This day in history: Jamestown burns

The flames set 342 years ago still have an impact today

Flames erupt during the burning of Jamestown on this day, Sept. 19, in the year 1676. Jamestown burned during Bacon’s Rebellion, an armed revolt led by Nathaniel Bacon in opposition to the governor, Sir William Berkeley. 

The context of any historical event is important to understanding the reasons it occurred, and Bacon’s Rebellion is no exception. According to Dr. Sheri Shuck-Hall, a history professor at Christopher Newport University (CNU) specializing in American Indian History and the director of CNU’s Public History Center, Bacon’s Rebellion came about because of economic factors in Virginia during the second half of the 17th century.

The colony was in the midst of an economic depression. The reason: tobacco. The colony relied on tobacco as a cash crop, but prices had fallen, and the colony was afflicted with a drought in 1675. The colony’s population was growing—nearly 40,000 by 1670—and one in three colonists owned no land. 

Tensions between the colonists and Berkeley were made worse by disagreements over how the colony’s relations with American Indian tribes should be handled. According to Shuck-Hall, Berkeley “had the monopoly on trade with local American Indian tribes and he and his inner circle profited from it.”

After a conflict with the Doeg Indians on the Virginian frontier, Berkeley—who favored maintaining peaceful relations—faced rebellion from unruly settlers.

“The disenfranchised landless poor turned against Berkeley and his American Indian trading partners under the leadership of Bacon,” says Shuck-Hall over email.

During the ensuing rebellion, Bacon favored an overtly hostile and violent policy towards American Indian groups, even those that had previously been on friendly terms with the colonists.

On Sept. 19, 1676, Bacon’s rebels burned Jamestown to the ground, including Berkeley’s mansion. 

By October, Bacon died of dysentery, and the rebellion stuttered to a halt. It still had left a mark on the colony, though.

According to Dr. Shuck-Hall, one of the most important consequences of Bacon’s Rebellion was how it affected Virginia’s colonial legislature, the House of Burgesses. 

“The House of Burgesses increased their power, especially at the local level, and forced many of the remaining coastal tribes to sell their lands or disperse.”

While some may be inclined to portray Bacon as a revolutionary fighting for the landless poor, Shuck-Hall notes that he was a wealthy plantation owner who had connections with Berkeley, although he wasn’t part of the governor’s inner circle. Although Bacon believed poor whites should be given access to land, this came at great expense to others—namely the American Indians already living on that land. 

“Some have viewed Bacon as inciting a race war against American Indians, who had become the scapegoats to the economic downturns,” said Shuck-Hall.

“Many peaceful, allied tribes, including the Occaneechi, were slaughtered by Bacon’s men for no reason other than being ‘Indians’ on valuable land,” said Shuck-Hall. A royal investigation in 1677 suggested that Bacon and his men had aimed for the “utter extirpation of the Indians.”

Although Bacon’s Rebellion is not a happy chapter in Virginia’s history, it is a part of our history all the same. It had an impact on the power of the House of Burgesses and left a dark mark on Anglo-Native relations in Virginia. The effects of historic events persist into the present day. 


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