Virginia Scrambled, with a Side of Bacon
ANNETTE TELLS TALES: Conspiracy Theories. Racism. Gun Violence. And a Populist Uprising Called Bacon's Rebellion. Welcome to America in 1676!
A Quick Note Before We Get Started Today:
Why write now about an event from three hundred years ago?
A story to explain. Back in the 90s, a colleague of mine said, “Ooh, I think I’ll offer a seminar on impeachment this fall.” Why? Nobody had cared about impeachment since the Nixon Administration. The reason my professor friend was suddenly keen, in case you’re still wondering, was that Bill Clinton was being threatened with impeachment. Now, historians were grabbing books off shelves, and the historians who had been writing on impeachment? Well, they seemed like psychic geniuses, some of them anyway.
Which brings me to today’s subject. What happened in 1676 has long sat in the back of my mind. I’d never done much more than mention it briefly in my college classes. The newest book about it, written in 2012, sat reproachfully, unread, on my bookshelf. And then, last week, I took it down, read it, and thought, Ooh, I think I’ll write about this for Non-Boring History!
So here’s my answer to the first question I asked above: Everything old is new again.
OK, you need me to give you a less cryptic answer: What happened in 1676 doesn’t seem quite so distant now as the book did when it was written.
Bear with me, and this will all make a lot more sense. I’m going to start with the mundane subject of stolen pigs, but by the time this is done, I hope your eyes will be wide, and your curiosity ignited.
June, 1676: Thomas Mathew, Reluctant Politician
We like to pretend that if we had lived in the past, we would have been leading the action, fearlessly fighting for what’s right, etc. True, isn’t it?
But the reality? We would probably have been like Thomas Mathew. A bit useless. A bit selfish. A bit fearful. Just wanting a quiet life.
Who's Thomas Mathew?
Exactly my point. Obscure. Not famous. But he's more central to today's story than even he knew, when he found himself writing about it thirty years later, and thousands of miles away. This is a story that we’re still living with.
Thomas Mathew is an Englishman who has emigrated to America. He was a successful merchant in London. Now he’s a successful agribusinessman in Virginia. He owns two substantial estates. This makes him a natural contender for a public service role. But he’s not interested in “giving back”. He wants a nice, quiet life. In fact, he doesn’t much care about what happens to Virginia in the long term. His goal is to sell up, and retire home to England with his fortune.
Unfortunately for Mathew, Virginia is in crisis. He lives in a time and a place where he has to pick sides, and whatever choice he makes will likely prove not only wrong, but dangerous for him.
One day, George Mason and Giles Brent drop by to visit Thomas Mathew. They ask him to run for election to the state legislature (known in Virginia, colorfully, as the House of Burgesses). He tries to tell them that he has no political ambitions. But Mason and Brent won’t take “no” for an answer. This is when Mathew realizes that ticking off the two most powerful good old boys in Stafford County would be a bad idea. So he agrees.
Mathew runs for office. He wins. And then he sets off, without enthusiasm, for the state capital.
But he’s not headed to Richmond. Not even Williamsburg. His destination is Jamestown. This is 1676. There’s no internet. No phones. Mathew travels not by plane or car, but by boat. It takes him a week.
However reluctantly Thomas Mathew makes his journey, it’s nothing compared to how he would have felt if he had known how wild things were about to become.
Beginning From the Beginning: Early 1675
Thomas Mathew didn’t know it, but the current crisis had started the year before, appropriately enough, with an incident on his second plantation. His original property, on which dozens of indentured servants and slaves grew tobacco for him, was in a great coastal position near the mouth of the Potomac River. His second plantation was on the far edge of the colony, in Stafford County, and there a smaller number of workers raised cattle and pigs to line Mathew’s pockets.
The crisis began in this remote place with a decision made by Mathew himself.
He had pulled that age-old trick of the rich: He bought goods from the little people, and then refused to pay for them. Unfortunately for him, the Doeg Indians, his suppliers on the frontier, were not content to work for “exposure”, for the honor of being able to say that they supplied Thomas Mathew with goods.
Instead, Doeg repo men came to collect their debt in kind. They rounded up Mathew’s hogs, dropped them in their canoes, and then paddled away, as Englishmen jumped into boats, and followed in hot pursuit.
The English caught up. Gunfire rang out on the river. Several Doegs were shot dead or wounded. But Mathew’s men recovered the pigs, and the surviving Doegs were beaten and sent away.
That’s not the end of the story. It's the beginning of the beginning.
Murder, Mayhem, Massacre
A few weeks after the pig incident, Robert Hen, Mathew’s herdsman, is found dying in the doorway of his home, next to the corpse of an Indian man. In his last breath, Hen accuses the Doegs of the attack.
In the view of the English, a revenge attack cannot be allowed to go unchecked. George Mason is alerted, since he's head of the local militia. In case you wondered, militiamen are armed tobacco planters: There are no professional soldiers in Virginia. The militia are citizen-soldiers, a sort of amateur version of the Army Reserve or Territorials (UK) today.
Mason quickly gathers the local militia, and they track down the Doegs to a cabin in the woods. Surrounding it, they open fire. The Doegs shoot back from the cabin. But soon, about a dozen Indians lay dead.
Awoken by the commotion, Indians now start to stumble from a second cabin nearby. Mason immediately orders his men to shoot them, too, and the Indians run into a hail of English gunfire. Breaking through the line, one Indian man grabs Mason by the arm, and says desperately, “Susquehannocks. Friends.” Then he races into the woods, leaving Mason stunned.
These men running from the second cabin aren’t Doges, Mason realizes in horror. They’re Susquehannocks. They're allies of the Virginia colony.
He's killed the wrong Indians.
Panicking, Mason runs among his soldiers, shouting, “For the Lord’s sake, shoot no more. These are our friends, the Susquehannocks.”
Too late. Ten Susquehannocks are dead.
This isn't just a tragedy. It’s a potential disaster.
Mason likely knows that Virginia’s long-serving governor, William Berkeley, has spent decades carefully building trade relationships and, especially, military alliances with select Indian nations. Among them? The Susquehannocks, whom the English have persuaded to move to next-door Maryland to help defend the profitable tobacco-growing region from the Iroquois, Indians who are enemies to English and Susquehannocks alike.
Mason knows Berkeley will be furious. How could any Indians, even enemies of the Susquehannocks, trust the English as allies now? The incident made it look like the English couldn’t tell Indians apart.
It’s Complicated: Indians and English
A confession: For a long time, I dodged the history of American Indians as much as possible. It reminded me of continental European history, which I also avoided whenever I could. Too many long and unfamiliar names. Shifting boundaries, and, worse, shifting identities. It was all too confusing.
But recently, I have become much more interested. Partly, that’s because I always was intrigued with how Indians managed the impact of both colonization and modern life. Partly, it’s because there’s a story here for us today, about the challenges of keeping body and soul together in an unravelling political situation, and especially when you’re steadily losing power and influence.
Much of our understanding of American Indian history is filtered through what’s happened since the 19th century. But things in the 17th century were, if anything, even more complicated than they would become, and the end was not foreordained. For one thing, Indian nations wielded formidable political and military power, and the English had to learn to negotiate with them, speaking their languages (or hiring translators) and respecting their customs and protocol. For another, Indian societies were themselves in flux: As just one example, both the Doegs and the Susquehannocks had come to Virginia from elsewhere, and settled on lands already taken from other Indian nations.
Just as most of us think of the history of American Indians in mythical and romanticized terms, lumping all indigenous people together, we tend to think of colonial American life among the English as simple and quaint. This is all wishful thinking. There was violence. There was cruelty. There was exploitation. There was clever political maneuvering. There was conspiracy theory, and actual conspiracy.
And it all came to a head, all of it, in 1676. And what happened in 1676 profoundly affects us in America today: How we live, how we act, how we think, how we quarrel.
Now let’s return to our story.
A Rock and a Hard Place, 1675
Since her people are neither Doegs nor Susquehannocks, we might think that Cockacoeske, the woman who has inherited leadership of the Pamunkeys, has little to worry about in 1675. We would be wrong. Anything that upsets the careful balance of power is a worry to her.
Think of Cockacoeske as (surprisingly) having one thing in common with Thomas Mathew, the slaveowning tobacco capitalist: She wants a quiet life. She doesn’t want to tick off the powerful good old boys in the Virginia colony. And like Mathew, she will find the forces swirling around her too much, too big to ignore.
And the Pamunkeys aren’t alone in 1675. The Susquehannocks have always been between a rock and a hard place. They are culturally Iroquoian, but they are enemies of the increasingly powerful Five Nations of the Iroquois: As the Five Nations’ power grew in the North, the Susquehannocks had to hastily pack up and move South.
The Susquehannocks find few friends in their new home: They have raided many other Indian nations, so an alliance with Algonquian-speaking Indians isn’t really in the cards. That’s why they have formed a close relationship with the colony of Virginia, because the English are about the only people who want to be their friends. Not really friends, of course, but allies.
And that friendship, such as it is, is now on the edge of ending.
Okay, so what is this big crisis I keep hinting at? What disaster am I building toward, and why might you care?
In 1675, Virginia is about to have a populist revolt. If you’re American, we’re talking about an event you may remember memorizing for a history class, but otherwise recall little or nothing about. If you’re British, you probably never heard of it, which is a shame, because this is still English history, even if it's outsourced to a remote continent, still very much linked to London.
The populist crisis we’re anticipating is the colorfully-named Bacon’s Rebellion.
Populism. Hmm. Maybe you’re feeling a bit wary when I use that word. We have heard about “populism” a lot since 2016, and it is confusing, because the word has many meanings. Simply put, though, it means ordinary people rising up against established authority.
Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your perspective. But there’s always a lot of stress and fear associated with populist revolt, because it marks a sudden upheaval, and nobody really knows where it’s going. Sound familiar? Of course it does.
So let's imagine a populist revolt in 1676, because it happened.
Imagine the reaction of Thomas Mathew, who just wants to make his fortune in tobacco, exploiting everyone he can in the process, and then go home to England.
Imagine what it means to trapped, fed-up indentured servants and enslaved people when the system is disrupted, offering new opportunities for freedom.
Imagine what it means to the long-serving elderly Governor of Virginia, William Berkeley, who hasn’t expected massive upheaval in his twilight years.
And imagine what it means to nations like the Pamunkeys and the Susquehannocks, living on the edge of a booming Virginia economy, selling goods to tobacco planters and transatlantic traders. They’re already trying to make their way through a political minefield in the long aftermath of catastrophe brought with the arrival of European diseases followed by Europeans. When everything falls apart, they must play every single card they have to stay relevant, and to survive. And in the end? It’s not enough.
Meanwhile, Back in Jamestown . . .
In 1675, Governor William Berkeley of Virginia and his wife, Frances, live on a large estate called Green Spring. Here, the English-born and wealthy Berkeley has grown his money by growing tobacco with indentured servants and slaves. He also grows various other experimental crops: He's not a fan of Virginia relying so much as it does on raising addictive recreational drugs, and on the massively expensive necessity of importing workers to raise labor-intensive tobacco, including indentured servants, who, unlike slaves, eventually become free, and a bit of a headache to leaders like Berkeley.
Unlike Thomas Mathew, Berkeley is committed to Virginia. He does not aim to take his fortune back to England.
Government is William Berkeley’s greatest passion, and he has been Virginia’s governor, apart from an eight-year retirement that proved temporary, for more than thirty years. When he isn’t at Green Spring, you can find him working away in his Jamestown townhouse, which is attached to the brick state house complex.
Berkeley, of course, soon learns of George Mason’s screw-up, up in Stafford County, killing the wrong Indians, and endangering Virginia's relationship with the Susquehannocks.
Still, the Governor is deeply relieved when neither the Doegs nor the Susquehannocks take an immediate massive revenge.
But they do kill a few Englishmen, and Berkeley has to respond somehow. As ever, he's inclined to do whatever causes the least fuss and expense to the taxpayers, and to use diplomacy, rather than overreacting and launching an expensive attack.
Berkeley has spent decades trying to avoid war with Indians, and he isn’t about to change strategy now.
Anyway, he has other things to worry about. Those poor tobacco planters who are former indentured servants, for one thing: More and more Englishmen are surviving their term of servitude, thanks to declining death rates in the colony. After between four and seven years of grueling work, depending on their contracts, they are set free, and they set off to become tobacco planters themselves.
Some are given land by their former bosses as a thank-you gift, along with seed, tools, and a set of steak knives. Others work for wages until they save enough to buy cheap land. Either way, they end up on the frontier, where the cheap land is, farther and farther from Jamestown, the capital.
That puts them farther from Berkeley’s control, and brings them into potential conflict with their Indian neighbors, which is an expensive headache for government. How to defend these people all the way out in the boonies?
For the these poorer planters, living so far away is also a burden: Tobacco has to be shipped to England, and theirs takes a longer journey. Virginia taxes are high, and they don’t see what they’re getting for them. Even with their severance packages from servitude, startup costs are a stretch, not least because they hope to buy servants and slaves themselves, or else it's hard to make any profit from the land. There's little or no room in the budget for the unexpected.
So new planters on the frontier, with their own worries, are not sympathetic to Berkeley's challenges in governing: They're also too young to remember the old man's glory days. Now, Berkeley is in his 70s, a bit deaf, and suffering aches and pains. Even he is starting to think he's a bit past it.
But Governor Berkeley is also experienced. He knows better than to send frontier militia leaders George Mason and George Brent to meet with the Susquehannocks, to try to resolve the quarrel. He knows those two hate Indians.
Instead, he sends wealthy John Washington, who recently bought the land that will one day be known as Mount Vernon. Yes, those Washingtons. He’s George’s great-grandad.
Along with Isaac Allerton, a planter who has a reputation for good relationships with Indians, Washington heads off with Berkeley's instructions to figure out what the Susquehannocks’ problem is, and how to fix it.
What Berkeley doesn't know? Washington and Allerton are not on the same page as him. They want a big war with Indians, so that then there will be a great excuse to force all Indians, no matter who they are, to leave Virginia. Without Berkeley's knowledge, Washington and Allerton ask for, and get, support from Maryland. The combined forces of the Virginia and Maryland militias now descend on the Susquehannocks’ fort.
But the Susquehannocks hold them off, and Washington's forces are forced to besiege the fort. Things stand at a stalemate for weeks.
And then, one night, while the English sleep, the Susquehannocks slip away into the forest, killing about ten sleeping militiamen as they go.
This isn’t the resolution Berkeley had had in mind.
Introducing Nathaniel Bacon, Gentleman, Planter, and Slave Trader
A year earlier, 1674, twentysomething lawyer Nathaniel Bacon had arrived from England, fresh from accusations of fraud in London. Yet he was quickly invited to join the Governor’s Council, in part because he was rich, and in part because he was a cousin of Frances Berkeley, the governor’s wife.
Bacon soon acquired a plantation, named Curles. He and his wife, Elizabeth extended the existing wooden house with a large new brick home, and filled it with plenty of consumer goods, including bedding and kitchenware, even though this was decades before the explosion of possessions among wealthy Virginians. At Curles, a dozen servants and slaves began raising raised tobacco, sheep, and cattle for the Bacons’s benefit.
But Curles was not typical of an elite Virginian home at the time in other ways. The land was still two-thirds uncleared woodland. Just like Thomas Mathew's second plantation, it was on the edge of settlement, far from Jamestown, and also right next to numerous Indian settlements.
The difference? Unlike Mathew, Bacon was solely invested in the frontier, since both of his plantations, Curles and Bacon’s Quarter, were there. Bacon soon accused his Indian neighbors of theft, and imprisoned them. But these Indians were friends of the colony, and this hasty action earned him a stern letter from Berkeley, who reminded his cousin that the King had appointed him, Berkeley, to take care of Indian matters.
Why had Bacon settled so far from Jamestown, anyway? He could have afforded something a bit closer, like other wealthy Virginians.
But Bacon had his reasons: He was in business with William Byrd, a tobacco planter who also dealt in furs and slaves with Indians on the frontier.
Oh, and so you know, because this might have confused you? The slaves in whom Bacon and Byrd traded were not Africans.
They were Indians.
The forced workforce in early Virginia was nothing if not diverse. The workers on Bacon’s main plantation, Curles, included an Irish indentured servant who served as plantation blacksmith, about five enslaved Africans, and about the same number of enslaved Indians, including Kate, likely a house servant, who lived in the Bacons' house with her son.
Bacon and Byrd bought enslaved Indians from Indian nations who had captured them in raids: The Westos, as one example, specialized in kidnapping people from as far apart as Florida and the Appalachian mountains, to sell to their English trading partners. English traders, in turn, sold enslaved Indians to tobacco planters.
Planters in 1675 took every form of labor they could get, especially as there was a sort of Great Resignation around this time by potential indentured servants in England. Poor English people had twigged that going to malaria-ridden Virginia as unpaid indentured servants was not the great deal it sounded. Work 4-7 years, then become a planter yourself, and get rich! That’s what the propaganda said. But accounts that had been filtering home for half a century suggested a far more miserable existence for most emigrants, one that was more likely to end in premature death than in wealth.
Indians captured as slaves who were not put to work in the tobacco fields were deported to the sugar fields of the West Indies, never to return. This also solved the problem that Indian slaves tended to melt back into the woods on the mainland, given the opportunity, and head for home.
1676: The Susquehannocks Strike Back
So, as we saw, the Susquehannocks escaped the English siege. But now, it’s fall, and a hundred Susquehannock warriors must decide what to do next, how to get four hundred women, kids, and old folk to safety before winter.
On their journey to find safe haven, the Susquehannocks split into groups, settling as far away as north of Maryland, and in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains.
Once their dependents are safe, it's time for Susquehannocks to take revenge for Allerton and Washington’s surprise attack and siege: In January, 1676, Susquehannock warriors discreetly return to northern Virginia, and in multiple coordinated attacks, kill dozens on the frontier of English settlement. Then they retreat back to their winter quarters, stopping at other plantations to destroy crops and kill Englishmen, to make sure everyone gets the message.
Point made. They’ll be in touch shortly to follow up.
Weeks later, it's time for diplomacy. The Susquehannocks’ chief messages William Berkeley. How on earth, he asks the governor, could you have thrown away decades of peace by attacking our fort? He also issues an ultimatum: Berkeley can compensate the Susquehannocks, and end the war, or else he will have to fight them to the last man.
But it’s too late. Berkeley cannot negotiate. The winter attacks would make a negotiated peace with the Susquehannocks incredibly unpopular among his constituents.
And anyway, events have now made a peaceful settlement impossible.
While the Susquehannocks were in exile, the situation has changed dramatically. Among the plantations they attacked on their way home to their new winter quarters just happened to be Nathaniel Bacon's second plantation, Bacon’s Quarter. He has lost a fortune in tobacco. Indeed, all the planters in this area have taken a hit, since nobody now wants to try to salvage their crops, and risk another encounter with the Susquehannocks. And most planters out here aren’t as wealthy as Bacon. Most are former indentured servants.
Years later, Thomas Mathew would recall how frightened the colonists were.
The frontier planters do what they can for self-defense. They move in together, build defenses, and work together in each others’ fields because there's more safety in numbers. Among those who build trenches and fortifications, and buy more weapons, including hand grenades? Nathaniel Bacon.
Berkeley, seemingly recognizing that the colonial government must take action, orders three hundred militiamen to go in pursuit of the Susquehannocks. It won’t be easy: The Indians could be miles away by now.
But before the troops even set off, and without explanation, or any announcement of an alternative plan, Berkeley changes his mind. He orders the militia to stand down.
The frontier planters are agog.
Rumors of Indian attacks now spread on the frontier. Indians, it's claimed (falsely), are killing dozens, hundreds, and are constantly attacking. Fearful that they now have no protection, dozens of planters on the frontier abandon their plantations.
But Berkeley is hesitant to act. Why? Because he’s afraid he has underestimated how grave and complicated the situation is. News from New England now causes him to reassess what's happened in Virginia.
In mid-1675, in New England, far to the north of Virginia, Metacom (aka King Philip) has brought together many Indian nations to begin coordinated attacks on the English. As attacks escalate, colonists flee in terror to the area around Boston, abandoning their homes, and even entire towns, in the process.
Are the Susquehannocks conspiring with Metacom? Berkeley is sure of it (he's wrong). He’s terrified that the conspiracy he has imagined will spread.
In a panic, he seizes weapons from Indians in Virginia, including peoples who had thought themselves allies of the English.
Suddenly, to Berkeley, no Indians are to be trusted in these troubled times, not even Virginia’s allies and friends.
And if the Governor, who should know better after all his years of diplomacy with different Indian nations, takes a racist turn in his thinking, assuming all Indians are in cahoots with each other, you can imagine how conspiracy theories flourish among poor planters in Bacon’s neighborhood on the frontier.
1676: War is Declared. But Who’s Fighting Whom?
Berkeley calls together the legislature at Jamestown. This is the capital of Virginia, and has been since the English arrived almost 70 years ago.
By the time the House of Burgesses convenes, Berkeley has thought things through. On the first day of the assembly, he announces his plan. He declares war on all Indians who were involved in the recent attacks.
Notice that Berkeley has calmed down a bit. He doesn't declare war on all Indians in Virginia. And this isn’t a call to go straight into battle against the Susquehannocks, either. This is the Berkeley who's fiscally and politically prudent.
Instead, he's proposing to build a string of forts, a mile apart from each other, all along the frontier. Militia will be based at these forts to defend plantations, but they cannot attack Indian settlements without Berkeley’s permission. Indian allies, meanwhile, are encouraged to continue to trade, and to capture or kill Susquehannocks.
Members of the House of Burgesses, the Virginia legislature, most of whom are elite planters on the coast, think this all very clever and sensible. They approve it.
But frontier planters are not impressed. They don’t want their taxes raised to pay for what they consider useless forts. They want to kill Indians. But Berkeley won't give permission to the planters to attack as they see fit.
Frontier planters begin to wonder if Berkeley is corrupt. Rumors fly that they will each be taxed the equivalent of one worker’s tobacco output for a year to pay for these expensive and useless-sounding forts. Are the forts just an excuse to give lucrative construction contracts to Berkeley’s cronies? To enrich the eastern elite at the expense of the poorer planters on the frontier?
Nathaniel Bacon goes further in his accusations. He claims that Berkeley is conspiring with the Indians. He claims that Berkeley and his friends have a profitable monopoly of trade in animal skins with the Indians (although county courts, not the Governor, issue trading licenses), and that he's arming all the Indians.
People love a good conspiracy theory, don’t they? It lines up so neatly with experience, belief, and prejudice, not least because it ignores inconvenient facts, and legitimizes every rumor, no matter how outlandish.
One of those rumors? Indians are on the march in huge numbers.
It isn’t true.
But that doesn't matter. Frontier planters come together to plan an attack.
At the same time as the planters gather, a slightly sozzled Nathaniel Bacon holds a dinner party with his wife, Elizabeth, for a few neighbors. His guests encourage him to take some rum to the assembled militia, which he does, a little unsteadily. They immediately fanboy all over him, shouting out “Bacon! Bacon!”
He tries to look modest, I’m sure. But he already has something to say. He has been bitching for months about how the Indians are savages, the forts a pointless rip-off of the hardworking taxpayer, and how he wants to drain the swamp created by the Governor and his friends. He trots out his usual soapbox subjects for his poorer neighbors.
Impressed by his views and his poshness, the men sign up to follow him. A few days later, Bacon has three hundred followers ready to go into battle with him against the Indians. Any Indians. All the Indians. He doesn't make distinctions, and neither do his men.
How Not to Be Neighborly
In that winter of 1675-6, the Susquehannocks have a new reality to grapple with. They have built new forts of their own, in a new area on the frontier, near the Occaneechees, with whom they have often traded in the past. At the same time, they are desperately trying to find new trading partners and military allies. They even send delegates to New York, from which the Five Nations of the Iroquois had booted them only a few years before. Governor Edmund Andros is an ally of the Five Nations, but he thinks that welcoming the Susquehannocks back could benefit New York. A few Susquehannocks take up his invitation, and move to New York.
The remaining Susquehannocks stay in Virginia and Maryland, trying to make new friends. They ask their new neighbors, the Occaneechees, to join them in war against the English.
But the Occaneechees were not pleased to see the Susquehannocks build their forts next door. They didn’t even send round a Bundt cake. And now, they’re alarmed by this attempt to involve them in a war with their main trading partners, the English.
The Occaneechees send a message to the English. They tell them where to find the Susquehannocks.
Governor Berkeley Has Had Enough
How dare he? How dare Bacon raise a private army and interfere in government, even as the forts are under construction? Governor Berkeley is gobsmacked, and furious.
He and Bacon exchange letters: Berkeley’s are angry, Bacon’s are slimy.
I’m loyal, Bacon assures his elderly cousin. Don’t worry about me. It’s the poor people who follow me who are your problem, he says. Unfortunately, these poor peasants will insist that it’s war they want, not forts, and they think all Indians are the same. That's why the Pamunkeys and other neighbors are in hiding. I’m doing my best to calm them down. What more can I do?
Berkeley knows what he can do. He declares Bacon and his men rebels. He orders Bacon captured. Bacon escapes the arresting party, leaving a cheeky note for Berkeley: “I am just now going out to seek a more agreeable destiny than you are pleased to design me.”
Berkeley is now truly fed up. He’s too old for this. He calls an election for the House of Burgesses, the first in fourteen years. He also begins writing a letter to King Charles II, in which he offers his resignation as Governor of Virginia.
Bacon Ensures He Will Never Be Invited Back
Summoned by the Occaneechees, Bacon arrives in their town with his men, ready to kill the Susquehannocks. The Occaneechees wine and dine the Englishmen, and explain that there are two Susquehannock settlements nearby. Bacon wants to attack one of them immediately, but the chief makes him a great offer instead: The Occaneechees will do the dirty work for their English allies.
A few days later, while the Englishmen hang out in their town, the Occaneechees attack the Susquahannock fort, killing almost all the men, women, and children. They return to town with scalps and also seven captives. They ask Bacon what he wants done with these Susquehannocks. “Kill them,” he says. So they do.
But all this isn’t enough for Bacon. He wants all the beaver pelts the Occaneechees have taken from the Susquehannocks in the attack. He insists. And also food for the journey home, for all his men.
The quarrel turns into a battle. Bacon’s men now attack and destroy the Occaneechee town. Men, women, and children are shot. More die when the Occaneechee forts go up in flames.
By the time it's all over, a hundred or more Occaneechees and eleven Englishmen are dead, and a major trading place for English and Indians has been destroyed.
This won’t be the last place to go up in flames.
Berkeley/Godzilla Meets Bacon/Mothra
In the Virginia election that Berkeley calls, Bacon is re-elected as a member of the House of Burgesses. This is rather awkward, because he is still a declared rebel.
He writes to Berkeley, again protesting his loyalty to the King. He also (in a backhanded compliment that makes us wince) tells Berkeley that he doesn’t believe the rumors that the Governor is corrupt, even though, he says, he's seen written evidence.
As events now came to a head, the rebellion seems to us to be turning into a very personal smackdown between the cousins, Berkeley versus Bacon, a bit like Godzilla versus Mothra, both headed for Tokyo. Get out the popcorn.
But this isn’t how it seems to anyone at the time, and especially not to Indian nations in the area, in the aftermath of the massacre of the Occaneechees.
The Pamunkeys and other small nations are camped in the swamps, hoping things will calm down. They’re worried about how soon the crisis will pass, and whether they can plant the crops they need in time to harvest them before winter. The remaining Susquehannocks and Occaneechees are wondering even more desperately about their very survival.
By May, 1676, Susquehannock representatives are being entertained in New York by Governor Edmund Andros. He again invites the whole nation to come live in New York. The delegates say they will take his kind proposal to their people. They are very optimistic that they'll all soon be moving north.
We Rejoin Thomas Mathew’s Journey
So now, here we are, where we first started. It is June, 1676, and planter Thomas Mathew has set off on that journey to Jamestown with which we began our story, likely oblivious to his part in starting it all, a bit fuzzy on the rumors of Bacon’s rebellion, and definitely clueless about what's about to happen. He arrives late to the assembly’s first meeting, and what's the first thing he hears? Bacon has been captured.
Here’s what happened while Mathew was sailing toward the capital: Bacon and fifty of his most loyal men had also sailed toward Jamestown. Bacon sent a request from the river that he be allowed to take his seat in the assembly.
Cannonballs aimed straight at Bacon's boats. By the next night, Bacon is safely locked up in a cell attached to Berkeley’s house.
Should he be hanged? Trouble is, there are rumors of hundreds, even thousands, of Bacon’s followers headed for Jamestown, and hanging him could prove disastrous.
So Berkeley settles for Bacon giving a groveling apology, literally on his knees, before the entire legislature, and also in writing, which (considering the alternative) Bacon is happy to give. Berkeley publicly forgives him, and offers him the chance of being restored to the assembly next session if he behaves himself. In fact, by the end of the day, Bacon has been restored to Berkeley’s Council. Thomas Mathew saw him when he glanced through the doorway. He's amazed by the Governor's magnanimity.
Picking Up the Pieces
The fate of Indian nations from New York to Carolina now hangs in the balance. Bacon’s followers, and likely Bacon himself, want Indians destroyed. But Berkeley does not, and he's in charge. He wants the legislature to create a “Committee for Indian Affairs”, with the goal of passing legislation to stabilize the relationship between colonists and indigenous people.
Yet the very creation of this committee is a major sign that Indian nations’ power in Virginia is dimming by the minute.
The Committee for Indian Affairs meets, and calls witnesses. Among those in attendance? Thomas Mathew.
Cockacoeske, the chief of the Pamunkey, is the first witness called. She arrives with her retinue, in her most formal dress, including her bead crown.
But the committee isn’t impressed. The chairman launches right in without ceremony, bluntly asking Cockacoeske if she will provide guides for the colony through the forests, and help the English against enemy Indians.
Cockacoeske is offended by his lack of protocol. She and the Pamunkey have never been thanked for past help they have given the English, she protests, not even when her own husband was killed in battle.
The chair ignores her complaints. How many men will she promise, he demands again?
Six, she says.
The chairman is clearly not pleased with her answer. So Cockacoeske reluctantly ups her offer.
That’s her final answer. He can like it or lump it. She gets up and walks out.
Contemptuous though they are of Cockacoeske, and indeed, all Indians, friend or foe, the Burgesses don’t want to follow Bacon’s lead, and plan to exterminate all Indians in Virginia. The bill the committee writes, concludes that genocide of all Indians would be inhumane and unChristian.
But this isn’t the end of the matter. That's because, outside the capital, Nathaniel Bacon still has a lot of support. He slips away from Jamestown while the legislature is still in session, to go rally the faithful.
Very soon, even as the legislature prepares to read the bill, Bacon is on his way back to Jamestown, with 400 of his loyal admirers, all armed to the teeth.
He bursts into the statehouse, and demands Berkeley issue him with a commission to attack Indians. His men train their guns on the legislators. Finally, the terrified politicians agree. Berkeley is pressured into signing Bacon's commission. He has truly lost control.
Berkeley now writes a secret letter to the King, alerting him to the rebellion.
As the legislature is breaking up, Bacon grabs one gentlemen to help him write out the paperwork granting officers’ commissions to his men. The reluctant clerk? Thomas Mathew.
Bacon Lashes Out, The Pamunkeys Aim to Survive
Nobody except Berkeley tries to stop Bacon. So long as he isn’t attacking them and their plantations, the rich planters don’t mind if he attacks Indians. So when Berkeley asks for help, he's ignored.
But Bacon learns that Berkeley has tried to raise an army against him, and now he is sure he is fighting two wars: One against the Governor, and the other against the Indians, all of them.
He too writes to London, and he makes his letter public: Berkeley, he tells the King, has accused him (Bacon) of “open and manifest aversion of all [Indians], not only the foreign, but the protected and darling Indians [my emphasis]…” The Pamunkeys and other friendly neighbors, Bacon insists, "have been for these many years enemies to the King and country, robbers and thieves and invaders.”
Berkeley and his cronies, not he and his men, are the traitors, he informs the King. He promises to arrest them, and bring them to justice.
Soon, Bacon’s supporters are going from house to house demanding that planters sign a loyalty oath to Bacon, and imprisoning those who refuse. Thomas Mathew probably pretends not to be home, until finally, he can no longer avoid Bacon’s men. They demand he become an officer in Bacon’s army. Surprisingly, he refuses. He probably calculates that Bacon’s is the losing side, and Mathew is even more afraid of hanging than he is of Bacon.
Since Berkeley has been unable to raise an army, Bacon’s forces now go in pursuit of Indians to kill. They are unable to track down the Susquehannocks or the Occaneechees. So they decide to attack the Pamunkeys instead.
But Cockacoeske has enough warning from her scouts, and the Pamunkeys, too, disappear into the forests. Bacon’s forces, still with nothing better to do, follow, and attack the Pamunkeys’ camps. Again, the Pamunkeys flee.
But as they do, Cockacoeske becomes separated from her people. Eventually, after spending weeks in the forest, being fed only by a kindly small boy who finds her there, she is starving. She surrenders to Bacon. Other Pamunkey captives who are caught are sold into slavery.
It’s an extraordinary story, and I’m not telling you the half of it, because we haven’t the time.
And yet there's another twist I want to report.
Things Get Complicated. Here’s the Bottom Line.
After much back and forth with Jamestown and Berkeley, Bacon is so desperate to end this war, he offers freedom to all servants and slaves who will come fight with him. Think about this: He’s calling for a massive disruption of a workforce, of an entire system of forced labor, on which the colony’s tobacco economy relies. Is he planning on buying more workers to replace them? Has he thought that far ahead? We’ll never know.
More important, his offer falls on receptive ears. Many servants and slaves did fight for Bacon. As the war later wound down, hundreds of indentured servants and enslaved Africans, all armed, were found gathered at one plantation in his name, and they were only willing to surrender when promised that they would, indeed, be freed.
Nathaniel Bacon, a wealthy slaveowner and slave trader, has opened a Pandora’s box: The possibility of freedom. People will not forget.
Meanwhile, Bacon and his men besiege Jamestown. Berkeley and the other residents, taking a leaf from the Indians’ playbook, disappear into the night.
Furious, Bacon now gives an extraordinary command. He orders Jamestown burned to the ground. The first man to obey him sets fire to his own house and tavern.
That's how angry, how desperate, how dangerous, these rebels are.
The End of the Beginning
What hastens the end of Bacon’s Rebellion? Two things: The arrival of two ships from London, in October, 1676, bringing Berkeley crucial military support. And the death of Nathaniel Bacon that same month, likely from typhus contracted from lice he picked up during marches and sieges.
The fighting continues, until a thousand soldiers turn up from England.
As the war concludes, Berkeley writes out his own detailed version of events for the King, and, with the support of the legislature, asks to stay on as governor after all. He already knows that things are far from resolved. He’s more right than he could possibly imagine.
By Spring, 1677, William Berkeley is on his way back to London, recalled by an angry King. The King had sent a commission to Virginia to investigate the rebellion. Commission members, apparently, had believed a Baconite account of events. Berkeley has won the war, but he has lost the peace. He dies in London, in July, 1677, still trying to clear his name.
Thomas Mathew eventually took his loot, and went home to England. There, he wrote a history of Bacon’s Rebellion. It was finally published in the early 19th century, when Americans were keen to think of Bacon’s Rebellion as a dress rehearsal for the American Revolution.
Cockacoeske dies in 1687. Her successor, Miss Betty, doesn’t appear in Virginia records after that, a sign that the Pamunkeys, who had pledged loyalty to King Charles II in exchange for peace, were no longer considered significant by the English. Today, there are an estimated 200 enrolled Pamunkeys in Virginia, many of whom live at least part-time on one of only two Indian reservations in the state, and at 1,200 acres, a small fraction of the lands that once were theirs. In 2016, the Pamunkeys were finally granted federal recognition.
But what about the other important threads of this tale? What happened to the Susquehannocks? The discontented frontier planters? The exploited servants and slaves? I can't follow them all in this post. But I recommend you take it from here. Why? It matters. Bacon’s and Berkeley’s deaths marked only the end of the beginning of a story that still haunts us today.
Know this: Baconism long outlived Bacon.
The story, which I warmly encourage you to pursue, continues in the book on which this post is based: Historian James D. Rice’s Tales from a Revolution: Bacon’s Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America. He set out to write a book real people could understand, and he succeeded. It's far better than the super-abridged (and very Annette) take I have sampled for you today. If my post has intrigued you, go read Dr. Rice’s exhilarating little book.
My take always has a different spin from the books I write about, so assume I’m responsible for anything that seems off. If I have botched what I have written, I am sure I’ll be hearing from Dr. Rice, via boulder delivered by drone from Boston.
UPDATE: Happy to get this message from Dr. Rice (and no boulder attached!)
I thought that it was fantastic! I may have to borrow from your blog the next time I lecture on the subject 🙂
--James D. Rice, Walter S. Dickson Professor of English and American History and Chair, Department of History, Tufts University, and author, Tales from a Revolution: Bacon’s Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America (2012)
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