Beginning, Progress and Conclusion of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in the Years 1675 and 1676

Author: Thomas Mathew  | Date: 1897

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Thomas Mathew G. P. Humphrey Rochester N. Y. 1897

America’s First Revolt


My dwelling was in Northumberland, the lowest county on Potomack River, where having also a plantation, servants, cattle, etc., my overseer there had agreed with one Robert Hen to come thither, and be my herdsman, who then lived ten miles above it. But on a Sabbath day morning in the summer Anno 1675, people in their way to church, saw this Hen lying ’thwart his threshold, and an Indian without the door, both chopt on their heads, arms, and other parts as if done with Indian hatchets. The Indian was dead, but Hen, when asked, "Who did that?" answered, "Doegs, Doegs1," and soon died. Then a boy came out from under a bed, where he had hid himself, and told them, Indians had come at break of day and done those murders.

From this Englishman’s blood did (by degrees) arise Bacon’s Rebellion, with the following mischiefs which overspread all Virginia and twice endangered Maryland, as by the ensuing account is evident.

In these frightful times the most exposed small families withdrew our houses, which we fortified with palisades and redoubts. Neighbors in bodies joined their labors from each plantation to others alternately, taking their arms into the fields, and setting sentinels. No man stirred out of door unarmed. Indians were (ever and anon) espied—three, four, five, or six in a party, lurking throughout the whole land, yet (what was remarkable) I rarely heard of any houses burnt, though abundance was forsaken, nor ever of any corn or tobacco cut up, or other injury done, besides murders, except the killing a very few cattle and swine.

Frequent complaints of bloodsheds were sent to Sir William Berkeley (then governor) from the heads of the rivers, which were as often answered with promises of assistance.

These at the heads of James and York Rivers (having now most people destroyed by the Indians’ flight thither from Potomac) grew impatient at the many slaughters of their neighbors and rose for their own defense, who choosing Mr. Bacon for their leader sent oftentimes to the Governor, humbly beseeching a commission to go against those Indians at their own charge, which his Honor as often promised, but did not send. [The people muttered: "No bullets would pierce beaver skins." Three hundredprominent settlers chose Bacon as their commander and prepared to march against the Indians if, within a stated time, a commission was not issued by the governor. When Berkeley learned that they had started out against the Indians upon his failure to grant the commission, he denounced them as rebels and warned them that their estates would be confiscated on their failure to return. With fifty-seven men Bacon proceeded into Indian territory. A group of supposedly friendly Indian kept stalling when they sought to purchase food.]

And now ’twas suspected these Indians had received private messages from the Governor, and those to be the causes of the delusive procrastinations. Whereupon the English waded shoulder-deep through that branch [of the James River] to the fort palisades, still entreating and tendering pay, for victuals; but that evening a shot from the place they left on the other side of that branch killed one of Mr. Bacon’s men, which made them believe those in the fort had sent for other Indians to come behind ’em and cut ’em off.

Hereupon they fired the palisades, stormed and burnt the fort and cabins, and (with the loss of three English) slew one hundred and fifty Indians. The circumstance of this expedition Mr. Bacon entertained me with at his own chamber, on a visit I made him.

From hence they returned home, where writs were come up to elect members for an Assembly, when Mr. Bacon was unanimously chosen for one, who coming down the river was commanded by a ship with guns to come on board, where waited Major Hone, the high sheriff of Jamestown, ready to seize him, by whom he was carried down to the Governor and by him received with a surprising civility in the following words:

"Mr. Bacon, have you forgot to be a gentleman?"

"No, may it please your Honor," answered Mr. Bacon.

Then replied the Governor, "I’ll take your parole," and gave him his liberty. . . .

[The narrator was elected to the House of Burgesses.] The morning I arrived to Jamestown, after a week’s voyage, was welcomed with the strange acclamations of "All’s over, Bacon is taken," having not heard at home of the southern commotions, other than rumors like idle tales, of one Bacon risen up in rebellion, nobody knew for what, concerning the Indians.

The next forenoon, the Assembly being met in a chamber over the general court and our speakers chosen, the Governor sent for us down, where his Honor with a pathetic emphasis made a short, abrupt speech wherein were these words:

"If they had killed my grandfather and grandmother, my father and mother and all my friends, yet if they had come to treat of peace, they ought to have gone in peace," and sat down.

The two chief commanders at the forementioned siege, who slew the four Indian great men, [were] present and part of our Assembly.

The Governor stood up again and said:

"If there be joy in the presence of the angels over one sinner that re-penteth, there is joy now, for we have a penitent sinner come before us. Call Mr. Bacon."

Than did Mr. Bacon upon one knee at the bar deliver a sheet of paper confessing his crimes, and begging pardon of God, the King, and the Governor; whereto (after a short pause) he answered, "God forgive you, I forgive you," thrice repeating the same words. When Colonel Cole (one of the Council) said, "And all that were with him?" "Yea," said the Governor, "and all that were with him," twenty or more persons being then in irons, who were taken coming down in the same and other vessels with Mr. Bacon. [Berkeley restored Bacon to his seat on the Council on condition that he live civilly until quarter court.]

The Governor had directed us to consider of means for security from the Indian insults and to defray the charge. . . . Whilst some days passed in settling the quotas of men, arms and ammunition, provisions, etc., each county was to furnish, one morning early a bruit ran about the town, "Bacon is fled, Bacon is fled." Bacon was escaped into the country, having intimation that the Governor’s generosity in pardoning him and his followers, and restoring him to his seat in Council, were no other than previous wheedles to amuse him and his adherents and to circumvent them by strategem, forasmuch as the taking Mr. Bacon again into the Council was first to keep him out of the Assembly, and in the next place the Governor knew the country people were hastening down with dreadful threatenings to doubly revenge all wrongs should be done to Mr. Bacon or his men, or whoever should have had the least hand in them. [A kinsman on the Council warned Bacon to flee for his life.]

In three or four days after this escape, upon news that Mr. Bacon was thirty miles up the river, at the head of four hundred men, the Governor sent to the parts adjacent, on both sides James River, for the militia and all the men could be got to come and defend the town. Expresses came almost hourly of the army’s approaches, who in less than four days after the first account of them, at two of the clock, entered the town, without being withstood, and formed a body upon a green, not a flight shot from the end of the state house, of horse and foot, as well regular as veteran troops, who forthwith possessed themselves of all the avenues, disarming all in town, and coming thither in boats or by land.

In half an hour after this the drum beat for the House to meet, and in less than an hour more Mr. Bacon came with a file of fusiliers on either hand, near the corner of the state house, where the Governor and Council went forth to him. We saw from the window the Governor open his breast, and Bacon strutting betwixt his two files of men, with his left arm on Kenbow, flinging his right arm every way, both like men distracted. And if, in this moment of fury, that enraged multitude had fallen upon the Governor and Council, we of the Assembly expected the same immediate fate.

I stepped down, and amongst the crowd of spectators found the seamen of my sloop, who prayed me not to stir from them, when, in two minutes, the Governor walked towards his private apartment, a quoit’s cast distant, at the other end of the state house, the gentlemen of the Council following him; and after them walked Mr. Bacon with outrageous postures of his head, arms, body, and legs, often tossing his hand from his sword to his hat, and after him came a detachment of fusiliers (muskets not being there in use), who with their locks bent presented their fusils at a window of the Assembly chamber filled with faces, repeating with menacing voices, "We will have it, we will have it," half a minute, when as one of our House, a person known to many of them, shook his handkerchief out at the window, saying, "You shall have it, you shall have it," three or four times. At these words they set down their fusils, unbent their locks, and stood still until Bacon coming back, they followed him to their main body.

In this hubbub a servant of mine got so nigh as to hear the Governor’s words, and also followed Mr. Bacon and heard what he said, who came and told me that when the Governor opened his breast, he said:

"Here! Shoot me. ’Fore God, fair mark! Shoot!" often rehearsing the same, without any other words; whereto Mr. Bacon answered:

"No, may it please your Honor, we will not hurt a hair of your head, nor of any other man’s. We are come for a commission to save our lives from the Indians, which you have so often promised, and now will have it before we go."

But when Mr. Bacon followed the Governor and Council with the aforementioned impetuous (like delirious) actions, whilst that party presented their fusils at the window full of faces, he said:

"Damn my blood. I’ll kill Governor, Council, Assembly, and all, and then I’ll sheathe my sword in my own heart’s blood."

And afterwards ’twas said Bacon had given a signal to his men who presented their fusils at those gazing out at the window, that if he should draw his sword they were on sight of it to fire, and slay us; so near was the massacre of us all that very minute, had Bacon in that paroxysm of frantic fury but drawn his sword before the pacific handkerchief was shaken out at window. . . .

[Bacon then harangued the Assembly on the need for protection from the Indians, for inspecting the public revenue, and on other evils, but, receiving no satisfaction, he marched with a thousand men into the woods to fight the Indians. Berkeley summoned twelve hundred militia from Gloucester and Middlesex Counties to suppress the insurrection, but they all walked off the field, muttering "Bacon, Bacon, Bacon." Berkeley then took flight and found refuge at Accomac, across the Chesapeake Bay. Bacon then frustated an attempt on Berkeley’s part to seize Jamestown and took the town with his own force.]

Here, resting a few days, they concerted the burning of the town, wherein Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Drummond, owning the two best houses save one, set fire each to his own house, which example the soldiers following, laid the whole town (with church and state house) in ashes, saying the rogues should harbor no more there.

On these reiterated molestations, Bacon calls a convention at Middle Plantation, fifteen miles from Jamestown, in the month of August, 1676, where an oath with one or more proclamations were formed, and writs by him issued for an Assembly. The oaths or writs I never saw, but one proclamation commanded all men in the land on pain of death to join him, and retire into the wilderness upon arrival of the forces expected from England, and oppose them until they should propose or accept to treat of an accommodation, which we who lived comfortably could not have undergone, so as the whole land must have become an Aceldama1 if God’s exceeding mercy had not timely removed him.

[Bacon seized a twenty-gun sloop and sent Bland, his deputy, and Car-vet to blockade Accomac and protect the western shore from the depredations of the governor’s party, "as if we bad been foreign enemies." Promising Carver safe conduct, the governor wined and dined him, but failed to induce him to abandon Bacon. "If he served the devil he would be true to his trust," Carver declared. A boarding party sent by Berkeley treacherously seized the sloop, and laid Blair and his party in irons. Carver, intercepted before he had reached the ship, was hanged on shore. Bacon returned from his last expedition "sick of the flux," from which he died.]

In [a] few days Mr. Drummond was brought in, when the Governor, being on board a ship, came immediately to shore and complimented him with the ironical sarcasm of a low bend, saying: "Mr. Drummond! You are very welcome. I am more glad to see you than any man in Virginia. Mr. Drummond, you shall be hanged in half an hour"; who answered, "What your Honor pleases"; and as soon as a council of war could meet, his sentence be dispatched and a gibbet erected (which took up near two hours), he was executed.

The last account of Mr. Lawrence was from an uppermost plantation, whence he and four others, desperados, with horses, pistols, etc., marched away in a snow ankle-deep, who were thought to have cast themselves into a branch of some river, rather than to be treated like Drummond.

Bacon’s body was so made away, as his bones were never found to be exposed on a gibbet as was purposed, stones being laid in his coffin, supposed to be done by Lawrence.

Near this time arrived a small fleet with a regiment from England, Sir John Berry, admiral; Colonel Herbert Jefferyes, commander of the land forces; and Colonel Morrison, who had one year been a former governor. There, all three joined in commission with or to Sir William Barclay, soon after when a general court and also an Assembly were held, where some of our former Assembly (with so many others) were put to death, divers whereof were persons of honest reputations and handsome estates, as that the Assembly petitioned the Governor to spill no more blood; and Mr. Presley, at his coming home, told me he believed the Governor would have hanged half the country if they had let him alone.

The first was Mr. Bland, whose friends in England had procured his pardon to be sent over with the fleet, which he pleaded at his trial was in the Governor’s pocket, but he was answered by Colonel Morrison that he pleaded his pardon at sword’s point which was looked upon an odd sort of reply, and he was executed; as was talked, by private instructions from England, the Duke of York having sworn, "By God, Bacon and Bland should die."

The Governor went in the fleet to London (whether by command from his Majesty or spontaneous I did not hear), leaving Colonel Jefferyes in his place, and by next shipping came back a person who waited on his Honor in his voyage (and until his death), from whom a report was whispered about, that the King did say, "That old fool has hanged more men in that naked country than he had done for the murder of his father"; whereof the Governor hearing, died soon after, without having seen his Majesty—which shuts up this tragedy.

1The Doegs were an Indian tribe dwelling in Maryland.

1 Acts 1.19.

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Chicago: Thomas Mathew, Beginning, Progress and Conclusion of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in the Years 1675 and 1676, ed. Thomas Mathew and trans. G. P. Humphrey in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed April 24, 2024,

MLA: Mathew, Thomas. Beginning, Progress and Conclusion of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in the Years 1675 and 1676, edited by Thomas Mathew, and translated by G. P. Humphrey, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 24 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Mathew, T, Beginning, Progress and Conclusion of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in the Years 1675 and 1676, ed. and trans. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 24 April 2024, from