Colonial Virginia's Relations with the Indians
The spark that set off the great rebellion of 1676 came from the tinderbox of Indian relations. To explain them we must first go back to chart the history of Indian-white relations in 17th-century Virginia.
First, we may ask, how did the colonists go about the task urged upon them by King James, of bringing "the infidels and savages living in those parts [the native American Indians] to human civility"? Generally we may say that the native American Indians regarded the newcomers with a mixture of brotherly kindness and eagerness to make contact with the world outside; this, however, was countered by hostility based on the well-founded fear that the colonists were out to seize their lands.
The whites generally regarded the Indians as possessors of land ripe for expropriation. This attitude of the whites was partially justified, as Indian land was typically owned not by the individual, but by the collective tribal unit, and furthermore was inalienable under tribal law. This was particularly true of the land itself as contrasted to its annual use. Furthermore, tribal law often decreed land ownership over large tracts of even unused acreage.
Still, however, this land inequity provided no excuse for the physical dispersion of individual Indians from their homes and from land actually used, let alone the plundering of their crops and the slaughtering of the Indian people.
Relations with the Indians were therefore a combination of hostility and friendship, underlain by the relentless white urge to push westward. Thus, from the very beginning of the Virginia colony, the Indians first attacked the whites, only to save the starving infant colony a few months later by coming to its rescue with abundant gifts of bread, meat, fish, and corn. A few years of conflict was followed by the peace of 1614, which was effectively wrecked two years later by Governor Yeardley's seizure of corn from the Chickahominy Indians — an ironic contrast to the Indians' supplying needed corn to the infant colony.
From that point on, relations with the Indians began to deteriorate. Captain Argall, upon assuming his duties as governor, decided that the colonists were too friendly with the Indians, and took harsh steps to rectify this error. He outlawed all private trading with the Indians, and prohibited the hiring of Indian hunters for the shooting of game. Worse still, Argall decreed the death penalty both for anyone teaching an Indian the use of a gun and for the Indian eager to learn.
Thus, Argall moved to cripple the economy of the whites and Indians alike; but perhaps trade and education were not considered part of the "civilizing process." (Guns, of course, as in the case of most weapons, can be used for offense or defense, for highly productive economic — hunting — as well as for martial purposes.)
When the Virginia Assembly first convened in 1619, a part of its liberal reforms forbade any injury to the Indians that might disturb the peace. The brief period of peaceful coexistence, however, was shattered in 1622, when Opechancanough, head of the Powhatan confederacy, led an all-out surprise attack against the colonists. The colony survived, but the massacre of over 350 colonists — almost one-fourth of the colony — embittered the whites from that point on, even though the colonists were very quick to wreak vengeance on the Indians, destroying as many crops, homes, and Indians as they could.1 During the crisis, every settled community was placed under absolute martial rule, and any communication with an Indian was outlawed except by consent of the commander.
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the affair, for its long-run consequence in poisoning Indian-white relations in Virginia, was the white aggression later in 1622 against the friendly Potomac Indians. The powerful Potomac tribe had refused to join the Powhatan confederacy plot to massacre the whites, and indeed had helped to save the colony from destruction by warning the colonists of Opechancanough's plot.
While on an expedition to the Potomacs to obtain corn, Captain Isaac Madison allowed himself to believe, without proof, the false tale of an exiled Potomac chief and of a renegade Polish interpreter, Robert Poole, that the Potomacs were planning to massacre the expedition. Madison then kidnapped the Potomac king and suddenly attacked and massacred any Potomac Indian he could lay his hands on.
From then on, savage treachery marked the actions of both sides, and relations were permanently embittered. Most vicious was the colonists' invitation to the Indians in 1623 for a peace parley, at which the whites poisoned 200 Indian leaders and shot 50 others, taking home the scalps of many Indians with them. Doubtless worst of all, the colonists adopted the barbaric policy of deliberately seeking out and destroying all Indian plantings of corn. Total war by any means was now the watchword, and no peace was even contemplated.
When the Virginia Company leaders expressed shock at this despicable method of making war by breaking treaties, poisoning peace negotiators, etc., the Virginians replied, "Whereas we are advised by you to observe rules of justice … we hold nothing injust that may tend to their ruin … with these [enemies] neither fair war nor quarter is ever to be held."
For years after the massacre, the attitude of the whites was continued aggression against the Indians, who were simply considered "unreconcilable enemies." Laws were passed prohibiting any trading with the Indians. Peace for a time was unthinkable; as we have seen, one of the main charges against Governor Harvey was making peace with the Indians.
Finally, however, the advantages of peaceful and mutually beneficial trade with the natives began to become evident and the law to be ignored by enterprising individuals in the colony. During the first Berkeley administration, a treaty of "peace and friendship" was made with the Indians in 1642 and the laws against trading with the natives were repealed.
Unfortunately, the fair prospects for genuine peace were once again ruptured by the old chief Opechancanough, the very man responsible for the tragic massacre 22 years earlier. Opechancanough was a hard-liner who would settle for nothing less than total victory over the whites, whom he regarded as invaders of the land. He certainly had a point: the whites were indeed adept at land grabbing; but the point was not good enough.
A genuine climate of peaceful coexistence could have permitted voluntary purchase of Indian lands and white settlement on lands which the Indians, while grandiosely claiming them, were not really using. But Opechancanough, hearing of civil war in England, decided that "now was his time or never, to root out all the English" and drive them into the sea.
Again, in April 1644, Opechancanough organized a surprise massacre that killed 500 settlers — a greater number than earlier but, of course, a vastly smaller proportion of the colony. One of the problems of a hard line is that it begets hard-lining by the other side, and this massacre came at a time when genuine peace seemed at hand.
The English quickly counterattacked, burning Indian villages and destroying their corn. Opechancanough was taken prisoner and shot in the back by one of the Virginian soldiers.
The Indians then sued for peace, but unfortunately the peace treaty of 1646, instead of providing for peaceful trade and other contacts between the two peoples, forced the Indians to cede territory and drew arbitrary boundaries beyond which the Indians were forbidden to come. Moreover, neither the Virginians nor the Indians were permitted to go into each other's territory on pain of very heavy punishment, and trading could only be conducted at certain specified — and therefore monopolized — forts. This type of quasi peace greatly restricted white exploration and settlement of Virginia west of the fall line, as well as fruitful trade with the Indian people.
Since a few military forts were given the monopoly privilege of all trade with the Indians, the commander of each fort now occupied a highly lucrative and privileged position in the colony. The Virginia government not only built the forts, but granted them and their surrounding land to their commanders.
Typical was Captain Abraham Wood, a former indentured servant of Samuel Mathews, who was placed in command of the most important of these forts, Fort Henry, at the Appomattox falls. Settling there for 30 years, Wood exploited his position as sole authorized trader for the area; often he had to guard his pack trains against the use of force by rival traders understandably resentful at Wood's compulsory monopoly of the Indian trade. The town at the fort took the name of Wood, and Wood acquired over 6,000 acres of plantation land in the neighborhood. He was also for many years a councillor of the colony.
Yet the inexorable march of settlement westward could not be halted, and once again the English came to settle near the Indians. The arbitrary peace terms of the 1646 treaty clearly needed revision. Happily, after 1656 an Indian found without a badge in white territory was no longer liable to be shot, and all freemen were allowed to trade with the Indians.
Other provisions of the new law constituted a rather limited advance: for example, Indian children kidnapped as hostages were not to be treated simply as slaves but to be trained as Christians and taught a trade. Other policies were so arbitrary as to deal unjustly not only with the Indians, but also with the white settlers. Thus, in 1653, as supposed compensation to the Indians, lands in York County were set aside and reserved for them, even though this meant that already existing white settlers had to be forcibly removed.
However, peace and justice to the Indian, as always, went only so far. In 1656 several hundred Indians settled near the falls of the James River, which the whites had decided was to be barred from any Indians — even peaceful settlers. The Assembly sent Colonel Edward Hill with an armed force to drive out the Indians; though joined by Indian allies, the attacking force was smashed by Indian defenders near the present site of Richmond. Hill met not with sympathy for his defeat, but with an angry Assembly that tried him and unanimously found him guilty of crimes and weaknesses and suspended him from his posts.
The relatively sound peace of 1656 with the Indians was shattered by the onset of the second Berkeley administration. It is not surprising that Berkeley's onslaught on the liberties and rights of Virginians should have extended to Indian relations. His first step, in 1661, was the suppression of free trade with the Indians and the reviving of trading monopoly. The Assembly decreed that henceforth no one might trade with the Indians without a commission from the governor, who, of course, would license only "persons of known integrity" rather than the "diverse ill-minded, idle, and unskillful people" currently engaged in the trade.
The Assembly followed this with a decree outlawing all trade by Marylanders and Indians north of Virginia with the Virginia Indians, thus further tightening the trading monopoly. Ironically, the old trade monopolist Abraham Wood, now a colonel, was charged with the enforcement of this prohibition.
The next year, Captain Giles Brent, one of the leading planters of the Northern Neck, hauled the chief of the Potomac Indians, Wahanganoche, into court on the false charges of high treason and murder. And even though Wahanganoche was acquitted and his false accusers forced to pay him an indemnity for the wrongs suffered, the Assembly arrogantly proceeded to require the Potomac and other northern tribes to furnish as hostages a number of Indian children to be enslaved and brought up by whites.
It is no wonder that under this treatment the Indians of Virginia began to get a bit restive, a restiveness due also, as the Assembly admitted, to "violent intrusions of diverse English" into Indian lands. But this was only the beginning of white aggression. In 1665–66 the Assembly set further arbitrary bounds to Indian settlement, pushing back the Indians once more. It also prohibited any white sales of guns and ammunition to the Indians, and decreed that the governor select the chieftains for the Indian tribes. Militarism was imposed on the white settlers by ordering them to go armed to all public meetings, including church services.
Even collective guilt was imposed on the Indians, it being provided that if an Indian murdered a white man, all the people of the neighboring Indian town would be "answerable for it with their lives or liberties." But this law taxed even the often elastic consciences of the Virginians of the day, and was soon repealed.
During the same year 1666, Governor Berkeley declared war on the Doeg and Potomac tribes, as an even more massive form of collective guilt and punishment for various crimes committed over the years by individual Indians against individual whites. But since this act of slaughter was called "war," even its far greater magnitude did not evoke the reproofs of conscience following upon the collective punishment of the previous year.
By the end of the '60s, the Indians had been so effectively cowed and suppressed that the administration believed the situation well in hand. In the words of Berkeley, "The Indians … are absolutely subjected, so that there is no fear of them."
But Governor Berkeley was soon to learn that the use of terror and subjection does not always quiet fears. Particularly aggrieved was the Doeg tribe, which had been attacked and expelled from its lands by the Berkeley administration. The Doegs found new compatriots in the Susquehannocks, a powerful tribe that had been expelled from its lands at the head of the Chesapeake Bay by the Seneca nation, and had then settled on inadequate lands on the Potomac River in Maryland.
In July 1675 the Doegs, who had also settled across the Potomac, found that a wealthy Virginia planter, Thomas Mathew, refused to pay them a debt, which they were not allowed to collect in the Virginia courts. They decided therefore to collect the debt themselves, and a party of Doegs crossed the river and took some hogs from Mathew. The Virginians immediately pursued the Indians upriver and not only recovered the hogs but killed the Indians.
Again, the Indians had no recourse against this murder in the Virginia courts, and so they decided to exact punishment themselves. They raided and devastated the Mathew plantation — rough if inexact justice — in the course of which one of Mathew's herdsmen was killed.
Arrant self-righteousness and a flagrant double standard of morality are often characteristic of the side with the superior weapons in any dispute, for its one-sided version of morality can be supported by force of arms if not by force of logic. Such was the case with the white Virginians: murdering a group of Indians whose only crime was the theft of a few hogs (and this justified as the only available means of collecting a debt) was, well, just one of those things; whereas retaliatory retribution against the one white largely responsible for the whole affair was apparently considered so monstrous that any method of vengeance against the Indians was justified.
When the razing of the Mathew plantation became known, Major George Brent and Colonel George Mason — leading persecutors of Chief Wahanganoche a decade before — gathered an armed force and invaded Maryland. Upon finding the Indians, Brent asked for a peace parley, at which he seized and then shot the Doeg chief (thus continuing a white tradition of treachery in dealing with Indians). Brent followed this up by shooting ten other Indians who had then tried to escape. Mason's party shot 14 other fleeing Indians, many of whom were Susquehannocks, up to now wholly friendly to the whites, and who had not participated in Doeg actions. The Susquehannocks were now naturally embittered.
The treachery at the peace parley and the murdering of 24 Indians only began the massive white retaliation. Berkeley completely ignored the protest of the Maryland governor against the Virginian invasion of its territory and the killing of innocent Indians. Instead, on August 31, 1675, Berkeley called together the militia officers of the Northern Neck counties, led by Colonel John Washington, and armed them with powers to organize the militia and to "demand satisfaction" or take any other course necessary against the Indians. This could include "attack and such executions upon the Indians as shall be found necessary and just."
The officers duly organized the militia and secured aid from the Maryland government. A full-fledged war of aggression against the Indians was then unleashed by Virginia and Maryland. On September 26, the joint Virginia-Maryland force besieged the main fort of the Susquehannocks on the Maryland side of the Potomac, and sought to starve the Indians into submission. An army of 1,000 whites surrounded 100 Indian braves and their women and children.
On the invitation of Major Thomas Truman, head of the Maryland force, five of the Susquehannock chiefs came out to parley and seek peace. When the chiefs asked what the army was doing there, Major Truman declared that they were retaliating for various outrages, and he proceeded to murder them on the spot. Even a silver medal held up by one chief, a token of a supposedly permanent pledge of protection by a former governor of Maryland, was of no avail in saving his life.
The starving mass of Indians finally escaped their tormentors by rushing out at night in a surprise breakout, and fled into Virginia, where during January they retaliated against many of the frontier plantations. One of the plantations raided was that of Nathaniel Bacon, Jr., a leading planter and one of the councillors of the colony.2
Ready to send out an even larger armed force against the Indian party, Berkeley received word from the Indians that, having killed ten whites for each of their chiefs murdered at the peace parley, they were ready to make peace and ask for compensation for damages. Grateful for a chance to stop the spiraling bloodshed, Berkeley disbanded his new army. But when Berkeley categorically rejected the peace offer as violating honor and self-interest, the Indian raids continued.
Instead of peace, Berkeley and his Assembly decided on an uneasy compromise: a declaration of war not only against all Indians guilty of injuring white persons or property, but also against those who had refused to aid and assist the whites in uncovering and destroying the guilty Indians. However, Berkeley also decided to fight a defensive rather than an offensive war by constructing at great expense ten forts facing the enemy at the heads of the principal rivers, and by not attacking the Indians unless they were attacked themselves. The large force needed to garrison these forts was financed by burdensome new taxes, which aggravated Virginia's grievances against the Berkeley regime.
It is another common rule that militarization of a society ostensibly to bring force majeure against an enemy often succeeds also (or even only) in bringing that force against the very society being militarized. Thus, soldiers, conscripted into the garrisons, were to be subject to highly rigorous articles of war: any blasphemy, for example, when "either drunk or sober" was punished by forcing the soldier to run the terrible gantlet. Public prayers were to be read in the field or garrison twice a day, and any soldier refusing or neglecting to attend the prayers or the preaching or to show proper diligence in reading homilies and sermons was to be punished at the whim of the commander.
A great many Virginians, driven forward by war hysteria, by ingrained hatred of the Indians, and by the desire to grab Indian lands, began to accuse Berkeley of being soft on the Indians. The softness was supposed to be motivated by economic interest, as Berkeley's monopoly of the fur trade was supposed to give him a vested interest in the existence of Indians with whom to trade. The common expression of the day was that "no bullet would pierce beaver skins." The charge, if charge it be, was probably partially correct, at least insofar as trade between peoples generally functions as a solvent of hatreds and of agitations for war. At any rate, in deference to these charges, the Assembly took the Indian trade from Berkeley and his licensees and transferred the authority for licenses to the county justices of the peace.
The middle-of-the-road policy of defensive war, however, was probably the most unpolitic course that Berkeley could have taken. If he had concluded peace, he would have ended the Indian raids and thus removed the constant sparkplug for war hysteria among the whites. As it was, the expensive policy of constructing mighty defensive forts prolonged the war, and hence the irritant, and did nothing to end it. The only result, so far as the Virginians were concerned, was a highly expensive network of forts and higher taxes imposed to pay for them. Furthermore, Berkeley reportedly reacted in his usual tyrannical fashion against several petitions for an armed troop against the Indians, by outlawing all such petitions under threat of heavy penalty.
With peace still not concluded, the frontier Virginians found themselves suffering Indian raids and yet being refused a governmental armed force by Berkeley. They finally determined in April to raise their own army and fight the Indians themselves. While three leaders of this effort were frontier planters on the James and Appomattox rivers, they were hardly small farmers; on the contrary, they were among the leading large planters in Virginia.
The chief leader was the eloquent, 28-year-old Nathaniel Bacon Jr., descendant of Francis Bacon, a cousin of Lady Berkeley and a member of the select Council of Virginia. The other leaders were William Byrd, founder of the Byrd planter dynasty, and Captain James Crews, another large planter and neighbor of Bacon. The effort quickly emerged, however, not as a new armed force, but as a mutiny against the Virginia government.
When the three founders and their friends went to visit a nearby force of militiamen at Jordan's Point in Charles City County, the soldiers decided to mutiny and follow "Bacon! Bacon! Bacon!" and swore damnation to their souls to be true to him." The mighty Bacon's Rebellion had begun.
This article is chapter 10, "Relations with Indians," in Murray Rothbard's Conceived in Liberty (1975).
- 1. The massacre was also seized as one of the Crown's excuses for dispossessing the Virginia Company.
- 2. Some writers attribute to this incident Bacon's hostility to the Indians. But already the previous fall, Bacon had seized some friendly Appomattox Indians, charging them falsely with stealing corn even though the corn in question was neither his nor his neighbors'.
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