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Why America’s First Colonial Rebels Burned Jamestown to the Ground

August 2, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Bacon’s Rebellion was triggered when a grab for Native American lands was denied.

Jamestown had once been the bustling capital of the Colony of Virginia. Now it was a smoldering ruin, and Nathaniel Bacon was on the run. Charismatic and courageous, he had spent the last several months leading a growing group of rebels in a bloody battle against William Berkeley, the colonial governor, and he wasn’t about to stop now.

Forces would be coming soon from England in an attempt to take his militia down. But Bacon and his men couldn’t surrender. Hunker down, he told them. Hide in the woods for the time being, but keep up the fight when they arrive.

Soon Bacon would be dead and his militia defeated. The rebellion he led is commonly thought of as the first armed insurrection by American colonists against Britain and their colonial government. A hundred years before the American Revolution, Bacon and his armed rebels ransacked their colonial capital, threatened its governor and upended Virginia’s social order. Many were executed for their actions.

Right after the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson and others upheld the event as a brave stand by embattled colonists. 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.

Lean Times Lead Up to Bacon’s Rebellion

Settlers roll barrels of tobacco up a ramp and onto a ship in preparation for export from Jamestown, Virginia.

At the time, wealthy settlers had built profitable tobacco plantations and used their crops to pay high colonial taxes. But for poorer Virginians, times were lean. Only people who owned land could vote, and the indentured servants and poorer Virginians who did not felt disenfranchised.

Poor farmers had been hit hard by falling tobacco prices, and many on the borders of the colony’s frontier wanted to expand westward. There, they faced threats from Native Americans intent on protecting their ancestral lands. When the colonists called on their governor for military support, he refused.

Berkeley had long tried to balance his colonists’ wishes against those of the tribes on Virginia’s borders. But his attempts to appease all sides failed, especially when he used new trade rules to increase his wealthy friends’ fortunes. Bacon, who had recently arrived in Virginia and was Berkeley’s cousin by marriage, was disgusted …read more


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