Bacon's Rebellion: Summary, Causes & Significance

  • 0:02 Virginia, The New World
  • 2:05 Bacon's Rebellion
  • 3:14 Seeds of Revolution?
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Lobb
One hundred years before the American Revolution, seeds of rebellion against royal authority were planted in Virginia. Some historians point to Bacon's rebellion as the original seed of such revolution.

Virginia, The New World

By the middle of the 17th century, Virginia had become a magnet for new settlers. Indentured servants streamed into the colony. Tobacco had proven profitable, but by mid-century the sharp rise in profits had leveled off. Planters began to grow corn and raise cattle. The increased food supply helped reduce mortality rates and the population grew. In fact, by 1650, there were some 15,000 residents of Virginia. As indentured servants fulfilled their terms, they gained access to land. Many former servants became planters in their own right.

17th Century Virginia
Old Virginia

However, the relentless stream of settlers put pressure on Indian lands and produced unwanted economic effects. The increase in the number of planters increased production. This, in turn, caused the cost of land to increase and the price of tobacco to plummet. To keep their economic edge, large planters bought up all of the most fertile lands along the coast. Freed servants were forced to become either tenants or buy up the less desirable lands along the frontier.

In either case, they were at a disadvantage. Tenants were dependent on planters for land, and small farmers along the frontier were vulnerable to Indian attacks. The situation of the common folk worsened, and by 1676, almost a quarter of the free white men in Virginia were landless. Men worked odd jobs, squatted on private property, poached game or committed petty crimes in order to survive. Fearing social unrest, the large planters, who controlled the colonial assembly, passed laws to make indentures longer and stripped the landless of their political rights. Such repressive measures, however, only increased social disharmony and spawned a wave of uprisings.

Uprising

This was the setting for the tangled events that have come to be called Bacon's Rebellion. The discontent turned to violence in 1675, when a quarrel between a frontier planter and the Doeg Indians led to the murder of the planter's herdsmen. Frontier militiamen retaliated, killing at least ten Doegs and 14 members of the Susquehannock Tribe by mistake. Soon, a force of Virginia and Maryland militiamen laid siege to the Susquehannock, murdering several of the tribe's chief negotiators. The militiamen then released the survivors of the attack, who immediately took revenge on frontier settlements. Attacks occurred on down the James River, where Nathaniel Bacon's overseer was killed.

Nathaniel Bacon

By then, their revenge had been satisfied and the Susquehannocks pulled back. Governor William Berkeley proposed to build a series of forts along the frontier, but this did not satisfy the colonists' need for revenge or open up frontier lands to new settlement.

Portrait of Royal Governor William Berkeley.
Gov William Berkeley

Seeds of Revolution?

In May 1676, Bacon defied Berkeley's authority and took command of a group of frontier vigilantes. Bacon, a graduate of Cambridge University, had only been in Virginia two years. Historians often refer to Bacon as the 'torchbearer' of the American Revolution and the leader of the first struggle of the common man versus aristocrat, or frontier versus tidewater. In part, this portrayal is true. The rebellion he led was a battle of servants, small farmers and even slaves against Virginia's wealthy planters and political leaders. But Bacon was also the son of a rich squire. More than any commitment to democratic principles, it was his often-ruthless attacks against Indians that brought him into conflict with governing authorities.

Bacon believed that all Indians were fair game for his attacks, and after threatening to kill the governor and members of the assembly, he began to prepare for an all-out war against the tribes. To prevent any governmental interference, he ordered that Governor Berkeley be arrested. Berkeley's forces resisted, but it was a feeble attempt. Bacon's men burned the Governor's seat at Jamestown. Bacon did not get to enjoy the victory. He fell ill with swamp fever a month later.

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