Bacon’s Rebellion and its role in creating the white race

The little-known Bacon’s Rebellion is an early link between America’s original sins: The theft of Indigenous lands and the brutal system of chattel slavery.

The rebellion took place in the Virginia Colony in 1676-77. It played an important role in the creation of the white race.

At this point in our colonial history, full-blown chattel slavery had not yet begun. Bacon’s Rebellion involved an alliance of poor Europeans and poor Africans (free, indentured servants and slaves) against the ruling class. While the rebellion ultimately failed, it was violent. Rebels burned down Jamestown, the colonial capital.

Between 300 and 500 people participated in the revolt. That got the colonial elites’ attention. They became acutely aware of the risks ahead should all these poor people unite against them again.

Their solution: Create division between poor blacks and poor whites.

The Burning of Jamestown by Howard Pyle,1905. Image: Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History.

Here’s food for thought on July 4.

The Rebellion

Just after the Revolutionary War, some leaders looked at Bacon’s Rebellion as “a brave stand by embattled colonists,” History.com said. “Today, though, historians see it as a tussle over the ownership of the colonial frontier and an effort to further drive Native Americans off their lands.”

Nathaniel Bacon was no hero.

Bacon and his wife arrived in Virginia in 1674. They were escaping troubles back home. (Bacon had been accused of financial misdeeds. His wife’s father disinherited her for marrying Bacon.)

They settled in Jamestown. Bacon bought two plantations. With connections to Gov. Sir William Berkeley, Bacon soon got a spot on the Colony’s Governing Council.

At the time, the Virginia Colony was facing significant economic problems, from declining tobacco prices and rising costs of English goods to hail, floods, and hurricanes. Looking for a scapegoat, colonists focused on local Indians.

In July, 1675 the Doeg Indians raided Thomas Mathews’ plantation, apparently the result of a dispute over Mathews’ failure to pay them for items they provided, according to the National Park Service (NPS), which operates Historic Jamestown.

The colonists retaliated, but attacked the wrong Indians — the Susquehanaugs instead of the Doeg. It triggered large-scale Indian raids,

Bacon wanted the Virginia Colony to retaliate, forcing Indians from their lands so he and other landowners could take it.

Berkeley refused, fearing further retaliation would unite nearby Tribes into a coordinated attack against the colony. Instead, he advocated creating a strong defense.

Bacon’s property was on the colony’s outskirts, close to Indian land. He was furious that Berkeley wouldn’t attack. Defying the government, he began organizing his own militia. It consisted of “white and black indentured servants and enslaved black people, who joined in exchange for freedom, …” FacingHistory.org said.

Drunk on brandy,” Bacon and his men “met a group of Occaneechi people, whom they enlisted to help them fight a group of Susquehannocks,” History.com said. “The Occaneechi helped, but met with a brutal reward. After the skirmish, Bacon and his men turned on them, slaughtering most of the Occaneechi and decimating their village.”

Gov. Sir William Berkeley. Painting By Harriotte L. T. Montague, after original by Sir Peter Lely. Library of Virginia. Grayscale.

Berkeley declared Bacon a rebel, resulting in open conflict between the rebels and colonial leaders.

“On July 30, 1676, Bacon and his makeshift army issued a Declaration of the People, which called Berkeley’s administration corrupt, “accusing him of levying unfair taxes, appointing friends to high positions, and failing to protect outlying farmers from Indian attack,” Wikipedia said.

The violence reached its peak on Sept. 19, 1676, when Bacon and his rebels attacked Jamestown, burning it to the ground.

Long story short, the rebellion ended with Bacon’s sudden death on Oct. 26. (One site said it was dysentery, another that it was “‘Bloodie Flux’ and ‘Lousey Disease’ (body lice)).”

The impact

Following the rebellion, the colony’s elites took a divide-and-conquer approach to avert future uprisings.

They concluded they needed to build loyalty from the common planters, Wikipedia said. It quotes historian Alan Taylor, saying the elites “needed to lead, rather than oppose, wars meant to dispossess and destroy frontier Indians. … [T]his bonded the elite to the common planter in wars against Indians, their common enemy.”

To build loyalty, colonial leaders also used a land grant system, “promising each freedman fifty acres of land, a promise that obliged the government to continue taking land from the Indians.”

Virginia’s lawmakers then began making legal distinctions between “white” and “black” inhabitants, FacingHistory said. “By permanently enslaving Virginians of African descent and giving poor white indentured servants and farmers some new rights and status, they hoped to separate the two groups and make it less likely that they would unite again in rebellion.”

“As the status of people of African descent in the British colonies was challenged and attacked, and as white indentured servants were given new rights and status, the word white continued to be more widely used in public documents and private papers to describe the European colonists,” it said.

In 1705, less than 30 years after Bacon’s Rebellion, the Virginia Colony passed the Virginia Slave Codes. Among other things, they established slave owners’ property rights and allowed slave trading with court protections.

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