Virginia’s shift from white indentured servants to African slaves as the main plantation labor force was accelerated by one of the most dramatic confrontations of this era, Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676. Governor William Berkeley had for thirty years run a corrupt regime in alliance with an inner circle of the colony’s wealthiest tobacco planters. He rewarded his followers with land grants and lucrative offices. At first, Virginia’s tobacco boom had benefited not only planters but also smaller farmers, some of them former servants who managed to acquire farms. But as tobacco farming spread inland, planters connected with the governor engrossed the best lands, leaving freed servants (a growing population, since Virginia’s death rate was finally falling) with no options but to work as tenants or to move to the frontier. At the same time, heavy taxes on tobacco and falling prices because of overproduction reduced the prospects of small farmers. By the 1670s, poverty among whites had reached levels reminiscent of England. In addition, the right to vote, previously enjoyed by all adult men, was confined to landowners in 1670. Governor Berkeley maintained peaceful relations with Virginia’s remaining native population His refusal to allow white settlement in areas reserved for Indians angered many land-hungry colonists.
As early as 1661, a Virginia indentured servant was accused of planning an uprising among those “who would be for liberty and free from bondage.” Fifteen years later, long-simmering social tensions coupled with widespread resentment against the injustices of the Berkeley regime erupted in Bacon’s Rebellion. The spark was a minor confrontation between Indians and colonists on Virginia’s western frontier. Settlers now demanded that the governor authorize the extermination or removal of the colony’s Indians, to open more land for whites. Fearing all-out warfare and continuing to profit from the trade with Indians in deerskins, Berkeley refused. An uprising followed that soon careened out of control. Beginning with a series of Indian massacres, it quickly grew into a full-fledged rebellion against Berkeley and his system of rule.
Sir William Berkeley, governor of colonial Virginia, 1641-1652 and 1660-1677, in a portrait by Sir Peter Lely. Berkeley’s authoritarian rule helped to spark Bacon’s Rebellion.
To some extent, Bacon’s Rebellion was a conflict within the Virginia elite. The leader, Nathaniel Bacon, a wealthy and ambitious planter who had arrived in Virginia in 1673, disdained Berkeley’s coterie as men of “mean education and employments.” His backers included men of wealth outside the governor’s circle of cronies. But Bacon’s call for the removal of all Indians from the colony, a reduction of taxes at a time of economic recession, and an end to rule by “grandees” rapidly gained support from small farmers, landless men, indentured servants, and even some Africans. The bulk of his army consisted of discontented men who had recently been servants.