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Bacon's Rebellion

Dunnock Johnson Family ~ Dorchester & Washington DC

Called the first political protest of the English colonies, a member of the Johnson Family is found in the midst of the conflict and thus Edward Cheesman pays with his life.

Through his father, ten generations later, the grandchildren of Eliza Jane and Capt. CW are eligible to join the Jamestowne Society. In May 2003, the first in the family was accepted into membership as a descendant of Edward Senior.

As we approach 2007 and the 400th anniversary of the landing May 14th, others may wish to join as well.


"For having upon specious pretences of public works raised unjust taxes upon the commonality for the advancement of private favorites and other sinister ends, but no visible effects in any measure adequate.

"For not having during the long time of his government in any measure advanced this hopeful colony either by fortifications, towns, or trade.

"For having abused and rendered contemptible the Majesty of justice, of advancing to places of judicature scandalous and ignorant favorites.

"For having wronged his Majesty's prerogative and interest by assuming the monopoly of the Beaver Trade.

`For having in that unjust gain bartered and sold his Majesty's Country and the lives of his loyal subjects to the Barbarous Heathen.

"For having with only the privacy of some few favorites with-out acquainting the people, only by the alteration of a figure forged a commission by we know not what hand, not only without but against the consent of the people, for raising and effecting of civil wars and distractions, which being happily and without bloodshed prevented.

"Of these aforesaid articles we accuse Sir William Berkeley as guilty of each and every one of the same, and as one who hath traitoriously attempted, violated, and injured his Majesty's interest here by the loss of a great part of his colony, and many of his faithful and loyal subjects by him betrayed, and in a barbarous and shameful manner exposed to the incursions and murders of the Heathen.

"(Signed) NATH. BACON, Gen'1. "By the consent of ye people."

Bacon's Rebellion was probably one of the most confusing yet intriguing chapters in Jamestown's history. For many years, historians considered the Virginia Rebellion of 1676 to be the first stirring of revolutionary sentiment in America, which culminated in the American Revolution almost exactly one hundred years later.

Bacon's Rebellion can be attributed to a myriad of causes, all of which led to dissent in the Virginia colony. Economic problems, such as declining tobacco prices, growing commercial competition from Maryland and the Carolinas, an increasingly restricted English market, and the rising prices from English manufactured goods (mercantilism) caused problems for the Virginians. There were heavy English losses in the latest series of naval wars with the Dutch and, closer to home, there were many problems caused by weather. Hailstorms, floods, dry spells, and hurricanes rocked the colony all in the course of a year and had a damaging effect on the colonists. These difficulties encouraged the colonists to find a scapegoat against whom they could vent their frustrations and place the blame for their misfortunes.

The colonists found their scapegoat in the form of the local Indians. The trouble began in July 1675 with a raid by the Doeg Indians on the plantation of Thomas Mathews, located in the Northern Neck section of Virginia near the Potomac River. Several of the Doegs were killed in the raid, which began in a dispute over the nonpayment of some items Mathews had apparently obtained from the tribe. The situation became critical when, in a retaliatory strike by the colonists, they attacked the wrong Indians, the Susquehanaugs, which caused large scale Indian raids to begin.   

To stave off future attacks and to bring the situation under control, Governor Berkeley ordered an investigation into the matter. He set up what was to be a disastrous meeting between the parties, which resulted in the murders of several tribal chiefs. Throughout the crisis, Berkeley continually pleaded for restraint from the colonists. Some, including Bacon, refused to listen. Nathaniel Bacon disregarded the Governor's direct orders by seizing some friendly Appomattox Indians for "allegedly" stealing corn. Berkeley reprimanded him, which caused the disgruntled Virginians to wonder which man had taken the right action. It was here the battle lines were about to be drawn.

The Long Assembly was accused of corruption because of its ruling regarding trade with the Indians. Not coincidentally, most of the favored traders were friends of Berkeley. Regular traders, some of whom had been trading independently with the local Indians for generations, were no longer allowed to trade individually. A government commission was established to monitor trading among those specially chosen and to make sure the Indians were not receiving any arms and ammunition. Bacon, one of the traders adversely affected by the Governor's order, accused Berkeley publicly of playing favorites. Bacon was also resentful because Berkeley had denied him a commission as a leader in the local militia. Bacon became the elected "General" of a group of local volunteer Indian fighters, because he promised to bear the cost of the campaigns.

After Bacon drove the Pamunkeys from their nearby lands in his first action, Berkeley exercised one of the few instances of control over the situation that he was to have, by riding to Bacon's headquarters at Henrico with 300 "well armed" gentlemen. Upon Berkeley's arrival, Bacon fled into the forest with 200 men in search of a place more to his liking for a meeting. Berkeley then issued two petitions declaring Bacon a rebel and pardoning Bacon's men if they went home peacefully. Bacon would then be relieved of the council seat that he had won for his actions that year, but he was to be given a fair trial for his disobedience.  It was the House of Burgesses, however, who refused this alternative, insisting that Bacon must acknowledge his errors and beg the Governor's forgiveness. Ironically, at the same time, Bacon was then elected to the Burgesses by supportive local land owners sympathetic to his Indian campaigns. Bacon, by virtue of this election, attended the landmark Assembly of June 1676. It was during this session that he was mistakenly credited with the political reforms that came from this meeting. The reforms were prompted by the population, cutting through all class lines. Most of the reform laws dealt with reconstructing the colony's voting regulations, enabling freemen to vote, and limiting the number of years a person could hold certain offices in the colony. 

Nathaniel Bacon dominated Jamestown from July through September 1676. During this time, Berkeley did come out of his lethargy and attempt a coup, but support for Bacon was still too strong and Berkeley was forced to flee to Accomack County on the Eastern Shore. Feeling that it would make his triumph complete, Bacon issued his "Declaration of the People" on July 30, 1676 which stated that Berkeley was corrupt, played favorites and protected the Indians for his own selfish purposes. Bacon also issued his oath which required the swearer to promise his loyalty to Bacon in any manner necessary (i.e., armed service, supplies, verbal support). Even this tight reign could not keep the tide from changing again. Bacon's fleet was first and finally secretly infiltrated by Berkeley's men and finally captured. This was to be the turning point in the conflict, because Berkeley was once again strong enough to retake Jamestown. Bacon then followed his sinking fortunes to Jamestown and saw it heavily fortified. He made several attempts at a siege, during which he kidnapped the wives of several of Berkeley's biggest supporters.

On October 26th, 1676, Bacon abruptly died of the "Bloodie Flux" and "Lousey Disease" (body lice). It is possible his soldiers burned his contaminated body because it was never found. (His death inspired this little ditty; Bacon is Dead I am sorry at my hart That lice and flux should take the hangman's part".)  Shortly after Bacon's death, Berkeley regained complete control and hung the major leaders of the rebellion. He also seized rebel property without the benefit of a trial. All in all, twenty-three persons were hanged for their part in the rebellion.

A young Major named Edward Cheesman was condemned to death, but died in prison, some say by poison. The Governor, when he was brought before him, asked fiercely: "What reason had you for rebellion?"  But before the Major could reply his young wife stepped from the surrounding crowd, and threw herself upon her knees before the Governor. "It was my doing," she cried. "I persuaded him, and but for me he would never have done it. I am guilty, not he. I pray you therefore let me be hanged, and he be pardoned." A brave lady But the old Cavalier's heart was filled to overflowing with a frenzy of hate. He was utterly untouched by the poor lady's brave and sad appeal, and answered her only with bitter, insulting words.

Later after an investigating committee from England issued its report to King Charles II, Berkeley was relieved of the Governorship and returned to England where he died in July 1677. Thus ended one of the most unusual and complicated chapters in Jamestown's history. Could it have been prevented or was it time for inevitable changes to take place in the colonial governmental structure? Obviously, the laws were no longer effective as far as establishing clear policies to deal with problems or to instill new lifeblood into the colony's economy. The numerous problems that hit the colony before the Rebellion gave rise to the character of Nathaniel Bacon.


Neville, John Davenport. Bacon's Rebellion. Abstracts of Materials in the Colonial  Records Project. Jamestown: Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

Washburn, Wilcomb E. The Governor and the Rebel. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957.

Webb, Stephen Saunders. 1676-The End of American Independence. New York: Alfred A. Knopp, 1984.

from: http://www.nps.gov/colo/Jthanout/BacRebel.html