Bacon's Rebellion

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What was Bacon's Rebellion, and how did it reflect the tensions of the late seventeenth century?

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Bacon's Rebellion illustrates the tensions between the colonial elites and the backcountry frontiersmen in British North America during the seventeenth Century. The initial cause of the rebellion came from Virginia Governor William Berkeley's unwillingness to retaliate against Native Americans after their attacks upon settlers on the colony's western frontier. Nathaniel Bacon and other frontiersmen wanted the colonial authority to help protect them from these Native American attacks by counter-attacking and claiming more land to the west. When Governor Berkeley refused to support the backcountry colonists, Bacon and others concluded that the governor favored the Natives over fellow English colonists.

On a larger scale, the frontiersmen felt that they were intentionally being sidelined and dismissed by the colonial elite. They felt that the colonial authority in the House of Burgesses was unconcerned about the situation on the frontier and more concerned with catering to their Native alliances than supporting the needs and safety of the colonists.

Bacon responded by arriving in Jamestown with about five hundred men and demanding at gunpoint that Berkeley grant him permission to conduct a raid against certain Native tribes (and institute a series of reform laws). After a dramatic showdown, the governor acquiesced. However, Berkeley soon went back on his agreement.

In the summer of 1676, Bacon issued a public declaration against Governor Berkeley accusing him of cronyism, monopolizing the fur trade, and favoring Native Americans over fellow Englishmen. Bacon brought his force into Jamestown and burned the city. Bacon died that fall, of dysentery, and his band of rebels soon fell apart without his leadership. Berkeley and reinforcements from Britain soon disarmed the remnants of the rebellion and had a number of its surviving leaders executed.

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Bacon's Rebellion (1676) was essentially a civil war between frontiersmen and the governor of Virginia (William Berkeley) in seventeenth-century America. The leader of the armed resistance was Nathaniel Bacon. The frontiersmen accused Governor Berkeley of taking the side of Native Americans at their expense.

Bacon's Rebellion reflected growing tensions in Virginia at the time. Taxes were high, tobacco prices were down, and imported English goods were increasingly expensive. Added to the frontiersmen's woes were bad weather (which affected crop yields) and increasingly violent conflict with Native American tribes. Bacon's group of impoverished frontiersmen claimed that Governor Berkeley did little to push back against Native American raids on colonial settlements.

They also accused the governor of favoring his wealthy friends in the fur trade with Native American tribes.

To bolster his troop numbers, Bacon tried to rally indentured servants and African American slaves to his side. He promised them freedom if they fought for his cause. Bacon and his frontiersmen actually confronted the governor at the Assembly building. For his part, Bacon pressed for reform. Eager to placate the angry throng, Governor Berkeley agreed to "Bacon's Laws," a series of reforms aimed at tackling the frontiersmen's top concerns.

"Bacon's Laws" were supposed to grant freemen voting rights and more representation in Virginia's government. They also limited how long anyone could stay in office. For his part, Governor Berkeley had little intention of keeping his promises. He fled before the throng of angry frontiersmen. Bacon did not pursue the governor and his supporters. Instead, he and his peers burned Jamestown and ransacked the homes of Virginia's richest citizens (especially those who supported Governor Berkeley).

Before Bacon could finish what he started, however, dysentery claimed his life. In due time, Berkeley's forces overcame the resistance, and the governor had 24 of the rebels hanged for insurrection and treason. For more, please refer to the links below.

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