Historical Dictionary of the British Empire

By James S. Olson; Robert S. Shadle | Go to book overview
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BACON'S REBELLION . Discontent in colonial Virginia over economic and political issues came to a head in 1675-1676. The failure of Governor William Berkeley to pursue a more vigorous policy against the Indians was resented by Virginians living along the frontier. Accordingly, settlers in Charles City County turned to Nathaniel Bacon, Jr., for leadership. Tied to the colony's ruling class, the youthful Bacon, who had been in Virginia only about fourteen months, belonged to the governor's council. He was also eloquent, self-confident, and ambitious. His attack on a group of Susquehannocks without royal permission angered the autocratic Berkeley, who promptly branded the young man a traitor in May 1676.

It seems that Bacon initially was motivated solely by a desire to defend the frontier against the Indians. But once labeled a rebel, he was driven to bolder actions. Before running its course, Bacon's Rebellion became a reform movement of sorts, pitting the interests of frontier commoners against tidewater aristocrats. In June 1676, with an army of 500, he marched on Jamestown* and forced the governor to grant him authority to wage war against the Indians. As soon as Bacon's forces left the capital, however, Berkeley promptly discarded the agreement and renewed the charges of disloyalty. This led Bacon to obtain an oath from his followers to fight against the governor until the king had been properly informed about the situation in Virginia.

In September 1676, Bacon attacked Jamestown, easily defeated Berkeley's motley forces, and torched the city. Overcome by fever and dysentery, Bacon suddenly died in October 1676, and his commanderless army was quickly routed. About twenty-one rebels were hanged and the estates of numerous others were confiscated. By the time a royal army of about 1,100 and three commissioners arrived from England in early 1677, the main task was to rein in Ber


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