Bacon’s Rebellion and the Defeat of the Saponi Tribes at Occoneechee Island

by Linda Carter

Original source documents digitized by Linda Carter of the Great Trading Path website, pertaining to Bacon’s Rebellion and the VA/NC Piedmont Siouan, referred to historically as the Saponi:

Early Narratives of the Rebellions [Bacon’s]

Governor Berkeley’s Account of Bacon’s Rebellion

William Sherwood’s Account of Bacon’s Rebellion

The Executive Journal of the Colonial Council
The story of the Great Trading Path, centered at Occoneeche Island in what is now Clarksville, VA, is inextricably intertwined with that of Bacon’s Rebellion — the first rebellion American colonists were to wage against British governmental authority. It’s fascinating how the paradigm with which one approaches a story colors one’s perception of it. During the heyday of American expansionism, from the days of Andrew Jackson and his Removal policy towards Indians east of the Mississippi, on through the institution of hereditary slavery and later Jim Crow, researchers saw Bacon as something of a hero, an early version of George Washington, perhaps. The Virginia governor, William Berkeley, was painted in the light of a corrupt despot.
It wasn’t until the 1950’s, when thoughtful academics were horrified by the witchhunt tactics of McCarthyism, and inspired by the first stirrings of the Civil Rights Movement, that Bacon’s Rebellion began to be seen in an entirely different light. Elements of evidence were uncovered in England, namely Governor Berkeley’s own account of Bacon’s rebellion, which cast Bacon as a genocidal supremacist, while Berkeley saw himself as the “liberal” civil servant, trying to maintain an honorable and just treatment of neighboring nations.

I believe the first exercise in American “majority rule” was characterized by arrogance, ignorance, greed and fear. The British authorities did demonstrate that they valued Indian allies and tried to preserve them against the first in a long line of lynch mobs out for “colored” blood. (see Wilcomb E Washburn, “The Governor and the Rebel.” He’s the one who dug up a number of new documents in England.) In an ironic parallel to Cecil B. DeMille, was this the dark underside of the “Birth of a Nation?” This a cautionary tale, warning us of the potential evils of majority rule, when “The People” become “The Mob.”

One point I haven’t seen anyone bring up is the significance of the death of Needham two or three years earlier. He was one of a number of explorers who made inroads into the “wilderness” the decade preceding this rebellion. He was allegedly murdered by an Occoneechee. His companion, Arthur, escaped. The Tomahitans (some say they were the Cherokee, others say they were the Yuchee) were conflicted over whether or not Arthur should be silenced about the murder of Needham. The chief had to squirrel Arthur away on a trek throughout the southeast in order to preserve his life. I’d like to know why this apparent decision was being made to release this damning information to the British. (Briceland’s book “Westward from Virginia” was very good re: this period. He does a fascinating job figuring out the actual routes of the 17th century explorers. He’s at VCU.)

Bacon was an Indian trader. He would have well known the impediment the Occoneechee were to English commercial interests. I’d say Needham’s death was very important subtext in the motivations behind the massacre of the Occoneechee. William Sherwood testified that soldiers admitted to him that intentions to terminate the Occaneechee were expressed while on the march to their island. There were also odd statements made by Bacon himself, to the effect that, had the Occoneechee known his intentions, they would not have been so ready to ferry him and his men to their island.

The troubles were ostensibly begun by the Susquehannah, who at first seemed to be crazed wild men, until I learned more about the incidents that sparked the war. Ironically, one of the most quoted narratives is by Thomas Matthew. From his congenial tone you’d never guess that it was an incident at his plantation that started it. (Perhaps he never even realized that he’d started it.) Either he or one of his people cheated some Doegs in a trade. To get even, the Doegs stole some hogs, were caught in the act and killed. An Englishman on the Matthews place was killed in revenge. This prompted a haphazard British attack on the Susquehanna — who had done nothing to the British and had no idea why their ambassadors were murdered and why they were then subjected to a siege.

There was one British claim that Susquehanna were seen with the clothes of the deceased, although common sense would beg the question that, had they known what these clothes were, would they have been flaunting them? I don’t know what relations were between the Doeg and the Susquehanna, but it would seem advantageous to the fleeing Doeg to trade the stolen clothes. This would accomplish two ends — raise needed supplies and frame someone else with the “evidence. ” In fairness to the Susquehanna, I’ve wondered if some of the many complaints against the Susquehanna in the record weren’t manufactured by the local tribes whenever they themselves were accused of some mischief or misdeed.

Though there were some British claims that the Occoneechee failed to cooperate with Bacon, there are ample testimonies that it was they who notified Bacon of the Susquehanna’s location, it was they who ferried them to their Island stronghold, and it was the Occoneechee who massacred the Susquehanna at Bacon’s behest. There were obviously tensions between the Occoneechee’s and Susquehannas, since we know there were Monacans (Occaneechee allies) held prisoner on the Susquehanna island.

I think a very important factor in all this is the strong likelihood that the Susquehanna were much better armed than any of the Virginia tribes. They’d just been driven out of the Susquehanna watershed in PA because the Swiss had sold them cannon. This so panicked the Iroquois that they went after them full force and basically wiped them out. (See Richter’s “Ordeal of the Longhouse”) To the Virginia Indians they had to have looked like a band of well-armed refugees desparate to steal someone else’s territory. Then they were bold enough to seek full vengeance on the British and provoke a bloodthirsty British mob. Obviously, from the Occoneechee point of view, the Susquehanna had to go. And when Bacon arrived at their island and stated his intention to attack the Susquehannah, the Occoneechee offered to go in their stead. I believe this was a strategy to do a “surgical strike” on the Susquehannah leadership who were threatening the Occoneechee, while allowing the “civilians” to escape to nearby Iroquoians. There is oral tradition of Susquehannah descendants surviving among the Meherrin.

Politically and militarily, the Susquehanna in Virginia were indeed neutralized, but the desparate tactics of the Occoneechee to maintain their own safety were suddenly rendered useless. It can be said that the first independent act of the American people was a genocidal sucker punch on the Virginia Siouan, commonly known in history as the Saponi, a name Governor Spotswood dubbed the entire confederation of VA/NC Piedmont Siouan tribes, the Saponi, Tutelo, Occoneechee, Eno, Shakori, Sissipaha, Stuckenock and Monacan tribes, as well as other groups whose names are lost to history.

— Linda Carter