Oxford educated, Sir William Berkeley (1605-1677) was governor of Virginia from 1641 to 1652 and from 1600 to 1677, holding office longer than any other governor of Virginia, colonial or modern. Under his leadership, Virginia changed from a colonial outpost to a center of agriculture and commerce. His creation of the bicameral General Assembly helped establish the origins of American political self-rule. Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 threatened Berkeley’s legacy. After Bacon suddenly died on Oct. 26, Berkeley regained his authority as governor and ended the rebellion by January 1677. The site of Berkeley’s Green Spring House is north of here.
Sir William Berkeley
William Berkeley was born on a wintry day in 1605 to Elizabeth and Sir Maurice Berkeley of Somerset, England. After developing a close relationship with King Charles I, Berkeley was appointed to the titles of governor and captain-general of the colony of Virginia (Billings, 32). On March 8th of 1641, Berkeley officially assumed his duties as governor of Virginia. He arrived in Jamestown in the spring of 1642 and upon specific instructions from King Charles I, he was to “promote stability and patriotism and stimulate economic growth” (Grizzard and Smith, 27).
In 1644, Pamunkey native Chief Opechancanough attacked the colony of Jamestown in what would come to be known as the Indian Massacre of 1644. Berkeley quickly assumed command of the armed forces and after about six weeks, the colonists were finally able to ward off the natives. After a few more years of colonists and natives fighting, Governor Berkeley was able to capture Opechancanough and in October of 1646, Governor Berkeley was able to negotiate a treaty with the new Pamunkey chief, Necotowance (Grizzard and Smith, 28). In this treaty, Governor Berkeley established a land boundaries and a peace settlement that would be understood as long as the natives stayed on their land and promised to pay an annual tribute to the Governor.
During the 1660’s, tensions had begun to rise once again between the colonists and the natives. Colonists were having difficulties economically, mostly due to crops and in many cases these problems were being blamed on the natives. More and more attacks and fights were occurring between the colonists and the natives and ever since the formation of the treaty the Governor had established between himself and the Pamunkey natives, Berkeley had developed a very “laissez faire” attitude. He did not perceive smaller quarrels as being anything that would amount to a large-scale attack, so he did not react to these. Disgruntled colonists and planters all throughout the colony were angry regarding Berkeley’s complicit attitude and in the summer of 1676, one planter was desperate to make some changes.
Nathaniel Bacon was a 29-year-old planter who lived in the Jamestown settlement and harbored ill will towards the natives. He was appalled by Berkeley’s complacency and in 1676 he led a rebellion against Governor Berkeley and his assembly. Bacon led about 500 men into Green Spring and later Jamestown, before burning it down on September 19th (Grizzard and Smith, 29). Embarrassed, Governor Berkeley was recalled back to England by Charles II to answer for his failure at protecting the colonists. Governor Berkeley died on July 9, 1677 and was buried at Twickenham in Middlesex.
Policy towards Natives
“Forbid all persons whatsoever to receive into their houses the person of any Indian or to converse or trade with them” (Billings, 51). Initially, Governor Berkeley harbored no ill will towards the natives of the area and he encouraged the colonists to do the same. However, in 1667 after an attack by the natives and the consequential loss of slaves, an uprising of disgruntled planters led by Nathaniel Bacon Jr. occurred in an effort to revolt against Governor Berkeley. This skirmish that came to be known as Bacon’s Rebellion resulted in the loss of many lives and the embarrassed and shame filled governor was summoned by King Charles II to return to England and he was further reprieved of his duties (Grizzard and Smith, 29).
In the mid to late 1600’s, tensions between the local natives of the Virginia colony and the colonists themselves were beginning to rise. Native attacks were occurring more frequently and they were becoming more violent as well. In 1676, natives attacked the home of Nathaniel Bacon Jr. and in doing so they stole his slaves. Being as Bacon was an established planter, slaves were the key to his trade and his livelihood, and this vicious act infuriated him. Immediately, Bacon contested to Governor Berkeley of Virginia, but with no avail as Governor Berkeley maintained a strict non-violence policy towards the natives. Outraged, Bacon commanded a rebellion against the Governor and his conformist policies towards the natives and he acted out violently, burning down various houses and other buildings. As a result, Governor William Berkeley was renounced of his position as governor of Virginia and he was forced to return to England by demand of King Charles II (Billings, 235).
Bacon’s Declaration to the People
The Declaration of the People, against Sr: Wm: Berkeley, and Present Governor’s of Virginia
For having upon specious Pretences of publick Works raised unjust Taxes, upon the Commonaltie, For advancing of Private Favourites. And other sinister Ends, but noe visibile Effect, in any Measure adequate.
Nathaniel Bacon's Declaration of the People
For having abused, and rendered Contemptable, his Maties: Justice, by advancing to Places of Judicature, Scandalous and ignorant Favourites.
For having wronged his Maties: Prorogative, and Interest, by assuming the Monopolie of the Bever Trade.
For having in that unjust Gaine, betrayed and sold, His Matie: Countrie, and the Liberties of his Loyall Subjects to the Barbarous Heathen.
For having, Protected, favoured, and Emboldened, the Indians against his Maties: most Loyall Subjects; never Contriving, requiring, or appointing any due or proper Meanes of Satisfaction; for thiere many Incusrsions, Murthers, and Robberies, Committed upon Us.
For having when the Armie of the English, was upon the Tract of the Indians, which now in all Places, burne spoile, and Murder, And when Wee might with ease, have destroyed them, Who were in open hostilitie.
For having expresslie, countermanded, and sent back, our Armie, by Passing his word, for the Peaceable demeanours of the said Indians, Who Immediately prosecuted their Evill Intentions – Committing horrid Murders and Robberies, in all Places, being Protected by the said Engagement, and Word passed by Him the said Sr: Wm: Berkeley having Ruined and made Desolate, a greate Part of his Maties: Countrie, having now drawn themselves into such obscure and remote places, and are by theire success soe Emboldened, and Confirmed, and by theire Confederates strengthened. That the Cryes of Blood, are in all Places, and the Terror, and Consternation of the People soe greate, That They are not only become difficult, but a very formidable Enemie Who might with Ease bin destroyed.
When upon the loud outcries of Blood, the Assemblie had with all Care, rasied and framed an Armie, for the Prevention of future Mischeifs, and safeguard of his Maties: Colonie.
For having only with the Privacie of a fewe favourites, without the Acquainting of the People, only by Alteration of a Figure forged a Commission, by I Know not what hand, not only without, but against the Consent of the People, for the Raising and Effecting of Civill Warr, and Destruction, which being happily and without Bloodshed prevented.
For having the second time attempted the same, thereby calling down our forces from the Defence of the frontiers, and most weakened and Exposed Places, for the prevention of Civill Mischeife, and Ruine amongst our selves; whilest the Barbarous Enemie in all places did Invade Murder and spoile us, his Maties: Loyall Subjects.
Of these the aforesaid Articles Wee accuse Sr: Wm: Berkeley as guiltie of Each and Everie of the same. As one who hath Traiterouslie attempted, Violated and Injured his Maties: Interest here, by the Loss of a greate Part of his Maties: Colonie, and many of his faithfull and Loyall Subjects, by Him betrayed in a Barbarous and shamefull Manner Exposed to the Incursion, and murder of the Heathen. And We farther declare the Ensuing Persons in this List to have bin wicked and Pernicious Councellours and Confederates, Aiders, and Assisstants against the Commonaltie in these our Civill Commotions.
Sr: Henrie Chicekly Wm.: Cole
Coll: Chritopr: Wormly Rich: Whitecar Jon: Page: Clerke
Phillip Ludwell Rich: Spencer Jon: Cuffe: Clerk
Robert Beverlie Joseph Bridges Hub: Farrill
Richard Lee Wm: Claybourne John: West
Thomas Ballard Thom: Hawkins Tho: Readmuch
Wm: Sherwood Math: Kemp
And we farther Command that the said Sr: Wm: Berkeley, with all the Persons in this List bee forthwith delivered upp, or Surrender Themselves, within foure dayes after the notice hereof, or otherwise Wee declare as followeth.
That in whatsoever place, House, or Shipp, any of the said Persons shall Reside, bee hid, or protected, Wee doe declare the Owners, Masters and Inhabitants of the said Parties, to bee Confederates, Traytors to the People and ye Estates, of them; as alsoe of all the aforesaid Persons, to be Confiscated, this Wee the Commons of Virginia doe declare.
Desiring a firme union amongst our Selves, that Wee may Joyntly and with one accord defend our selves against the Common Enimie, and lett not the faults of the Guiltie, bee the Reproach of the Innocent, or the faults and Crimes of the Oppressors, devide and sepperate Us Who have suffered, by theire oppressions.
These are therefore in his Maties: Name to Command you: forthwith to seize the Persons abovementioned, as Traytors to the King, and Countrie, and Them to bring to the Middle Plantations, and there to secure them till further Order and in Case of opposition, if yu: want any farther Assisstance, you are forthwith to demand It. In the Name of the People, in all the Counties of Virginia.
-Nathaniell Bacon Generall, by Consent of the People.
[30 July 1676]
(Grizzard and Smith, 21-22)
Governor Sir William Berkeley and Nathaniel Bacon Jr. were actually cousins by marriage.
Sir William Berkeley holds the title for the longest established governor of colonial Virginia, and any colony or state for that matter.
Billings, Warren M. Sir William Berkeley and the Forging of Colonial Virginia. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004.
Carson, Jane. Bacon’s Rebellion: 1676-1976. Jamestown: The Jamestown Foundation, 1976.
Grizzard, Jr. Frank E. and D. Boyd Smith. Jamestown Colony: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2007.
Washburn, Wilcomb E. The Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1957.
Historical Marker “Sir William Berkeley V-42-A,” courtesy of Lindsey Smith, 2012.
“Sir William Berkeley,” Friends of Green Spring, www.historicgreenspring.org (accessed May 1, 2012).
“Chief Opechcancanough,” Powhatan Museum of Indigenous Arts and Culture, www.powhatanmuseum.com (accessed May 1, 2012).
“Nathaniel Bacon,” National Park Service, www.nps.gov (accessed May 1, 2012).
“Bacon’s Rebellion,” Friends of Green Spring, www.historicgreenspring.org (accessed May 1, 2012).
“Nathaniel Bacon’s Declaration of Grievances,” Encyclopedia Virginia, www.encyclopediavirginia.org (accessed May 1, 2012).
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