“I have a question! What is the Whiskey Rebellion?” a friend asked me one night at The Saloon. Though I’m not from here, she probably thought, since I work for the municipality, I might know a thing or two about one of the most historically significant events to happen in our area. I knew enough to realize that I was practically seated on the site of the start of the Rebellion, but all I could come up with was, “Um … it was about taxes, I think? And I’m pretty sure it was so serious that George Washington had to come here himself and settle it … It was a big deal,” I assured her, lamely.
In fairness, I was more-or-less correct. But it was a pathetically sparse account of the insurrection that is probably described on roughly 70 percent of the historical markers in the South Hills.
The following is a “Who, What, When, Where, Why” on the Whiskey Rebellion, in case you need a brief refresher (or a crash course). Perhaps you will pick up some tidbits that you can use to do a better job than I did at explaining this interesting, yet often-overlooked, piece of Pittsburgh history.
Why did it happen?
The year is 1791, and Pittsburgh, for all intents and purposes, is the wild West—it was the last substantial bastion of civilization on the way to the mostly-unexplored west that we know today (Lewis and Clark did not set out on their legendary expedition until 1804). Ninety percent of the population of Western Pennsylvania were farmers, and rye, distilled into whiskey and transported east, was their principal crop. Whiskey was a staple in every household, and it was also the most commonly used form of currency in what was primarily a barter economy.
The United States of America, as a country, was still quite new—the Constitution was only just adopted in 1787 and the federal government was established in 1789. Many of the settlers around Pittsburgh fought in the American Revolution just 15 years earlier, meaning they had quite recently laid down their lives for concepts such as “freedom from oppressive government” and “taxation without [local] representation.” And while the American Revolution was obviously successful, the war put our newborn country in $54 million national debt.
That’s when our trendiest founding father (thanks to a little musical called “Hamilton”), came up with a not-so-popular plan to fix the nation’s problem—Alexander Hamilton, our first secretary of the treasury, convinced George Washington to set an excise tax on distilled spirits. An “excise tax” is a tariff placed on goods that are made and sold in the U.S., and this one included substantial breaks for larger distilleries—most of which were out east, and the one out of six families in Western Pennsylvania who owned small stills were hit the hardest.
Pittsburghers understandably felt betrayed by their new government.
Add to that the fact that the tax, and its penalties, were difficult to pay. Hamilton did not institute an official monetary system until the next year, 1792, but the tax was to be paid in currency (up until now, the colonies were using other countries’ currencies or, like in the case of Western Pennsylvania, simply bartering for what they needed). And the penalty for those who refused? They were to travel to Philadelphia, across the Alleghenies, in the middle of harvest time, to appear in court.
When was the rebellion?
The whiskey tax was instituted on January 27, 1791. Many producers flat out refused to pay the tax. Others turned to intimidation to make their point. In one particularly notable instance on September 11, 1791, a tax collector was traveling his route when he was surrounded by 11 men in drag, stripped naked, tarred and feathered, and then abandoned in the forest while the rebels stole away with his horse. The man who was later sent to serve warrants to the perpetrators was doomed to a similar fate.
Many law-abiding taxpayers also received a share of intimidation from an anonymous vigilante named “Tom the Tinker.”
His men would come by to “mend the stills” (aka “shoot bullets through the stills”) of anyone who actually paid the tax. He also published threats and jibes aimed at the same crowd in the Pittsburg Gazette (there was no “h” in Pittsburgh at the time) and posted helpful advice on how to evade the tax on trees all over Western Pennsylvania.
Who were the key figures?*
He’s our “bad guy,” though he was mostly well-liked up until the Whiskey Rebellion. He was a church-going family-man with a respectable military career, in fact, by the end of the American Revolution, he was promoted to Brigadier General. A wealthy Federalist, he had a large home on Bower Hill (near where Our Lady of Grace Church stands today on Kane Boulevard. Go read the historical marker some time!) His popularity plummeted with the political climate because of his profession—John Neville was a tax collector.
Federal Marshall David Lenox asked John Neville to help guide him around Western Pennsylvania in July, 1794, to serve writs to more than 60 distillers who had evaded the whiskey tax.
Interestingly, William Miller was John Neville’s brother-in-law’s cousin and had previously supported Neville politically. This is perhaps why he was so surprised when Neville directed Lenox to his farm to deliver a court summons. William lived next to his father—Oliver Miller Senior—whose homestead still stands today in South Park.
Some believe Holcroft was Tom the Tinker. He was the head of the Mingo Creek county militia and led the rebels in the initial attack at Bower Hill on July 16, 1794.
James McFarlane and Oliver Miller Jr.
McFarlane was one of the leaders of the ensuing rebellion, and Oliver Miller Jr. was William Miller’s young nephew. Both were killed during the Whiskey Rebellion.
Bradford led the march on Pittsburgh, detailed below. This photo of him was commissioned for the Bradford House Museum in 2003, and was based the “wanted” poster that circulated after the rebellion. Painter Josephine Bowers Thomas used that likeness, as it is the only known image of him that exists today.
*There were many other notable figures involved in the Whiskey Rebellion, but I can’t tell this story without the people mentioned above.
What did it entail?
On July 15, 1794, Neville and Lenox arrived at the home of William Miller, who later reported, “I felt my blood boil, at seeing General Neville along, to pilot the sheriff to my very door.” After refusing to accept his summons, an argument broke out and an angry mob began to form. The first shot of the Whiskey Rebellion was fired as the two fled the scene, but no one was injured.
The next morning, July 16, at Bower Hill, Neville awoke to an even larger angry mob, including the Mingo Creek county militia and various men who had been served a summons on the previous day, at his doorstep. After ordering the women of the house to lie on the floor and load rifles, Neville started shooting through the windows. Four rebels were injured and Oliver Miller Jr. would die later that night from his wounds. The crowd dispersed.
Neville sent to Fort Pitt for help and received a small contingent, but the rebel militia continued to grow. They reassembled at Couch’s Fort, an abandoned fortress that was located where Ft. Couch Road is today, and were joined by others from the area including forces from Canonsburg—they had grown to more than 500 strong.
On July 17, this mighty force marched toward Bower Hill “with drums and all military pomp and parade,” which was being defended by a measly ten soldiers from Fort Pitt.
The rebels demanded that the soldiers hand over Neville, but he had already escaped earlier that day. They also asked if they could search the house to destroy the warrant papers. When the soldiers refused, the rebels set fire to a barn and the slave quarters at Bower Hill. Next, they let the Neville women flee to safety before mounting an attack on the house. The shooting lasted less than an hour, and at the end, the rebels set the manor house on fire. One of their leaders, James McFarlane, was shot and killed during the fighting. Enraged, the organized force lost all pretenses of formality and proceeded to destroy the entire estate.
Emotions were running high after McFarlane’s funeral. These feelings were compounded when the rebels attacked a mail carrier and discovered letters from Pittsburgh officials condemning the rebellion. On August 1, a force of more than 7,000 men, led by David Bradford, assembled at Braddock’s Field (a French and Indian War battlefield located in modern-day Braddock) to plan an attack on Pittsburgh. Those gathered started entertaining all sorts of wild ideas, such as seceding from the United States, and they even created their own flag to represent their cause.
As they approached the city, which had a population of only 379 very nervous residents at the time, they were met by an unusual form of resistance—the Pittsburghers had prepared an enormous and magnificent feast of ham, poultry, bear meat and (you guessed it) dozens of barrels of whiskey to appease the rebels. While a few of the insurgents chose to roam around hollering threats and insults, the overwhelming majority accepted the Pittsburghers’ hospitality and spent the day with them—many of whom, the rebels were to find out, also despised the whiskey tax.
That’s where the rebellion, for all intents and purposes, dissolved. But tax remained mostly uncollected in Western Pennsylvania, with some citizens continuing their talk of secession, and it made President Washington uneasy. After sending an unsuccessful peace envoy to the west, Washington decided to assemble federal troops to march on Western Pennsylvania, at Alexander Hamilton’s urging.
The expedition that followed was the first and only time in history that a United States president led armed troops against his citizens.
Twelve thousand men from Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania began their march from Philadelphia in October, 1794. Washington made it as far as Bedford before a bad back prevented him from further travel. General “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, Robert E. Lee’s father, took command from there.
Upon arrival, the massive federal force found that the rebel army had disbanded—the leaders had already fled. So Lee returned east, with no more than 150 suspected rebel prisoners in tow. After standing trial in Philadelphia, only two of the prisoners were actually found guilty of treason and sentenced to hang, but Washington pardoned them both.
Discontentment in Western Pennsylvania quieted after the events of 1794, probably because the tax continued to be very difficult to collect. The whiskey tax was repealed by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802. Jefferson, who voiced his opinion to President Washington before the tax was even enacted in 1791, was strongly opposed to the excise tax.
In the end, Washington’s expedition cost $1.5 million (more than $150 million today), about one third of the total collected during the entire lifetime of the whiskey tax. While this was arguably a wasteful undertaking, it was a critical moment in our young nation’s history—the first real challenge to the federal government’s sovereignty—and Washington proved that Americans were willing to take up arms against other Americans to protect federal law.
Where can I go to see Whiskey Rebellion sites today?
The Oliver Miller Homestead (South Park)– The first shots of the Whiskey Rebellion were fired on William Miller’s property. His father, Oliver, lived next door, and Oliver Miller’s home still stands in South Park today. The curators of the home, the Oliver Miller Homestead Associates, organize various events throughout the year including holiday celebrations, historical demonstrations and, as you might suspect, Whiskey Rebellion reenactments. The farmhouse is open to the public on Sundays.
Woodville Plantation (Bridgeville)– While John Neville’s home on Bower Hill was completely destroyed during the Whiskey Rebellion, you can still get a sense of his lifestyle at one of his other homes—the Woodville Plantation. He originally built the Woodville Plantation in 1785 as his country seat, since he also had a house in the city of Pittsburgh.* He gave Woodville to his son Presley shortly thereafter, and moved into the ill-fated house on Bower Hill. It is said that he cleared the trees in the ravine between the two properties so that he and his son could exchange signals from their upper floors. The home also served as a refuge for John Neville’s wife and daughter when they were permitted to escape the Bower Hill estate before it burned on July 17, 1794.
*John Neville moved to a home on Montour Island following the Whiskey Rebellion. The island is now known as Neville Island.
Old St. Luke’s Church (Carnegie)– In 1765, on the site of present Old St. Luke’s Church was a stockade designed to protect Fort Pitt. Major William Lea was given this piece of land as payment for his services in the French and Indian War, and he selected a parcel to be used for a church. John Neville helped Lea construct the original St. Luke’s Church in 1790. It was the first Anglican church west of the Alleghenies, and the majority of its members shared Neville’s Federalist leanings. Historians believe that Neville may have sought refuge at St. Luke’s Church after the initial attack on his home on July 16, 1794. The church that stands today dates back to 1852, and it is maintained by volunteers, since the site has not had a congregation since 1930. Old St. Luke’s Church is a member of the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Organizations, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and an affiliate of the Senator John Heinz History Center and the Scott Township Conservancy. It offers Sunday tours, a chamber music series and other historical events throughout the year. Learn more about Old St. Luke’s in a recent Mt. Lebanon Magazine story.
Mingo Cemetery (Finleyville)– The historical marker on this site claims it is the “cradle of the Whiskey Rebellion.” Members of the Mingo Creek county militia met at a log Presbyterian meetinghouse that once stood on this site to discuss the excise tax and organize their protest. Rebel leaders John Holcroft and James McFarlane, whose death at Bower Hill fomented the attack on Pittsburgh, are both buried in the cemetery.
David Bradford House (Washington)– David Bradford, the wealthy lawyer and Deputy Attorney General of Washington County who would lead the attack on Pittsburgh during the Whiskey Rebellion, built this home in 1788. He lived there with his family until 1794, when President Washington led his troops west to apprehend the rebels. Realizing he would be arrested, he fled to Spanish West Florida (modern-day Louisiana), where he built Laurel Grove (now called “The Myrtles Plantation,”) in St. Francisville and lived out the rest of his days as a planter. Incredibly, the David Bradford House in Washington still stands today as a testament to frontier architecture. Operated by the Bradford House Historical Society, it contains a historical exhibit and hosts various tours throughout the year. Drop-in visitor hours are Wednesdays and Saturdays from May through September from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Want to learn more about our local history? Visit the Historical Society of Mount Lebanon, or check out Mt. Lebanon Magazine’s history book, “The Way We Were.” Chapters below: