhaps they themselves had come together and, needing a leader, had turned naturally to the man who was under the frown of an unpopular Governor and all the Governor's supporters in Virginia. At any rate Bacon was presently seen at the head of no inconsiderable army for a colony of less than fifty thousand souls. Those with him were only up-river men; but he must have known that he could gather besides from every part of the country. Given some initial success, he might even set all Virginia ablaze. Down the river he marched, he and his six hundred, and in the summer heat entered Jamestown and drew up before the Capitol. The space in front of this building was packed with the Jamestown folk and with the six hundred. Bacon, a guard behind him, advanced to the central door, to find William Berkeley standing there shaking with rage. The old royalist has courage. He tears open his silken vest and fine shirt and faces the young man who, though trained in the law of the realm, is now filling that law with a hundred wounds. He raises a passionate voice. "Here! Shoot me! 'Fore God, a fair mark -- a fair mark! Shoot!"

Bacon will not shoot him, but will have that promised commission to go against the Indians. Those behind him lift and shake their guns. "We will have it! We will have it!" Governor and Council retire to consider the demand. If Berkeley is passionate and at times violent, so is Bacon in his own way, for an eye-witness has to say that "he displayed outrageous postures of his head, arms, body and legs, often tossing his hand from his sword to his hat," and that outside the door he had cried: "Damn my blood! I'll kill Governor, Council, Assembly and all, and then I'll sheathe my sword in my own heart's blood!" He is no dour, determined, unwordy revolutionist like the Scotch Drummond, nor still and subtle like "the thoughtful Mr. Lawrence." He is young and hot, a man of oratory and outward acts. Yet is he a patriot and intelligent upon broad public needs. When presently he makes a speech to the excited Assembly, it has for subject-matter "preserving our lives from the Indians, inspecting the public revenues, the exorbitant taxes, and redressing the grievances and calamities of that deplorable country." It has quite the ring of young men's speeches in British colonies a century later!

The Governor and his party gave in perforce. Bacon got his commission and an Act of Indemnity for all chance political offenses. General and Commander-in-chief against the Indians -- so was he styled. Moreover, the Burgesses, with an alarmed thought toward England, drew up an explanatory memorial for Charles II's perusal. This paper journeyed forth upon the first ship to sail, but it had for traveling companion a letter secretly sent from the Governor to the King. The two communications were painted in opposite colors. "I have," says Berkeley, "for above thirty years governed the most flourishing country the sun ever shone over, but am now encompassed with rebellion like waters."

Back to: Virginia and the Southern Colonies