Nathaniel Bacon, Saint or Sinner?
by Andrew G. Gardner
Nathaniel Bacon's likeness, offered in stained glass at Preservation Virginia's Bacon's Castle in Surry, Va., represents both his noble presence and his rebellious side.
Nathaniel Bacon drew the battle lines with the colonial government with his Declaration in the Name of the People in 1676.
In a confrontation at the Statehouse in Jamestown, Nathaniel Bacon demanded that Gov. William Berkeley give him a military commission that would authorize him to attack Native Americans on the frontier.
Seventy-year-old William Berkeley led the royal government for 40 years and was Nathaniel Bacon's cousin-by-marriage.
The years prior to 1676 were difficult ones for the colonists and much of their anger was directed at neighboring Indians, who some settlers wanted to drive out or kill. Warren Taylor portrays a Powhatan Indian.
A postcard shows the Old Powder Horn - or the Magazine - as it appeared in 1898. The building was restored by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, which also installed the stained-glass window that now can be seen at Bacon's Castle.
Capt. John Smith included the Native American villages when he mapped southeast Virginia during exploration in the early 17th century.
Many 17th-century settlers considered the Native Americans to be savages and an impediment to land settlement, and as this depiction indicates, aggression toward them grew. Here, European explorers are portrayed by Tom DeRose and Willie Balderson; Native American interpreters are Warren Taylor, Reese Fortune and Tom Tupponce.
Turn the clock back to 1676, exactly 100 years before the American Revolution. A dashing, well-heeled young Englishman, Nathaniel Bacon, recently arrived from England — leads a rebellion against Virginia’s established order. The colony’s government is led by Bacon’s cousin-by-marriage — 70-year-old Gov. William Berkeley, who has held the post for 40 years. Within months the uprising is quelled, Bacon is dead. His co-conspirators are swinging from the gibbet, a commission of enquiry arrives from England with instructions to find out “the truth” and Berkeley is recalled to London where he dies only months later.
So the story goes. But this particular story has been mired in controversy since Nathaniel Bacon died of “the bloodie flux” — dysentery — and an infestation of body lice on Oct. 26, 1676. Not long after, 23 of his co-conspirators, on the decree of the governor, were hanged and Virginia attempted to get back to normal. But what motivated Bacon to follow the bloody path of rebellion?
The years prior to 1676 had been disastrous for families trying to make a living on the frontier. Bad weather, high taxes and poor returns from their crops led to rumblings of dissatisfaction with the colonial government. The colonists’ anger was mainly directed at neighboring Indian tribes, both friendly and unfriendly, and some settlers believed the Native Americans should be driven out or killed. Berkeley, however, would have none of it. He wanted accommodation, not annihilation. Into this grumbling mix of anger and discontent arrived Nathaniel Bacon, who pushed himself forward as chief rabble-rouser. He demanded a military commission permitting him to lead a force against the frontier Indians, but the governor refused.
Bacon viewed his own actions as heroic. Such was the young man’s bravado that on July 30, 1676, he issued a “Declaration in the Name of the People,” signing himself “General by Consent of the People.”
Bacon’s declaration was a rip-snorting rant directed against Virginia’s governing elite and what Bacon saw as cronyism, corruption and neglect of duty. Bacon’s accusations included “…greate unjust taxes upon the Comonality for the advancement of private favourites and other sinister ends, …” and having “… protected, favoured and Imboldened the Indians against his Majesties loyall subjects, never contriveing, requireing or appointing any due or proper meanes of sattisfaction for theire many Invasions, robberies, and murthers committed upon us.” The battle lines were drawn.
Berkeley had seen it coming. “How miserable that man is …,” he wrote to the Lords of Trade in London exactly one month before Bacon delivered his declaration, “that Governes a People wher six parts of seavon at least are Poore Endebted Discontented and Armed.”
Despite this rebellion’s failure, later historians feted Bacon as a precursor of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, writing in 1940, saw Bacon as a patriot, a hero who took up the cudgel for the cause of his frontier neighbors to fight for their democratic rights and freedoms against Berkeley, “the archenemy of colonial democracy.”
In late 1803, Thomas Jefferson received a package from Rufus King, an American diplomat serving in London. The package contained a 1705 manuscript, written by Thomas Mathews, a Virginia planter from Northumberland County. “The Beginning, Progress, and Conclusion of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in the Years 1675 and 1676” had been discovered at a London used book sale and was believed to be from the private library of British Minister of State, Robert Harley, Lord Oxford. In his Preface the author addresses Lord Oxford, promising: “The great honour of your command obliging my pen to step … into this little treatise of history; which having never before experienced, I …therefore dare pretend no more than (nakedly) to recount matters of ffact. So as the most solemn obedience can now be paid, is to pursue the track of bare — fac’d truths as close as my memory can recollect, to have seen, or believed, from credible friends …”
Mathew’s account, drawn from his memory of events peppered with a liberal dressing of hearsay from 30 years before, is reported to have got Thomas Jefferson a-thinking … “If this little book speaks the truth, Nathaniel Bacon will be no longer regarded as a rebel, but as a patriot. His name will be rescued from the infamy which has adhered to it for more than a century; the stigma of corruption, cruelty and treachery, will be fixed on the administration by which he was condemned; and one more case will be added to those which prove, that insurrections proceed oftener from the misconduct of those in power than from the factious and turbulent temper of the people.”
Mathews, it should be noted, is most often named as the man whose duplicitous dealings with the frontier Indians began the whole sorry chain of events culminating in the rebellion, but his report is an intriguing read. The opening page hooks the reader in the grandest Hollywood style: “About the year 1675, appear’d three prodigies in that country which, from th’ attending disasters were looked upon as ominous presages. The first was a large comet, every evening for a week or more … streaming like a horse’s tail westwards.” The second omen was an endless flight of pigeons that covered half the sky and broke tree limbs when they roosted on the trees, while wise old planters shook their heads and remarked that the last time that had happened was back in 1640 when the Indians began the last massacre. And the third strange omen was “swarms of flies about an inch long, and as big as a man’s little finger rising out of spigot holes in the earth that lasted about a month.”
These portents tell us that something big was about to happen. And according to Mathews, it did … “on a Sabbath morning in the summer anno 1675, people in their way to church, saw this (Robert) Hen lying thwart his threshold, and an Indian without (outside) the door, both chop’t on their heads , arms and other parts as if done with Indian hatchets … When ask’d who did that? Hen answered: Doegs, Doegs, (A local Indian tribe) and soon died.” Mathews continues: “From this Englishman’s bloud did arise Bacon’s rebellion with the following mischiefs which overspread all Virginia and twice endangered Maryland. …”
Mathew’s storytelling so impressed President Jefferson that he made a handwritten copy of the manuscript which he then returned to Rufus King. Jefferson passed his copy to his friends, one of whom was John Daly Burk, a renegade Irishman who had been kicked out of his homeland for seditious rabble rousing, a talent he had continued to exercise in America. In 1798, as editor of a New York magazine, Burk was arrested and charged with uttering seditious and libelous remarks against President John Adams. The charge eventually disappeared on condition he leave the country, but Burk ignored the order and settled down in Petersburg, Va., to write a history of the former colony. Burk agreed with Jefferson that Bacon and his call to arms was simply a plea for self-preservation against Indian incursions. The blame for the rebellion fairly lay full and square on the shoulders of Berkeley.
This view held sway for nearly 200 years after the rebellion. In the first year of the 20th century, a memorial window to Nathaniel Bacon was unveiled in the powder Magazine at Williamsburg. A few years later, a plaque was nailed behind the speaker’s chair in the Capitol in Richmond, Va., commemorating the leader of America’s first rebellion as “A great Patriot Leader of the Virginia People who died while defending their rights October 26, 1676.”
Eventually, historians begin to question the assumption that Bacon was a patriot. The sheer volume of previously written work on the subject complicated the task. How to sort out the nitty-historical-gritty from gossip, rumor, flights of fancy or pure fiction?
Wilcomb E. Washburn, writing in the 1950s after years of poring over original research material in Britain and North America, came to the conclusion that Berkeley was the good guy and Bacon was a nasty, spoiled brat, born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Reading between Washburn’s lines, “troublemaker” should have been tattooed to Bacon’s forehead. But in the 1980s, another historian — Stephen Saunders Webb — portrayed Berkeley as incompetent, “incorrigibly corrupt, inhumanely oppressive and inexcusably inefficient, especially in war.” What do you believe? Who can you believe?
Rather than become embroiled in a blow-by-blow account of Bacon’s deeds, it is worth considering two elements of the story that often get glossed over. First, the character of Nathaniel Bacon: His previous history in England was hardly saintly or heroic. He’d been removed by his father from Cambridge University for having “broken into some extravagances,” and when he was accused of trying to cheat a young neighbor out of his inheritance, he was bundled off into exile in Virginia with 1,800 pounds sterling — today valued at some $60 million. The assessment of the commission of enquiry after his death was that “… of an ominous, pensive melancholy Aspect … of a most imperious and hidden Pride of heart, despising the wisest of his neighbours for their ignorance and very Ambitious and arrogant.”
The second element too seldom addressed is the relationship between the invading English colonists and the Native Americans. As far as the governor was concerned, the natives were no longer a threat. They had been severely beaten in battle 25 years before and a peace treaty had been signed by three of the tribes — the Pamunkey, the Appomatox and the Chickahominy — accepting the English king, Charles II, as their overlord. In 1671, five years before the rebellion, Berkeley declared that the Indians “are our neighbours … absolutely subjected, so there is no fear of them.” In the colonial lands which the English had taken over, the Indian population had been vastly reduced to a third of its original estimated 10,000.
The governor, who was intent on avoiding further conflict with other Indian neighbors, was admittedly in a relatively safe part of the colony. By contrast, Bacon and his supporters were on the frontier. Many settlers viewed the Indian tribes as savages. Thomas Mathews even blamed Indian sorcerers for creating a summer drought. There is no doubt that the settlers feared for their lives. Moreover, the presence of Indians curtailed what they took as their God-given right — the very reason they had crossed the Atlantic and headed for the frontier. Land settlement.
There can be little doubt that the main aim of Bacon’s rebellion was to seize Indian land. When the governor wouldn’t help them rid the land of native Americans, Bacon took the responsibility on himself and led the insurrection to depose the colonial government.
What nowadays appears to be a terrible episode with its brutal aims must have seemed quite legitimate to the 17th-century men and women living on the frontier. Yet over three centuries on, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that Nathaniel Bacon was not exactly the saint that for so long many Americans have thought him to be?