In retrospect, it seems that the 1676 insurrection known as Bacon's Rebellion was inevitable. Just too many things had gone wrong in the decades preceding. Poorer planters in the interior, in particular, had accumulated too many grievances to let pass without incident.
By 1670, the boom days of the 1620s were a distant memory; a pound of tobacco now sold for only a penny or two, a fraction of the three shillings it was worth in 1625. Farmers got by but they didn't get rich—and the rewards waiting at the end of four to seven years of indentured service shrank in proportion. A recently released servant or a new immigrant could still find land but only deep in Virginia's interior, far removed from the rivers down which farmers needed to ship their crops to market.
Exacerbating these economic problems was England's navigation act, passed in 1660. This forced Virginia planters to sell their tobacco only to English buyers; they could no longer pit these buyers against the competing Dutch merchants anxious to break into the lucrative tobacco trade. Moreover, when war broke out between England and the Netherlands in 1665 and then again in1672, these Dutch buyers were placed even further beyond reach. English tobacco merchants now gained almost absolute control over Virginia prices—and for a small farmer operating on a narrow profit margin, the results were disastrous.
At the same time as their economic prospects dimmed, Virginia's small farmers faced shrinking political options as well. By 1670, the colonial government had come to be dominated by wealthier men, and even lower county offices went to the larger planters. In 1670, the Virginia legislature closed the political door altogether to its poorest citizens by restricting the vote to property owners only. The colony's growing ranks of tenant farmers lost all access to direct political participation. Now even more secure in their power, colonial officials found endless ways to use their political advantage to feed their own pocketbooks; lucrative licenses, per diems, travel expenses, and even Indian annuities enriched Virginia's colonial officials while common farmers struggled to get by.
And finally, in recent years Indian hostilities in the interior had increased. Small farmers on the edge of the colonial settlement faced a constant threat. And the House of Burgesses, insulated by its physical distance from the dangers, all but ignored the demands for assistance from the politically weak small farmers.
The crisis of 1676 began with the sort of minor frontier conflict that had occurred many times before. When a party of Doig Indians believed they had been cheated in a commercial transaction with English settler Thomas Mathew, they stole some of his hogs. In response, Mathew and some friends attacked the Indians, killing one person. The Doigs soon retaliated by killing one of Mathew's servants.
The local militia, too anxious for action, also undertook a retaliatory raid against the local Indians, killing more than a dozen people. Perhaps it was an error, perhaps the militia was simply unconcerned with the details—but the Indians the militia attacked were innocent Susquehannocks, not Doigs. And now it was the Susquehannocks' turn to retaliate.
At this point, with tensions escalating, Governor Berkeley decided to send a force of 1000 militia into the interior. But this intervention proved largely ineffective against the Susquehannocks, who waged a series of effective guerrilla raids on settlers. Recognizing the futility of the current campaign, but anxious to do something, Berkeley ordered forts built along the major interior rivers—an expensive project and one interior settlers believed useless. At best, these forts would protect the lands and interests of the wealthier planters who owned land along the river. At worst, these stationary forts would do little against an enemy that preferred opportunistic hit-and-run tactics—and small farmers would be asked to foot the bill.
As the dissatisfaction with Berkeley's and the Burgesses' handling of the current Indian problems grew, it blended with older complaints among interior farmers—complaints about the indifference of eastern legislators and the extravagant stipends paid House members. And soon this building discontent found a leader in a man named Nathaniel Bacon.
Bacon was not poor, nor was he politically powerless. He had only recently arrived in the colony, where his connections to Berkeley and others among the political elite had quickly secured him a seat on the governor's council. But he had purchased land at some distance from Jamestown, and he had trouble with Indians. Perhaps as important, he was intent on carving out a larger niche for himself in Virginia politics. He therefore rallied small farmers behind the demand that more aggressive action be taken against the Indians, and he personally lobbied the governor for the funds and authority to raise an army that he could lead into the interior to put down Indian threats.
Berkeley resisted Bacon's request. He viewed the young newcomer as an opportunist, and he was aware that interior farmers were unhappy about more than just the Indians. If they were allowed to form an army, who knew where it might lead? But Berkeley also resisted Bacon's proposal because he had his own plan for stabilizing the frontier. Berkeley had carefully cultivated a group of loyal Indian tribes after the last large rebellion in the 1640s. These tribes now paid an annual tribute and, more important, provided a friendly buffer between the colony and more hostile tribes even further west. He worried that the backcountry war party Bacon had in mind would not bother to sort out friendly from hostile tribes and his work would be undone—after all, much of the current problem began when the interior militia stupidly attacked Susquehannas when they were angry at Doigs.
Therefore Berkeley refused to grant Bacon the commission he sought. But Bacon simply organized his own militia, without the governor's approval. Then he marched into the interior and, just as Berkeley had feared, slaughtered a village of Occaneechees, one of Berkeley's loyal tribute tribes. Berkeley subsequently condemned Bacon and his treasonous band, filled, as a he said, with the 'lowest of people.' But in the House elections held just a few weeks later, Bacon was elected to a seat from Henrico, along with several of his supporters.
Virginia was now on the edge of insurrection. When Bacon sailed into Jamestown to take his seat in the Burgesses, he came accompanied by a posse of fifty armed militiamen. But Berkeley, believing he was more politically skilled then Bacon, took measures to diffuse the insurrectionary crisis. He arrested Bacon and forced from him a contrite confession. But rather than send him to jail, Berkeley named Bacon to his council. Berkeley next set about redressing old political complaints from the interior farmers. The franchise was restored to propertyless tenant farmers, local representatives were appointed to assist the colonial tax assessors, and many of the fees collected by county officials were reduced or eliminated. Berkeley also revised his Indian policy; while he continued to insist that pacified tribes should be protected, he agreed to the formation of a larger militia to patrol the interior and he suspended construction of the controversial forts.
Even if the small farmers were thus appeased, Nathaniel Bacon was not. Humiliated by Berkeley, and convinced that the governor's Indian policy was still too soft, Bacon rallied another band of 500 men, marched them into Jamestown, and demanded a commission to wage war against the Indians. And this time, Berkeley acquiesced. But once Bacon and his gang had left town, Berkeley repudiated the commission, saying it had been commandeered by force, and tried to raise an army to bring in Bacon. Unfortunately for the governor, Bacon was now too popular and Berkeley found few recruits willing to oppose him. Even worse, when news reached Bacon of the governor's latest move, he wheeled his own forces around and prepared to lead them against the governor in Jamestown. Berkeley, realizing his position was vulnerable, fled the town.
Bacon had long had the support of Virginia's poorer farmers. Now he also pursued the wealthy planters. These men were deeply unsettled by Bacon's appeal to the discontent among Virginia's poor, but Governor Berkeley's position now seemed hopeless. And so at Middle Plantation (today's Williamsburg), a large group of wealthy planters pledged their support for Bacon. Now outnumbered even among the elite, Berkeley attempted an even riskier stratagem—he returned to Jamestown and offered freedom to all white servants willing to take up arms against Bacon and his growing army of small farmers and turncoat gentry. Few responded to Berkeley's offer, but even so, Bacon now decided that this potential source of opposition to his movement had to be taken off the table, so he made the same offer. With an even stronger force, Bacon then marched on Jamestown, forced Berkeley to flee once again, and burned the town to the ground.
Bacon had won. Over the next month, his followers attacked Indian villages and Berkeley loyalists alike. Racism and a sort of class warfare converged as Bacon's army enslaved Indians and plundered English planters' estates. But when Nathaniel Bacon suddenly died of dysentery on 26 October, the rebellion pooped out. By the time English ships arrived to assist Berkeley back into power, virtually everyone in Virginia was ready to pledge their loyalty to the government they had just recently overthrown.
The suddenness with which the rebellion collapsed has led historians to question the political depth of Bacon's popular movement. Some have concluded that the entire conflict represented nothing more than a power struggle between two stubborn men. But the royal commission sent from England to investigate the rebellion revealed that popular discontent persisted and centered around a consistent batch of complaints—about inaccessible and unaccountable government, high fees, and extravagant official salaries.
But despite the consistency of these complaints, little meaningful reform was initiated in the wake of Bacon's insurrection. The gentry that rallied to Bacon at the rebellion's peak were not about to support any real political change once the crisis had passed. And therefore Berkeley's wartime concessions to popular pressure were soon repealed; the property requirement for voting was restored and tax assessors were freed from the oversight of local assistants. Perhaps as important, as officials in London searched for a way to bring peace to their valuable but contentious colony, they recommended measures that neither side in Virginia found acceptable. Claiming sympathy with popular complaints about rapacious government officials and overpaid, pocket-lining representatives, the King proposed drastically reducing the power of the House of Burgesses—it would no longer be allowed to initiate legislation and its authority as the appellate court of last resort would be suspended. The House would remain more than a mere advisory body, but its powers to propose and amend legislation would be transferred to the governor. No one in Virginia supported this proposal. Whatever grievances small farmers had with the Assembly, they were not about to hand more power over to a governor appointed from London. The ambition at all levels of Virginia society was for more political power, not a retreat toward dependence on the paternal generosity of the king.
In the final analysis, then, Bacon's Rebellion revealed not just the accumulating tensions within Virginia but also a fundamental difference between the governing visions of the colony and the mother country. Over the next century, these conflicting visions would persist; attempts to reconcile colonial and British imperial ambitions would fail. In this sense, Bacon's Rebellion of 1676 exposed a fundamental rift between Britain and her colonies that would trigger another insurrection exactly 100 years later.