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Indian Enslavement in Virginia
Indians were enslaved in Virginia by settlers and traders from shortly after the founding of Jamestown until the end of the eighteenth century, peaking late in the seventeenth century and providing a workforce for English plantations and households. By this time the Atlantic slave trade was at its peak, flooding Virginia with cheaper African labor. African slavery took nearly a century to develop, however, and in the meantime those white Virginians who required men and women to work as servants or in tobacco fields mostly relied on indentured servants and enslaved Indians. Europeans sold guns for slaves in an existing indigenous trading market, and encouraged allied tribes to provide the slaves by targeting Indian groups on the periphery of English settlements (similar to African participation in the capture of slaves in Africa). While there are examples of continued enslavement of Indians throughout the early settlement period, mass enslavement typically coincided with the upheaval of war that led to Indian prisoners who could be sold as slaves. Virginia’s laws were neither clear nor effective with respect to the enslavement of Indians, at times banning the practice and at other times encouraging it. Some scholars argue that Indian enslavement had declined by 1800 because Indians were prone to illness or escape , but others maintain that it was only when Indians, wracked by war and enslavement, could not provide a sufficient quantity of cheap workers that English colonists turned primarily to chattel African slavery. American Indians were most clearly deemed free by Virginia law early in the 1800s, and Indians who were unable to gain their freedom often became assimilated within the predominantly African slave communities.
Coastal Plain Indians
The once mighty Powhatan chiefdom was reduced to a tributary status, being required to make yearly payments to the colonial government as a sign of dependence. They also lost all lands between the York and Blackwater Rivers. In 1677, another treaty was made with the colonists. The Indians along the coast lost their remaining land and were confined to small reservations. Many of the tribes were extinct by 1722. The Rappahannock tribe lost its reservation shortly after 1700 the Chickahominy lost theirs in 1718. These groups and the Nansemond, who sold their reservation in 1792, faded from public view. Only the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, and an Eastern Shore group kept reservations, although their land constantly shrank in size.
Some native people wanted to keep the traditional lifestyles, while others accepted white culture. Powhatan religion and language, central aspects of the culture, were gradually replaced by Christianity and English. The people still raised crops, hunted, and fished. Cash crops, like cotton, were added, and livestock, such as chickens, cows, and hogs, became commonplace. Log and plank houses replaced the bark and mat-covered oval houses, and traded iron implements quickly replaced stone tools. However, the native ceramic technology of vessels and pipes remained vibrant, adapting to European shapes and functions.
Native American Warfare in the West: Conflict Among the Southwestern Indians
The Southwest. Indian fighting in the Southwest during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries followed the mourning-war pattern prevalent among the eastern woodland Indians. Like their eastern counterparts, both sedentary Pueblo Indians and seminomadic tribes such as the Navajo warred to avenge the murder of their kinsmen. In important ways, however, warfare in the Southwest differed from that practiced in the eastern part of North America. First, semisedentary Native Americans raided both other seminomadic tribes and the Pueblo Indians in an effort to acquire material goods through plunder. More importantly, the Pueblo Indians living in and near the Rio Grande valley often fought wars that were more similar to European conflicts than to the woodland Indians ’ blood feuds.
Semisedentary Tribes. Like their eastern neighbors, tribes such as the Apache and Navajo fought to avenge the deaths of kinsmen rather than to acquire territory. When a clan member was killed by Indians from another tribe, a war leader related to the deceased formed a war party composed of kinsmen and unrelated young men who sought the prestige that came through success in battle. After two nights of war dances and a day of feasting, the war party moved into enemy territory, where it took women and children captive and killed enemy warriors. Because semi-nomadic Indians such as the Navajo had to avenge every clan member killed by a rival tribe, blood-feud warfare was, as in the East, self-perpetuating and never ending. As with eastern woodland Indian conflict, moreover, warfare among the Native Americans of the Southwest produced light casualties in comparison to contemporary European wars.
Raiding Parties. There were, however, important differences between the objectives of eastern Indian warfare and the goals of their southwestern counterparts. While eastern Indians fought almost exclusively to achieve retribution, southwestern Indians clashed with their neighbors both to avenge previous wrongs and to loot them of material possessions. Apaches and Navajos, for example, raided both each other and the sedentary Pueblo Indian tribes in an effort to acquire goods through plunder. Though the distinction was missed by the Pueblo Indians and, later, by the Spanish, raiding parties differed substantially from war parties in terms of their objectives and their approach. While war parties sought to take captives and to achieve vengeance through killing, the smaller raiding parties hoped to avoid fighting and focused instead on taking booty. Raids often spawned blood feuds, though, because a tribe had to avenge the death of a warrior who died either in a raid or in an ensuing battle with pursuers.
Pueblo Indians. The sedentary Pueblo Indians of the Rio Grande valley likewise engaged in the vengeance-motivated
warfare that was common to kinship-based societies. Pueblo warfare was not, however, limited to blood feuds. Living in and near the densely populated but resource-poor Rio Grande valley, Pueblo tribes such as the Hopis, Zunis, Piros, and Tewas fought with one another to secure control of the region ’ s limited supply of arable land. Such economically and territorially motivated warfare led the Pueblo Indians to make their adobe towns — called pueblos — powerful defensive fortifications. They did so by building their settlements atop steep mesas, by constructing their multistory buildings around a central plaza to form sheer exterior walls, and by limiting access to the main square to a single, narrow, easily defended passageway. Navajo and Apache raiding parties consequently found the Pueblo Indians ’ settlements to be tempting but formidable targets.
The British crown borrowed heavily from British and Dutch bankers to bankroll the war, doubling British national debt. King George II argued that since the French and Indian War benefited the colonists by securing their borders, they should contribute to paying down the war debt.
To defend his newly won territory from future attacks, King George IIਊlso decided to install permanent British army units in the Americas, which required additional sources of revenue.
In 1765, parliament passed the Stamp Act to help pay down the war debt and finance the British army’s presence in the Americas. It was the first internal tax directly levied on American colonists by parliament and was met with strong resistance.
It was followed by the unpopular Townshend Acts and Tea Act, which further incensed colonists who believed there should be no taxation without representation. Britain’s increasingly militaristic response to colonial unrest would ultimately lead to the American Revolution.
Fifteen years after the Treaty of Paris, French bitterness over the loss of most of their colonial empire contributed to their intervention on the side of the colonists in the Revolutionary War.
Little improved over the next several years. By 1616, 80 percent of all English immigrants that arrived in Jamestown had perished. England’s first American colony was a catastrophe. The colony was reorganized, and in 1614 the marriage of Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, to John Rolfe eased relations with the Powhatan, though the colony still limped along as a starving, commercially disastrous tragedy. The colonists were unable to find any profitable commodities remained dependent upon the Indians and sporadic shipments from England for food. But then tobacco saved Jamestown.
By the time King James I described tobacco as a “noxious weed,… loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, and dangerous to the lungs,” it had already taken Europe by storm. In 1616 John Rolfe crossed tobacco strains from Trinidad and Guiana and planted Virginia’s first tobacco crop. In 1617 the colony sent its first cargo of tobacco back to England. The “noxious weed,” a native of the New World, fetched a high price in Europe and the tobacco boom began in Virginia and then later spread to Maryland. Within fifteen years American colonists were exporting over 500,000 pounds of tobacco per year. Within forty, they were exporting fifteen million.
Tobacco changed everything. It saved Virginia from ruin, incentivized further colonization, and laid the groundwork for what would become the United States. With a new market open, Virginia drew not only merchants and traders, but also settlers. Colonists came in droves. They were mostly young, mostly male, and mostly indentured servants who signed contracts called indentures that bonded them to employers for a period of years in return for passage across the ocean. But even the rough terms of servitude were no match for the promise of land and potential profits that beckoned English farmers. But still there were not enough of them. Tobacco was a labor-intensive crop and ambitious planters, with seemingly limitless land before them, lacked only laborers to escalate their wealth and status. The colony’s great labor vacuum inspired the creation of the “headright policy” in 1618: any person who migrated to Virginia would automatically receive 50 acres of land and any immigrant whose passage they paid would entitle them to 50 acres more.
In 1619 the Virginia Company established the House of Burgesses, a limited representative body composed of white landowners that first met in Jamestown. That same year, a Dutch slave ship sold 20 Africans to the Virginia colonists. Southern slavery was born. (2)
Timeline of American Colonial Indian Wars
From the first attempts at establishing permanent settlements in North America, up to the years just prior to the American Revolution, English and other European colonies in what is now the eastern United States were planted and grew. The Europeans formed these colonies despite the fact that the land was already inhabited by a wide range of Native American nations and tribes. The growing European (mostly English, but also including others) settlements came into sometimes violent conflict with the Native tribes, resulting in a long series of wars.
This list of American Colonial Wars is in chronological order from the earliest English/Indian conflicts to the last major war prior to the Revolution. Interwoven among the wars between Natives and English (and the Dutch as well) is a series of conflicts among the European nations that also involved Indian tribes as allies of the various Europeans. In the long series of Anglo-French wars in North America, for instance, the Abenaki in northern New England (mostly in Maine) allied with the French against the British, while the Iroquois Confederacy in the Great Lakes region allied with the British against the French.
Though not mentioned in detail here, keep in mind also that many of the conflicts, especially in the more southern colonies, also involved enslaved Africans who were held as property by English American colonists. In many cases, escaped slaves would join with the Indians.
In addition to the wars in this timeline of Colonial Indian wars, there were also conflicts and rebellions among the English American colonists, and also multiple slave rebellions. Colonial America was a very violent place, and the threat of armed violence was a regular feature of life for white settlers, Native peoples, and Black slaves.
NOTE: In describing the indigenous peoples of America, we use the modern term Native American and the more historically familiar term Indian interchangeably. Also, in reference to Africans and African-Americans held in captivity as property in the American colonies, we use the terms enslave people, slaves, and captive Blacks interchangeably. While not all Europeans who settled in the American Colonies were from England, (other “British” peoples included Scots, Welsh, and Scots-Irish) and there were also immigrants from other European nations, the Whites of the colonies were under the authority of the English/British Crown, and thus are referred to by the general terms of “English” and “British.”
Here is the timeline of Colonial American Indian Wars
Roanoke Conflict (1586)-The first English colony in North America was the Roanoke Colony on the coast of what is now North Carolina. The local Native tribe, the Secotan, first tried to enlist English aid in their ongoing conflict with a neighboring tribe, called the Neiosioke. The English declined this aggressive alliance, but did establish initial good relations with the Secotans. Later, tensions rose between the English and Secotans, in part due to the deadly diseases the Europeans introduced to the local Indian population. In May and June of 1586, conflict broke out, with the English forcing the Secotans to flee and beheading the Secotan leader. The inhabitants of the Roanoke colony later disappeared (between when an English ship left them and when another supply ship arrived). It is unknown if they were killed (by either Indians or Spanish) or left of their own accord. This is called the Lost Colony. The next English attempt at planting a colony at Jamestown in what is now Virginia was more successful.
Jamestown Battles with the Paspahegh (May-June, 1607)- 400 Paspahegh, Quiockahannock, Weyanoke, Appomattoc and Chiskiack attack Jamestown. 3 Indians and 1 colonist are killed in the attack. Raids on Jamestown continue for several weeks until Chief Powhatan arranges a truce on June 15. The local Native tribes were concerned with the encroachment of the English.
Jamestown Battles with the Paspahegh (1608-1610)-Sporadic warfare between the Paspahegh and the English at Jamestown continue.
First Anglo-Powhatan War (1610-1614)- Full-blown war between settlers of the Virginia Colony and Algonquin Indians of the Powhatan Confederacy. The fighting was ended by the Peace of Pocahontas (who married an Englishman as part of the peace agreement).
Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622-1632)- War between settlers of the Virginia Colony and Algonquin Indians of the Powhatan Confederacy.
Pequot War (1636-37)-The first war between the English and a Native tribe in the New England region. The Pequots battled the English colonies of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Connecticut, who were supported by the Mohegans and the Narragansett tribes. The Pequots were defeated and ceased to exist as a separate tribe.
Engraving of English Puritans fighting Pequots
First Beaver War (1641 - 1667) in the Great Lakes region-France battled the Iroquois Confederacy. Includes fighting in land that eventually became part of the United States.
Kieft's War (1643) The Dutch of New Netherland (New Jersey and New York) and the Lenape tribe. The war is named for the Dutch governor.
Susquehannock War (1642-1644)--The colony of Maryland vs. the Susquehannock Tribe (which was given arms and assistance by the settlers of New Sweden, which was located in the area where modern Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey meet). The Susquehannock and Swedes won this war. After a peace treaty between Maryland and the Susquehannock in 1652, the two sided became allies against French and Iroquois encroachment.
Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644-1646)- War between settlers of the Virginia Colony and Algonquin Indians of the Powhatan Confederacy.
Peach Tree War (1655) - Major attack by the Susquehannocks and allied tribes on several New Netherland settlements along the Hudson River. This attack began on September 15, 1655, and was a response to the Dutch conquest of New Sweden which had been a close ally of the Susquehannocks. While the bulk of the Dutch forces were still in New Sweden, the Susquehannocks attacked New Amsterdam (lower Manhattan) and Pavonia (modern-day Hoboken and Jersey City).
First Esopus War (1659-1660)- War between the Esopus Tribe and the Dutch.
Second Esopus War (1663)- War between the Esopus Tribe and the Dutch.
Doeg War (1675-1676)- Warfare between the Doeg tribe and Virginia Settlers. This conflict contributed to Bacons’ Rebellion.
Susquehannock War (1675-1676)--The colony of Maryland vs. the Susquehannock Tribe
King Phillip's War (1675)-Also called Metacom's War. Major war in Massachusetts between the Wampanoag tribe and allied tribes against the Massachusetts colony and tribes allied with the English.
King Philip (Metacom), 19th-century engraving by Benson John Lossing.
First Abenaki War (1675-1677)-Considered a part of King Phillip’s War, the English fought the Abenaki in what is now Maine.
Second Beaver War (1683 - 1701) in the Great Lakes region between the French and the Iroquois.
King William's War (1689-1697)-Known in Europe as the War of the League of Augsburg AND as the War of the Grand Alliance and in North America as King William's War. In North America, the Iroquois Confederation allied with the British, and the Abnaki fought on the French side.
Queen Anne's War (1702-1712)-Known in Europe as the War of the Spanish Succession, in North America as Queen Anne's War and in India as the First Carnatic War. This conflict also included the Second Abnaki War. The Abnaki Indian tribe allied itself with the French against the English colonists in North America.
Second Abenaki War (1702-1712)-Considered a part of Queen Anne’s War, the English fought the Abenaki in what is now Maine.
The Tuscarora War (1711-1715) -Was fought in North Carolina between English colonials and the Tuscarora Tribe and their allies, including the Yamasee.
The Yamassee War (1715) War fought in South Carolina between British settlers and the Yamasee and a number of other allied Native American peoples.
Dummer's War (1722) also known as Father Rale's War. Is also considered the 3rd Abnaki War. Fought in New England and Acadia/Nova Scotia.
French and Indian War (1754) The culminating battle between the British and French for control of eastern North America. Both sides had Native American allies. The Iroquois on the British side, and the French were allied with the Abenaki, Micmac, Shawnee, Lenape, and Algonquin, among others. The French lost, and were expelled from Canada and the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi.
Map of North American After the French and Indian War (1763)
Pontiac’s War (1763)-As a direct result of the British victory in the French and Indian War, British troops occupied formerly French forts in the Ohio and Michigan country, which antagonized an alliance of Indian tribes, primarily from the Great Lakes region, the Illinois Country, and Ohio Country. Warriors from numerous tribes joined the uprising in an effort to drive British soldiers and settlers out of the region. The war is named after Ottawa leader Pontiac, the most prominent of many Indian leaders in the conflict. Even though the Native tribes were defeated in the war, the British decided to avoid further conflict by keeping White settlers out of the region. Thus, the British government issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which closed off the land west of the Appalachian Mountains from settlement. This was one of the grievances that caused the American colonists to eventually rebel against the British government in 1775.
Paxton Boys Attack/Conestoga Massacre (Dec. 1763)--Drunken Pennsylvania whites massacre a group of Susquehannock Indians. This was in response to Pontiac’s War.
Lord Dunmore's War (1773)-War between the Commonwealth of Virginia (led by Governor Lord Dunmore) and the Mingo and Shawnee Indians. The Virginians defeated the Indians, but the Shawnee would resume fighting in 1775 when they attacked Daniel Boone in Kentucky. With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the Shawnee then joined with the Cherokee to battle the Colonists again.
The American Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, pitting a faction of American colonists against the British government and the Loyalist faction of American colonists. Various Indian tribes aligned themselves with either side, thus making this war into an “Indian War” as well.
Native American warfare involved trial and error.
When warfare began in 1300, the Iroquois began building villages with stronger defenses.
In turn, this caused attackers to begin using new technologies — like the iron ax & gun — to produce new offensive tactics. Shields were also developed to protect attackers during a siege.
As a result, defenders also begin to use bastions to counter shields, and cannons were used against the attackers’ iron axes & guns.
The Tuscarora natives also began strengthening their forts, using a mixture of late Mississippian and European designs. They also used trench warfare and underground bunkers against the Europeans.
Though mainstream history doesn’t mention Native Americans’ battle strategies, it’s important to study them to understand Native American history and culture.
Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.
Powhatan War, (1622–44), relentless struggle between the Powhatan Indian confederacy and early English settlers in the tidewater section of Virginia and southern Maryland. The conflict resulted in the destruction of the Indian power. English colonists who had settled in Jamestown (1607) were at first strongly motivated by their need of native corn (maize) to keep peace with the Powhatans, who inhabited more than 100 surrounding villages. The emphasis on cooperation was strengthened by the efforts of the Powhatan chief Powhatan and his daughter Pocahontas.
By the time of Powhatan’s death (1618), settlers had discovered the highly profitable tobacco crop and were pressing increasingly into Indian territory for rich new land to cultivate. In resistance to this incursion, the confederacy’s new chief, Opechancanough, Powhatan’s elderly brother, in 1622 led his people in a sudden attack against colonists throughout the area, massacring 347 of a total of about 1,200. Intermittent warfare followed for 14 years an uneasy calm was shattered in 1644 with a final Indian uprising in which 500 whites were slain. Determined British opposition, aided by Christianized Indians, broke the power of the warring confederacy the same year, and Opechancanough was killed.
Pen and Ink drawing of Bacon's troops about to burn Jamestown
Drawing by Rita Honeycutt
Bacon's Rebellion was probably one of the most confusing yet intriguing chapters in Jamestown's history. For many years, historians considered the Virginia Rebellion of 1676 to be the first stirring of revolutionary sentiment in America, which culminated in the American Revolution almost exactly one hundred years later. However, in the past few decades, based on findings from a more distant viewpoint, historians have come to understand Bacon's Rebellion as a power struggle between two stubborn, selfish leaders rather than a glorious fight against tyranny.
The central figures in Bacon's Rebellion were opposites. Governor Sir William Berkeley, seventy when the crisis began, was a veteran of the English Civil Wars, a frontier Indian fighter, a King's favorite in his first term as Governor in the 1640's, and a playwright and scholar. His name and reputation as Governor of Virginia were well respected. Berkeley's antagonist, young Nathaniel Bacon, Jr., was actually Berkeley's cousin by marriage. Lady Berkeley, Frances Culpeper, was Bacon's cousin. Bacon was a troublemaker and schemer whose father sent him to Virginia in the hope that he would mature. Although disdainful of labor, Bacon was intelligent and eloquent. Upon Bacon's arrival, Berkeley treated his young cousin with respect and friendship, giving him both a substantial land grant and a seat on the council in 1675.
Bacon's Rebellion can be attributed to a myriad of causes, all of which led to dissent in the Virginia colony. Economic problems, such as declining tobacco prices, growing commercial competition from Maryland and the Carolinas, an increasingly restricted English market, and the rising prices from English manufactured goods (mercantilism) caused problems for the Virginians. There were heavy English losses in the latest series of naval wars with the Dutch and, closer to home, there were many problems caused by weather. Hailstorms, floods, dry spells, and hurricanes rocked the colony all in the course of a year and had a damaging effect on the colonists. These difficulties encouraged the colonists to find a scapegoat against whom they could vent their frustrations and place the blame for their misfortunes.
The colonists found their scapegoat in the form of the local Indians. The trouble began in July 1675 with a raid by the Doeg Indians on the plantation of Thomas Mathews, located in the Northern Neck section of Virginia near the Potomac River. Several of the Doegs were killed in the raid, which began in a dispute over the nonpayment of some items Mathews had apparently obtained from the tribe. The situation became critical when, in a retaliatory strike by the colonists, they attacked the wrong Indians, the Susquehanaugs, which caused large scale Indian raids to begin.
St. Maries Citty Living History Interpreters demonstrating the firing of Match Lock Muskets
To stave off future attacks and to bring the situation under control, Governor Berkeley ordered an investigation into the matter. He set up what was to be a disastrous meeting between the parties, which resulted in the murders of several tribal chiefs. Throughout the crisis, Berkeley continually pleaded for restraint from the colonists. Some, including Bacon, refused to listen. Nathaniel Bacon disregarded the Governor's direct orders by seizing some friendly Appomattox Indians for "allegedly" stealing corn. Berkeley reprimanded him, which caused the disgruntled Virginians to wonder which man had taken the right action. It was here the battle lines were about to be drawn.
A further problem was Berkeley's attempt to find a compromise. Berkeley's policy was to preserve the friendship and loyalty of the subject Indians while assuring the settlers that they were not hostile. To meet his first objective, the Governor relieved the local Indians of their powder and ammunition. To deal with the second objective, Berkeley called the "Long Assembly" in March 1676. Despite being judged corrupt, the assembly declared war on all "bad" Indians and set up a strong defensive zone around Virginia with a definite chain of command. The Indian wars which resulted from this directive led to the high taxes to pay the army and to the general discontent in the colony for having to shoulder that burden.
The Long Assembly was accused of corruption because of its ruling regarding trade with the Indians. Not coincidentally, most of the favored traders were friends of Berkeley. Regular traders, some of whom had been trading independently with the local Indians for generations, were no longer allowed to trade individually. A government commission was established to monitor trading among those specially chosen and to make sure the Indians were not receiving any arms and ammunition. Bacon, one of the traders adversely affected by the Governor's order, accused Berkeley publicly of playing favorites. Bacon was also resentful because Berkeley had denied him a commission as a leader in the local militia. Bacon became the elected "General" of a group of local volunteer Indian fighters, because he promised to bear the cost of the campaigns.
After Bacon drove the Pamunkeys from their nearby lands in his first action, Berkeley exercised one of the few instances of control over the situation that he was to have, by riding to Bacon's headquarters at Henrico with 300 "well armed" gentlemen. Upon Berkeley's arrival, Bacon fled into the forest with 200 men in search of a place more to his liking for a meeting. Berkeley then issued two petitions declaring Bacon a rebel and pardoning Bacon's men if they went home peacefully. Bacon would then be relieved of the council seat that he had won for his actions that year, but he was to be given a fair trial for his disobedience.
Bacon did not, at this time, comply with the Governor's orders. Instead he next attacked the camp of the friendly Occaneecheee Indians on the Roanoke River (the border between Virginia and North Carolina), and took their store of beaver pelts.
Governor Berkeley standing before Bacon and his men challenging them to shoot him
In the face of a brewing catastrophe, Berkeley, to keep the peace, was willing to forget that Bacon was not authorized to take the law into his own hands. Berkeley agreed to pardon Bacon if he turned himself in, so he could be sent to England and tried before King Charles II. It was the House of Burgesses, however, who refused this alternative, insisting that Bacon must acknowledge his errors and beg the Governor's forgiveness. Ironically, at the same time, Bacon was then elected to the Burgesses by supportive local land owners sympathetic to his Indian campaigns. Bacon, by virtue of this election, attended the landmark Assembly of June 1676. It was during this session that he was mistakenly credited with the political reforms that came from this meeting. The reforms were prompted by the population, cutting through all class lines. Most of the reform laws dealt with reconstructing the colony's voting regulations, enabling freemen to vote, and limiting the number of years a person could hold certain offices in the colony. Most of these laws were already on the books for consideration well before Bacon was elected to the Burgesses. Bacon's only cause was his campaign against the Indians.
Upon his arrival for the June Assembly, Bacon was captured, taken before Berkeley and council and was made to apologize for his previous actions. Berkeley immediately pardoned Bacon and allowed him to take his seat in the assembly. At this time, the council still had no idea how much support was growing in defense of Bacon. The full awareness of that support hit home when Bacon suddenly left the Burgesses in the midst of heated debate over Indian problems. He returned with his forces to surround the statehouse. Once again Bacon demanded his commission, but Berkeley called his bluff and demanded that Bacon shoot him.
"Here shoot me before God, fair mark shoot."
Bacon refused. Berkeley granted Bacon's previous volunteer commission but Bacon refused it and demanded that he be made General of all forces against the Indians, which Berkeley emphatically refused and walked away. Tensions ran high as the screaming Bacon and his men surrounded the statehouse, threatening to shoot several onlooking Burgesses if Bacon was not given his commission. Finally after several agonizing moments, Berkeley gave in to Bacon's demands for campaigns against the Indians without government interference. With Berkeley's authority in shambles, Bacon's brief tenure as leader of the rebellion began.
Even in the midst of these unprecedented triumphs, however, Bacon was not without his mistakes. He allowed Berkeley to leave Jamestown in the aftermath of a surprise Indian attack on a nearby settlement. He also confiscated supplies from Gloucester and left them vulnerable to possible Indian attacks. Shortly after the immediate crisis subsided, Berkeley briefly retired to his home at Green Springs and washed his hands of the entire mess. Nathaniel Bacon dominated Jamestown from July through September 1676. During this time, Berkeley did come out of his lethargy and attempt a coup, but support for Bacon was still too strong and Berkeley was forced to flee to Accomack County on the Eastern Shore.
Feeling that it would make his triumph complete, Bacon issued his "Declaration of the People" on July 30, 1676 which stated that Berkeley was corrupt, played favorites and protected the Indians for his own selfish purposes. Bacon also issued his oath which required the swearer to promise his loyalty to Bacon in any manner necessary (i.e., armed service, supplies, verbal support). Even this tight rein could not keep the tide from changing again. Bacon's fleet was first and finally secretly infiltrated by Berkeley's men and finally captured. This was to be the turning point in the conflict, because Berkeley was once again strong enough to retake Jamestown. Bacon then followed his sinking fortunes to Jamestown and saw it heavily fortified. He made several attempts at a siege, during which he kidnapped the wives of several of Berkeley's biggest supporters, including Mrs. Nathaniel Bacon Sr., and placed them upon the ramparts of his siege fortifications while he dug his position. Infuriated, Bacon burned Jamestown to the ground on September 19, 1676. (He did save many valuable records in the statehouse.) By now his luck had clearly run out with this extreme measure and he began to have trouble controlling his men's conduct as well as keeping his popular support. Few people responded to Bacon's appeal to capture Berkeley who had since returned to the Eastern Shore for safety reasons.
On October 26th, 1676, Bacon abruptly died of the "Bloodie Flux" and "Lousey Disease" (body lice). It is possible his soldiers burned his contaminated body because it was never found. (His death inspired this little ditty Bacon is Dead I am sorry at my hart That lice and flux should take the hangman's part".)
Shortly after Bacon's death, Berkeley regained complete control and hanged the major leaders of the rebellion. He also seized rebel property without the benefit of a trial. All in all, twenty-three persons were hanged for their part in the rebellion. Later after an investigating committee from England issued its report to King Charles II, Berkeley was relieved of the Governorship and returned to England where he died in July 1677.
Thus ended one of the most unusual and complicated chapters in Jamestown's history. Could it have been prevented or was it time for inevitable changes to take place in the colonial governmental structure? Obviously, the laws were no longer effective as far as establishing clear policies to deal with problems or to instill new lifeblood into the colony's economy. The numerous problems that hit the colony before the Rebellion gave rise to the character of Nathaniel Bacon. Due to the nature of the uprising, Bacon's Rebellion does seem at first glance to be the beginnings of America's quest for Independence. But closer examination of the facts reveals what it really was: a power struggle between two very strong personalities. Between them they almost destroyed Jamestown.
Neville, John Davenport. Bacon's Rebellion. Abstracts of Materials in the Colonial Records Project. Jamestown: Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.
Washburn, Wilcomb E. The Governor and the Rebel. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957.
Webb, Stephen Saunders. 1676-The End of American Independence. New York: Alfred A. Knope, 1984.