Builders of our Country Vol. I - G. Southworth

Nathaniel Bacon

In the year 1660 Sir William Berkeley was proclaimed Governor of Virginia under King Charles II of England, son of the beheaded Charles I.

The settlers must have had mixed feelings about Sir William's becoming governor. He was no stranger to them. He had been their governor once before.

During his first term, William Berkeley had proved himself a man of very decided ideas. His mind once made up, was made up for good and all. Moreover, he had been extremely loyal to the English king. What the King had wanted the colonists to do, Governor Berkeley had wanted them to do. And it made no difference whether the settlers themselves liked it or not. He placed little value on the colonists' own ideas of how their colony should be run. He did not believe in free schools, where all the children could be educated. He thought that education should be only for people with money and power. And yet, in spite of all this, the colony had done well under Governor Berkeley, and in many ways the settlers had approved of him.

The years that Sir William had been out of office do not seem to have improved him. On becoming governor again, he still had all his old faults; and now he added some new ones. He was selfish and put his own good ahead of that of the colony: he liked to take his comfort undisturbed, and he was more set in his ways than ever. This was hard for the colonists to stand.

But worse was to come. The English king; Charles II, decreed that the tobacco raised in Virginia must be carried only to England and in English ships; and the colonists were forbidden to buy foreign goods unless they were handled by English merchants. The colonists protested that this would mean ruin to the colony's commerce. It made no difference. Moreover, heavy taxes for public improvements were imposed and enforced; but the improvements were never seen.

It is no wonder that between the tax collectors and their unsympathetic governor, the poor settlers began to grow bitter. No one seemed to be looking out for their interests.

Then still another grievance was added to the long list. Governor Berkeley refused to give the settlers protection against the Indians.

The raising of tobacco had had its effect on the colonial way of living. Large fields and many of them were needed, if large crops of tobacco were to be raised. The bigger the crops, the bigger the owner's returns. So instead of living in cozy little villages, the Virginia colonists laid out large farms or plantations, one beyond another, and thus spread their colony over a great territory. One's next-door neighbor lived a long way off, and it took some time to ride from home to home. This living far apart made it hard to guard against Indian attacks. While a plantation owner was trying to get help, his whole family might be killed.

From time to time the Indians had caused the Virginians more or less trouble. At last they saw that the English were quarreling among themselves over taxes and such matters. Here was a fine opportunity for the savages.

First, three settlers were killed on the Potomac. Then, growing bolder, the Indians crept down the James River and killed thirty-six Virginians.

Still Governor Berkeley took no steps to punish the murderers. He was afraid that, if he attacked the warriors, it might put an end to his profitable fur trade with their tribes. So the Indians went on plundering and killing the settlers and laying waste their homes. Before many months, they had killed large numbers of the colonists.

The people begged Governor Berkeley to help them, but he refused. "Very well, then, we will help ourselves," said Nathaniel Bacon.

This Nathaniel Bacon was a wealthy young planter who had lately brought his young wife to live in Virginia. He was tall, energetic, and commanding. He owned a plantation near where now the city of Richmond stands. One day in May, 1676, word was brought him that the Indians had attacked his plantation and killed the overseer and a servant. This was the last straw.

Bacon promptly called upon his neighbors to meet him. When they came, he reminded them that the Governor had failed to take any steps to avenge the lives of the slain colonists; that he was acting not for their good but for his own; and that something must be done at once to protect the Virginians from their deadly foes. He, Nathaniel Bacon, was ready to take matters into his own hands, he said. Were his neighbors not ready to do the same? If so, he begged them to choose a leader and to prepare to march against the warriors.

With a shout the colonists declared that Bacon was right. They would certainly have revenge for the death of their friends, and Bacon should lead them.

As a final effort at keeping terms with Governor Berkeley, Bacon sent to ask him for a commission. The Governor refused.

Then he would march without a commission. So the little army set out with Nathaniel Bacon at its head and marched up the James River. Finding the Indians in the forests, the colonists fell upon them and utterly routed them. This done they turned toward home.

While Bacon and his followers were fighting the Indians, Governor Berkeley was raging in Jamestown. Nathaniel Bacon was a rebel, he declared, and so were all the men in his party. Had they not marched contrary to his orders? Such men should be punished. For this purpose the Governor called out a body of troops and made ready to attack the rebels. He found, however, that Bacon had the sympathy of the colony back of him. So, fearing a general uprising, Sir William disbanded his troops and meekly gave in.

Now a new assembly was chosen, and Nathaniel Bacon was elected one of its members. When he arrived in Jamestown, he was seized and taken before the Governor, who was still very angry with him. A stormy interview followed. At last Bacon said that if the Governor would now give him a commission to fight the Indians, he would publicly admit that he had acted illegally in marching without one in the first place. It was agreed. Bacon admitted his faults. But the Governor still failed to give him the coveted commission.

It was now Bacon's turn to be angry. He determined that he would have that commission. He left Jamestown, went home and collected another army of planters. With this army he marched back to Jamestown, drew up his forces in the public square, and sent word to Governor Berkeley that he was waiting for his commission.

Trembling with fury the Governor rushed out of the Statehouse and into the square, where he faced the men. There he threw back the ruffles of his shirt, bared his breast, and shouted, "Here I am! Shoot me! 'Fore God a fair mark, a fair mark—shoot!"

Bacon and the Governor


"No," Bacon calmly answered. "May it please your Honor, we have not come to hurt a hair of your head or of any man's. We have come for a commission to save our lives from the Indians, which you have so often promised; and now we will have it before we go." And Nathaniel Bacon was given his commission.

Once more he advanced on the warring tribes. By fall, these tribes were completely crushed, and the dreaded attacks on the plantations came to an end.

The Ruins of Jamestown


But Bacon did not have smooth sailing all this time. The Governor had again proclaimed Bacon and his followers rebels and had raised an army to defeat them. Bacon was not to be put down. He was doing his duty, and he would fight the Governor before he would give in. So he led his men against Governor Berkeley and his army.

On the march to Jamestown, Bacon stopped at the homes of those planters who had sided with the Governor, and, taking their wives prisoners, carried them along as hostages.

At Jamestown he found the Governor's troops ready for him. Placing the women in front of his own men he ordered an entrenchment dug and breastworks thrown up. While this was being done the Governor's guns did not fire a single shot for fear of killing the women.

The next day, however, there was a battle in Jamestown; and Bacon came off victor. The Governor fled from the town, boarded a ship, and sailed down the river.

With Jamestown once in his hands and the Governor gone, it would seem as if Bacon should have been satisfied; but he was not. He realized that even though he remained conqueror in Virginia, the King might send war ships and soldiers from England, and a great many unpleasant things might happen. So he decided first of all to burn the city of Jamestown.

It was on the 19th of September, 1676, that they set fire to the city; and in a few hours the whole town was reduced to ashes. Undoubtedly many a man and woman wept when they saw their homes eaten up by the flames. But they made no effort to prevent Bacon from doing as he thought right.

However, the "Bacon Rebellion," as it was called, was not to last much longer. The very next month after the burning of Jamestown, came the death from fever of the daring young Nathaniel Bacon. And with no leader, his army disbanded and went home. Then Governor Berkeley came back to Virginia ready for revenge, and he had it. More than twenty of the rebels were executed, and many more would have died had not the council decided that blood enough had been shed.

When King Charles II in England heard of Governor Berkeley's deeds of revenge, he said, "The old fool has taken away more lives in that naked country than I did for the murder of my father."