Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bacon, Nathaniel (1642?-1676)

BACON, NATHANIEL (1642?–1676), Virginian patriot, is vaguely stated in American books to have been a native of London, and to have kept terms at one of the inns of court. From a contemporary pamphlet (Strange News from Virginia, being a full and true Account of the Life and Death of Nathaniel Bacon, Esq., London, printed for Wm. Harris, 1677), we learn that he was the son of Thomas Bacon, of Friston Hall, Suffolk, and thus descended from a younger branch of the great house of Bacon. He entered Gray's Inn 22 Nov. 1664 (Foster, Register of Admissions to Gray's Inn, 1882, p. 31). About 1673 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Edward Duke, a Suffolk baronet. There appears to be no ground for a statement in the 'Gentleman's Magazine' (Ixxxvi. 297) that he did so against his father's wish, 'who violently marked his disapprobation.' On the contrary, the writer of the pamphlet above quoted mentions that he was allowed a 'gentle competency' from his father, which, however, his 'expensive habits' rendered insufficient. Possibly with a view of breaking these off, and also from a spirit of adventure, he emigrated to Virginia, his father supplying him with stock to the value of 1,800l. He settled on the plantation of Curles, in the upper part of the James river, on the Indian frontier. Both friends and foes are agreed as to his remarkable abilities, and the grace and charm of his manner. His acquirements as a lawyer also rendered his advice of great value to the colonists in their disputes with the governor; and the prestige of his descent secured him a large amount of deference. Shortly after his arrival he became a member of the governor's council. His estates being specially exposed to Indian raids, he was one of the foremost in concerting measures of resistance; and he was chosen general by the volunteer colonists. An application was made to the governor for a commission, but as he deferred granting the request, Bacon set out against the Indians without obtaining his sanction. Thereupon he was declared a rebel, but an insurrection in the middle counties compelled the governor to yield to the popular demands. Writs were issued for the election of a new council on a system of wider suffrage. Bacon was elected for his county, and though arrested on his return, he was soon set at liberty, and sat in the assembly which passed the code known as 'Bacon's Laws.' In another expedition against the Indians, he defeated them with great slaughter. The governor, having meanwhile received reinforcements, again declared him a rebel, but, after a stubborn contest, was compelled to take refuge in the English vessels. Jamestown thereupon fell into the hands of Bacon, who, being unable to garrison it, burned it to the ground. While organising further and more comprehensive measures on behalf of the colonists, he died somewhat suddenly in October 1676. He left an only daughter, Mary, who was married to Hugh Chamberlain, M.D., of Alderton Hall, Suffolk, physician to Queen Anne. Oldys in a manuscript note to the article on Mrs. Behn, authoress of 'Widow Ranter, or the History of Bacon in Virginia,' 1690, in Langbaine's 'Dramatic Authors' (letter of Samuel Egerton Brydges, in Gent. Mag. lxxiv. 808), attributes to the Virginian the 'Historical Discourse of the Government of England,' 1647, but the date of the publication of the work is sufficient to disprove that he was the author of it.

[Sparkes's American Biography (1848), ill. 243-306; Strange News from Virginia, London, 1677; History of Bacon and Ingram's Rebellion in Virginia in 1675 and 1676, a contemporary account first published in 1867; Gent. Mag. lxxiv. 807-8, lxxxvi. part ii. 297-8, xcv. part i. 20-24; Notes and Queries, 2nd series, xi. 202, 3rd series, xii. 480-81; MS. Eger. 2395, pp. 156-198, where, besides other documents, will be found a copy of Nathaniel Bacon's description of the fight with the Indians in May 1676, of his letter to the governor, 26 May 1676, and of a letter of his wife to her sister, describing their mode of life and the raids of the Indians.]

T. F. H.