WHEN John Smith returned to England he left the colony without a leader. At once the Indians, who had been held in check by fear of Smith, began to rob and plunder the settlement, and at the same time famine and disease aided in the work of destruction.
Dogs, horses, and even rats and mice were in demand for food, and while at its worst the famine compelled the suffering colonists to feed upon the bodies of their own dead.
At the close of that terrible winter - known ever since as the "Starving Time" - barely sixty of the five hundred men whom Smith had left in the colony survived.
Bacon was at this time only twenty-eight years old. Tall and graceful in person, this young man was also brave and generous. He had sympathy with the plain people, over whom he exerted great influence, and when at length the Indians killed an overseer and favorite servant on one of his large plantations, he was willing to join with the people and be their leader against the common foe.
After trying in vain to get a commission from Governor Berkeley, Bacon put himself at the head of five hundred troops, and without a commission marched boldly against the Indians. These he defeated with very little loss.
In the meantime, with a force of his own soldiers, Berkeley followed after Bacon, whom he called a rebel and traitor. Before he could reach the young leader, however, Berkeley had to return to Jamestown to put down an uprising of the people over his actions (or inactions!)
He did not succeed in restoring quiet until he agreed to an election of a new assembly to which Bacon himself was chosen a delegate.
On Bacon's return from his attack upon the Indians he became the idol of the people. In their devotion to him and fear for his safety, thirty men armed with guns accompanied him on his sloop down the James River as he went to meet with the assembly at Jamestown. But this force was not large enough to prevent Berkeley's followers from capturing Bacon and taking him before the angry governor.
On the advice of a friend, Bacon agreed to apologize to the governor, with the understanding, as seems probable, that this apology would allow his to be the commissioned leader of the men. But the trouble between the two men was by no means settled.
That very night Bacon's friends warned him of a plot against his life. Under cover of darkness he took horse and found safe shelter among his followers. But he speedily returned to Jamestown at the head of five hundred troops, where he forced Berkeley to grant him a commission, and compelled the legislature to pass laws that were favorable to the interests of the people. Then hearing that the Indians were again beginning to burn and murder on the border, he marched against them.
While he was gone Berkeley called out the militia, with the intention of overpowering Bacon upon his return, but on learning the governor's purpose the troops refused to fight and went back to their homes.
Sick with the sense of failure, Governor Berkeley now sought a place of safety across Chesapeake Bay in Accomac County.
Bacon once more occupied Jamestown, but for a third time found it necessary to march against the Indians. While he was gone Berkeley, who had succeeded in raising a troop of one thousand men, came back and took possession of the capital.
Although Bacon's men were tired out with fighting the Indians, they promptly gathered at his call, and attacked Berkeley with such vigor that the poor governor was glad to escape again to his retreat in Accomac County.
When Bacon got control of Jamestown, then a mere village of some sixteen to eighteen houses, he burned it to prevent its falling into Berkeley's hands. The people's leader had been successful, and had risked his life and his fortune for the common rights. But the strain of the past four or five months in the malarial swamps broke down his health, and after a short illness, he died of fever at the home of a friend, in October, 1676. It is not known where he was buried. His friends were obliged to hide his body, because they feared that, according to the custom of the times, Berkeley might seize it and have it hanged.
With Bacon's death the rebellion lost its heart and soul. Berkeley brutally punished Bacon's friends, some twenty of whom he put to death. This displeased the English king, who summoned the governor to return to England, where he soon afterward died a broken-hearted man.
Bacon's Rebellion, as this uprising of Virginians in 1676 has been rightly called, seemed to fail, but it was not without large influence for good. It strengthened the liberty-loving spirit of the people, and prepared them for that greater movement in behalf of their rights that took place one hundred years later.
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