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This Country of Ours - H. E. Marshall

Bacon's Rebellion

For some time now the Indians had been an increasing terror to the white men. They had grown restless and uneasy at the constantly widening borders of the settlements. Day by day the forest was cleared, the cornfields stretched farther and farther inland, and the Redman saw himself driven farther and farther from his hunting-ground.

So anger arose in the Redman's heart. He lurked in the forests which girded the lonely farms and, watching his opportunity, crept stealthily forth to slay and burn. Settler after settler was slain in cold blood, or done to death with awful tortures, and his pleasant homestead was given to the flames. Day by day the tale of horror grew, till it seemed at length that no farm along the borders of the colony was safe from destruction. Yet the Governor did nothing.

Helplessly the Virginians raged against his sloth and tyranny. He was a traitor to his trust, they declared, and feared to wage war on the Indians lest it should spoil his fur trade with them. But that was not so. A deadlier fear than that kept Berkeley idle. He knew how his tyranny had made the people hate him, and he feared to arm them and lead them against the Indians, lest having subdued these foes they should turn their arms against him.

But the men of Virginia were seething with discontent and ripe for rebellion. All they wanted was a leader, and soon they found one. This leader was Nathaniel Bacon, a young Englishman who had but lately come to the colony. He was dashing and handsome, had winning ways and a persuasive tongue. He was the very man for a popular leader, and soon at his back he had an army of three hundred armed settlers, "one and all at his devotion."

Bacon then sent to the Governor asking for a commission to go against the Indians. But Berkeley put him off with one excuse after another; until at length goaded into rebellion Bacon and his men determined to set out, commission or no commission.

But they had not gone far when a messenger came spurring behind them in hot haste. He came with a proclamation from the Governor denouncing them all as rebels, and bidding them disperse at once on pain of forfeiting their lands and goods. Some obeyed, but the rest went on with Bacon, and only returned after having routed the Indians. Their defeat was so severe that the battle is known as the Battle of Bloody Run, because it was said the blood of the Indians made red the stream which flowed near the battlefield.

The Indians for the time were cowed, and Bacon marched slowly home with his men.

Meanwhile Berkeley had gathered horses and men and had ridden out to crush this turbulent youth. But hearing suddenly that the people had risen in revolt, he hastened back to Jamestown with all speed. Something he saw he must do to appease the people. So he dissolved the House of Burgesses which for fourteen years had done his bidding, and ordered a new election. This pacified the people somewhat. But they actually elected the rebel Bacon as one of the members of the House.

Bacon was not, however, altogether to escape the consequences of his bold deeds. As soon as he returned he was taken prisoner and led before the Governor. The stern old Cavalier received this rebel with cool civility.

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

"No, may it please your honour," answered Bacon,

"Then," said the Governor, "I will take your parole."

So Bacon was set free until the House of Burgesses should meet. Meantime he was given to understand that if he made open confession of his misdeeds in having marched against the Indians without a commission, he would be forgiven, receive his commission, and be allowed to fight the Indians. It was not easy to make this proud young man bend his knee. But to gain his end Bacon consented to beg forgiveness for what he deemed no offence. The Governor meant it to be a solemn occasion, one not lightly to be forgotten. So when the burgesses and council were gathered the Governor stood up.

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

The doors were thrown wide open and in marched Bacon, tall and proud, looking grave indeed but little like a repentant sinner. At the bar of the House he knelt on one knee, and reading from a paper written out for him confessed his crimes, begging pardon from God, the King, and the Governor.

When his clear young voice ceased the old Governor spoke.

"God forgive you," he said, solemnly. "I forgive you." Three times he repeated the words and was silent.

"And all that were with him?" asked one of the council.

"Yea," said the Governor, "and all that were with him."

Thus the matter seemed ended. There was peace again and the House could now proceed to further business.

Part of that business was to settle what was to be done about the Indian war. Some of the people hoped that they might get help from friendly Indians. So the Indian Queen, Pamunky, had been asked to come to the Assembly and say what help she would give. Her tribe was the same as that over which the Powhatan had ruled so long ago. And although it was now but a shadow of its former self she had still about a hundred and fifty braves at command whose help the Englishmen were anxious to gain.

Queen Pamunky entered the Assembly with great dignity, and with an air of majesty walked slowly up the long room. Her walk was so graceful, her gestures so courtly, that every one looked at her in admiration. Upon her head she wore a crown of black and white wampum. Her robe was made of deer skin and covered her from shoulders to feet, the edges of it being slit into fringes six inches deep. At her right hand walked an English interpreter, at her left her son, a youth of twenty.

When Queen Pamunky reached the table she stood still looking at the members coldly and gravely, and only at their urgent request did she sit down. Beside her, as they had entered the room, stood her son and interpreter on either hand.

When she was seated the chairman asked her how many men she would send to help them against the enemy Indians. All those present were quite sure that she understood English, but she would not speak to the chairman direct, and answered him through her interpreter, bidding him speak to her son.

The young Indian chieftain however also refused to reply. So again the Queen was urged to say how many men she could send.

For some minutes she sat still, as if in deep thought. Then in a shrill high voice full of passionate fervour, and trembling as if with tears, she spoke in her own tongue, and ever and anon amid the tragic torrent of sound the words "Tatapatamoi chepiack, Tatapatamoi chepiack" could be heard.

Few present understood her. But one of the members did, and shook his head sadly.

"What she says is too true, to our shame be it said," he sighed. "My father was general in that battle of which she speaks. Tatapatamoi was her husband, and he led a hundred men against our enemies, and was there slain with most of his company. And from that day to this no recompense has been given to her. Therefore she upbraids us, and cries, 'Tatapatamoi is dead.' "

When they heard the reason for the Indian Queen's anger many were filled with sympathy for her.

The chairman however was a crusty old fellow, and he was quite unmoved by the poor Queen's passion of grief and anger. Never a word did he say to comfort her distress, not a sign of sympathy did he give. He rudely brushed aside her vehement appeal, and repeated his question.

"What men will you give to help against the enemy Indians?"

With quivering nostrils, and flashing eyes, the Indian Queen drew herself up scornfully, she looked at him, then turned her face away, and sat mute.

Three times he repeated his question.

Then in a low disdainful voice, her head still turned away, she muttered in her own language "Six."

This would never do. The lumbering old chairman argued and persuaded, while the dusky Queen sat sullenly silent. At length she uttered one word as scornfully as the last. "Twelve," she said. Then rising, she walked proudly and gravely from the hall.

Thus did the blundering old fellow of a chairman, for the lack of a few kindly words, turn away the hearts of the Indians, and lose their help at a moment when it was sorely needed.

The new House had many other things to discuss besides the Indian wars, and the people, who had been kept out of their rights for so long, now made up for lost time. They passed laws with feverish haste. They restored manhood suffrage, did away with many class privileges, and in various ways instituted reforms. Afterwards these laws were known as Bacon's Laws.

But meanwhile Bacon was preparing a new surprise for every one.

One morning the town was agog with news. "Bacon has fled, Bacon has fled!" cried every one.

It was true. Bacon had grown tired of waiting for the commission which never came. So he was off to raise the country. A few days later he marched back again at the head of six hundred men.

At two o'clock one bright June day the sounds of drum and trumpet were heard mingled with the tramp of feet and the clatter of horses' hoofs; and General Bacon, as folk began to call him now, drew up his men not an arrow's flight from the State House.

The people of Jamestown rushed to the spot. Every window and balcony was crowded with eager excited people. Men, women and children jostled each other on the green, as Bacon, with a file of soldiers on either hand, marched to the State House.

The white-haired old Governor, shaking with anger, came out to meet the insolent young rebel. With trembling fingers he tore at the fine lace ruffles of his shirt, baring his breast.

"Here I am!" He cried. "Shoot me! 'Fore God 'tis a fair mark. Shoot me! Shoot me!" he repeated in a frenzy.

But Bacon answered peaceably enough. "No, may it please your honour," he said, "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 we will have it before we go."

But when the stern old Cavalier refused to listen to him, Bacon too lost his temper, and laying his hand on his sword, swore he would kill the Governor, Council, Assembly and all, rather than forego his commission. His men, too, grew impatient and filled the air with their shouts.

"We will have it, we will have it!" they cried, at the same time pointing their loaded guns at the windows of the State House.

Minute by minute the uproar increased, till at length one of the Burgesses, going to a window, waved his handkerchief ("a pacifeck handkercher" a quaint old record calls it) and shouted, "You shall have it, you shall have it."

So the tumult was quieted. A commission was drawn up making Bacon Commander-in-Chief of the army against the Indians, and a letter was written to the King praising him for what he had done against them. But the stern old Governor was still unbending, and not till next day was he browbeaten into signing both papers.

The young rebel had triumphed. But Berkeley was not yet done with him, for the same ship which carried the letter of the Burgesses to the King also carried a private letter from Berkeley in which he gave his own account of the business. "I have for above thirty years governed the most flourishing country the sun ever shone over," he wrote, "but am now encompassed with rebellion like waters."

And as soon as Bacon was safely away, and at grips once more with the Indians, the Governor again proclaimed him and his followers to be rebels and traitors.

Bacon had well-nigh crushed the Indian foe when this news was brought to him. He was cut to the quick by the injustice.

"I am vexed to the heart," he said, "for to think that while I am hunting Indian wolves, tigers, and foxes which daily destroy our harmless sheep and lambs, that I, and those with me, should be pursued with a full cry, as a more savage and no less ravenous beast."

So now in dangerous mood he marched back to Jamestown. Things were looking black for him, but his men were with him heart and soul. When one of them, a Scotsman named Drummond, was warned that this was rebellion he replied recklessly, "I am in over shoes, I will be in over boots."

His wife was even more bold. "This is dangerous work," said some one, "and England will have something to say to it."

Then Sarah Drummond picked up a twig, and snapping it in two, threw it down again. "I fear the power of England no more than that broken straw," she cried.

Bacon now issued a manifesto in reply to Berkeley's proclamation, declaring that he and his followers could not find in their hearts one single spot of rebellion or treason. "Let Truth be bold," he cried, "and let all the world know the real facts of this matter." He appealed to the King against Sir William, who had levied unjust taxes, who had failed to protect the people against the Indians, who had traded unjustly with them, and done much evil to his Majesty's true subjects.

So far there had only been bitter words between the old Governor and the young rebel, and Bacon had never drawn his sword save against the Indians. Now he turned it against the Governor, and, marching on Jamestown, burned it to the ground, and Berkeley, defeated, fled to Accomac.

Everywhere Bacon seemed successful, and from Jamestown he marched northward to settle affairs there also "after his own measures." But a grim and all-conquering captain had now taken up arms against this victorious rebel—Captain Death, whom even the greatest soldier must obey. And on October 1st, 1676, Bacon laid down his sword for ever. He had been the heart and soul of the rebellion, and with his death it collapsed swiftly and completely.

Bacon was now beyond the Governor's wrath, but he wreaked his vengeance on those who had followed him. For long months the rebels were hunted and hounded, and when caught they were hanged without mercy. The first to suffer was Colonel Thomas Hansford. He was a brave man and a gentleman, and all he asked was that he might be shot like a soldier, and not hanged like a dog. But the wrathful Governor would not listen to his appeal, and he was hanged. On the scaffold he spoke to those around, praying them to remember that he died a loyal subject of the King, and a lover of his country. He has been called the first martyr to American liberty.

Another young Major named 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."

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.

Drummond too was taken. He was indeed "in over boots" and fearless to the last. The Governor was overjoyed at his capture, and with mocking ceremony swept his hat from his head, and, bowing low, cried exultantly, "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."

"What your honour pleases," calmly replied Drummond. And so he died.

It seemed as if the Governor's vengeance would never be satisfied. But at length the House met, and petitioned him to spill no more blood. "For," said one of the members, "had we let him alone he would have hanged half the country."

News of his wild doings, too, were carried home, and reached even the King's ears. "The old fool," cried he, "has hanged more men in that naked country than I did for the murder of my father." So Berkeley was recalled.

At his going the whole colony rejoiced. Guns were fired and bonfires lit to celebrate the passing of the tyrant.

Berkeley did not live long after his downfall. He had hoped that when he saw the King, and explained to him his cause, that he would be again received into favour. But his hopes were vain. The King refused to see him, and he who had given up everything, even good name and fame, in his King's cause died broken-hearted, a few months later.