Nathaniel Bacon was born at Friston Hall, in Suffolk, England. His father was a prominent English gentleman, and the family was closely related to Lord Francis Bacon, one of the leaders of the growing scientific community in England.
After graduating from Cambridge, Nathaniel married Elizabeth Duke, the daughter of Sir Edward Duke, and the couple emigrated to the Virginia colony in 1674. Bacon soon obtained a seat on the Governor’s Council. There he found himself in the company of the venerable governor, Sir William Berkeley (see no. 38). Relations between the two men were cordial at first, but a crisis along the frontier brought them to conflict.
Bacon had established a plantation at Curl’s Neck on the James River. In 1675, he and other frontier planters suffered a series of attacks by the Pamunkey Indians, upon whose lands the settlers had intruded.
Bacon and his fellow planters asked Berkeley for permission to attack the Pamunkeys. Berkeley refused, suggesting instead that a series of forts would be built to defend the frontier. Bacon and his friends believed that Berkeley made this decision because he valued his trade in beaver skins with the Native Americans
In the spring of 1676, Bacon attacked the Indians without Berkeley’s permission and was immediately branded a rebel. Bacon gathered 600 men from the frontier and marched to Jamestown.
He demanded that Berkeley give him a military commission, and grant new political rights to the planters in the colony. Berkeley was forced to submit. He produced the commission, and the House of Burgesses enacted a series of bills called the “June Laws,” which granted most of what Bacon had demanded.
Bacon then left Jamestown in order to again fight the Indians. As soon as he was gone, Berkeley went back on his word. Bacon then returned to the coast and laid Jamestown under siege. Berkeley and his supporters fled the town and reached safety on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. The colony was in Bacon’s hands, and he had his men swear an oath of allegiance to his new government.
However, Native Americans continued to attack along the frontier, and it was soon learned that England would send soldiers to quell the rebellion. In the midst of this, Bacon suddenly took ill and died, probably of dysentery, in late October. Before long, his rebel force had crumbled and Berkeley regained control of the colony.
In the aftermath of the turmoil, the wealthy ruling elite of the colony increased their policy of westward expansion to gain the support of the western planters and prevent another rebellion.