South Carolina – Bacon’s Rebellion

Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion is the first use of force in what was to become the United States to thwart the policies of the legally established government.

The governor, William Berkeley, had become somewhat rigid with age and longevity in office. In 1676, the House of Burgess, responding to demands from Bacon, proposed reforms that would limit Berkeley’s power and restore some rights to landless men. Bacon stormed the sitting assembly with 500 armed men and demanded a military commission. His men then attacked local Indians, before returning to burn Jamestown. The rebellion collapsed when Bacon died and England sent Berkeley reinforcements.

The revolt has been ensconced in popular history as the first battle between freedom loving poor folk and the tyranny of an unelected government, even though the dispute lay over the rights of native Americans to land they had cleared and developed, which the government sought to protect. Some even think much of it was motivated by family feuds between Berkeley and his wife’s family, the Culpepers, who were related to Bacon.

The psychology of fear in Virginia was closer to the reaction of New Englanders to attacks by Indians encouraged by England’s enemies in the French and Indian Wars, which coincided with the Salem witch hysteria in 1692, than it was with the reactions of men allied with the losing side in the English civil war who supported Humphry Walrond in Barbados in 1650 because they felt mistreated.

The difficulties of early frontier life were real. Richard Thompson migrated to Maryland in the 1630’s on a ship that had stopped en route at Barbados. In 1637, he returned home to find his wife, children and servants killed. During the English civil war he remarried and moved to the Virginia area between the Potomac and Rappahannock, where he died in 1649 when his children were still toddlers.

In 1662 his son Richard came of age and named Thomas Willoughby his legal guardian. He had been granted land south of the James near Norfolk and married Willoughby’s daughter, Sarah. Willoughby’s grandfather, Thomas, had migrated to Virginia and acquired land through his connections with Percival Willoughby, an investor in the Virginia Company.

The Willoughby family entered the English peerage with Christopher, who was knighted by Henry VIII for military action at Tournai in 1513. His oldest son, William, established the Erseby line, his second son, Christopher, began the Parhams, and his youngest of five boys, Thomas, served as Chief Justice and married an heiress. Their son Robert married Dorothy Willoughby; their grandson, the Percival, married Francis Willoughby of the Eresby branch.

Francis Willoughby of Barbados was descended through the Parhams. Jorge H. Castelli thinks the immigrant Thomas may have been the fifth son of Francis’ great-grandfather Charles.

The Willoughbys not only intermarried, but maintained other face-to-face contacts. Thomas, the husband of Sarah Thompson, was sent to London for his education at the Merchant Taylors School founded by one of the livery companies in London. In 1655, Francis Emperor wrote to the same Thomas Willoughby in Barbados for help in recruiting a Puritan minister.

Emperor had left Barbados in 1650, probably when the royalists, led by Humphrey Walrond, were threatening dissidents, and moved to the Norfolk area which, April Hatfield says, had become a magnet for emigrants from the island. The local economy was tied to export trade, supplying naval stores and dried meat provisions. Settlers from England were more likely to move north of the James where tobacco was grown.

Men like Emperor continued to trade with relatives in Barbados, and provided an example for islanders who needed more land than was available there. In 1652 Thomas Modyford had written to Berkeley about the possibility of sending settlers. In 1662 Francis Willoughby had done the same. Even Guy Molesworth, who’d been forced to leave the island in 1650, was in Jamestown in 1660 as an aide to Berkeley.

Hatfield says about 9% of the population of Virginia’s eastern shore were immigrants from other colonies. The son of Isaac Allerton, a somewhat unscrupulous New England merchant who had originally trained as a tailor, moved to Virginia where he became active in the tobacco trade. The younger Isaac eventually married Thomas Willoughby’s sister Elizabeth and moved to the area above the Rappahannock that had been opened after the Indians were subdued.

When Bacon rebelled, personal experience as much as family ties determined who supported whom. Richard Thompson, the Willoughby in-law who grew up hearing about Indian depredations, supported Bacon and later issued a written apology. Allerton, the Willoughby in-law who grew up hearing about family ties to the leading Pilgrim magistrates, supported Berkeley. Thomas himself was dead and his son, Thomas, was too young to participate.

When you look for concrete links between generations to show the diffusion of attitudes towards government and threats of armed rebellion, it is extremely difficult to do more than establish people knew one another. Everyone knows brothers who never speak, and anyone who’s looked at family genealogies knows the problems that arise when the same name is repeated. Some still aren’t convinced Allerton’s wife wasn’t Elizabeth Thompson, sister of Sarah and Richard, instead of their sister-in-law, Elizabeth Willoughby.

But I suspect somewhere in those dusty records, more likely in those for an indentured servant following Francis Emperor than for a major landowner, lay the lines of influence that possibly tie the uprising in Barbados with later ones in this country through oral history. We can only guess what might have been, not what was.

Allerton, Walter Scott. A History of the Allerton Family in the United States: 1585 to 1885, 1900.

Brooke, Francis Taliaferro. “Some Contemporary Accounts of Eminent Charaters,” William and Mary Quarterly Historical Magazine, 1908, on Richard Thompson.

Castelli, Jorge H. “Willoughby Family of Parham,” Tudorplace website.

Hatfield, April Lee. Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century, 2007.

Kennedy, Mary Seldon. Seldens of Virginia and Allied Families, volume 2, 1911, on Willoughby family.

Lepore, Jill. Review of Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil’s Snare, The New York Times Book Review, 3 November 2002., discusses Indian background of Salem witch trials.

Nichol, Margaret Nolan. “The Thompson Family” of Northumberland County, Virginia, Genealogenie website.


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