Nathaniel Bacon (colonist)

Nathaniel Bacon (c. 1640s – October 26, 1676) was a wealthy colonist of the Virginia Colony and also the cousin of Governor Berkeley, famous as the instigator of Bacon's Rebellion of 1676, which collapsed when Bacon himself died of dysentery.

Early life

When he arrived in Virginia, Bacon settled on the frontier near Jamestown, Virginia, and was appointed to the council of Governor William Berkeley.Some sources have claimed that Berkeley's wife, Francis Culpeper was a cousin of Nathaniel Bacon.

Bacon's Rebellion

Before the "Virginia Rebellion," as it was then called, began in earnest, in 1674, a group of so-called "freeholders" on the Virginia frontier demanded that Native Americans living on treaty-protected lands be driven out or killed. Later that same year, a group of Virginia militiamen raided a settlement and killed some thirty natives. Acting against Berkeley's orders, a larger force surrounded and attacked a fortified Susquehannock village, killing the chiefs whom Berkeley had persuaded to negotiate.
The Susquehannocks retaliated in force, attacking plantations and killing 60 settlers.

Seeking to avoid war, Berkeley advocated a policy of containment, proposing the construction of several defensive fortifications along the frontier. Dismissing the plan as expensive and inadequate, settlers on the frontier also questioned the plan as a possible excuse to raise tax rates.

In the meantime, Bacon had emerged as a rebel leader, accusing Berkeley of corruption. When Berkeley refused to grant Bacon a military commission to attack the natives, Bacon mustered his own force of 400-500 men and attacked the Doeg and Pamunkey tribes, who previously had not been involved in the conflict. Berkeley had Bacon removed from his governing council and arrested; Bacon's men quickly secured his release, and forced Berkeley to hold legislative elections. The recomposed House of Burgesses enacted a number of sweeping reforms, limiting the powers of the governor and restoring suffrage rights to landless freemen.Berkeley had refused to authorize retaliation against the natives. One of his main motivations in this decision was that he was invested in a fur trading business with the Native Americans which would have been jeopardized if relations had gone sour.

On July 30, 1676, Bacon and his makeshift army issued a Declaration of the People of Virginia, demanding that natives in the area be killed or removed, and an end of the rule of "parasites." The declaration also criticized Berkeley's administration, accusing him of levying unfair taxes, of appointing friends to high positions, and of failing to protect outlying farmers from Indian attack. After months of conflict, Bacon's forces burned Jamestown to the ground on September 19, 1676.

Before an English naval squadron could arrive, Bacon's death on October 26, 1676, from dysentery, led to the collapse of the rebellion. Governor Berkeley returned to power, seizing the property of several rebels and hanging 23 men. After an investigative committee returned its report to King Charles II, Berkeley was relieved of the governorship, and returned to England. Charles II later commented, "That old fool has put to death more people in that naked country than I did here for the murder of my father."

Identification controversy

No one knows for certain when he was born. An earlier attribution of him as the Nathaniel Bacon born in 1646 or 1647 appears to be spurious, based on no firm foundation, although widely repeated in later literature including Encyclopædia Britannica. The 1922 edition of the Dictionary of National Biography does not give him a specific birthdate but does say he was "of Friston Hall". Although, from a contemporary document, his father is said to be "Thomas Bacon", his mother is not named and is unknown. She is not Elizabeth Brooke (even though this is repeated in many books), who in fact married a man named Nathaniel Bacon although that Nathaniel was a generation older than the one whom this article is about.


Further reading

  • Bailey, T., Kennedy, D., & Cohen, L. (eds.). (2002). The American Pageant, 12th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0-618-10349-X.
  • Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975), pp. 250-279.

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