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This Day in Labor History: October 26, 1676

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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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