If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Jamestown - Bacon's Rebellion

The video explores early labor systems in Virginia, focusing on white indentured servitude and the shift to African slavery around 1700. It highlights the role of Bacon's Rebellion in this transition, and the impact of tobacco cultivation on land scarcity and Native American relations.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

- [Instructor] So in the last video we were talking about the system of labor in the Chesapeake area, surrounding the Chesapeake Bay, in the early English colonies in America. And one thing that seemed a little bit strange there was that even though the first ship with enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, slavery wasn't actually the dominant form of labor in Virginia until much later, in the late 1600s. In fact, the vast majority of laborers in Virginia were in fact white indentured servants. And these indentured servants would come from England, and the planter that they proposed to work for would pay their passage across the Atlantic. And in exchange the servant would agree to work for that planter for a period of three to seven years. And this is an example of what one of these indentures might have looked like. It's in old-timey writing, so it's a little hard to see, but here you can see that there's three years is the amount of time that this person promises. This is from Pennsylvania. Kinda gives you a good sense of how someone would say, "Alright I'm gonna work for this person for this long, "in exchange for my passage, "and it's a contract." And this was a pretty good deal for planters because for every person that they brought over from England, they got another 50 acres of land, meaning that if you had the money to bring over quite a few servants, you could expand your landholdings very fast. And the other good thing about this, at least in terms of the planters was that these indentured servants had a pretty high rate of death. It was not healthy to live in this swampy area of Virginia. So quite frequently, planters didn't actually have to make good on their promise to set these indentured servants up with some land of their own, some tools to work it, because they didn't survive through their indenture. So if this system of indentured servitude, and the headright system that gave planters more land for bringing over more servants, was working out so well for them, why did African slavery become the dominant form of labor in Virginia, starting about 1700? Now when we think about tobacco cultivation, and later, cotton cultivation, in the American south before the Civil War, what we think of is enslaved African laborers. And indeed, by the year 1700, about 15% of the population living in Virginia was enslaved Africans, going from just a handful at the beginning of the century. So what caused this incredible transition in not only labor, but also racism, to happen in early America? Well there's one major event that historians tend to point to as a turning point in American slavery. And that is the rebellion led by Nathaniel Bacon in 1676. So let's talk a little bit more about that. So to understand Bacon's rebellion, we have to backtrack a little bit, and talk about the development of political power and tobacco in Virginia. So in 1619, the Virginia Company established the first government in Virginia. It was called the House of Burgesses. And this is really important because it is, in effect, the first at least semi-democratic form of government in the new world. In a way, it's kind of like a parliament that was set up for Virginia so that they could debate local issues. And it's going to be the House of Burgesses and its later House of Delegates that ends up leading the charge for the American Revolution more than a century later than this. But as we think about the way that political power was distributed in Virginia, you can guess who might have a lot of say in the House of Burgesses, and these are the tobacco planters. So the government of Virginia, although it is a democracy of these land-owning men, is still got most of the power at the very top. 'Cause as we talked about in the last video, the power system in Virginia looked like a handful of planters at the top, a very small number of free white farmers who had their own land, but nothing like the gigantic tracts of tobacco plantations that the planters had, then a whole lot of white indentured servants, who have very little political power, since they are at basically the mercy of the planters. And then, just a tiny handful of black slaves. And in this time period, white indentured servants and black slaves, black free people, also a tiny number, didn't have that much difference when it came to political rights. In fact, white indentured servants frequently complained that they felt that slaves were treated better than them. Which may have been the case, because they were worth more. Remember they were worth hundreds of pounds, whereas white indentured servants cost just a couple of pounds to come over, frequently died, so they were less of an investment than slaves. The other important factor here is just what it takes to grow tobacco. Tobacco is a labor-intensive crop, we know, but it's also kind of a crop that is extremely hard on the soil. It depletes the soil fast. Which means that there is a constant need for new soil. And when you're coming from the coast, here's our Atlantic Ocean over here, and this is Virginia, and our Jamestown colony along the River James, more and more planters, as they come over, remember we have this headright system, we have a system that says that if indentured servants finish out the terms of their indenture, they get land of their own, means there is constant pressure to add more and more land so you can farm more and more tobacco. And you start going farther and farther into the interior. So what does this mean? It means that land becomes relatively scarce pretty fast. And it also means that as white settlers continue to move west toward the Appalachian mountains, which are over here, I hope you enjoy this beautiful map, it's certainly a work of art, they are running up against more and more anger and conflict with Native Americans who are living in between the coast and the Appalachian mountains. And now it's definitely in the interest of the House of Burgesses, the government here at Jamestown, to make sure that there is as little conflict with Native Americans as possible. Remember we had these wars of extinction with the Powhatans. That wasn't a fun time for anyone. And so the House of Burgesses, which is now somewhat responsible to the King of England, since he acquired it from the Virginia Company as a royal colony in 1624, they have a relatively friendly attitude toward the Native Americans. They're hoping to avoid conflict. And so their governor, Governor William Berkeley, spelled Berkeley but pronounced Barkley, I don't know why. He refuses to take on another war of extinction against the Native Americans, which makes a lot of white servants and white freeman pretty angry. It's the late 1600s now, and more and more of these indentured servants are living to finish out their terms of indenture. They have now built up some immunity to these diseases that have killed so many other people in Virginia. And they're finding it really hard to make a living because the planters don't want to give quite so many rights, quite so many perks, to people who live out their indentures. Remember this was a good deal for planters when these white servants never actually survived to make good on the promises of land. And now that they are, planters don't want to extend them things like a promise of land, because land is already scarce. So when servants are finishing up their indentures, they're finding it difficult to make a living. They often have to continue to work for the planter they had been indentured to for very small wages, they don't have land of their own, they can't get started. And this is a world composed almost entirely of men, so they can't even find women to marry. And I think if there's anything we've learned from U.S. history, it's that you never want a whole lot of unemployed, angry, young men hanging about, because young men with a lot of time on their hands get up to trouble. And one young man in particular was this fellow here, Nathaniel Bacon, who was incensed at Governor Berkeley's refusal to take a harsher stance against the Native Americans on the west, where all of these white farmers wished that they could settle. And so he gets up a militia, full of young white men, and also African American men, to actually go after the Native Americans. So this is a biracial raid force for Native Americans, and they raid Native American villages, and kill many Native Americans living in the area, and Governor Berkeley wants them to stop. And instead of stopping, they marched to Jamestown, the capital of Virginia, and set it on fire. So this is a group of landless white men, landless African American men, who have rebelled against the government of Virginia. These are my flames, the House of Burgesses. They run Berkeley out of town. And it's hard to know where this would have ended, because Nathaniel Bacon himself died. And he died of illness, like many other Virginians in this time period, so the rebellion kind of petered out without his leadership. But clearly this was a really scary moment for the House of Burgesses, and for the leaders and planters in Virginia. And they started to think, alright well maybe this indentured servitude thing isn't working out so well, because once these indentures are up, we've got this whole set of landless free whites who technically have the rights of Englishmen, but we have little work for them, we have little land for them, and it's going to end up with constant rebellion. So maybe we should think about a different source of labor. One that will never get its freedom. And it just so happened that there were many such laborers for sale on the coast of west Africa. And we'll talk more about that in the next video.