Home / General / This Day in Labor History: October 26, 1676

This Day in Labor History: October 26, 1676


On this date in 1676, Nathaniel Bacon, the leader of the movement known as Bacon’s Rebellion, died of dysentery. This effectively ended the rebellion, an event that helped entrench slavery as the labor system of the American South.

The first African slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619, but through the 1640s, it’s unclear whether they were held in what would become chattel slavery. There is evidence of slaves being freed and becoming landowners. In any case, African slaves were a small part of the early Virginia labor force. This wasn’t because tobacco planters didn’t want to buy slaves. Rather, they couldn’t afford them. Tobacco was a far less valuable product than sugar and thus even the richest Virginia planters were barely middling compared to the sugar barons of the Caribbean who could buy slaves and be so wealthy as to not care whether they lived or died.

But there were other labor options for the planters. Thousands of poor English, both men and women, were willing to become indentured servants in Virginia. Conditions in England in the early and mid 17th century were not good. Food riots were common. Work was scarce. Political strife, including the Puritan Revolution, did not help. Virginia offered these people hope. If you signed a contract for 5-7 years, you would get land of your own at the end of it. But that doesn’t mean things in Virginia were great. Mass death defined the Chesapeake colonies in the 17th century. People died of malaria, dysentery and other diseases at astronomical rates. Essentially, these were cold weather people moving to a subtropical swamp while wearing wool clothing, not understanding how to access clean water, and without immunity to mosquito-borne illness. People quickly realized what was happening and would time their arrival to Virginia in November and December, so they could develop as much immunity as possible before the pestilence of late summer and early fall would wipe most of them out.

Even if they did survive, and they usually didn’t, they faced other problems. You might indenture yourself to a quality man, but you might not. Your status as an English person granted you some rights, but enforcing those rights on the remote plantations was nearly impossible. Perhaps the worst offenses came with men taking advantage of their female servants. Most contracts for women included a clause where pregnancy would result in additional time on your contract. Masters sometimes raped their female servants, got them pregnant, and thus the woman would have to stay there longer.

If these indentured servants did survive long enough to get their own land, they had limited options. The fertile bottomland along the rivers was already purchased by the early plantation owners. That left two choices. You could buy land farther inland, but that meant you had to pay for the transportation costs to get your tobacco to the ships that docked at the big plantations, and had to pay the big owners for the privilege of using his dock. Or you could move farther west. But out there were Indians less than thrilled to see continued English expansion into their lands.

By 1676, the farmers who had chosen to move west were demanding that the leaders of Virginia raise a military expedition to force the Indians out. But the government in Jamestown, led by Governor William Berkeley thought these people, most of whom were former indentured servants, were a bunch of yokels and ignored them.

Nathaniel Bacon was a man who could straddle the divide between the rich and poor. Bacon was a newcomer to the colony and bought land in the west, but he was also well-heeled. His wife was friends with Berkeley’s wife. Bacon brought an impressive 1800 pounds of capital with him. Berkeley nominated him to the colonial council immediately. Yet Bacon was also sympathetic to the problems of his poorer neighbors. Moreover, he wanted to kill some Indians. Berkeley opposed this, wanting the friendship of Indians and worried about these poor people out there causing trouble.

In truth, there’s little positive to say about Bacon’s Rebellion. They murdered a bunch of Indians, captured Jamestown, murdered some more Indians, and then burned Jamestown to the ground. Then Bacon, like most everyone else, died of a horrible disease.

The real importance of the revolt is not in its accomplishments, such as they were. Its that, according to Edmund Morgan’s brilliant American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, it turned the tide away from indentured white labor who had the inconvenience of eventually becoming free and causing problems toward permanently enslaved African labor. There were several structural factors that contributed to this, including improving conditions in England, knowledge of the horrible treatment of indentured servants in Virginia, and lower prices for African slaves. And while there’s no evidence of a meeting or something where Virginia landowners made this decision, after 1676, the number of African slaves increased rapidly with numbers of white indentured laborers falling equally dramatically.

Moreover, Virginia increased the institutionalization of permanent slavery. Some of the groundwork had already been laid. In 1662, Virginia declared the status of slave children depended on their mothers, allowing white men to rape slaves and then own their own children. In 1667, it ruled that baptism did not free a slave and in 1669, decided that death of a slave by a master was not a felony. By 1700, at least half the labor force in Virginia was enslaved.

As the 18th century began, new laws were passed to suppress runaways with maximum brutality including dismembering and murder and for the state compensation to a master if a slave was killed while being hunted down. In 1691, Virginia cracked down on miscegenation, reacting against a number of mixed-race marriages. To use their words they acted “for prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue which hereafter may encrease in this dominion, as well by negroes, mulattoes, and Indians intermarrying with English, or other white women, as by their unlawfull accompanying with one another.” Free white women who had an illegitimate child by a black person was fined or forced to five years of forced labor while the child, although technically free, had to serve the first 30 years of its life as indentured labor. This move to an explicitly race-based labor system was a strategy by 18th century Virgina elites who found it convenient to build white solidarity against blacks as a way to overcome the serious class divisions that had led to Bacon’s Rebellion. The creation of despised black labor meant the rising in social status of even the poorest whites, creating an increasingly comfortable political stability for the colony’s wealthy leaders that continued until the American Revolution.

So while Bacon’s Rebellion is only something of a labor incident, its impact upon American labor and racial history is enormous.

Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom goes into all of this in much more detail and I highly recommend it.

Previous editions of this series have included the Bisbee Deportation on 1917 and the Pittston coal strike of 1989.

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  • Mmmmm. Bacon….

  • Language cleanup!

    it’s impact


    But that doesn’t mean things in Virginia was great.

    It’s out of love. Feel free to delete this comment, and thanks for the post on something I didn’t know much about.

  • wengler

    Funny, I don’t remember learning about any of this in my mandated Marxist leftwing union-loving public school history class.

    We were taught that there was slavery and it was bad, but then Lincoln died for our sins so no more complaining.

  • rea

    Jeez, we could have avoided African slavery in this country if only we’d killed more Indians?

    • Charlie

      No, this is where Erik is oversimplifying Morgan’s thesis. Morgan argues that part of the shift to chattel slavery is precisely because Virginia elites realize the intense hatred of the Indian other is a powerful cohesive force for whites. Like a lot of books that appear on PhD students’ oral exam reading lists, the subtlety and complexity of the original argument often gets a little buried.

      Also, it’s worth saying that while Morgan offers a powerful, broad-stroke interpretation that’s well-suited for a undergrad lecture–I’m an Early Americanist and I do use this basic outline of Morgan’s thesis of Bacon’s Rebellion, though I do revise it quite a bit. American Slavery, American Freedom is over thirty years old and it has been significantly undermined and elaborated upon by later scholarship, particularly by Russell Menard, Kathleen Brown, April Lee Hatfield, Lorena Walsh, and most recently John Coombs in the July issue of the WMQ. It is still quite a hot topic of debate. I also know of two projects currently in progress that argue that Bacon’s Rebellion is actually a more crucial turning point for Indian slavery.

      This doesn’t mean Morgan’s been discredited–I still think his central point about the deep origins of the American paradox of slavery and freedom is hard to argue with, and of course, few studies are so powerful and important that they could still be topic of a high-profile historiographical debate thirty-six years after their first run. So yeah, general readers, go ahead and read the book. Just don’t believe it’s the last word.

      • I’m giving a talk this spring at a Research 1 university that will remain unnamed until I sign the contract about blogging and history and this comment elucidates a point I want to make. Is this a historiographical essay or is it a blog post? What is my role here–to talk about 10 different historians with different points of view on a very specific issue or to be a popularizer of American history, taking the very best of the literature and crafting a narrative that might have value to people? Maybe I am oversimplifying Morgan’s thesis. In fact, no maybe about it, I totally am. But I’m also not a colonialist. Morgan’s story is compelling and is still respected among scholars. American Slavery, American Freedom is still the most important book on this issue, despite its age. It’s the one book I’ve read on the matter. Am I supposed to ignore colonial history entirely in this series because I am not an expert on the historiography? Or should I take what is an old and revered book and craft a narrative out of that which is both based in reality and that is comprehensible and useful for a broader audience? The idea that a blog post should function as historiography gets at a major problem that historians have in discussing their own work with a broader public.

        • Charlie

          Oh, I agree, Erik, about your general point that synthesis and engaging popular audiences is important. But I’m suggesting here that you might not want to rely too heavily on scholarship that came out in the era of discos and bell-bottoms. I hope I made it clear that I think Morgan’s book is correct, in broad strokes, to trace some of the roots of the paradox of slavery and freedom in revolutionary American society to a complex process in the 17th century Chesapeake that involved a cast of servants, freemen, Indians, enslaved Africans, and landed elites.

          However, when it comes to Bacon’s Rebellion, there is a pretty serious question of causation here. I would say that the historical consensus has clearly shifted away from Morgan, as most early Americanists would now agree that Bacon’s Rebellion did NOT have a pivotal effect on the plantation revolution in the Chesapeake. (The question of what DID cause the shift to chattel slavery is really the main action of the debate.) That’s not a minor correction, it’s a revision to the interpretation you lay out above.

          I’m not claiming you have to be up on every last detail of the historiographical debate on every topic you ever talk about, my god, that’s a horrible standard to hold every historian to, especially when we are straying far from our fields. I certainly DON’T think that you should get into such hedging detail for just a blog post–it was a fine post, and to your credit, you were pretty clear that Bacon’s Rebellion was at least part of a larger process. I don’t think I’d do nearly as good a job discussing 20th century labor history. Still, if I ever braved writing a blog post on 20th century labor history, I think I’d really appreciate a little nitpicky commentary from actual specialists–isn’t insisting on specifics an unwritten tenet of our discipline?

          But now that you mention that you are going to be discussing this topic at an R1, I think you’ll only look more impressive for being up-to-date on something so far from your field. You can get up to speed pretty quickly with the last WMQ on JSTOR, btw, there was a whole forum on Virginia. Also, if you want to talk about the intersection of war, class conflict, and racial animosity in early America I suspect you might find a lot to like in Michael McDonnell’s Politics of War (2007) and in Peter Silver’s Our Savage Neighbors (2008).

          • But I think the question, as an academic whose department will probably consider my internet writing on some level for tenure depending on the individual but in the end not really, is why would I bother getting up to date on colonial historiography? What possible incentive do I have for this? This isn’t being snarky, it gets at the core question of the relationship between writing on the internet and academia. I don’t doubt that you are right on the merits, but my last exposure to colonial historiography was my first year of my Ph.D. program. So the options are a) undermine my research by getting to know the latest in historiography on the periods outside of my own so I can write a couple of blog posts or b) going with what I’ve got, which is highly respected historiography and some of the most well-known books in the various field or c) be an extreme specialist who only talks about their narrow area of research. It seems that b is the only possible answer for the individual who is both committed to being a public intellectual on the internet but knows that they also need to get their research published.

          • Charlie

            Oh misread that, I see you’re only talking about this general audience/specialist issue, my bad. Still, even then, I think you might want to talk about the issue of having a blog that has a pretty large academic readership. I’ve certainly seen some rather esoteric debates break out in the comments here before. Your commenters disagree with you all the time; isn’t it a good thing for someone with relevant expertise to push you to refine your points in comments, ESPECIALLY when it’s someone in the same profession? Isn’t the detailed, often wonky discussion and debate what makes blogs fun? Also, I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about just plain general readers opining on history scholarship on blogs. Your dear friend Matt Yglesias has a habit of skimming history books and making some rather pedestrian commentary on them. This personally drives me batty and I really can’t comment on those posts, for the same reason I try not to get to incensed at lazy statements in undergrad papers. I’d much rather engage with someone with a lot of broad expertise like you, even if you’re venturing out of your comfort zone.

            • Charlie

              In other words, can’t you just do b) and then read the comments?

              • Sure, but what should I do with those comments? Were I to have the time, I’d love to catch up on the historiography since I was taking classes. But that’s not the reality of the historical profession. It’s not that you are wrong or misguided in your points. It’s just that I have to exist in world where there’s no benefit for me expanding my historiography beyond what I already know unless it relates to my research. All I can say to your specific points about the historiography is that you are probably right and to defend my use of Morgan even though it is almost 40 years old because it is still the gold standard that people feel the need to debunk.

                • Charlie

                  So, what, you just want to publish posts about History by An Actual History Professor, but then if anyone else who also happens to be a history professor points out that you’re wrong or that there’s more to the topic, you just want a license to ignore them? If you’re interested enough in a topic to write a post on it, I don’t think it’s too strange to suggest that you might want to check out a couple recent articles or read some relevant book reviews on the topic.

                • You seem to be both massively missing my point and taking it personally. A blog post is not a scholarly article. There’s zero incentive to my career, either as a blogger or as a history professor, to put that kind of time and effort into researching a post. If I wrote a post with no relevant scholarly information, that would be a huge problem. Instead, I wrote it with the most respected book in the field. You might be right that this is a problem. That gets at issues within the field that are worth discussing. And I appreciate your mentioning of other historians who have challenged Morgan. But to bring all this up in the post itself would make it incredibly boring because no one in the general public cares at all about historiography. So I think the key points if we want to continue this discussion are a) you haven’t told me a good reason to do this other than that I should as a historian and b) is it a problem in the historical profession that we are not rewarded for alternative ways of disseminating historical knowledge, to the point that there is massive disincentive for doing the kind of thing you are asking me to do.

                  Either way, I don’t see why you are getting upset about it.

                • Charlie

                  Hey, sorry if this comes out of order (darn nesting threads) but I should say that I’m certainly not upset or taking it personally, if there was any vibe to my last post, it was merely sarcastic.

                  But you also raise some important questions. So in answer to a), what’s the reason: I’m not just saying (pinched voice, pushes glasses up to bridge of nose): “Loomis totally neglects to mention the subtle shift in Chesapeake tobacco prices in the 1660s!” I’m saying that the second sentence of your post, the thesis statement (“an event that helped entrench slavery”) is not correct. That’s not small stuff. When you telling your readers x event matters for y reasons (which would be the implication of a “This Date in Z History” no?), don’t you want to be right?

                  There are debates about causality and the significance of events in this in this blog and most blogs every day. This just happens to be about the 17th century. I’m not holding you to some impossibly over-scholarly standard by opining in your comments, I’m just doing the same thing lots of commenters do every day, bring in my own expertise to debate.

                  As for question b) on the “massive disincentive,” I think you’re exaggerating. If your ONLY source for posting on a topic is a single older book that you last read in coursework, it’s hardly too arduous to suggest you might want to cross-check a more recent synthesis as well. I’m pretty sure Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone or Taylor’s American Colonies mention that the thesis of Bacon’s Rebellion as a fulcrum of change is problematic. We’re talking about the same amount of scholarly rigor I would put into an undergrad lecture.

                  And if someone brings up a further complication in comments, or suggests further reading, shouldn’t that be encouraged? You ask “what should I do with those comments,” and I don’t think you need to do anything. I should ask you, what should your readers do with your posts on history?

                  Really that’s the crux of the issue here, one of my central joys in teaching history, is to demonstrating that our perspectives are always changing. Perhaps someone who scrolls down here might just be that weird non-historian who appreciates seeing that historians disagree and indeed keep seeing rather old events in new lights.

  • mpowell

    That sounds cartoonishly awful. Good grief.

  • xpara

    Interesting read, particularly coupling the European indentured servants lack of immunity to tidewater disease and the shift to slave labor.

    Should the phrase “As the 17th century began” read “as the 18th century began?”

    • Goddamn it. I would dock my students for doing that. Or at least note it with a big mark.

    • Also, the real connections between tropical disease and race-based labor took place in South Carolina, where the rice and indigo planters got the hell out of the lowcountry and left it to black labor with as few whites as possible. In Virginia, it’s more incidental.

  • Jim Lynch

    There’s an excellent reason why the nuts who currently run the GOP first drew a bead on school boards across the nation, a mere 50 years ago.

    Reading (much less contemplating) historical events can be downright subversive, depending on the story teller.

    • Hogan

      I have a friend whose theory is that right after Sputnik we put a lot of money into education. Then the sixties happened. Conservatives have vowed never to let that happen again.

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  • Woodrowfan

    interesting. I will have to go check out Morgan’s book….

  • Quercus

    I thought I read (probably in an even shorter and more simplified way) that the high death rates made indentured servants economically preferable to slaves. Slaves cost more initially, but obviously were able to be used for a longer period of time. But if they’re mostly all going to die of malaria/dysentery/red death anyway, there’s no point in spending the extra money on long-term slaves if short-term indentured servants came cheaper initially.

    • Yes. Indentured servants were much cheaper to replace. In the Caribbean though, where sugar money flowed like water, the expense of replacing slaves was nothing more than a minor irritation.

    • xpara

      There was a belief, borne out by results, that West Africans who had survived to their teens and beyond were somehow (it was not then understood why) immune to tropical and subtropical diseases that Europeans had never developed immunity to. Conversely, the Indians, originally enslaved in Cuba, for instance, while having immunity to local diseases that killed Europeans, were all but wiped out by imported European diseases such as smallpox.

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