The Whiskey Insurrection
From The History of Bedford and Somerset Counties by Blackburn and Welfley published in 1906. Chapter X pages 149 - 154. Transcribed and donated by Batha Karr.
To the people of certain counties of southwestern Pennsylvania belongs the credit, or, more properly speaking, the discredit, of having been about the very first to engage in or to offer serious resistance to the authority of the Federal government.
The trouble grew out of an act of Congress, passed in 1791, that placed an excise tax of four pence on every gallon of whiskey distilled. This was less that ten cents on the gallon, but immediately it became known it raise a great storm of opposition in these counties, the people looking on this tax, small as it was, as being an unjust discrimination against them. The most of them were engaged in agricultural pursuits. But for their farm products there necessarily was but a limited market, and then only by transporting them in some way for great distances, and, with the bad roads then almost everywhere, much of this had to be done by pack-horses.
One of the principal products of the farm in those days was rye, and of this a pack-horse might be supposed to be able to carry as much as four bushels. But if the rye was distilled into whiskey a considerably greater quantity of it could be carried in that form. Besides this, there was a readier sale for the product of the still than for the grain itself. This led to the establishing of a great number of distilleries among the farmers all over Western Pennsylvania. It is said that in some localities every fifth or sixth farmer had one or more stills in operation, in which he converted his own and his neighbors' rye into whiskey.
With so many persons in one way or another interested in the distilling of grain into whiskey, the opposition to this excise tax soon became widespread, and before long it led to resistance to the officers of the government whose duty it was to enforce the law and collect the tax. In many instances these officers were maltreated in their persons, while in others their houses and other property were destroyed by fire. These troubles and disturbances have passed into history as "The Whiskey Insurrection."
It is not our purpose to enter into any history of this outbreak against the duly constituted authority of the nation any further than what it may be connected with that part of Bedford county that afterward became Somerset County.
Here there were not so many stills and consequently there were not so many persons interested in the matter. Yet there was more or less sympathy with the turbulent element that was inciting opposition and urging resistance to the law, and this feeling of antagonism was quite open. (It is known that there were at least 24 stills in this part of Bedford county.) Everything considered, this was not such a large number, although it is by no means certain that the list we have covers all of them. The persons owning and operating them were Peter Capp of Milford township, two stills; Stephen Bruner, Oliver Drake, Henry Noell and Jacob Smith, of Turkey-foot township; Jacob Countryman, two stills; George Matthias, Thomas Phraeton, Simon Phillips and Nicholas Miller, of Brothers Valley township; Christian Heiple, Philip Kimmell, Sr., two stills; Christian Livingston, William,McDermott and Michael Moury, of Quemahoning, and Michael Miller, of Elk Lick, who had two stills.
We do not wish to be understood as saying or meaning that all these owners of stills were up in arms against the law, or that they were in any way defying the authorities, for this is something we do not know. But, as will be seen, some of their number were more or less imprudent, and so got themselves into trouble, as did also some of their friends. But this feeling of opposition to the excise law was by no means confined to this part of Bedford county. The feeling against it was fully as pronounced on the eastern side of the mountain as it was on the western side.
The leaders of the insurrection, as it is now known, had issued a call for a general meeting of the inhabitants of the disaffected districts to meet at Parkinson's ferry on August 14, 1794, for the purpose of deliberating over the situation. At this meeting Harmon Husband appeared as a delegate from Bedford county. Whether he had any colleague we do not know. A standing committee was appointed, which in turn appointed a committee of conference to meet with commissioners of the United States and of the State of Pennsylvania. Of this committee Harmon Husband was made a member. The was giving him a prominent place in the movement and one which brought him into trouble.
Finally the situation became so acute in the more western counties that the government sent into the four western counties which were the center of the disturbance a strong military force, numbering almost fourteen thousand men, to suppress the insurrection, for such it had now become. This strong force organized into two divisions, both of which passed through what is now Somerset county on their way to the western counties. The larger one of these divisions passed though the county from Bedford, over the Pennsylvania or Great road through Ligonier. The other marched over the Braddock road through Uniontown. This division only traversed the county for the short distance that this road is within its limits, and of its movements while the county we do not know anything. Of the division that marched from Bedford over the Pennsylvania road we do have some account, and more of the homeward than of the outward bound march.
It was deemed of sufficient importance to cause the arrest of Harmon Husband and General Robert Philson. The latter was one of the principal citizens of Berlin, at that time already a well established village. We do not entirely know the manner of his offending, but among other things that the traditions of that day lay to his door is that he had erected a liberty pole in front of his home. Another is that he assisted in raising such a pole in the Diamond at Brunerstown (Somerset), from which floated a flag bearing the legend, "Liberty and No Excise." It is also alleged that Husband had something to do with the raising of this Brunerstown pole. Philson's trouble may also partly have been that of a great man (and such he was) in a small community doing too much talking. To effect these arrests it is said that an entire regiment was detached from the main body and marched to Berlin. His capture most have been effected at night, for the story runs that when his house was surrounded and his surrender demanded he raised an upper window and told them to wait until he got into his breeches. The military are said to have encamped on the ground where the German Reformed church (the edifice preceding the present one) stood.
One Michael Smith, who lived in Chester county, Pennsylvania, has left a rather amusing account of this march to Berlin. In substance Smith's account was that he was a teamster with the detachment sent toward Berlin. The night before reaching Berlin they were encamped at Buffalo run, on the east side of Dry ridge. The orders of the morning were to reach Berlin at all hazards, as there were a number of rebels there that must be captured the colonel urged speed, not even allowing him to water the horses the entire day. On approaching the creek at Allfather's mill he loosed the bridles, and as soon as the horses reached the water they themselves stopped. The colonel, with drawn sword, ordered him on, but the horses would not move. The colonel first struck at him with his sword, and then with a whip, but only struck his own horse in the eye, whereupon he threw the colonel into the creek. Before reaching the creek, while coming down the mountain, loud rumbling noises had been heard and it was thought the whiskey boys, or rebels, were preparing for defense. So when he left his team his only resources was to try and reach the supposed rebel camp, for the colonel would certainly punish him. He therefore took up the mountain in the direction of the noises heard. Making his way through the thickets, he finally found a man quarrying millstones, who had occasionally started one rolling down the hillside. Thus had one man alarmed and frightened an entire regiment of soldiers. The name of this man was Adam Menges. Staying all night with Menges, and getting better information as to the situation, he made his way next day to Berlin and took charge of his team, the colonel holding his peace as to the episode at the creek. Philson was the only person arrested at Berlin. When they left Berlin, Philson was riding a fine black mare of his own. When they reached the top of the mountain they halted to wait for the arrival of a party from Brunerstown. This makes it evident that Husband was arrested by a detail from this same detachment. Philson told his captors that if they would give him a good stick two feet long and his black mare he would whip the entire party, whereupon he was mounted on a slow horse and kept under a strong guard all the way to Philadelphia. Part 3 Samuel Statler, Sr., also left some reminiscences of the soldiers from this expedition: When the army returned it passed our place, and the name of Whiskey Boys applied to the soldiers was well deserved. The mud was about knee deep, and one-half the troops were beastly drunk, while very few of the other half were sober. An officer came ahead and told us to lock up everything about the premises, as they could not keep the soldiers from stealing everything that was not under lock and key. At length they began to arrive, some singly, some in pairs, and others in squads of a dozen or more. Some, by bracing themselves against others, tried to keep up the appearance of ordered ranks, but most, of them were struggling along without any show of discipline or subordination. And so they staggered along, whooping, singing and swearing altogether. They were spattered with mud. Some had fallen and were completely plastered over with it. We had a porch on one side of our house from which the musicians were invited to play. They drummed for a couple of hours, making a great deal more noise that music and were then treated to some refreshments. A strange circumstance that resulted from this noisy concert was that the rats, which were quite numerous about the place, were all frightened away, and did not come back for more than a year. The next day the infantry passed on their way, and on the evening following the Cavalry having the prisoners in charge encamped on the same ground. The prisoners, probably a dozen of tem, were all locked in one room together. They were by far the most respectable part of the company. They sang together the greater part of the night and seemed very happy. We had no granary at the time, and our cats had been threshed out and piled away on the barn floor in the chaff. The soldiers took possession of everything, and some of them put their horses in the barn on top of our oats. When I ventured to object to this, they told me to hold my tongue or they would send me to the devil. After their departure three freeholders were called in to assess the damages, which were paid by the commissary. To return to the two prisoners, Husband and Philson, who appear to have been the only two persons were arrested by the military in these parts. They were taken to Bedford, where Husband, and presumably with him Philson, was placed in jail. From there he wrote the following letter to his wife: Bedford Jail, Oct.22, 1794 Emy Husband: * * * I have just time to let you know that we who are prisoners here(are) to be sent off to Philada. at 10 o'clock. They who were the promoters of the riots and who set up the liberty poles seem to be in most danger. What evidence may be necessary to clear me of this I shall know better when I see my indictment. As to my writings, I expect that they will speak for themselves, for which what ever I suffer it will be my glory that my by argument only. I should be glad if I had brought all the manuscripts with me, but don't send them after me. A prison seems the safest places for one of my age and profession. Make yourselves easy about me, for I am so rejoiced that at times, old as I am. I can scarcely keep from dancing and singing, for which I cannot account. All my wish is that you make yourselves easy about me and enjoy all the happiness you can with (the ) industry and frugality which are my favorite principles. HARMON HUSBAND Part Four On the reverse side of this letter, which was still in existence four or five years ago, is the commencement of a petition addressed to the President of the United States, which breaks off with the words: "Your petitioner having been heard before the Honorable Judge Peters." This fragment would seem to indicate that these prisoners had been given a hearing before this judge, who, it is known, had accompanied the army on it march to the western counties. This letter to Mr. Husband's to his wife clearly shows that he meant to defend himself against the charge of having promoted riots or of having aided in raising liberty poles, and that his whole course was really in the interest of law and order. It is quite certain that some of those who attended the meeting at Parkinson's Ferry did so for the purpose of counseling the people to pursue a moderate course and of exerting their influence to bring trouble to a peaceful solution. But to do this successfully they were under the necessity of appearing to be in sympathy with and of ranging themselves among the disaffected. We believe it is a matter of history that the extremists did not have things entirely their own way at that meeting. If Harmon Husband had ever been brought to trial, such evidently would have been his line of defense. Among others present at this meeting was Colonel Richard Brown, who had formerly lived there in the Glades and who had been a near neighbor of Mr. Husband, but who at that time resided in Holliday's Cove, in the West Virginia Panhandle. By Colonel Brown, Husband expected to prove what his real attitude was on the question of resisting the authority of the government, and for this purpose he had summoned him to appear as a witness in his half. Colonel Brown came as far as the house of James Wells, who was his son-in-law and who resided on the Pennsylvania road. He was unable to proceed any further on account of illness. What Colonel Brown would have testified to may be gathered from the subjoined letter of James Wells: April 24, 1795 Col. Richard Brown came to my home on his way to Philadelphia at the request of Mr. Husband, and informed me that he was in a very poor state of health, so that he was unable to proceed any further, and he informed me at the Redstore meeting he saw Mr. Husband vote for peace, and in his presence advised several others to do the same. Br. Brown says Mr. Husband approved of Mr. Gallatin's speech and ridiculed Bradford's and said Bradford was a mad man for giving the people such advice to oppose the Government. Mr. Husband in Mr. Brown's presence recommended sundry people present to accept the terms of the commissioners as the best they could do at that time, and after the government was reconciled with the western people, then to petition for the repeal of such laws as they thought wrong. Mr. Husband informed Mr. Brown that his instructions were to vote for peace when he left Bedford county. Mr. Brown says several days before he left home, and that he so informed Isaac Husband and was so afflicted with rheumatic pains the he scarcely could travel when summoned by him in behalf of his father. J. WELLS To Harman Husband or his attorney. We think Mr. Brown said to James Wells as set forth in the foregoing letter should be accepted as good evidence that the claim of the descendants of Mr. Husband that their ancestor had used his best efforts to prevent violence and bloodshed has a good foundation whereon to rest. While Mr. Husband and General Phillson were both taken to Philadelphia, it does not appear that either of them was cast into prison there, but had the liberty of the city under a bond not to depart from it. Before his case came to trial Mr. Husband contracted a fever, from which he died in the summer of 1795. it is by no means certain that he would ever have been brought to trial if he had lived. General Philson was finally discharged without any trial. While Mr. Husband and General Philson were the only persons, so far as is now known, who were arrested in this part of Bedford County, they were not by a long way the only persons who were in trouble on account of their part in the whiskey insurrection. There had been more or less disturbance and conduct of riotous character in different parts of what is now Somerset county, and Captain John B. Webster, who was an excise officer, was assaulted by some over-zealous partisans among the opponents of the whiskey tax. The records at Bedford show that at the November term the following named persons were held to bail to answer charges of riot and other treasonous proceedings, and in assisting and abetting in setting up a seditious pole in opposition to the laws of the United States. At the following January term they appeared and were fined from five shillings to fifteen pounds each: Nicholas Kobe, Adam Bower, Abraham Cable, Jr., Dr. John Kimmell, Henry Foist, Jacob Holy, Adam Holy, Michael Chintz, George Swart and Adam Stahl, of Brothers Valley township; John Heminger, John Armstrong, George Weimer, George Tedrow, Abraham Miller, John Miller, Jr., Benjamin Brown and Peter Bower of Milford township; Emanuel Brallier, George Ankeny, Smith, of Quemahoning township; Peter Augustine, James Conner, Henry Everly, Daniel McCartey, William Pinkerton and Jonathan Woodsides, of Turkeyfoot township. It is by no means certain that this list of thirty-one names covers the entire number of those from this part of Bedford county who were involved in these prosecutions, for there are still other names that have a familiar sound that cannot positively be located. Some of these victims of the law were also owners of stills. It is said that George Ankeny, who probably was a son of Christly Ankeny, used to relate that he was going somewhere on horseback and came to where one of these liberty poles was being raised. Without dismounting from his horse he looked on awhile, and observing that the parties were having considerable trouble in getting the pole up, he suggested to them that they place a plank between the butt end of the pole and the side of the pit, after which he rode off about his business. For his advice in this matter he was haled into court with the others and paid a good round fine, adding to the story, "I suppose I got off cheap enough."
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Last Revised: December 7, 2006