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Bacon's Rebellion: Summary, Causes & Significance

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Instructor: David Lobb

One hundred years before the American Revolution, seeds of rebellion against royal authority were planted in Virginia. Some historians point to Bacon's rebellion as the original seed of such revolution. Develop an understanding of Bacon's rebellion and test your knowledge with a shirt quiz.

We also recommend watching The Wilderness Campaign: Summary & Significance and The Battle of Spotsylvania: Summary & Significance

Virginia, the New World

By the middle of the 17th century, Virginia had become a magnet for new settlers. Indentured servants streamed into the colony. Tobacco had proven profitable but by mid-century the sharp rise in profits had leveled off. Planters began to grow corn and raise cattle. The increased food supply helped mortality rates and the population grew. In fact, by 1650 there was some 15,000 residents of Virginia. As indentured servants fulfilled their terms, they gained access to land. Many former servants became planters in their own right.

However, the relentless stream of settlers put pressure on Indian lands and produced unwanted economic effects. The increase in the number of planters increased production. This in turn caused the cost of land to increase and the price of tobacco to plummet. To keep their economic edge, large planters bought up all of the most fertile lands along the coast. Freed servants were forced to become either tenants or buy up the less desirable lands along the frontier.

17th Century Virginia
Old Virginia

In either case they were at a disadvantage. Tenants were dependent on planters for land, and small farmers along the frontier were vulnerable to Indian attacks. The situation of the common folk worsened and by 1676 almost a quarter of the free white men in Virginia were landless. Men worked odd jobs, squatted on private property, poached game, or committed petty crimes in order to survive. Fearing social unrest, the large planters, who controlled the colonial assembly, passed laws to make indentures longer and stripped the landless of their political rights. Such repressive measures however only increased social disharmony and spawned a wave of uprisings.

Uprising

This was the setting for the tangled events that have come to be called Bacon's Rebellion. The discontent turned to violence in 1675 when a quarrel between a frontier planter and the Doeg Indians led to the murder of the planter's herdsmen. Frontier militiamen retaliated killing at least ten Doegs and 14 members of the Susquehannock Tribe by mistake. Soon a force of Virginia and Maryland militiamen laid siege to the Susquehannock, murdering several of the tribe's chief negotiators. The militiamen then released the survivors of the attack who immediately took revenge on frontier settlements. Attacks occurred on down the James River, where Nathaniel Bacon's overseer was killed.

Nathaniel Bacon

By then their revenge had been satisfied and the Susquehannocks pulled back. Governor William Berkeley proposed to build a series of forts along the frontier, but this did not satisfy the colonist's need for revenge or open up frontier lands to new settlement.

Portrait of Royal Governor William Berkeley
Gov William Berkeley

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