The uprising of approximately 1,000 Virginia farmers under the leadership of Nathanial Bacon represents the first rebellion of its sort in the American colonies. Grievances over Governor William Berkeley’s failure protect colonists from Indian attacks on the frontier, rising taxes, a stagnating economy, and the governor’s perceived cronyism culminated into open rebellion in the summer of 1676. Bacon and about 500 of his forces marched on the capital of Jamestown in September, burning it and the governor’s mansion to the ground. Seeing the Governor Berkeley could not subdue the rebels on his own, King Charles II recalled him to England and dispatched a naval squadron to quell the uprising. Before the squadron could arrive in Virginia, however, Bacon died from dysentery in October 1676 and the rebellion quickly faded. Although Bacon’s rebellion was short-lived, much of the language used by the rebels to justify the taking up of arms against British colonial rule exhibited similar claims to those that would emerge nearly a century later in the American Revolution.
The declaration and Remonstrance of Sir William Berkeley his most sacred Majesties Governor and Captain Generall of Virginia
Sheweth That about the yeare 1660 CoIl. Mathews the then Governor dyed and then in consideration of the service I had don the Country, in defending them from, and destroying great numbers of the Indians, without the loss of three men, in all the time that warr lasted, and in contemplation of the equall and uncorrupt Justice I had distributed to all men, Not onely the Assembly but the unanimous votes of all the Country, concurred to make me Governor in a time, when if the Rebells in England had prevailed, I had certainely dyed for accepting itt, `twas Gentlemen an unfortunate Love, shewed to me, for to shew myselfe gratefull for this, I was willing to accept of this Governement againe, when by my gracious Kings favour I might have had other places much more proffitable, and lesse toylesome then this hath beene. Since that time that I returned into the Country, I call the great God Judge of all things in heaven and earth to wittness, that I doe not know of any thing relateive to this Country wherein I have acted unjustly, corruptly, or negligently in distributeing equall Justice to all men, and takeing all possible care to preserve their proprietys, and defend the from their barbarous enimies.
But for all this, perhapps I have erred in things I know not of, if I have I am soe conscious of humane frailty, and my owne defects, that I will not onely acknowledge them, but repent of, and amend them, and not like the Rebell Bacon persist in an error, onely because I have comitted itt, and tells me in diverse of his Letters that itt is not for his honnor to confess a fault, but I am of opinion that itt is onely for divells to be incorrigable, and men of principles like the worst of divells, and these he hath, if truth be reported to me, of diverse of his ex pressions of Atheisme, tending to take away all Religion and Laws.
And now I will state the Question betwixt me as a Governor and Mr. Bacon, and say that if any enimies should invade England, any Councellor Justice of peace or other inferiour officer, might raise what forces they could to protect his Majesties subjects, But I say againe, if after the Kings knowledge of this invasion, any the greatest peere of England, should raise forces against the kings prohibition this would be now, and ever was in all ages and Nations accompted treason. Nay I will goe further, that though this peere was truly zealous for the preservation of his King, and subjects, and had better and greater abillitys then all the rest of his fellow subjects, doe his King and Country service, yett if the King (though by false information) should suspect the contrary, itt were treason in this Noble peere to proceed after the King’s prohibition, and for the truth of this I appeale to all the laws of England, and the Laws and constitutions of all other Nations in the world, And yett further itt is declaired by this Parliament that the takeing up Armes for the King and Parliament is treason, for the event shewed that what ever the pretence was to seduce ignorant and well affected people, yett the end was ruinous both to King and people, as this will be if not prevented, I doe therefore againe declair that Bacon proceedeing against all Laws of all Nations modern and ancient, is Rebell to his sacred Majesty and this Country, nor will I insist upon the sweareing of men to live and dye togeather, which is treason by the very words of the Law.
Now my friends I have lived 34 yeares amongst you, as uncorrupt and dilligent as ever Governor was, Bacon is a man of two yeares amongst you, his person and qualities unknowne to most of you, and to all men else, by any vertuous action that ever I heard of, And that very action which he boasts of, was sickly and fooleishly, and as I am informed treacherously carried to the dishonnor of the English Nation, yett in itt, he lost more men then I did in three yeares Warr, and by the grace of God will putt myselfe to the same daingers and troubles againe when I have brought Bacon to acknowledge the Laws are above him, and I doubt not but by God’s assistance to have better success then Bacon hath had, the reason of my hopes are, that I will take Councell of wiser men then my selfe, but Mr. Bacon hath none about him, but the lowest of the people.
Yett I must further enlarge, that I cannot without your helpe, doe any thinge in this but dye in defence of my King, his laws, and subjects, which I will cheerefully doe, though alone I doe itt, and considering my poore fortunes, I can not leave my poore Wife and friends a better legacy then by dyeing for my King and you: for his sacred Majesty will easeily distinguish betweene Mr. Bacons actions and myne, and Kinges have long Armes, either to reward or punish.
Now after all this, if Mr. Bacon can shew one precedens or example where such actings in any Nation what ever, was approved of, I will mediate with the King and you for a pardon, and excuce for him, but I can shew him an hundred examples where brave and great men have beene putt to death for gaineing Victorys against the Comand of their Superiors.
Lastly my most assured friends I would have preserved those Indians that I knew were howerly att our mercy, to have beene our spyes and intelligence, to finde out our bloody enimies, but as soone as I had the least intelligence that they alsoe were trecherous enimies, I gave out Commissions to distrOy them all as the Commissions themselves will speake itt.
To conclude, I have don what was possible both to friend and enimy, have granted Mr. Bacon three pardons, which he hath scornefully rejected, suppoaseing himselfe stronger to subvert then I and you to maineteyne the Laws, by which onely and Gods assisting grace and mercy, all men mwt hope for peace and safety. I will add noe more though much more is still remaineing to Justifie me and condemne Mr. Bacon, but to desier that this declaration may be read in every County Court in the Country, and that a Court be presently called to doe itt, before the Assembly meet, That your approbation or dissattisfaction of this declaration may be knowne to all the Country, and the Kings Councell to whose most revered Judgments itt is submitted, Given the xxixth day of May, a happy day in the xxv”ith yeare of his most sacred Majesties Reigne, Charles the second, who God grant long and prosperously to Reigne, and lett all his good subjects say Amen.
If to plead the cause of the oppressed, if sincerely to aim at his Majesty’s honour and the public good without any reservation or by interest, if to stand in the gap after so much blood of our dear brethren bought and sold, if after the loss of a great part of his Majesty’s Colony deserted and dispeopled, freely with our lives and estates to endeavour to save the remainder, be treason, God Almighty judge, and let the guilty die.” Cannot in our hearts find one single spot of rebellion or treason, or that we have in any manner aimed at the subverting the settled government or attempting the person of any. The people in all places where we have yet been can attest our civil, quiet, peaceable behaviour, far different from that of rebellion or tumultuous persons. “Let the truth be told and let all the world know the real foundations of pretended guilt. We appeal to the country itself what and of what nature their oppressions have been, or by what cabal and mystery the designs of many of those whom we call great men have been transacted and carried on.” Let us trace these men in authority and favour, let us observe the sudden rise of their estates or the reputation they have held here, and see whether their extraction and education have not been vile, and by what pretence they could so soon step into employments of great trust and consequence, and let us consider whether any public work for our safety and defence or for the advancement of trade, liberal arts or sciences, is here extant in any way adequate to our vast charge, let us compare these things and see what spunges have sucked up the public treasure, unworthy favorites, and juggling parasites, whose tottering fortunes have been supported. Let all people judge what can be of more dangerous import than to suspect the so long safe proceedings of our grandees. Another main article of our guilt, our manifest aversion of all not only foreign but the protected and darling Indians, which we are informed is rebellion of a deep dye, as both the Governor and Council are by Colonel Coles’ assertion bound to defend the Queen and the Appannatocks with their blood. Declares them enemies to the King and country, robbers and thieves, and invaders of his Majesty’s rights, yet have they by the Governor been pardoned and indemnified with encouragement and favour, and their firearms restored. Another main article of our guilt is our design not only to ruin and extirpate all Indians in general, but all manner of trade with them, since the Governor by commission warrants this trade, who dare oppose it, although plantations be deserted, and the blood of our brethren spilt on all sides, our complaints continually murder upon murder. Who dare say that these traders at the heads of the rivers buy and sell our blood, and do still, notwithstanding the late Act to the contrary. Another article of our guilt is to assert all those neighbour Indians, as well as others, to be outlawed, wholly unqualified for the protection of the law, for that the law doth reciprocally protect and punish. But the Indians cannot, according to the tenure or form of any law to us known, be prosecuted, seized, or complained against. The very foundation of all these disasters is the grant of the beaver trade to the Governor, but to say the grant is illegal, were not this to deserve the name of rebel and traitor. “But to manifest our zeal and loyalty to the world, and how much we abhor those bitter names, may all the world know that we do unanimously desire to represent our sad and heavy grievance to his most sacred Majesty as our refuge and sanctuary where we do well know that all our causes will be impartially heard and equal justice administered to all men.
The Declaracion of the People.
- For haveing upon specious pretences of publiqe works raised greate unjust taxes upon the Comonality for the advancement of private favorites and other sinister ends, but noe visible effects in any measure adequate, For not haveing dureing this long time of his Gouvernement in any measure advanced this hopefull Colony either by fortificacons Townes or Trade.
- For haveing abused and rendred contemptable the Magistrates of Justice, by advanceing to places of Judicature, scandalous and Ignorant favorites.
- For haveing wronged his Majesties prerogative and interest, by assumeing Monopoly of the Beaver trade, and for haveing in that unjust gaine betrayed and sold his Majesties Country and the lives of his loyall subjects, to the barbarous heathen.
- For haveing, protected, favoured, and Imboldned the Indians against his Majesties loyall subjects, never contriveing, requireing, or appointing any due or proper meanes of sattisfaction for theire many Invasions, robbories, and murthers comitted upon us.
- For haveing when the Army of English, was just upon the track of those Indians, who now in all places burne, spoyle, murther and when we might with ease have distroyed them: who then were in open hostillity, for then haveing expressly countermanded, and sent back our Army, by passing his word for the peaceable demeanour of the said Indians, who imediately prosecuted theire evill intentions, comitting horred murthers and robberies in all places, being protected by the said ingagement and word past of him the said Sir William Berkeley, haveing ruined and laid desolate a greate part of his Majesties Country, and have now drawne themselves into such obscure and remote places, and are by theire success soe imboldned and confirmed, by theire confederacy soe strengthned that the cryes of blood are in all places, and the terror, and constimation of the peOple soe greate, are now become, not onely a difficult, but a very formidable enimy, who might att first with ease have beene distroyed.
- And lately when upon the loud outcryes of blood the Assembly had with all care raised and framed an Army for the preventing of further mischeife and safeguard of this his Majesties Colony.
- For haveing with onely the privacy of some few favorites, without acquainting the people, onely by the alteracon of a figure, forged a Comission, by we know not what hand, not onely without, but even against the consent of the people, for the raiseing and effecting civill warr and distruction, which being happily and without blood shed prevented, for haveing the second time attempted the same, thereby calling downe our forces from the defence of the fronteeres and most weekely expoased places.
- For the prevencon of civill mischeife and ruin amongst ourselves, whilst the barbarous enimy in all places did invade, murther and spoyle us, his majesties most faithfull subjects.
Of this and the aforesaid Articles we accuse Sir William Berkeley as guilty of each and every one of the same, and as one who hath traiterously attempted, violated and Injured his Majesties interest here, by a loss of a greate part of this his Colony and many of his faithfull loyall subjects, by him betrayed and in a barbarous and shamefull manner expoased to the Incursions and murther of the heathen, And we doe further declare these the ensueing persons in this list, to have beene his wicked and pernicious councellours Confederates, aiders, and assisters against the Comonality in these our Civill comotions.
Sir Henry Chichley William Claiburne Junior
Lieut. Coll. Christopher Thomas Hawkins
Wormeley William Sherwood
Phillip Ludwell John Page Clerke
Robert Beverley John Cluffe Clerke
Richard Lee John West
Thomas Ballard Hubert Farrell
William Cole Thomas Reade
Richard Whitacre Matthew Kempe
Nicholas Spencer Joseph Bridger
And we doe further demand that the said Sir William Berkeley with all the persons in this list be forthwith delivered up or surrender themselves within fower days after the notice hereof, Or otherwise we declare as followeth.
That in whatsoever place, howse, or ship, any of the said persons shall reside, be hidd, or protected, we declaire the owners, Masters or Inhabitants of the said places, to be confederates and trayters to the people and the estates of them is alsoe of all the aforesaid persons to be confiscated, and this we the Comons of Virginia doe declare, desiering a firme union amongst our selves that we may joyntly and with one accord defend our selves against the common Enimy, and lett not the faults of the guilty be the reproach of the inocent, or the faults or crimes of the oppressours devide and separate us who have suffered by theire oppressions.
These are therefore in his majesties name to command you forthwith to seize the persons above mentioned as Trayters to the King and Country and them to bring to Midle plantacon, and there to secure them untill further order, and in case of opposition, if you want any further assistance you are forthwith to demand itt in the name of the people in all the Counties of Virginia.
Generall by Consent of the people.
Of part of our victory and the misery of your own and Sir Wm. Berkeley’s condition yourselves are judges how unjust your cause was, how unheard of his and your manner of proceeding against your neighbours and friends to invade this poor colony . . . for hopes of plunder . . . how you have been deluded and gulled by that abominable juggler, whose cheats and base actions you are all acquainted with, and whose oppressions you have a long time groaned under.” What Bacon has done has been in defence of his Majesty’s interest (by a power derived from his Majesty) being a Commission signed by Sir. W. Berkeley at the request of the Assembly, and ratified by an Act of Assembly, so that no reasonable man can imagine compulsion otherwise than a ridiculous evasion. In taxing Bacon contrary to the tenor of his Commission Berkeley taxeth himself of treason, for it is not to be supposed his Majesty would trust either a coward or a fool, so it follows if Bacon’s Commission were granted for reasonable grounds then this complaint against us is unjust and abominable, or if I were what he pretends, he at once confesses himself both a coward and a traitor, which he very well knows, and it is on that score by his folly and passion that he hath involved himself and this poor Colony in such a labyrinth of ruin that he well knows he never can answer what he has done before his Majesty, who must needs count him unfit to be Governor who neither had the principle to do what was just nor the courage to oppose what was unjust. Invites them within fifteen days after the arrival of this paper to send discreet persons to make satisfaction for our losses sustained by your piracies, and to deliver up the ringleaders to be sent into England, there to have their trial, that is Custis, Stringer, Foxcraft, Littleton, and to send back what persons of Bacon’s party are there detained as prisoners, then that the Colony may not be ruined by their rashness he will rather treat with them as brothers and friends, and endeavour that their sad differences may be composed. If through the seducement of that abominable juggler Sir they deny this, appeals to themselves if they can justly blame Bacon if he prosecute them with all extremity of war to the utmost of his powers.
Philip Ludwell to Secretary Sir Joseph Williamson, an account of the rebellious mutiny raised by Nathanial Bacon
Account of the distressed condition of this poor country both from the Indians and the rebellious mutiny raised by Nathaniel Bacon, which has come “to that prodigious height that indeed I think no story either ancient or modern can out-do, blood only excepted.” Has not yet been two days out of durance, where the Governor, Council, and Burgesses, with divers others were strictly kept by Bacon and about 500 of the scum of the country three days until he had obtained his most unreasonable and illegal demands. Relates the proceedings of the Assembly in March last to take the best means to destroy their Indian enemies by erecting forts at the head of each river until an army could be raised, but while this was in action, Bacon, “a man of little above one year’s experience in the country,” infused into the people the vast charge this would bring on them, and gathered about him a rabble of the basest sort, and with them began to stand at defiance against the Government. Being “pleasant and sympathetic with the humours,” in an instant he infected almost every corner of the country. The Governor perceiving the disease to grow dangerous and by its spreading the cure difficult used all possible means to reclaim Bacon from his mutinous ways, but he still proceeded contrary to positive order and command. His first exploit was to seize two Indians who had always lived in friendship with the English, these he put to death with much horror and cruelty without examining their crime, and drove our neighbour friendly Indians away, who are as necessary to us as dogs to hunt wolves. Hardly 100 friendly Indians on all our borders, and at least 1,500 enemies who continually prey upon our frontier plantations. Bacon’s march with about 300 to the Occaneeches who live on an island 150 miles from the falls of James River, the march of the Occaneeches and assault of a fort of the Susquehannahs which they destroyed, and brought back six Mannakin Indians and seven Indians prisoners and the plunder to Bacon who tortured the prisoners to death. Dispute between Persicles, King of the Occaneeches, and Bacon as to division of the plunder, which ended in a fight in which Persicles and 40 or 50 of his Indians were killed, and 16 or 17 of Bacon’s men. Bacon then made a hasty retreat, and on his return the Governor again ordered him to lay down his arms, and then was forced to publicly declare him a rebel; but Bacon with 40 armed men came to the Court House and commanded the Sheriff to forbear publishing the Governor’s declaration, threatening him terribly if he proceeded, and being the day of election of Burgesses, Bacon was by his ruling party chosen a burgess. On 5th June the Assembly were to meet at James City, and the next day Bacon came down the river in a sloop with about 50 armed men and in the night landed at Sandy Bay, half-a-mile off, where he held a private conference with one Lawrence and one Drummond about three hours and then went to their boats. But they were discovered; an alarm was given and armed boats sent in pursuit, and about three in the afternoon Bacon was taken and brought to town with his men, who were kept guarded, but Bacon released on his parole. After which in open Court he made a full and free submission to the Government, and engaged his honour and estate never to do the like, but to use his utmost endeavours to allay the commotions. He was again sworn of the Council and promised a Commission to raise volunteers against the Indians, but instead of performing his obligations he raised new and heightened the old commotions, got at several places about 500 men, “whose fortunes and inclinations were equally desperate,” and with these marched towards the town, which on 23rd June he entered, there being no force to resist him, and drew up his men before the State House, where the Governor, Council, and Burgesses were sitting. After sending out his guards to secure all parts, the Governor sent two of the Council to know what they came for, Bacon replied for a Commission; account of what took place, his refusing the Governor’s Commission to be “Commander-in-Chief of all the volunteer soldiers to go against the Indians” and his demand to be “General of all the forces in Virginia against the Indians,” the Governor’s reply that he would rather have both his hands cut off than grant such a Commission, and challenge to Bacon to decide the controversy with the sword; Bacon’s refusal and threats to the Burgesses in the State House where 100 guns ready cocked were presented at them, saying that he would pull down the house and have their blood, with such dreadful new coined oaths “as if he thought God was delighted with his ingenuity in that kind.” The House demanded a little respite, and supplicated the Governor to grant the commission in Bacon’s form, which was done, and other propositions and demands, very hard ones, were granted, having upon us the expectation of having all our throats cut and the fear of the Indians. The laws of Assembly were sent out to the people to be read, but they rose up like a swarm of bees and swore they would hear no laws nor have any but what they pleased. On Sunday 25th June news came that the Indians had murdered eight of our people, in two places. The Governor sent to call the House together, and desired Sir Henry Chicheley to see Bacon and demand what he intended, that either he should march away to secure the people from the Indians or suffer us to go to our respective countries that a force might be immediately raised to suppress these Indians. The Assembly was then dissolved, but Bacon refused to let the Governor go home to see his family until the next morning, when Bacon marched out of town, “by which all were released from their durance.” They have marched to where the last mischief was done, but doubts not they will soon hear of him again. Entreats him to be as he doubts not these agents will be a mediator to the King for this poor languishing country. 6 pp. Closely written. Endorsed by Williamson, “Rec. 3 Sept.”
Whereas Nathaniel Bacon, the younger, of the Plantation of Virginia, and others his adherents and complices, being persons of mean and desperate fortunes, have lately in a traitorous and rebellious manner levied war within the said Plantation against the King, and more particularly being assembled in warlike manner to the number of about 500 persons, did, in June last, besiege the Governor and Assembly, and by menaces and threats of present death compel said Governor and Assembly to pass divers pretended Acts. To the end that said Nathaniel Bacon and his complices may suffer such punishment as they justly deserve, his Majesty doth declare that said Nathaniel Bacon and all his Majesty’s subjects as have taken arms under and assisted or shall hereafter take arms or assist said Nathaniel Bacon in carrying on the war shall be guilty of high treason. And his Majesty strictly commands his loving subjects to use their utmost endeavours to secure the persons of the said Nathaniel Bacon and his complices in order to bring them to their legal trial. And his Majesty doth declare that such person or persons as shall apprehend said Nathaniel Bacon shall have a reward from his Majesty’s royal bounty of 300L. sterling, to be paid in money by the Lieutenant-Governor. And because many of Bacon’s adherents may have been seduced by him into this rebellion by false pretences, his Majesty doth declare that if within twenty days of the publishing this Proclamation any such adherent submits himself to his Majesty’s government, and takes the oath of obedience and gives security for his future good behaviour, such person is hereby pardoned: but those who shall not accept this offer of pardon, but persist in said rebellion, their servants or slaves as shall take arms under his Majesty’s Governor or Commander-in-Chief shall have their liberty and be for ever free from the service of said offenders. And that his Majesty’s loving subjects may understand how careful his Majesty is to remove all just grievances, he hath not only given instructions to reduce the salaries of the Members of the Assembly to such moderate rates as may render them less burthensome to the country, but hath also sent Herbert Jeffreys, Sir John Berry, and Francis Moryson, his Majesty’s Commissioners, to inquire into and report to his Majesty all such other grievances as his Majesty’s subjects within said Plantation do at present lie under, to the end such redress and relief may be made as shall be agreeable to his Majesty’s royal wisdom and compassion. And his Majesty hereby declares that the pretended Acts and Laws made in the Assembly held at James city in June last shall be null and void. Bacon died of a bloody flux, 26th October, the day before the date of this Proclamation. Printed. Two copies, also MS. copy, 6 pp.