Bacon’s Rebellion, a paroxysm of political, religious, and racial violence in Virginia in 1676, exercises a strong hold on the imaginations of historians. Nathaniel Bacon, the aristocratic rebel for whom the conflict was named, has been at various junctures a patriot who was a century too soon in his rebellion or a misguided Indian fighter. His rebellion was an American Revolution that happened too early, or the event that prompted elites in Virginia to embrace slavery as the solution to their chronic labor problems. In other words, Bacon’s Rebellion sits at the center of a number of interpretive debates in the history of early North America, playing powerful explanatory roles in the origins of American systems of race, slavery, class, and the persecution of indigenous people. James D. Rice has bravely waded into this welter of interpretations with a cogent account of Bacon’s Rebellion. His new book is a highly readable synthesis, suitable for undergraduates, that places indigenous people at the center of the story.
Although Nathaniel Bacon and Virginia governor William Berkeley are important, Rice begins his book with a complicated cast of characters: Doegs, Susquehannocks, Occaneechees, coastal Algonkian people such as the Pamunkeys, frontier-swelling Virginia planters, [End Page 499] the Roman Catholic Calvert family of Maryland (and its Protestant detractors), and New York governor Edmund Andros. Far from being a conflict between two very different personalities, Bacon’s Rebellion encompassed the frustrations of Native people who had to accommodate both European and other Native newcomers, the vagaries of the tobacco market, what settlers perceived to be a land shortage, and the internal religious conflicts among European settlers. Rice’s context for the coming of Bacon and the rebellion that (perhaps erroneously) bears his name exposes the complex causes of the rebellion.
Rice also engages recent work on Indian slavery to highlight colonial violence against Native people. Bacon, wanting access to lands and supplies of fur controlled by Native people beyond the Virginia tidewater, first convinced the Occaneechees to attack a new Susquehannock town. In a subsequent tussle over who would control the booty of furs and skins, Bacon and his men slaughtered over one-hundred Occaneechees and burned their town to the ground. They carried away “some Few woemen and children prisoners which they dispose of at their pleasure,” presumably selling them as slaves (p. 52). Rice carefully draws attention to this horrifying act of violence against Natives (and many others). Often, studies of Bacon’s Rebellion pass over these events quickly in favor of detailed descriptions of the burning of Jamestown (for example); Rice shows that violence against Native people was central to the rebellion.
Bacon’s Rebellion, Rice notes, did not end with Bacon’s grisly death from typhus. Rice pushes the story through the Glorious Revolution and into the early eighteenth century, showing how Anglo-Indian violence and religious conflict among English settlers continued to fuel paranoia and conspiracy theories. In the end, Rice argues, “the Baconites won the battle over how best to deal with Native Americans” (p. 214). Although Bacon died in 1676, the policy of elimination he represented did not die with him. “Bacon’s domineering, uncompromising, and indiscriminate approach to Indian affairs . . . became Virginia’s default mode” (p. 214). [End Page 500]
While experts in the history of seventeenth-century North America and in Native American history will find few surprises in this trim little volume, it is ideal for an undergraduate classroom. The narrative arc is strongly drawn and richly contextualized, and the book’s afterword is an approachable meditation on the delights and difficulties of the historian’s craft. Although historians might find the sparse scholarly documentation in the book occasionally frustrating, this feature also renders a controversial moment in American history approachable.
REBECCA ANNE GOETZ is an associate professor of history at New York University. She is the author of The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race (2012) and...