In 1676, just a hundred years before the American Revolution, the people of Virginia were very much oppressed by Sir William Berkeley, the governor appointed by the King of England. Their property was taken away by unjust taxes, and in other ways. The governor had managed to get all the power into his own hands and those of his friends.
This was the time of King Philip's War in New England. The news of this war made the Indians of Virginia uneasy, and at length the Susquehannas and other tribes attacked the frontiers. Governor Berkeley would not do anything to protect the people on the frontier, because he was making a great deal of money out of the trade with friendly Indians, and if troops were sent against them this trade would be stopped.
When many hundreds of people on the frontier had been put to death, some three hundred men formed themselves into a company to punish the Indians. But Berkeley refused to allow any one to take command of this troop, or to let them go against the savages.
There was a brilliant young gentleman named Nathaniel Bacon, who had come from England three years before. He was a member of the governor's Council, and an educated man of wealth. He begged the governor to let him lead this company of three hundred men against the Indians; but the cruel and stubborn old governor said, No.
Bacon was sorry for the suffering people. He went to the camp of these men, to see and encourage them. But when they saw him they set up the cry, "A Bacon! A Bacon! A Bacon!" This was the way of cheering a man at that day and choosing him for a leader.
Bacon knew that the governor might put him to death if he disobeyed orders, but he could not refuse these poor men who had been driven from their homes. So off he went at their head to the Indian towns, where he killed many of the savages.
The old governor gathered his friends and started after Bacon, declaring that he would hang him for going to war without orders; but while he was looking for him, the people down by the coast rose in favor of Bacon. The governor had to make peace with them by promising to let them choose a new Legislature.
When Bacon got back from the Indian country the frontier people nearly worshiped him as their deliverer. They kept guard night and day over his house. They were afraid the angry governor would send men to kill him.
Guarding Bacon's House
The people of his county elected Bacon a member of the new Legislature. But they were afraid the governor might harm him. Forty of them with guns went down to Jamestown with him in a sloop. With the help of two boats and a ship the governor captured Bacon's sloop, and brought Bacon into Jamestown. But as the angry people were already rising to defend their leader, Berkeley was afraid to hurt him. He made him apologize, and restored him to his place in the Council.
But that night Bacon was warned that the next day he would be seized again, and that the roads and river were guarded to keep him from getting away. So he took horse suddenly and galloped out of Jamestown in the darkness. The next morning the governor sent men to search the house where he had stayed. They stuck their swords through the beds, thinking him hidden there.
But Bacon was already among friends. When the country people heard that he was in danger, they seized their guns and vowed to kill the governor and all his party. Bacon was quickly marching on Jamestown with five hundred angry men at his back. The people refused to help the governor, and Bacon and his men entered Jamestown. It was their turn to guard the roads and keep Berkeley in.
The old governor offered to fight the young captain single-handed, but Bacon told him he would not harm him. Bacon forced the governor to sign a commission appointing him a general. He also made the Legislature pass good laws for the relief of the people. These laws were remembered long after Nathaniel Bacon's death, and were known as "Bacon's Laws."
While this work of doing away with bad laws and making good ones was going on, the Indians crept down to a place only about twenty miles from Jamestown and murdered the people. General Bacon promptly started for the Indian country with his little army. But, just as he was leaving the settlements, he heard that the governor was raising troops to take him when he should get back; so he turned about and marched swiftly back to Jamestown.
The governor had called out the militia, but when they learned that instead of taking them to fight the Indians they were to go against Bacon, they all began to murder "Bacon! Bacon! Bacon!" Then they left the field and went home, and the old governor fainted with disappointment. He was forced to flee for safety to the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, and the government fell into the hands of General Bacon.
Bacon had an enemy on each side of him. No sooner had Berkeley gone than the Indians again began their murders. Bacon once more marched against them, and killed many. He and his men lived on horseflesh and chinquapin nuts during this expedition.
When Bacon got back to the settlements and had dismissed all but one hundred and thirty-six of his men, he heard that Governor Berkeley had gathered together seventeen little vessels and six hundred sailors and others, and with these had taken possession of Jamestown. Worn out as they were with fatigue and hunger, Bacon persuaded his little band to march straight for Jamestown, so as to take Berkeley by surprise.
As the weary and dusty heroes of the Indian war hurried onward to Jamestown, the people cheered the gallant little company. The women called after Bacon, "General, if you need help, send for us!" So fast did these men march that they reached the narrow neck of sand that connected Jamestown with the mainland before the governor had heard of their coming. Bacon's men dug trenches in the night, and shut in the governor and his people.
After a while Bacon got some cannon. He wanted to put them upon his breastworks without losing the life of any of his brave soldiers. So he sent to the plantations near by and brought to his camp the wives of the chief men in the governor's party. These ladies he made to sit down in front of his works until his cannon were in place. He knew that the enemy would not fire on them. When he had finished, he politely sent them home.
Great numbers of the people now flocked to General Bacon's standard, and the governor and his followers left Jamestown in their vessels. Knowing that they would try to return, Bacon ordered the town to be burned to the ground.
Almost all of the people except those on the eastern shore sided with Bacon, who now did his best to put the government in order. But the hardships he had been through were too much for him. He sickened and died. His friends knew that Berkeley would soon get control again, now that their leader was dead. They knew that his enemies would dig up Bacon's body and hang it, after the fashion of that time. Therefore they buried it nobody knows where; but as they put stones into his coffin, they must have sunk it in the river.
Governor Berkeley got back his power, and hanged many of Bacon's friends. But the King of England removed Berkeley in disgrace, and he died of a broken heart. The governors who came after were generally careful not to oppress the people too far. They were afraid another Bacon might rise up against them.