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Some Unpublished Facts Relating to Bacon’s Rebellion On the Eastern Shore of Virginia

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By general consent, the most important event in the history of the Colony of Virginia prior to the American Revolution was the rebellion led by Nathaniel Bacon, Jr., against Sir William Berkeley, the Royal Governor of the Colony. It was the first armed resistance offered by Americans to the constituted authorities of the mother country, and interest in the movement is still further enhanced by the fact that it occurred just one hundred years before the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

The ideas prevailing at that time among the English people were not very favorable to the heroic enterprise of the dauntless young rebel and his liberty-loving followers; yet the doctrine of the divine right of kings, so prevalent in the days of James the First, had received a rude shock in the execution of Charles the First, and in the iron rule of Cromwell and the Roundheads. Bacon's Rebellion occurred in Virginia at a time when the reaction against Puritanism was at its height, and when the withering invective and merciless ridicule heaped upon the Puritans by Samuel Butler in Hudibras was in the mouth of every cavalier in America as well as in England. The great principle had, however, been boldly proclaimed and successfully established that the English people would not again submit to the arbitrary and tyrannical rulers, and that the divine right to rule is inherent not in kings, but in the people.

Bacon's Rebellion was not an attempt to establish a new or independent form of government. It was an armed opposition to the policy of Sir William Berkeley, his Sacred Majesty's Governor and CaptainGeneral of Virginia, having for its object the redress of certain pressing grievances under which the people of the Colony were then suffering. The Indian massacres on the frontiers and the governor's persistent refusal to take measures to punish the savages fanned into the flame of rebellion the discontent felt by the colonists in consequence of the oppressive navigation laws, by which England had created for herself a monopoly of the trade in all the Anglo-American colonies. With these two causes of discontent removed, the Rebellion of 1676 would have found but few adherents in any section of Virginia. There was one part of the Colony, which by reason of its remote and isolated situation and its peculiar geographical conditions suffered but little annoyance from the navigation laws and was entirely free from Indian incursions and massacres. This was the Eastern Shore of Virginia, frequently called by the old chroniclers "The Kingdom of Accomack." The purpose of this paper is to show by extracts from the early records of Accomac county court the part played by the people of that county in Bacon's Rebellion.

Our Virginia historians, following the highly-colored contemporaneous account of the Rebellion contained in the famous "T. M." manuscript,1 have without exception misconceived and mis-stated the attitude of the Eastern Shore in this stirring episode of our colonial history. It is known that Sir William Berkeley, during the short period of the Rebellion, was twice driven from Jamestown, then the seat of government in the Colony, and forced to take shelter among his friends in Accomac, which he considered the last refuge of the loyal cause in Virginia. All the historians of Virginia agree in stating that Sir William Berkeley on arriving in Accomac, found all the people disaffected towards him except a few fellows of the baser sort, 'longshoremen and adventurers, whom a desire for plunder drew to follow the fortunes of the impetuous old governor; and even Mr. George Bancroft, evidently following our Virginia authorities, informs us in his monumental work that "Sir William Berkeley collected in Accomac a crowd of base and cowardly followers, allured by the passion for plundering, promising freedom to the servants and slaves of the insurgents if they would rally to his banner" (Vide Bancroft's Hist., Vol. I, p.465). An examination of the records of Accomac county court, covering the periods of Bacon's Rebellion, and the subsequent year will controvert the foregoing view and convince any unbiased mind that the people of Accomac received the Royal Governor with open arms, and hazarded their lives and fortunes for the success of his cause.

From these ancient records we learn that when the news of the Rebellion reached Accomac, steps were taken to increase the military forces of the county, and commissaries were commissioned and sent out to collect supplies for maintaining the governor's troops. The men engaged in these operations were among the best, wealthiest and most influential in the Colony, and the readiness with which the people responded to their demands shows how loyal the people of the Eastern Shore were to their governor, who, in their eyes at least, was more sinned against than sinning. With the exception of the orders for the raising of troops and the impressment of provisions, no mention is made of the Rebellion in the records that cover the period of hostilities. As Sir William Berkeley was present in Accomac the greater part of the time, he evidently took affairs into his own hands, and adopted such measures as he deemed best adapted to insure his own safety and the ultimate triumph of his fortunes. Hence we find that during the Rebellion the court records of Accomac are scanty. Of the proceedings of Sir William Berkeley and his council while on the Eastern Shore no record has been preserved, and it is not probable that any was made. As soon, however, as the Rebellion collapsed by reason of Bacon's untimely and mysterious death, and the civil courts resumed their duties, the old county records of Accomac teem with entries that fix the attitude of the Accomackians in the great struggle and attest the services rendered by them to the royal cause.

From a great number of similar items the following are extracted:

"At a court held for Accomac county July, 1677, it is ordered upon the peticon of John Sturges that a certificate be awarded him to the next assembly for forty-six pounds of Butter and forty-two pounds of Cheese, which was delivered for the countries service against the late Rebells, as appears by the attestation of Majr Jno West."

* * * * *

"Whereas Majr Edmund Bowman hath made it appeare to the court by ye attestation of Major Jno. West that he had killed and founde salt and caske for thirteen hundred and twelve pounds of Beefe. It is, therefore, ordered that this be a certificate thereof to the next assembly."

* * * * *

It is ordered upon the peticon of Majr Jno. West for the sume of twelve thousand two hundred and fifty pounds of tobo. and cask, for the public service against the late rebells, and he having made oath to the same in open court, certificate thereof is accordingly granted him to the next assembly."

* * * *

"Whereas, Mr. John Stratton hath made it appeare to this court by the oathe of Capn. Nath: Walker that hee the sd Walker did command a shallop belonging to the sd Stratton by the honorbie gover", order in his majesties service against the late rebells; which shallop was cast away in a storm in Warricks creek bay: It is, therefore, ordered that this be a certificate thereof to the next assembly."

* * * *

"These may certify that I, the subscriber, whom sic are impowered by the right honbie Sir William Berkeley Govr, and Capn. general of Virginia to procure and impresse such provisions as shall be needful for his present service.

"These may certify that I have killed from Morris Dennis one Barren cow for which I give this certificate.''

"JOHN STRATTON, Commissary."

At a court held and continued for Accomack county, September 14, 1677, upon the peticon of Majr Jne West in behalfe of himself and iforty-ifour men, more which were thirty-ffour daies under the command of the Governr Sir Wm. Berkeley in his Majties service to James Citty, and having made oath to the same in open court certificate thereof is accordingly granted to ye next Assembly."

* * * * *

"Ye humble peticon of Jno Cropper

"To ye Worfel court of Accomack county showeth that your peticone being commanded and empowered by CoIl. Southey Littleton, to impresse and provide Beefe for the countries use in qtr anno 1676, ye peticonr with his horse, &c, was employed and expended time to the number of fforty-two daies or there about which time trouble and service hath not bin got paid or any part thereof except two hides and offell he made use of Mr Richd Dayly ye peticonr doth pray ye worsbpe order for certificate to the Assembly to have satisfaction for sd time and trouble according to nature thereof, and he will pray, &c."

Many other similiar certificates were granted by the county court to prove the services rendered by Accomac soldiers in defence of Berkeley's cause under such distinguished leaders as Captain William Whittington, Captain Daniel Jenifer, Major John West, Major Edmund Bowman, Colonel Southey Littleton and Colonel Edmund Scarburgh, all of whom were leading men in Accomac and some of them among the most prominent men in the Colony.

Another entry in these old records, about the same time, reveals the fact that during the latter part of the year 1676 a hospital was established at the house of Henry Reade in the lower part of Accomac, where the sick and wounded from Berkeley's forces were received and carefully treated. After the Rebellion was ended, Sir William Berkeley, according to all our historians, left nothing undone to punish those who had taken sides with Bacon; and the following extract taken from the old county court records of Accomac, will show that he in punishing his enemies, he did not forget to reward his friends:

"By his Majesties Governe and Captain Generall of Virginia.

"Whereas, Capt. Daniel Jenifer of Accomac county of Virginia hath fully approved himself a good and loyall subject of his Most Sacred Majties Govr, being always ready to serve and obey me his MajLies Govr in suppressing the present Rebellion, and understanding the said Capt. Jenifer was added to the Commision for the peace for the -sd County, I doe appoint the sd Capt. Jenifer to be the next Court held for the sd County, admitted to the same place he was put in the sd Commission, he first taking the oathe of allegiance and the oathe of a justice of the peace."

"Given under my hand this ye 8th day of December, in the eighth and twentieth yeare of the raigne of our Sovereigne Lord King Charles the Second, Annoque Dom., 1676."


An entry made at the next term of the court shows that Captain Daniel Jenifer, in addition to his office ofjustice of the peace was still further rewarded by being appointed high sheriff of Accomac county by Sir William Berkeley, and as Jenifer was a Catholic, the governor directed that in assuming the duties of the offices to which he had appointed him, he should not be required to take the oath of supremacy, which was accordingly done. He was also, together with Col. Southey Littleton, of Berkeley's court martial, for trying persons for participation in the Rebellion. Vide Hening, Vol.11, p.545.

Jenifer married Miss Annie Toft, who was reputed to have been the wealthiest and prettiest woman then living on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. She owned an immense landed estate in the northeastern part of Accomac. They had a numerous family of children, among whom were three daughters named Arcadia, Annabella and Atalanta. Soon after the retirement and death of Sir William Berkeley, Captain Jenifer removed from Accomac to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where many of his descendants are said to be now living. He was the first of that name to come to America, and was the progenitor of Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, who was one of the delegates from Maryland to the convention that framed the Federal Constitution.

Berkeley's endorsement on the following petition shows that the Rebellion had not entirely transformed him into a brute.

To the Right Honorable Sir Wm. Berkeley, Knt., Gov' r & Capt. Gener'll of Virginia:

The humble peticon of lone Occahone, the widdow of Phillip Occahone, late of Accomack County, dec'd, Humbly Sheweth: That Phillip aforenamed marrying ye peticon' with a good and reasonable estate left by her former husband, of Watt's Island, in the aforesaid county, by name Walter Taylor, did in his lifetime wholly waste and conferred the same moreover and about, running himself farr into debt to the utter ruine of ye peticon and her poore childring.

Howsoe it is, may it please ye Honourbie the sd Phillip for his felonious and rebellious account having justly suffered death by the law, whereby what estate he should be possest withal at the committing the fact were forfeited to his Majestie, when in truth he were not at the time of committing the fact or any time sithence invested or possest wth any visible estate whatsoever, yet notwithstanding, ye poore peticon' is prosecuted and sued by the creditors of the sd Phillip to the ruine of herselfe and poore children.

"The premises considered, ye peticon' doth humbly pray and implore y' Honourbies favorable clemency in requiring and commanding all persons whatsoever to desist and forbeare to sue or molest ye pet' for any debt whatsoever contracted in the lifetime of the aforesaid Phillip Occahone, her late dec'd husband, and ye poore pet' shall as in duty bound ever pray.

The petition is recorded with the following endorsement:

The aforesaid petition is granted, and I doe hereby forbid all persons from suing or molesting the aforesaid lone Occahone in the prosecuting and recovery of any debt contracted during the lifetime of the sd Phillip Occahone, as they will answer the contrary.

"Dated this 11th day of January, 1676/7


"The Right Honourbie the Governr further declared at the signing hereof that the aforesaid Petr lone Occahone should freely enjoy all such estate as is in her present possession to her own proper use, which I can testify upon oath when thereunto required.

"Witness my hand the day and year aforesaid.


The foregoing petition contains the only mention to be found in the Accomac records of anyone being put to death for participation in Bacon's Rebellion, though all the Virginia Historians agree in saying that the brave old Carver, who was captured with Giles Bland, was executed somewhere on the Accoinac shore, and that Colonel Hansford, after his arrest, was carried to Accomac and hanged as a rebel and traitor.

The document which above all others fixes beyond a doubt the attitude of the Eastern Shore people in Bacon's Rebellion is the memorial addressed to Sir William Berkeley by the justices of the peace and other leading citizens of Accomac shortly after the cessation of hostilities, asking for certain favors he had promised them in consideration of their loyalty:

"Wee his Majesties Justices here underwritten, and others, the Inhabitants of Accomack County, in obedience to his most sacred Majesties command directing us to send over to them sealed all grievances and pressures, especially such as have been the grounds of the late troubles and disorders among us, being deeply sensible of the Late Rebellion hatched and acted on the Western Shoare by Nath. Bacon, dec'd, and complices, to our great prejudices, expenses and losse of many men and crops by watching and warding on all parts of the Shoare to hinder the Landing and invasion of the said Rebells on our coast, where we had received into our protection the bodies of the Right Honourble Sr. Wm. Berkeley and severall other good and Loyall subjects of his Majty, fled to our parts from the fury and rage of the said Bacon & Complices, doe

"First, hereby acknowledge that we nor any of us knew any reason for any such Rebellion, & some or all of us did protest against his actions as rebellions.

Secondly, We humbly desire his Majty to continue Sr Wm. Berkeley Goverr in Virginia as long as God shall spare him life.

"Thirdly, Whereas the Right Honourble Sr. Wm. Berkeley, upon his first coming to us and our readinesse to assist him to the hazard of our own lives and fortunes against the said Rebell Bacon & complices, did promise as well our county of Accomack as the rest of the Eastern Shoare in Virginia should bee free from all county tax for these twenty one years ensuing.

"Wee humbly therefor pray ye Honourbies to be a means the same may be confirmed first in Virginia and afterwards by his Majuce Royall grant.

"Fourthly, Whereas wee are deeply sensible of the vast charge this unhappy warr and Rebellion hath put the country to, and it may be expected to be defrayed out of the country: Wee desire wee may be excluded from all and every part of the same, wee being in no way the cause of it.

"Lastly, Whereas we have been informed that his Royall Majty hath or was about to give the country their Quit Rents for many yeares to come, wh: wee doubt this unhappy warr hath now broke off, we humbly desire it may still remaine good to us, as being in no way the cause or knowing of the same, to wh: wee subscribe our hands in open court, and pray for his Majtiee and ye Honourbie Governre health long to continue.


OBEDIENCE JOHNSON & many others."

The names attached to the foregoing memorial afford a sufficient guarantee for the truth of all the statements it contains. They are the names of the foremost men then living on the Eastern Shore. The limits assigned this paper will permit a brief mention of only two of them-John Wise, Esq., and Colonel Edmund Scarburgh.John Wise, the first of that name who came to Virginia, was the progenitor of an illustrious line of descendants, of whom the late Governor Henry A. Wise was one. He owned a vast landed estate, much of which he is said to have obtained from an Indian king for the consideration of two common blankets. He was a man of great ability, indomitable energy, dauntless courage, and strict integrity. His will, preserved in one of the old record books of the county court of Accoinac, is a curious and novel document, the greater portion of it being devoted to the disposition of his "immortal soul."The most unique and picturesque personage on the Eastern Shore at the time of Bacon's Rebellion was Colonel Edmund Scarhurgh. He was Speaker of the House of Burgesses, a member of the Governor's Council and Surveyor General of the Colony. His stout loyalty to the cause of Charles the First and the English Church had gotten him into trouble with the Virginia Colonial Government during the times of the Commonwealth, and Bennett who was Governor of Virginia at the time, disturbances which Scarburgh had caused among the adherents to the royal cause. Later on when Charles the Second came to the throne Colonel Scarburgh was reinstated in the position of Surveyor-General of the Colony, and made commander of his majesty's forces on the Eastern Shore. In 1663, shortly after the Eastern Shore had been divided into the two counties of Accomac and Northampton, Colonel Scarburgh by order of Sir William Berkeley and the House of Burgesser, made an expedition against the recalcitrant and rebellious Ouakers in the northern part of Accomac. His report of his proceedintss on that occassion is to be found in the oldest record book of Accomac county court, and is justly regarded as one of the most interesting and remarkable documents of our early Colonial history. He appears to have impressed his strong personality on his generation more than any other man of his day. In every part of the Eastern Shore traditions of his remarkable performances survive among Virginia, and from him have descended some of the most eminent men of the State.Strange to say, no trace of any tradition touching Bacon's Rebellion survives among the people of the Eastern Shore. It is not even known where Berkeley had his headquarters while sojourning there, though indications seem to point to the ancient village of Pungoteaque, which was then the seat of the county government. If; as Virginia historians tell us, the gallant and heroic Hansford paid the penalty of his devotion to the cause of liberty on the scaffold in Accomac, every tradition of the horrid deed has perished from the memory of living men. Onancock Academy, Virginia.