Bacon’s Rebellion and Other Conflicts

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the role of Bacon’s Rebellion in the rise of chattel slavery in Virginia

The Rise of Slavery in the Chesapeake Bay Colonies

The transition from indentured servitude to slavery as the main labor source for some English colonies happened first in the West Indies. On the small island of Barbados, colonized in the 1620s, English planters first grew tobacco as their main export crop, but in the 1640s, they converted to sugarcane and began increasingly to rely on African slaves. In 1655, England wrestled control of Jamaica from the Spanish and quickly turned it into a lucrative sugar island, run on slave labor, for its expanding empire. While slavery was slower to take hold in the Chesapeake colonies, by the end of the seventeenth century, both Virginia and Maryland had also adopted chattel slavery—which legally defined Africans as property and not people—as the dominant form of labor to grow tobacco. Chesapeake colonists also enslaved Native people.

When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, slavery—which did not exist in England—had not yet become an institution in colonial America. Many Africans worked as servants and, like their White counterparts, could acquire land of their own. Some Africans who converted to Christianity became free landowners with White servants. The change in the status of Africans in the Chesapeake to that of enslaved persons occurred in the last decades of the seventeenth century.

Tensions in Chesapeake Bay

Native American communities in Virginia had already been decimated by wars in 1622 and 1644. But in the same year that New Englanders crushed Metacom’s forces, a new clash arose in Virginia. This conflict, knows as Bacon’s Rebellion, grew out of tensions between Native Americans and English settlers as well as tensions between wealthy English landowners and the poor settlers who continually pushed west into Native territory.

Susquehannock War

Bacon’s Rebellion began, appropriately enough, with an argument over a pig. In the summer of 1675, a group from the Doeg tribe visited Thomas Mathew on his plantation in northern Virginia to collect a debt that he owed them. When Mathew refused to pay, they took some of his pigs to settle the debt. This “theft” sparked a series of raids and counter-raids. The Susquehannocks were caught in the crossfire when the colonial militia mistook them for Doegs, leaving fourteen dead. A similar pattern of escalating violence then repeated: the Susquehannocks retaliated by killing colonists in Virginia and Maryland, and the English marshaled their forces and laid siege to the Susquehannocks. The conflict became uglier after the militia executed a delegation of Susquehannock ambassadors under a flag of truce. A few parties of warriors intent on revenge launched raids along the frontier and killed dozens of English colonists.

The sudden and unpredictable violence of the Susquehannock War triggered a political crisis in Virginia. Panicked colonists fled en masse from the vulnerable frontiers, flooding into coastal communities and begging the government for help. But the cautious governor, Sir William Berkeley, did not send an army after the Susquehannocks. He worried that a full-scale war would inevitably drag other Indigenous groups into the conflict, turning allies into deadly enemies. Berkeley, therefore, insisted on a defensive strategy centered around a string of new fortifications to protect the frontier and strict instructions not to antagonize friendly Native people. It was a sound military policy but a public relations disaster. Terrified colonists condemned Berkeley. Building contracts for the forts went to Berkeley’s wealthy friends, who conveniently decided that their own plantations were the most strategically vital. Colonists also condemned the governor and his allies as a corrupt band of oligarchs more interested in lining their pockets than protecting their people.

Bacon’s Rebellion

By the spring of 1676, a small group of frontier colonists took matters into their own hands. Naming the charismatic young Nathaniel Bacon as their leader, these self-styled “volunteers” proclaimed that they took up arms in defense of their homes and families. They took pains to assure Berkeley that they intended no disloyalty, but Berkeley feared a coup and branded them traitors. Berkeley finally mobilized an army—not to pursue Susquehannocks, but to crush the rebellion. His drastic response catapulted a small band of anti-Native vigilantes into full-fledged rebels whose survival necessitated bringing down the local colonial government.

Bacon and the rebels stalked the Susquehannock as well as friendly Native people like the Pamunkeys and the Occaneechis. The rebels became convinced that there was a massive Native conspiracy to destroy the English and viewed themselves as heroes to frightened Virginians. Berkeley’s stubborn persistence in defending friendly Native people and destroying the Native-fighting rebels led Bacon to accuse the governor of conspiring with a “powerful cabal” of elite planters and with “the protected and darling Indians” to slaughter his English enemies.

In the early summer of 1676, Bacon’s neighbors elected him their burgess and sent him to Jamestown to confront Berkeley. The governor promptly arrested him and forced him into the humiliating position of publicly begging forgiveness for his treason. Bacon swallowed this indignity, but turned the tables by gathering an army of followers and surrounding the State House, demanding that Berkeley name him the General of Virginia and bless his universal war against the native people. Instead, the 70-year old governor stepped onto the field in front of the crowd of angry men, unafraid, and called Bacon a traitor to his face. Then he tore open his shirt and dared Bacon to shoot him in the heart if he was so intent on overthrowing his government. “Here!” he shouted before the crowd, “Shoot me, before God, it is a fair mark. Shoot!” When Bacon hesitated, Berkeley drew his sword and challenged the young man to a duel, knowing that Bacon could neither back down from a challenge without looking like a coward nor kill him without making himself into a villain. Instead, Bacon resorted to bluster and blasphemy. Threatening to slaughter the entire Assembly if necessary, he cursed, “God damn my blood, I came for a commission, and a commission I will have before I go.” Berkeley stood defiant, but the cowed burgesses finally prevailed upon him to grant Bacon’s request. Virginia had its general, and Bacon had his war.

After this dramatic showdown in Jamestown, Bacon’s Rebellion quickly spiraled out of control. Berkeley slowly rebuilt his loyalist army, forcing Bacon to divert his attention to the coasts and away from the natives. But most rebels were more interested in defending their homes and families than in fighting other Englishmen, and deserted Bacon in droves at every rumor of native activity. In many places, the “rebellion” was less an organized military campaign than a collection of local grievances and personal rivalries. Both rebels and loyalists smelled the opportunities for plunder, seizing their rivals’ estates and confiscating their property.

For a small but vocal minority of rebels, however, the rebellion became an ideological revolution: Sarah Drummond, wife of rebel leader William Drummond, advocated independence from England and the formation of a Virginian Republic, declaring “I fear the power of England no more than a broken straw.” Others struggled for a different kind of independence: White servants and Black enslaved people fought side by side in both armies after promises of freedom for military service. Everyone accused everyone else of treason, rebels and loyalists switched sides depending on which side was winning, and the whole Chesapeake disintegrated into a confused melee of secret plots and grandiose crusades, sordid vendettas and desperate gambits, with Natives and English alike struggling for supremacy and survival. One Virginian summed up the rebellion as “our time of anarchy.”

The rebels steadily lost ground and ultimately suffered a crushing defeat. Bacon died of typhus in the autumn of 1676, and his successors surrendered to Berkeley in January 1677. Berkeley summarily tried and executed the rebel leadership in a succession of kangaroo courts-martial. Before long, however, the royal fleet arrived, bearing over a thousand red-coated troops and a royal commission of investigation charged with restoring order to the colony. The commissioners replaced the governor and dispatched Berkeley to London, where he died in disgrace.

But the conclusion of Bacon’s Rebellion was uncertain, and the maintenance of order remained precarious for years afterward. The garrison of royal troops discouraged both incursions by hostile Natives and insurrection by discontented colonists, allowing the king to continue profiting from tobacco revenues. The end of armed resistance did not mean a resolution to the underlying tensions destabilizing colonial society. Natives inside Virginia remained an embattled minority and Natives outside Virginia remained a terrifying threat. Elite planters continued to grow rich by exploiting their indentured servants and marginalizing small farmers.

The vast majority of Virginians continued to resent their exploitation with a simmering fury and meaningful reform was nowhere on the horizon. Bacon’s Rebellion, in the words of one historian, was “a rebellion with abundant causes but without a cause,” and its legacy was little more than a return to the status quo. However, the conflict between poor farmers and wealthy planters may have persuaded a few leaders to look for a less volatile labor force. Indentured servants eventually became free farmers, competing for land and power, while enslaved Africans did not. For this reason, Bacon’s Rebellion further motivated the turn to slave labor in the Chesapeake.

Slave Labor in the Chesapeake

Bacon’s Rebellion helped to catalyze the creation of a system of racial slavery in the Chesapeake colonies. At the time of the rebellion, indentured servants made up the majority of laborers in the region. Wealthy Whites worried over the presence of this large class of laborers and the relative freedom they enjoyed, as well as the alliance that Black and White servants had forged in the course of the rebellion. Replacing indentured servitude with Black slavery diminished these risks, alleviating the reliance on White indentured servants, who were often dissatisfied and troublesome, and creating a caste of racially defined laborers whose movements were strictly controlled. It also lessened the possibility of further alliances between Black and White workers. Racial slavery even served to heal some of the divisions between wealthy and poor Whites, who could now unite as members of a “superior” racial group.

While colonial laws in the tobacco colonies had made slavery a legal institution before Bacon’s Rebellion, new laws passed in the wake of the rebellion severely curtailed Black freedom and laid the foundation for racial slavery. Virginia passed a law in 1680 prohibiting free Blacks and enslaved people from bearing arms, banning Blacks from congregating in large numbers, and establishing harsh punishments for enslaved people who assaulted Christians or attempted escape. Two years later, another Virginia law stipulated that all Africans brought to the colony would be enslaved for life. Thus, the increasing reliance on enslaved people in the tobacco colonies—and the draconian laws instituted to control them—not only helped planters meet labor demands, but also served to assuage English fears of further uprisings and alleviate class tensions between rich and poor Whites.

Robert Beverley on Servants and Slaves

Robert Beverley was a wealthy Jamestown planter and enslaver. This excerpt from his History and Present State of Virginia, published in 1705, clearly illustrates the contrast between White servants and Black enslaved persons.

Their Servants, they distinguish by the Names of Slaves for Life, and Servants for a time. Slaves are the Negroes, and their Posterity, following the condition of the Mother, according to the Maxim, partus sequitur ventrem [status follows the womb]. They are call’d Slaves, in respect of the time of their Servitude, because it is for Life.

Servants, are those which serve only for a few years, according to the time of their Indenture, or the Custom of the Country. The Custom of the Country takes place upon such as have no Indentures. The Law in this case is, that if such Servants be under Nineteen years of Age, they must be brought into Court, to have their Age adjudged; and from the Age they are judg’d to be of, they must serve until they reach four and twenty: But if they be adjudged upwards of Nineteen, they are then only to be Servants for the term of five Years.

The Male-Servants, and Slaves of both Sexes, are employed together in Tilling and Manuring the Ground, in Sowing and Planting Tobacco, Corn, &c. Some Distinction indeed is made between them in their Cloaths, and Food; but the Work of both, is no other than what the Overseers, the Freemen, and the Planters themselves do.

Sufficient Distinction is also made between the Female-Servants, and Slaves; for a White Woman is rarely or never put to work in the Ground, if she be good for any thing else: And to Discourage all Planters from using any Women so, their Law imposes the heaviest Taxes upon Female Servants working in the Ground, while it suffers all other White Women to be absolutely exempted: Whereas on the other hand, it is a common thing to work a Woman Slave out of Doors; nor does the Law make any Distinction in her Taxes, whether her Work be Abroad, or at Home.

According to Robert Beverley, what are the differences between servants and enslaved people? What protections did servants have that enslaved people did not?

Try It


chattel slavery: the policy that legally defined Africans as property and not people