Nathaniel Bacon - Rebel "Patriot"
Last Resting Place of Beloved Leader Remains a Mystery;
Followers Feared Reprisals
Colonel William Byrd of Westover, the accomplished cavalier of Colonial days who first laid out a Town at the falls of the James, is usually thought of as the first distinguished Virginian associated with Richmond. A full half century before Byrd, however, came one who was in many ways more interesting and noteworthy.
Nathaniel Bacon, the "picturesque rebel" of Virginia's seventeenth century, had two plantations in Henrico County. His principal place of residence was at Curles Neck, but he also had a plantation on Shockoe Creek, once known as Bacon's Quarter Branch, which is within the present city limits, and at least two of the momentous events of Bacon's career occurred on the ground that is now Richmond.
Bacon's rebellion has been called the most illuminating occurrence of America's Colonial history, for it throws much light on the social independence of the early colonists. The underlying radicalism which burst into flame in Virginia at Bacon's instigation would probably have been unsuspected by historians but for the fact that Bacon made it articulate in a stirring drama of revolt.
The social conditions in Virginia's seventeenth century are imperfectly understood today, and Bacon's Rebellion still awaits a penetrating interpretation as a historical phenomenon. But although the rebellion itself remains obscure, the personality of its leader glows today as colorfully as it did 258 years ago.
One of the most vivid of early American figures, Bacon had many qualities which insure his fame. He was a passionate champion of social justice, and supplied bold, magnetic leadership to the first revolutionary movement on this side of the Atlantic. His intellectual endowments were as remarkable as his military genius; from any point of view, he was a brilliant figure.
His headstrong audacity would no doubt have precipitated his downfall sooner or later, in any event; but had his meteor-like career not be prematurely ended by death he might have established Virginia at least temporarily as an independent state a full 100 years before the power of the Crown was finally defeated.
Although he dramatized a whole century of social unrest in his Virginia career, it is interesting to remember that Nathaniel Bacon spent altogether only two years on this side of the Atlantic. He emigrated from England with his bride in the autumn of 1674, at the age of 27, and the revolt which he led came to an end with his death in the late fall of 1676.
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Young Bacon was by no means the usual English emigrant. Scion of a distinguished county family, he was descended from an uncle of the great Sir Francis Bacon and was well connected among the aristocracy.
He was born at Friston Hall, the ancestral family seat, on January 2, 1647, and received the education of a cultivated English gentleman. His seven years at Cambridge were interspersed with travels on the continent of Europe, and when he received his A. M. degree at the age of 21 he had already embarked upon a career as a London barrister for which it was thought his talents eminently fitted him.
But Nathaniel Bacon was too headstrong a person to conform to a conventional pattern. He had been in Grey's Inn less than 10 years before his fiery temperament asserted itself in an impassioned love affair with Mistress Elizabeth Duke, daughter of Sir Edward Duke, which disrupted his London career and turned his steps toward the New World.
Bacon's family disapproved of the match, and Sir Edward, for his part, was so opposed to the dashing young barrister as a son-in-law that he provided in his will that his bequest of 2,000 pounds should be forfeited if she persisted in marrying "one Bacon."
Nathaniel was not one to hearken to paternal wishes, however, and in typical headlong fashion he swept Mistress Elizabeth off her feet and married her anyway.
Presumably there was not enough future at the London bar to satisfy an ambitious young man who had alienated family and friends, for before many months Bacon liquidated all his property and with his bride set sail for Virginia, where patterns were not so rigid and opportunities were greater.
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The sequel to the marriage is worth noting. In after years, Mistress Elizabeth widowed and married again, sued for a share in her father's estate, but the lord chancellor decided against her, saying her punishment was highly merited by such presumptuous disobedience, "she being only prohibited to marry one man by name, and nothing in the whole fair garden of Eden would serve her but this forbidden fruit."
Bacon had not long been settled as a planter at Curles Neck before his natural ability, striking personality and distinguished connections won him a position of prominence in Virginia affairs. He was made a member of the Governor's council and soon had the reputation of being "the most accomplished man in the colony."
At this period in his career, although only in his twenty-eighth year, the young councilor looked to be 34 or 35 years of age, we are told. According to a contemporary description by one of his enemies, he was "indifferent tall but slender, black-haired and of an ominous, pensive, melancholy aspect, of a pestilent and prevalent logical discourse tending to atheism in most companies, not given to much talk, or to make sudden replies; of a most imperious and dangerous hidden pride of heart, despising the wisest of his neighbors for their ignorance and very ambitious and arrogant."
From an unbiased point of view, Bacon's most remarkable characteristic appears to have been his extraordinary emotional magnetism, which, coupled with his fearless self-confidence, made him a natural leader of men. In speaking he was forceful and impassioned, and had so persuasive a tongue that he could sway the hearts of his followers at will, capturing their imagination and commanding their devotion.
Bacon arrived on the Virginia scene at a critical moment in the colony's affairs; his personality was the spark that touched off a conflagration of surprising dimensions.
The immediate cause of Bacon's rebellion in 1676 was the unwillingness of Sir William Berkeley, the colony's haughty and tyrannical governor, to protect the settlers on the frontier against Indian outrages. Underlying causes, however, went much deeper; the crucial issues were social, political and economic, and had their roots in the stranglehold which a few large landowners had obtained upon the colony under Berkeley's reactionary leadership.
Tobacco prices had been low for many years, and times were hard. Taxes, largely on a per capita instead of property basis, were oppressive on the body of the people, who supported the government while a little inner ring of the governor's favorites grew wealthy on privileges which they enjoyed exclusively.
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Meanwhile, the principle of representative government, launched in Virginia in 1619, was for all practical purposes nullified by Berkeley, who having secured a House of Burgesses to his liking, kept it in power continuously for 13 years, refusing to call a new election.
It should also be remembered that the seventeenth century was, on the whole, a revolutionary period for English politics. The lower classes in England were more articulate during the seventeenth century than they were either earlier or later, and memories of the Cromwellian victories in England's civil war were fresh in the minds of intelligent yeomen.
The liberty-loving yeoman stock which supported Cromwell was well represented in Virginia, and when Nathaniel Bacon, angered by the injustice of the Berkeleyan regime, took up the cudgels on behalf of the people, he was making articulate a powerful underlying sentiment.
An Indian Massacre in the spring of 1676 which resulted in the death of Bacon's overseer on his Shockoe plantation was the incident which brought to a head the antipathy between Bacon and Berkeley.
An army of frontiersmen, determined to protect themselves against the Indians if the governor would send no soldiers, gathered across the James River from Bacon's Curles Neck plantation and the young planter, thoroughly aroused, allowed himself to be persuaded to accept their command.
With 200 men-at-arms he marched deep into the wilderness near the North Carolina line, demolished an Indian fort, slaying great numbers of the enemy and spreading terror through the marauding tribes. Meanwhile, Berkeley, learning that the command had been taken without his authority, was in a towering rage.
The irate governor promised Mistress Elizabeth that her husband should hang for his impudence immediately upon his return. "General" Bacon returned a popular hero, however, acquiring by his exploits such prestige with the people of the colony that the governor did not dare to show his hand.
Instead, he finally gave in to popular demand and called a new election of Burgesses, in the course of which Henrico County sent to Jamestown its hero, Bacon. After a dramatic showdown between the people's champion and the crafty governor, Berkeley was forced to allow the passage of a number of reform measures known as "Bacon's laws" and to grant Bacon a military commission to lead an army of 1,000 against the Indians.
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On June 25, while the assembly was still in session, came news of fresh Indian outrages in the upper York River region. Jamestown was thrown into an uproar as Bacon, fresh from dictating terms to Berkeley, hastened with troops to the frontier.
The leader was encamped on the present site of Richmond when news was brought to him that Berkeley had raised troops in Gloucester County, where people were annoyed by Bacon's high-handed methods of drafting men and horses for the campaign, and was preparing to attack the Baconists from behind.
Equal to the occasion, fiery young Bacon called his men about him and roused them to cheers with an eloquent speech. He then turned back at the head of his men to meet Berkeley; but when the Gloucester troops found that Berkeley's purpose was civil war, they deserted their chief, and the crabbed old governor, finding himself abandoned, fled, in desperation, to Accomac, where colonists remained royal.
Bacon, finding himself lord of all the western shore, marched his army to Williamsburg, and calling a great company of people together at the house of Otho Thorpe, required them all to swear an oath of loyalty to his cause, supporting him, if necessary, even against troops sent from England.
This was drastic action, but Bacon forced his point by threatening to surrender his commission unless the oath were given. Indians, meanwhile, swooped down on Glouscester County, more daring ever than before, and massacred settlers near Carter's Creek.
So Bacon and his army took to the warpath again, marching for the third time to the "Fall of James River." After many hardships, testing the loyalty of the army to the limit, a party of Indians was captured in the "freshes of York."
But again Berkeley took advantage of Bacon's absence to cut in from behind. Mustering some 600 Accomac loyalist and a fleet of sloops, he sailed up to Jamestown under flying colors and reoccupied the capital, evacuated by Bacon's small garrison as he approached.
Bacon's footsore and half-starved army heard the news on their way out of the wilderness. The young leader again spurred on his men to shouts with a spirited speech, and undaunted as ever, led the march to Jamestown. It was September 13 when the tattered force of "hearts of gold," as Bacon called his men, arrived at "Green Spring," Berkeley's palatial residence near Jamestown.
Though outnumbered, the Baconians immediately laid siege to Jamestown, and so bold and resourceful was their attack that the governor's men became discouraged and deserted in large numbers. Berkeley fled again to Accomac and Bacon occupied Jamestown.
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Bacon, making his headquarters at Green Spring, then proceeded once more to take the affairs of the colony into his hands. Foreseeing trouble with the English government, he took steps once more to secure oaths of allegiance.
Bacon was on his way up to the Northern Neck when his nemesis suddenly overtook him. He contracted a fever, and died at the home of a Mr. Pate in Glouscester, believed to be near the present Woods Crossroads. This was October 1, 1676.
Fearing irreverence to their leader's body, his lieutenants hid his body away, and the secret of his burial place has never been solved.
Bacon's lieutenants made a feeble attempt to carry on the rebellion, but without the leader's inspiring personality it was doomed. Berkeley took command of the situation again, and one by one various sections of the rebel forces were defeated or laid down their arms.