Was Charles Clay at Bacon’s Rebellion?

By Pat Dunford

One of the unfortunately enduring myths involving the early Virginian Clay family is that Charles Clay, son of John Clay(e) and Elizabeth/Ann, immigrants of 1613 and 1623, respectively, was a participant in “Bacon’s Rebellion.”1 Sometimes it’s old John Clay(e) himself…

Now, we can argue about what “participation” means, but the reality is there is no “list” of those who “participated” in a material way – either by revolting or by providing for the revolt – and those who happened to live in the neighborhood at the time. Some reasons given are to the tune of “well, they were in Henrico County at the time.”

Who actually joined the rebellion?

So. Some facts. From: Loyalists and Baconians: the participants in Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia, 1676-1677.2

There is no disagreement about whether Nathaniel Bacon and William Berkeley were the leadership of what became known as “Bacon’s Rebellion.” There is agreement that all segments of society were involved in some way in the disagreement.

From Dr. John Harold Sprinkle, Jr’s, dissertation:

This research demonstrates that although all segments of colonial society were represented in the rebellion, both the Baconians and the Loyalists were primarily comprised of middling and elite Virginians. The study shows that the Baconians were well established farmers and were not poor farmers or ex-indentured servants. For individuals, participation in Bacon’s Rebellion was influenced by three factors: a general frustration with the nature of colonial society; specific and personal grievances against the government of Sir William Berkeley; and accidents of family relations and geography. Bacon’s Rebellion was thus a comprehensive, planned, personally and politically motivated upheaval that was well within the pattern of revolts established in the colonial Chesapeake.

The next connection, “Bacon’s Rebellion began in April 1676 when Nathaniel Bacon was acclaimed as leader for some 300 to 500 colonists assembled at Jordan’s Point, near present-day Hopewell, Virginia. The crowd of settlers, dissatisfied with Governor’s Berkeley’s [sic] handling of continuing Indian attacks, enlisted the young Councilor with cries of “A Bacon! A Bacon!”3

Bacon took the cries to heart and went to Governor Berkeley with “the whole country is alarmed with the fear of a General Combination” of the Indians…and wanted help.

Fast forward, Bacon wanted fire-power, Berkeley was slower to respond.

In May (1676) Bacon took a group of 57 planters on an expedition against the Occaneechee. Berkeley declared Bacon a rebel for “leading a militia without a commission from the royal governor (Berkeley).” And, he offered pardons for those who would lay down their arms and go home.

That didn’t work too well, and in June, in Henrico, 30 to 40 people prevented the Sheriff from reading Berkeley’s proclamations. Then in June, Bacon and 20 to 50 followers were captured on board a ship. And so on it went…By July Bacon had 1,000 to 1,200 followers…

Bacon died that October. The insurrection continued under Joseph Ingram.

Sprinkle notes that “In all, the Baconians numbered about 1,000.” By January 1677, the rebellion was over, and there were “about 300 rebellious participants, approximately the same number it had begun with back in April of 1676.”

This dissertation is a fascinating read, but at 257 pages is beyond excerpting all the possible connections. However, “Clay” is only found twice in the document. The first in a description of a settler’s dwelling in the 17th century: “The chimney was made of wattle and daub (clayey mud held together with sticks) framed by wooden posts.”

The second was a list of “Lawnes Creek Parish Tax Revolt Participants:

Thomas Clay, bond & Costs, one tithable in 1668.

Thomas Clay???

Mapping out ancestral history

The map shown, dated 1755, is not accurate as to counties in 1668, but does show where the creeks and communities were.

From the west, (1) Bermuda Hundred, (2) Jordan’s Point, where John Clay(e) was on the 1623 Muster, (3) Ward’s Creek, where John Claye had a patent,  (4 ) Lawnes/Lyons Creek, the location for the “Tax Revolt Participants” with one Thomas Clay.

Source: Library of Congress, A map of the inhabited part of Virginia published in 1755 containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina. | Library of Congress (loc.gov)

(1) Henrico County, in 1668 covered north of the James River from Hopewell/City Point to the mountains.  Charles Clay, son of John Clay(e), who had studied to be a “physician” was living in Henrico, with one child. 

(2) Jordan’s Point included “Jordan’s Journey,” the location of John Clay(e) and his family in 1624 for the Muster of Inhabitants of Virginia.

(3) Wards Creek, where John Clay(e) purchased land c1635, was by 1668 in Charles City County, which extended on both sides of the James.  It later split from Charles City in 1702 and is now Prince George County.

In 1668, we find (4) Lawne’s Creek (Lyons Creek) on the south side of the James River, downriver from Ward’s Creek and Jordan’s Journey. Lawnes/Lyons Creek divided James City from Warrossquyoake(1635-37)/Isle of Wight (1638).  It appears that from very early the west side of Lyons Creek was Surry County, the east side was Isle of Wight.

Southall4 identifies Thomas Clay as son of one “John Clay, of Isle of Wight County” whose will, dated 7 April 1675, recorded 20 Oct 1675, lists “wife Mary, eldest son Thomas, and Mary, “the daughter of my son, William.”  This is congruent with the timing of the meeting at Lawne’s Creek, April 1675, and perhaps why this “Thomas” was identified on the documents later, not any other Clays.

Charles Clay, son of John Clay(e) and probably Elizabeth (–?–), married Hannah Wilson, in Virginia. Charles is said to have been born c1645 in (then) Henrico. However, if he was born at Ward’s Creek, it was not Henrico. But, he did take up land in Henrico.

(2) Jordan’s Point, where John Claye was reported on the 1624 muster, by 1635 was in James City County, which extended on both sides of the James River.  John Clay patented 1200 acres on (3) Wards Creek, which was also in James City. So, Charles would have been born in James City.

(1) Henrico was upriver, established in 1634 as one of the eight original shires/counties. It appears that “Henrico” has become the default location for “I don’t know, but somewhere along the James.”  

Finally, it appears that none of the “John Clay(e) immigrant of 1613” descendants were proven to be part of Bacon’s Rebellion.

And, we know little about the Thomas Clay of Lawne’s Creek, who appears to have had a role. Who was he?

Genealogical fantasy vs. reality: Keep questioning

Thus, in the immortal words of Robert Young Clay, archivist, researcher, writer and artist:

“I would encourage all of you to search more diligently for the facts concerning your Virginia family founders and to take great care in what you claim about them. Be absolutely certain of the records you use and of your interpretation of them. If your research is not done with meticulous care, you will merely add to the body of genealogical fantasy with which they are already surrounded. Please view them honestly and help by your good research to present a true genealogical and historical picture of their lives – a view that they so richly deserve.”

Interested in this conversation? 

Come discuss it on our Clay Family Society Community page

Have questions and feedback about this article? 

Get in touch.

1  Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in the years 1675 & 1676 | Virginia Museum of History & Culture (virginiahistory.org)

2 Sprinkle, John Harold, Jr, Dissertation presented to the Faculty of the Department of History, College of William and Mary, Arts and Sciences, 1992. Published by W&M ScholarWorks.

3  Loyalists and Baconians: the participants in Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia, 1676-1677 (core.ac.uk)

4 Southall, Stephen O.  “Some Notes on the Clay Family.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol 52, No 1 (Jan 1944) pp 58-62.

Start Date 11/12/2022 - Please rate your reaction.