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‘The poverty of the country is such that all the power and sway has got into the hands of the rich, who by extortious advantages, having the common people in their debt, have always curbed and oppressed them in all manner of ways.” This was said by Nathaniel Bacon Jr, and it describes the motivation for the rebellion he played a key part in, aptly name Bacon’s Rebellion which took place in the summer of 1676. It took place in Jamestown, which was an English colony founded in America in 1607. Eventually it came under the governance of William Berkeley who was forced into action by the actions of Bacon.
The rebellion started with discontent and grew to something greater. Several distinct factors contributed to it, some of which were the prevailing anti-Indian sentiment, Berkeley’s favoritism, and Bacons premature actions and his subsequent threats. The first of which, anti-Indian sentiment is probably the least well founded of the three. There were small raids by the Indians so in this sentiment there is a grain of truth but they blamed several other things on Indian interference that was no fault of the Indians. One of which was the economic problems they were experiencing at the time, namely the depreciation in cost of the tobacco crop that they grew predominantly, along with increased competition from neighboring colonies, and restrictive trading laws put in place by the British. Together they all combined to create discontent among the settlers who used the Indians as a scapegoat. Another reason was Berkeley’s blatant favoritism when choosing the merchants who would have limited contact with the Indians also didn’t help matters. Due to raids and parties fighting on both sides, Berkeley called the long assembly, trying to keep the peace, and in which the town allied itself against all the Indians that they deemed bad. To protect the town, the Long Assembly designated a defense zone around the town, but this was at the cost of the citizens, who didn’t want anything the assembly was forcing upon them. On top of this, trading with the Indians was highly regulated, and only a few merchants were authorized to trade with the Indians, most of which were close friends of Berkeley. One of the traders adversely affected by these new regulations was Nathaniel Bacon Jr. who protested them vigorously and publicly before next resorting to taking it out on the Indians. Bacon decided to make his own group of men to go after the Indians they had felt wronged their colony since they felt Berkeley had not addressed it well at all. Bacons groups first action was to drive the Pamunkey Indians from their land taking the land they felt was theirs and Berkeley wanted to leave to the Indians. Berkeley in response to Bacons actions took 300 well-armed men and rode to Bacons headquarters driving him out with his 200 men. After this Berkeley released 2 petitions, That Bacons would be declared a rebel, and that Bacon’s men would be pardoned if they left Bacon and returned home. Bacon however chose to disregard Berkeley and chose instead to head after the Occaneechi Indians. Berkeley was willing to extend a branch to Bacon in the form of a pardon from him but he had to go back to England’s courts. However, before this offer could be delivered to Bacon the idea was shot down by the House of Burgesses which Bacon had been elected to recently since he had a hero of the people aspect. Bacon showed up in June 1676 to take his seat in the House of Burgesses but the forces of Berkeley caught him and took him to Berkeley. There he was made to apologize and Berkeley decided to live and let live and so pardoned him. However, Berkeley’s grace may have been wasted as this was just the precursor to the rest of the rebellion. Berkeley’s troubles were not to end there as Bacon took up his seat in the house. In the midst of a heated argument about how to handle the Indians Bacon stormed out of the house and returned with a posse of his men demanding a commission from Berkeley to go and hunt the Indians. Berkeley called Bacons bluff and purportedly bared his chest to the gun Bacons men were threatening him with and said ‘Here shoot me before God, fair mark shoot’. Bacon judged that shooting Berkeley would do him no good so he immediately turned his men upon the House of Burgesses, threatening to shoot them if Berkeley still refused. Bacons plan worked and Berkeley gave in, giving him all power against the Indians without Government interference. Berkeley’s authority was in pieces at this point so he withdrew from Jamestown and washed his hands of everything.
As Berkeley was no longer there, Bacon became the automatic leader of the people. Bacons short term as leader lasted from roughly July to September in 1676. Even by the end of his first month, on July 30th Bacon had released his Declaration of the People to the inhabitants of Jamestown. This document laid out how Bacon believed Berkeley had shown favoritism, corruption, and had wholly served his own interests through his position as the governor. After his declaration he also released an oath for the people Jamestown to take which would swear their physical, verbal, and material support for him. But even with Bacons precautions some of Berkeley’s men managed to sneak back into Jamestown and disable Bacons fleet. This was a turning point in which Bacon started to lose support quickly. As Bacons influence decreased quickly so did his health and on October 26th 1671 Nathaniel Bacon, leader of a revolution died of the Bloody Flux.
Quickly after the death of Bacon, Berkeley was able to return and reassert his control over the people. But despite the fact he had given Bacon so many chances earlier he did not extend the same graces to other rebel leaders who had helped Bacon’s rise to power. In total Berkeley hanged 23 dissidents and revoked the property rights of several other prominent supporters of Bacon. However, soon after an investigative committee sent a report back to England about the rebellion and Berkeley’s handling of it, Berkeley was recalled to England where he died soon after arriving.
A few misconceptions and discovery’s rose up tangentially to the rebellion itself. The main historical misconception about this confrontation is that it was an early stirring of the rebellion that would come nearly a hundred years later. While in a way the players had the same role, a group of the people rising up for their united interests against a government who had not treated them as they wished. However, though this does mimic the roles, the issues between both sides were still very different. Bacon goal was achieved due to prejudice against the Indians and the corrupt nature of Berkeley’s governance. Another interesting aside from this time was a discovery made by Berkeley’s men as they approached Jamestown. This discovery was of the hallucinogenic effects of the Jimson weed, Datura Stramonium. According to legend some of this weed was ingested by the soldiers and suffered several effects for the next 11 days.
In conclusion, Bacon’s rebellion was a complex conflict which involved several errors tactical, tactful, and otherwise. This is an important chapter in America’s history as it shows a willingness of the people to stand up to a government, that they believe is corrupt and it also shows the power one man could draw to himself by rhetoric. This portion of early American history is important to historians and Americans as it shows America as a people were drifting away from the British and becoming more independent, even one hundred years before the Declaration of Independence was drafted and set America’s independence formally before the entire world.
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