Things in the colony took a turn after Bacon’s Rebellion. This was largely due to who exactly had rebelled. Bacon had been successful in recruiting not only poor and middle-class English colonists, but also Africans and people of African descent.
The House of Burgesses realized that Bacon’s followers had put aside racial differences to fight towards a common goal; in this case, overthrowing Governor Berkeley and other members of the elite. The Burgesses felt it was in their own best interest to divide and conquer the poor of Virginia. In the years after Bacon’s Rebellion, the Virginia legislature began enacting a series of laws known as Black Codes. The Black Codes restricted the rights of free and enslaved Africans and their descendants within Virginia. In 1680 a law was passed prohibiting Blacks from owning firearms, congregating in large numbers, and attempting to escape. Soon other colonies were enacting similar laws.
The laws became more and more restrictive until people of African descent in Virginia were forbidden basic rights like freedom of marriage, self-defense, education, and participation in government. Most importantly, the Black Codes set up a legal framework for hereditary chattel slavery. This describes a condition in which a person is bound to uncompensated servitude for their entire life based upon the status of their mother. The Black Codes further enshrined enslavers’ rights to abuse, assault, buy, sell, and even kill enslaved people. This all was influenced by Bacon’s Rebellion and reflected wealthy colonists’ fears of a second uprising. It set in motion the race-based, hereditary lifetime slavery that would exist in America until 1863. We still see fallout from Bacon’s Rebellion today in the form of racism, discrimination, and inequity.
The Rebellion was extremely damaging to Indigenous people as well. Indigenous groups including the Doeg, Occoneechee, Nottoway, Pamunkey, Nansemond, and Weyanoke had been the main target of Nathaniel Bacon’s rage, and much of the violence had been aimed at them. Many of the tribes Bacon’s men assaulted had established treaties with the English, some of them decades-old. Leaders of these groups felt that Berkeley had failed them as an ally.
In 1677, the Treaty of Middle Plantation was signed. Middle Plantation covered a large area, most of which we would now call Williamsburg. Tribes who lived in the vicinity, including the Pamunkey, the Nottoway, the Weyanoke, and the Nansemond, signed this treaty with King Charles II of England. It established an agreement, through which the tribes named in the treaty were given clearly defined boundaries, which the English agreed to respect. However, it restricted Indigenous people’s freedom of movement, and required them to effectively rent their own land from the English king. The tribes agreed to provide tribute to the Governor of Virginia, and align themselves with the government in case of a similar uprising. The Treaty of Middle Plantation is still invoked today to establish or defend tribal boundaries and land use rights.
100 years after Bacon’s Rebellion, Virginia had a new problem: fighting the Revolutionary War. It was extremely difficult to get Virginian men to join the Continental Army. Overall, they would much rather join their local militia. However, the Continental Congress needed a unified military force in order to defeat the British. So Thomas Jefferson, a Virginian, came up with a way to encourage Virginians to join the Continental Army.
Jefferson read a book about Nathaniel Bacon. He saw similarities between Bacon rebelling against an English governor and the 13 colonies rebelling against an English king. Although the motivations were completely different, Jefferson saw an opportunity for propaganda. Because many Virginia colonists who had participated in Bacon’s Rebellion were middle and lower class, many average Virginians during the American Revolution had ancestors who had participated in Bacon’s Rebellion. By rebranding Nathaniel Bacon from a power-hungry scoundrel into the prototype for the American patriot, Jefferson was able to offer Virginia families a chance to redeem their honor. Jefferson found many willing recruits through his propaganda campaign.
The Jeffersonian version of Nathaniel Bacon became so popular that Virginians commonly invoked his name as a way to show their support for American independence. The Cocke family, descendants of the Allens, owned Bacon’s Castle during the Revolutionary War. They likely used their home’s connection to Bacon’s Rebellion as a way to emphasize their patriotic feelings to their neighbors. This is probably why we see the first written mention of the name Bacon’s Castle in 1802, shortly after the Revolutionary War.
- Tarter, Brent,. “Bacon’s Rebellion, the Grievances of the People, and the Political Culture of Seventeenth-Century Virginia.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 119, no. 1, 2011, pp. 2–41. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41059478. Accessed 8 Feb. 2023.
- Rice, James D. “Bacon’s Rebellion in Indian Country.” The Journal of American History, vol. 101, no. 3, 2014, pp. 726–50. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44286295. Accessed 8 Feb. 2023.
- “Persons Who Suffered by Bacon’s Rebellion. The Commissioners’ Report.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 5, no. 1, 1897, pp. 64–70. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4242017. Accessed 8 Feb. 2023.
- Race: the Power of an Illusion: Interview with Ira Berlin. https://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-02-08.htm
- The Articles of Peace. 1677. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/articles-of-peace-1677/
- Edwards-Ingram, Ywone. Africans and African-Americans at Bacon’s Castle, Surry County, Virginia: A Report for the APVA. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2007.