Nathaniel Bacon and His Rebellion

When they weren’t fighting with the natives, some colonists weren’t shy about fighting their own governments. One of these was a wealthy Virginian named Nathaniel Bacon. In 1675, troubles between whites and Native Americans were again on the rise in Virginia.

Governor William Berkeley favored a defensive approach to the fighting. But Bacon and other settlers in the western part of the colony scorned that approach. They formed their own militia and took to the warpath, which led Berkeley to label them “rebels.”

Bacon, in turn, accused the governor of “sucking up the public treasure” and for refusing to attack the Indians because Berkeley was in the fur-trading business with them. Bacon marched on Jamestown and burned it, and Berkeley fled.

The rebel leader contended that all he wanted was a fair hearing of the settlers’ grievances in London. But many of his early supporters grew nervous about going up against the king’s representatives and quit the fight. Bacon died of dysentery in 1676, and 23 of his followers were hanged.

Although brief, Bacon’s rebellion — and several others like it — were harbingers of things to come. They demonstrated that colonists who had been given a taste of liberties virtually unknown in Europe would rise up if they felt the “establishment” was threatening those liberties.

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