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Road Trip – Bacon’s Castle: Precursor to Revolution

Published on November 18, 2013 by

Massachusetts has stolen the spotlight in American history.  From the birth of a nation to the American Revolution, it seems all you ever hear about is Pilgrims and Paul Revere.  It’s easy to forget, especially around Thanksgiving, that everything Massachusetts claims, Virginia had already done.  Plymouth Rock and the founding of the Plymouth Colony was 13 years AFTER the founding of Jamestown, and the American Revolution has already been started 100 years (almost to the day) in what was then the Colony of Virginia.  Let’s focus on this one for now.  But first, a quick cast of characters.

Sir William Berkeley

Sir William Berkeley

Name: Sir William Berkeley
Occupation: Governor of Virginia from 1641 – 1652 and again from 1660 – 1677
Hobbies: Writing plays for His Majesty Charles I, experimenting with new plants and crops to get away from just tobacco in the colony
Likes: Native American’s and fur trading ($$! Er… I mean ££!), raising taxes to build forts, His Majesty Charles I (he’s so awesome!)

Nathaniel Bacon

Nathaniel Bacon

Name: Nathaniel Bacon
Occupation: Planter, Member of Governor’s Council
Hobbies: I just like hanging out with my wife, even though her father disowned us and I sold some land fraudulently and had to move to Virginia
Likes: Shooting Indians, defying authority

As you might have guessed, there was a little bit of animosity between bacon and Berkeley, despite the fact that they were probably cousins.  In 1674 Bacon defied Governor Berkeley by attacking a Susquehannock village and killing its chiefs, supposedly in retaliation for attacks by the tribe which in turn may have been caused by the colonists refusing to pay for goods… I think the only safe thing to say is that there was tension between the colonists and the natives.

Bacon and Berkeley had different ideas on how to defend against the Native Americans.  Berkeley recommended, and was poised to pass a ruling, that all outlying colonial holdings should build fortifications and defend against possible raids.  Bacon thought that this was just another excuse to raise already high taxes, and wanted instead to kill all the natives.  Bacon sought a military commission to do so, and Berkeley refused.  Bacon again defied Berkeley and gathered up a force of 400-500 men to attack the nearby Doeg and Pamunkey tribes who had committed the horrible crime of being Native American and having nothing at all to do with any of this.  Berkeley expelled Bacon from the council, held re-elections for the House of Burgesses to exclude the lot of rabble-rousers,  and that’s where the fun begins.

Bacon takes his posse of 400 – 500 armed men to the capitol of Jamestown in June of 1676, is promptly arrested and gets on bended knee and apologizes for his misdeeds in writing.  Berkeley forgives him and welcomes him back into the council, until someone suggests that he appoint Bacon General and allow him to finish off the remaining natives.  Berkeley is less than impressed and expels Bacon from the council… again.

Go ahead, punk.  Make my day.

Go ahead, punk. Make my day.

Later that month Bacon returns to Jamestown with his posse, orders them to take aim at Berkeley, and demands he be commissioned so that he can go out and resume his attacks.  In a fit of drama, Berkeley bears his chest to Bacon and tells him to shoot; ‘cause ain’t no way he’s getting that commission.  Bacon thinks for a moment and has his men switch aim to the House of Burgesses members.  Bacon gets his commission, and heads out to find some Indians to kill.

A month later, with no guns pointed at anyone, Berkeley reverses his decision and declares Bacon a rebel again.  We’re now into July of 1676, and Bacon issues a Declaration of the People of Virginia enumerating 8 grievances against the Governor and British rule, including excessive taxation… all of this almost 100 years to the day before the signing of another famous declaration.  A couple months later Bacon returns to Jamestown and burns the city to the ground.  This all could have continued, and the course of American history drastically changed, except that in October of 1676 Bacon pulled the old “Oregon Trail Maneuver” and died of dysentery.  Without his leadership the Bacon’s Rebellion fell apart.

Nice house, sure... castle, though?

Nice house, sure… castle, though?

Somewhere between his burning of Jamestown and his not-so-pleasant departure from this world, Bacon’s men happened upon the oldest brick building in Virginia, the home of House of Burgesses member Major Arthur Allen II.  The men quickly seized the property and used it as HQ for their raids in Surry County.

7 bottles of wine on the floor, 7 bottles of wine...

7 bottles of wine on the floor, 7 bottles of wine…

The occupants also availed themselves of several bottles of wine of local vintage that are still displayed in the basement of the site today.  In December of 1676 the crew of the vessel Young Prince seized an unknown fort that is thought to be what is now known as Bacon’s Castle.

Bacon's Castle from Behind

Contrary to popular belief, and the name, Bacon never lived in Bacon’s Castle.  As a matter of fact, there’s nothing to suggest that he ever even set foot on the property, as he was away fighting in Gloucester County.  It was not until sometime much later (possibly 1769) that the site was referred to as Bacon’s Castle, but the name has stuck.

Inside the slave quarters you can see the Archer family's mark.

Inside the slave quarters you can see the Archer family’s mark.

This reflection of the sunset gives some idea of what the site might have looked like during the rebellion, but probably not.

This reflection of the sunset gives some idea of what the site might have looked like during the rebellion, but probably not.

 

Preservation Virginia obtained and restored the property in the 1970s and currently run tours.  The house is one of only three surviving “high-style” houses in the Western Hemisphere, and the only one in the United States.

Three Chimneys

 

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Of particular note are the triple-stacked chimneys, the Flemish gables, and the historic graffiti from the 1800s that can still be seen inside.

Bacon's Castle at Night

Bacon’s Castle at Night

Special thanks to Preservation Virginia for allowing me access to this history site!  You can find them (and more information) at http://preservationvirginia.org/.  Donations help fund the preservation of historic sites likes Bacon’s Castle, and by texting the word “PLACES” to 25383 on your mobile phone you can quickly and easily donate $10 to this awesome group!

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