Details About Bacon's Rebellion That Didn't Make It Into Your History Textbook

Often, when people recall Bacon's Rebellion, they think of the patriotic stand Nathaniel Bacon took against the Commonwealth, which, in itself, is a significant part of the story. However, the event had other, equally significant consequences, particularly in the link between the rebellion and racial slavery. Bacon's Rebellion united both African slaves and poor European whites; this union terrified the aristocracy in Virginia. Despite beginning as a local skirmish with Native Americans, the event had significant class and race implications.

The rebellion sparked following the Commonwealth's failure to protect settlers living on the frontier from attacks by Native Americans. However, the facts about Bacon's Rebellion are more complicated: They don't fit into any kind of tidy historical narrative of good vs. evil. 

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  • It Reflected Racism And Classism In Colonial Virginia
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    It Reflected Racism And Classism In Colonial Virginia

    Racial and class-based norms and laws in colonial America gave more power to those who already had it — generally land-owning white men — while those who didn't continued to suffer. Bacon's Rebellion united two classes of oppressed people in Virginia who had the population and motivation to overthrow the ruling class. Poor whites and slaves united in the rebellion — in fact, a group of escaped slaves and white laborers were one of the last to surrender. 

  • Bacon Exploited A Native Rivalry For His Gain
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    Bacon Exploited A Native Rivalry For His Gain

    Nathaniel Bacon — a colonial who sparked the rebellion against the Commonwealth — exploited native rivalries to gain an upper hand in the rebellion. Originally, the revolt was focused on fighting Native Americans and expanding the frontier for new immigrants. Bacon allied with the Occaneechi nation, who had good relations with the settlers and traded furs and slaves with them, in order to attack their common enemy, the Susquehannock people. Bacon showed no mercy when he sent the Occaneechi to attack the Susquehannock and bring back prisoners. When they returned, the white settlers — led by Bacon — fired upon and slayed several Occaneechi and raided their village. 

  • Bacon's Rebellion Set Fire To Jamestown, Virginia
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    Bacon's Rebellion Set Fire To Jamestown, Virginia

    Though the rebellion was short lived, it was destructive. Nominally, it was a campaign to protect homesteads and towns on the Virginia frontier, but one of Nathaniel Bacon's first actions was to attack the Occaneechi, a tribe that hadn't threatened the settlers. He and his rebels destroyed a tribal town friendly to Governor William Berkeley that was a supplier of pelts and other trade with Virginia. As if he wasn't clearly trying to send the message that the rebellion was against the Commonwealth, Bacon then marched his army to Jamestown, forced the assembly to pass legislation that favored his group, set fire to the city, and looted the homes of the gentry. 

  • Laws Passed After The Rebellion Entrenched Racial Hierarchies
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    Laws Passed After The Rebellion Entrenched Racial Hierarchies

    In the aftermath of Bacon's Rebellion, the Commonwealth of Virginia passed laws to help ensure the wealthy people living there could continue exploiting both poor whites and slaves while protecting their own security. The Virginia Assembly passed a law in 1705 giving white indentured servants goods — including food, a gun, 50 acres of land, and money — in order to curry favor with them. The assembly also included laws that explicitly codified the notion that whites were superior to blacks. These laws helped to set the tone for the next 300 plus years of race relations in what became the United States.

  • Bacon's Declaration Created The Idea Of Consent Of The Governed

    Nathaniel Bacon wasn't rebelling just for the sake of it: His revolt had clear aims and goals. The rebel leader published a list of demands called The Declaration in 1676. In it, he asked that the governor of Virginia raised an army to defend settlers from Native Americans, decried the monopoly on the beaver pelt trade, and claimed the governor played favorites among his political appointees. In order to remedy the situation, Bacon called the governor — along with other Commonwealth administrators — traitors and issued a warrant for their arrest.

  • The Rebellion Ended Due To Nathaniel Bacon's Passing
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    The Rebellion Ended Due To Nathaniel Bacon's Passing

    Though Bacon's Rebellion had broad support, it couldn't survive the passing of its leader. In an era before modern sanitation and hygiene practices, the rebel leader is thought to have perished from complications of a fever (or body lice, depending on whom you believe). Once Nathaniel Bacon passed, the rebellion sputtered, his co-conspirators were captured, and many of them were hanged. 

    For his part, Berkeley didn't survive the rebellion politically. He was removed from office by the crown and sent back to England where he passed in 1677.