Virginia, the Powhatans, and Bacon’s Rebellion

Hostility between the native peoples of the Chesapeake Bay area and Europeans probably dates back to Velázquez’s accidental visit there in 1561, and was only intensified by Menéndez’s expedition of 1572. When the over-confident Virginia Company established its colony at Jamestown, it found itself in direct competition with Powhatan, who had used skillful diplomacy and brute military force to crush his Amerindian opponents. Powhatan was certain that the handful of new English arrivals would be no match for his sprawling syndicate, while the belligerent Virginia Company issued orders to the colonists which practically ensured there would be clashes with the native peoples.1

 Over the ensuing decades, the relationship between the two peoples vacillated between uneasy truce and open warfare. The underlying cause for all the hostility was land; an ever-expanding English population practicing agricultural methods incompatible with native land use was bound to cause friction. While the wars of 1622 and 1644 fit this standard pattern, there are a couple of similarities between the two conflicts. In both wars, the initial heavy blow was landed by the Powhatan. While it is true that both episodes were preceded by years of tit-for-tat provocations, it is perhaps telling that the Powhatan were the first to resort to large-scale violence in each case.

The second similarity concerns the leader of the Powhatan people at the time of both wars. I find it interesting that both conflicts took place at or near significant milestones in Opechancanough’s life. In 1622, Opechancanough had only recently assumed leadership of the Powhatan confederacy, when he succeeded the tribe’s namesake chief upon Powhatan’s death four years earlier. While “Opechancanough had long-standing personal resentments”against the English, he was a relatively new chief of his people and was presumably busy consolidating his power and control.2 Is it not possible that Opechancanough viewed open conflict with the English as a way to prove his mettle to his people while simultaneously reaping the benefits of the solidarity that often arises in nations at war? In 1644, Opechancanough was very old, and the English had expanded north and west, all the way to the Potomac. Perhaps he realized that if he was going to be the leader to expel the English from Powhatan territory, his time was short and he needed to act.

As far as English motivations are concerned, the continuing influx of colonists, combined with increasing European demand for tobacco, ensured that the colony was there to stay. Quite simply, the Amerindians had land that the English wanted, and they would take it by force if necessary.

Bacon’s Rebellion is an interesting illustration of the divide that was beginning to take place between the wealthy landowners around Jamestown and the smaller farmers on the fringes of the colony. Governor Berkeley was attempting a high-wire act in which he professed concern for the safety of settlers on the Indian frontier, while simultaneously trying to protect British trade with those native peoples friendly with the colonists. Berkeley issued directives that effectively tied the hands of militias on the frontier, forbidding them, for instance, from immediately pursuing hostile Indians. The outlying planters perhaps began to view Berkeley as out of touch with the realities of life on the frontier.3

Nathaniel Bacon stepped forward to champion the cause of the frontier farmers, challenging Berkeley’s authority in the process. Bacon expected the governor to grant him a commission for his efforts, but Berkeley refused. Undeterred, Bacon set out on an expedition against the Amerindians in which he did not distinguish between hostile and friendly tribes. The “squalid ‘campaign’” was a direct challenge to Berkeley’s authority, but “Bacon was regarded as a conquering hero when he returned.”4 He obviously struck a chord with those colonists and servants who were disenchanted with the wealthy governing elite of the colony, and his support was strong enough to force Berkeley to flee to the Eastern Shore for a while. Bacon and his rebels occupied and burned Jamestown, but the rebellion ended with Bacon’s death just a month later. Berkeley was easily able to quell what was left of the movement.5

The most significant consequence of Bacon’s Rebellion for native peoples was that it brought to the forefront the anxieties of frontier planters. Bacon prosecuted a “race war” against the Amerindians in Virginia, and spoke for the “frightened and avaricious frontiersmen whose purpose often seemed to be the elimination of their Amerindian neighbors.”6 These fears did not die with Bacon and his rebellion. Enslavement and sale of native peoples was officially ratified by the legislature, and those not enslaved were placed on reservations.7


1. Ian K. Steele, Warpaths: Invasions of North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 37-41.

2. Ibid., 45.

3. Ibid., 55.

4. Ibid., 56.

5. Ibid., 57.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

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