Preservation Virginia Blog


Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion, Bacon’s Castle, and the Establishment of Virginia’s “Black Codes” Part 1

By Brenna Geraghty

Have you ever wondered how Bacon’s Castle got it’s name? Read on to find out!

This 1815 watercolor is the earliest known image of Bacon’s Castle and most closely represents how the house looked during the months that Nathaniel Bacon’s followers took over. The smaller wing on the right was added about a hundred years after the incident.



Nathaniel Bacon was a young English aristocrat who was exiled to the Virginia colony in 1674. He had been accused of trying to steal somebody else’s inheritance in England, so his father sent him to the Virginia colony in an attempt to save the family name. When Bacon arrived in Virginia he bought a plantation on what was then the western frontier. Today his plantation, Curles Neck, is just east of Richmond along Route 5 – not exactly the wild west anymore! But in the 1670s there was a lot of conflict between the Indigenous people and English colonists, particularly along the western edge of English colonization (1 p.11). During these conflicts, Virginia’s Governor William Berkeley was reluctant to get involved. Colonists on the frontier felt that Berkeley had abandoned them by not sending in military aid. They were also fearful that the hostilities would escalate into a full-blown war, like King Phillip’s War, which was raging in Massachusetts (1 p.11). Meanwhile, Indigenous groups were angry that Berkeley was allowing colonists to violate treaties protecting established land boundaries. Land disputes, retaliatory raids, and general violence were increasing problems on the colony’s western edge, and the resulting tensions would soon boil over.

When Nathaniel Bacon moved to Curles Neck, he quickly learned about these issues. He went to speak to Governor Berkeley on his neighbors’ behalf. Bacon was a cousin of Berkeley‘s wife; the two already knew each other and had a fairly good relationship. When Bacon began to speak out on behalf of the colonists, however, the relationship soured. Bacon demanded the government send soldiers to the frontier in order to support the colonists in fighting the Doeg and neighboring tribes (1 p.11). Governor Berkeley called a special meeting of the General Assembly in March 1676, but was only successful in securing 500 men to be stationed at a handful of frontier outposts (1 p.11).

For Bacon and his neighbors, this was too little, too late. In addition to armed conflict, the colonists were also navigating a drought and high taxes, and were chafing at a government that could build a largely useless fort at Point Comfort but did not have the wherewithal to defend its poorer western citizens (1 p.11). A potent combination of frustration and fear urged poor farmers, middle-class planters, and enslaved and indentured servants to rally behind the charismatic Bacon as violence with the Doeg intensified (1 p.11). Bacon’s supporters formed a volunteer army, whose mission was to defeat not only the Doeg, but virtually all Indigenous peoples in the colony (1 p.11)

In June 1676, Berkeley called another session of the General Assembly. He was seriously concerned about the escalating conditions on the frontier, and fearful of the violence that could result toward his own government. He also wanted to preserve the trade relationships he had established (and was profiting from) with western Indigenous groups (1 p.11). At this session, in late June, Bacon and Berkeley got into a heated argument, whereby Berkeley and many legislators felt their lives were under threat. Ultimately, under duress, the June assembly produced a 1000-man army complete with a cavalry unit (1 p.11). Bacon also extracted from the frightened Assembly a commission that named him the General of this army (1 p.11).

Bacon was an extreme and polarizing leader. He was now in charge of roughly 2,000 men, not all of whom were supportive of his rhetoric and now clung to Berkeley’s leadership. Ultimately, the division within the colony erupted into chaos. Bacon’s men burned Jamestown, the colony’s capital. They attacked Berkeley’s supporters and Indigenous communities (1 p. 12). 

During Bacon’s Rebellion, Arthur Allen II, also known as Major Allen, inhabited a 5,000 square-foot brick manor house in Surry County. Although a young bachelor, Major Allen did not live alone by any means; he lived with his mother, Alice Tucker Allen, and at least 7 servants. Simon, Emmanuel, Tony, and Stephen were enslaved, while John Finley, Elizabeth Beasley, and Thomas Carr appear to have been indentured (7). Major Allen was a big supporter of Governor Berkeley. When Berkeley went into hiding, Major Allen also went into hiding. While Major Allen was gone, a group of Bacon’s men learned that the massive home owned by a wealthy merchant and Berkeley supporter was left without its owner. In their eyes, it was a perfect target. About 70 of Bacon‘s men took over the house in September 1676. They stayed here for three months, during which time they ate all the Allens’ food, drank all their wine, took valuables, and essentially trashed the house. 

In October, Nathaniel Bacon died from a combination of lice and dysentery. It’s unlikely he ever made it to Allen’s Brick House. After his death, the rebels stayed at the Allen House for two more months, but in December they learned that an English warship was coming up the James River. It was sent by the king under orders to put down this rebellion. Since they no longer had a leader, the rebels at the Allen House had difficulty coming up with a plan of action. Many of them simply fled the house to hide in the woods. The rebels were soon arrested by the soldiers from the warship.  

Major Allen returned home and sued the rebels for destruction of property. His mother, servants, and enslaved people who lived there survived the Rebellion. The house continued to be called Allen’s Brick House or the Allen House for another 100-plus years.

During archaeological excavations in the 1980s, this trash pit was discovered and revealed the types of food the rebels ate, tools they used, and destruction they caused. The large cauldron in the top portion of the pit has been restored and is on exhibit in Bacon’s Castle today.


Sources and the rest of the story available in Part 2…

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