A Note About Bacon’s Rebellion

March 22, 2021 Off By Mira Pickus

Bacon’s Rebellion is a classic US History textbook term. We talked a lot about Nathaniel Bacon, the House of Burgesses, and Jamestown in my APUSH class. We talked about the Rebellion’s role in shifting the colonies’ source of labor from indentured servitude to slave labor and discussed the classist elements of the event — how tensions between wealthy tobacco farmers and smaller farmers boiled over into violence. Then later in the year, we used Bacon’s Rebellion as a piece of context for other working-class-white uprisings and movements. (Daniel Shay’s Rebellion, the Omaha Platform and the Populist movement are a few examples).

Bacon’s Rebellion, however, is also crucial context for the indigenous makeup of North Carolina. Both the Sappony and the Occaneechi came to live in NC in the late 1600s and early 1700s because they fled the violence that erupted during Bacon’s Rebellion (NCpedia Occaneechi, NCpedia Sappony). The classist tensions that led to Bacon’s Rebellion were fueled by a disagreement of whether or not to expand into neighboring indigenous territory; the poorer residents of the Jamestown colony could no longer make a living off their lands, and demanded that if Governor William Berkeley would not grant them the fertile land he reserved for his inner circle of wealthy farmers, then he must allow them to seize nearby indigenous land (Give Me Liberty). While Bacon’s Rebellion did underscore the socioeconomic differences among settlers, it also served as a turning point in colonial-indigenous relations. It was the catalyst that brought several of North Carolina’s current indigenous tribes to the region.

The Give Me Liberty APUSH textbook (used last year and currently) in DA’s APUSH classes does mention the indigenous peoples that were affected by the event:

“His [William Berkeley’s] refusal to allow white settlement in areas reserved for Indians angered many land-hungry colonists” (99).

“Settlers now demanded that the governor authorize the extermination or removal of the colony’s Indians to open up more land for whites” (100).

“Beginning with a series of Indian massacres, it quickly grew into a full fledged rebellion against Berkeley and his system of rule” (100).

[In the end] “Bacon promised freedom (including access to Indian lands) to all who joined his ranks.” (101).

But the textbook does not get specific about who the “Indians” were that fought, died, gained and then lost land during Rebellion and the months leading up to it. Many of these nameless “Indians” now have descendants who are recognized North Carolina Indigenous tribes. Conflict began in 1675 between the English and the Iroquoian Susquehannocks (Kruer). And then in 1676 both the Occaneechi and Saponi were drawn into the fray. The Sappony were not allied the Iroquoian Susquehannocks, and although they were supposed to receive the protection of the English, they were left to face attacks from both sides (NCpedia Sappony). After years of successful trade in the area, the Occaneechi were attacked by Nathaniel Bacon’s frontier militia (NCpedia Occaneechi).

In order to escape the violence, both the Occaneechi and the Sappony migrated south into North Carolina. The Occaneechi settled somewhere lots of DA students and teachers have likely been to — right by the Hillsborough Weaver Street along the Eno River. If you’ve been to the Hillsborough Riverwalk in the past few years, you’ve passed by the rebuilt “Occaneechi Town.” Archaeologists call this the Fredericks Site* and it was excavated in the 1980s (Trawick and Davis). Through archaeology findings and research, the Occaneechi and UNC archaeologists were able to rebuild (almost exactly) the settlement their ancestors had made years earlier.

The Fredericks site was only occupied for about a decade. Between the early 1700s and today, the Occaneechi moved many times — returning to southern Virginia and eventually settling in Alamance County, in a community known as “Little Texas.” The Occaneechi also moved around prior to Bacon’s Rebellion. The UNC archaeologists layout four historic phases when the Occaneechi were present in NC. The oldest, the Haw Phase dates back to 1000 AD (Trawick and Davis).

The piece I am working on right now will talk both about the Occaneechi’s and the Sappony’s stories. The Sappony are still active today in Person County, NC and the Occaneechi are still active in Alamance, NC. I just wanted to drawn attention to how Bacon’s Rebellion has shaped the modern makeup of NC in more ways that one might think on first glance of the Give Me Liberty Textbook. Moving forward, when DA teaches about Jamestown and Bacon’s Rebellion, the history department could also teach about the Occaneechi and the Sappony. Bacon’s Rebellion is not just a term to memorize for the AP exam, it’s an event that has real relevance to the diverse peoples of North Carolina.

*I believe this is correct, but I do get a little turned around in the archaeology terminology. I have provided the links where I am citing from, so you can check those out!