The Whiskey Rebellion: Bower Hill (Part 3)

General John Neville finds the rebellion has come to his doorstep.

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Show Notes

If you thought it was odd for Robert Wilson to go through torture to live out life as a spy, wait until you hear the comedy of errors that is George Clymer. If Hamilton wanted a war, he was making a pretty good show of it. And the episode ends with an epic battle that would forever be a symbol for the violence that took place in Western Pennsylvania.

Enjoy the prelude to the finale. The rebellion is on.


The First Shots Across The Bow

To Captain William Faulkner, the scene had to be surreal. It was 10 years past the war, but here today, he stood staring at his very own tavern, riddled with bullets, and thoroughly dismantled and trashed on the inside. Even the sign that featured George Washington’s face swung helplessly in the wind, splintered and filled with bullet holes.

It must have seemed like anarchy has replaced civility.

Meanwhile, at the newly christened Fort Lafayette in Pittsburgh, General Anthony Wayne was having trouble keeping his new troops from deserting. The threat of Indian attacks had the fort’s new soldiers on edge and several deserted on August 8th.

Back in July, the fort’s first deserter had been shown leniency by the General. But “Mad Anthony” as he was known, wasn’t going to be so kind with his latest punishment. The men needed a lesson. This latest batch of deserters would meet a much more dire fate - some in front of a firing squad and some at the end of a rope.

The mood around the rest of The Forks wasn’t any better. The farmers were in fear of farm seizers for not registering stills, Shawnee attacks were on the uptick, and a gang of enforcers were striking fear into revenue agents who dared collect a half-cent from a single citizen.

This motley band of marauders would soon become known as the Mingo Creek Association. From a little Presbyterian church in Washington County, they had set themselves to the task of upsetting any part of Alexander Hamilton’s planned tax enforcement and there was one particular new rule they aimed at for their agitation.

No longer would revenuers have to scour the countryside attempting to register stills - instead, each county would need to set up an office for the Inspector of the Revenue so farmer-distillers would come to them.

And in Washington County, General John Neville begged on the good graces of his neighbors to offer him a tax collection office. He placed an ad in the Pittsburgh Gazette, requesting a modest space to rent.

But the men from Mingo Creek weren’t about to let a tool of the Federal government have his way. They put the word out that if anyone made a space available for Neville and his office, there would be hell to pay.

The threats scared just enough locals that Neville’s ad went unanswered for weeks - until finally Captain William Faulkner offered up a room in his tavern.

But it didn’t take the Association long to let Captain Faulker know, he had just stepped over a line.

While out on patrol one day, searching for some of the deserters from Fort Lafayette, he was met by a small band of men - not far from where Robert Johnson had been attacked just a year before. They let the Captain know, in no uncertain terms, that any letting of rooms on his property to General Neville - or any tax agent for that matter - would put him, his wife, and his property in danger. They even threatened to scalp him.

And now that he had made the offer to Neville, rescinding the offer wasn’t going to be enough - Captain Faulkner would need to make a public pronouncement in the Gazette, proclaiming his tavern off-limits to all revenuers.

Whether he was brave or suicidal, Faulkner dismissed the threats and rented to Neville anyway. He wasn’t about to let a band of thugs scare him out of supporting one of his army brethren.

Apparently feeling generous, the rebels decided to send a subtle warning. They ripped the sign announcing the excise office from Faulker’s tavern door. Yet, the Captain made no pronouncements.

So the next warning came in the form of 20-30 men, loading up their rifles and pistols and taking shots at George Washington’s face on the tavern sign. When Captain Faulkner didn’t emerge from the house, the rabble got frustrated and beat down the door. When they realized the Captain and his wife weren’t home, they ransacked the house.

Standing gobsmacked in front of his tavern and home, surveying the immense amount of damage, and thanking the Lord he and his wife had been out on errands, he finally relented. His ad, placed in the August 20th Pittsburgh Gazette stated for the record that he would no longer be renting to any excise man.

Flushed with success, a mix of radicals and moderates met in Pittsburgh the next day, at what was called “A meeting of sundry Inhabitants of the Western Counties of Pennsylvania.”

And while the group appointed moderates like Albert Gallatin to head the group, it would be the more radical elements from Mingo Creek that would carry the message of the day.

One of these radicals was a brilliant Washington County attorney named David Bradford. Bradford was making it his life’s mission to fight the Whiskey Tax.

He had no interest in Gallatin’s idea of persuading Philadelphia to simply adjust the tax. This was war, and if the government wouldn’t rescind the law, Bradford would need to oversee a well organized militia. And if citizens needed to be kept in line, like Captain Faulkner had been, he felt - so be it. The aggressiveness of the tax was an affront to the people of the West and Bradford felt justified in retaliating. If Hamilton wanted to flex his muscles, then those living at The Forks would do the same.

The Anti-Social Clymer

Back east, the first to respond to all of this mayhem was Pennsylvania’s main collector of the excise, George Clymer.

Clymer was a patriot through and through. A man who gave voice to the colonist’s discontent over the Stamp Act, being one of the first to suggest breaking free from the clutches of King George III. He was also a member of the Continental Congress, a signatory of the U.S. Constitution, and one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. And while he understood first hand the cause of liberty, he also had his legacy on the line if this excise act got out of hand.

He decided to take the initiative and headed out west to see if he could find a way to bring this violence to a close. Yet, for all of his bravery when he was in his 20s, at 53 he had taken on a certain amount of caution. He wasn’t quite sure how these rebels would react to a former agitator coming to their area telling them how they should stand down.

So, apparently not learning lessons from Robert Wilson’s failed spy fiasco, he decided to create a false identity.

He told the first few people he encountered that he was Secretary of War Henry Knox. The only problem with this cover is that everyone knew that Henry Knox was heavyset - and Clymer was thin as a rail.

After seeing eyerolls and hearing chuckles when he announced who he was, he decided he’d better pick up a new alias. So, he changed his name to Smith - and just to be sure he wasn’t figured out, he swapped clothing with the servant he had traveling with him.

But Clymer was so clumsy at stabling his horse, that it was obvious to anyone that saw him, he was out of his element. Soon whispers started going around Pittsburgh that they had a “spy” in their midst.

Not wanting to take any chances, Clymer went straight to Fort Lafayette and requested soldiers for his protection. Next, he headed to court to meet with Judge Alexander Addison. He asked Addison to take depositions to get the names of the attendees of that summer’s Pittsburgh Convention. He needed names of agitators and this seemed his best way to accomplish that.

But Addison told Clymer he couldn’t do the bidding of a Federal agent, simply because he was a state appointed judge and the request would have to come from a representative of the state, not the feds. He suggested that if he followed through, he would be making the state of Pennsylvania a department of the federal government.

Incensed, Clymer used this rebuke to suggest to Hamilton that judicial law had broken down at The Forks and that the judiciary was now part of the insurgency.

Later, while dining with General Neville, Clymer was told, none of this is unusual and, as the General put it, the whole of Western Pennsylvania had become a den of drunks and insurrectionists.

Hamilton’s War

After the attack on Captain Faulkner’s tavern, fear was gripping agents in the area. And this judge's unwillingness to do the federal government’s bidding, had Hamilton incensed. And threatening of revenuers wasn’t just happening in Western Pennsylvania. Western Carolina revenuers were resigning left and right - and Kentucky wasn’t even attempting to enforce the tax.

At his wit’s end, Hamilton took his case to the president, demanding something be done to show the federal government meant business. President Washington went to Attorney General Edmond Randolph and asked if they would be able to get indictments on those that attended the Pittsburgh Convention. Randolph responded by saying that citizens had the right to assemblage, but that he could potentially prosecute for the destruction of Captain Faulkner’s tavern.

Wanting to get something on the record, Hamilton quickly penned a presidential proclamation and handed it to Washington. In it, he condemned the convention, the Faulkner attack, and threatened the use of troops if necessary.

Washington took the proclamation to Randolph, who crossed out the threat of military action, and then Washington signed it. Washington told Hamilton that military action should only be used only as a last resort. And if it came to that, only state militias should be used, not a federal army.

Winter again eased the violent tensions - but just as with the previous year - taxes weren’t being collected either. As March winds gave way to April’s spring blooms, it wouldn’t take long for 1793 to take on the appearance of a repeat performance.  Things got off to an unsettling start as Fayette County excise man Benjamin Wells watched his home burn to the ground, while vandals terrorized and abused his family. Warrants would be issued, but the High Sheriff of Fayette County refused to execute them.

And Wells would be terrorized two more times during the year. First, he would face a tarring and feathering, and then later, he would face the point of a pistol, being told to disavow the Whiskey excise law and his role with the federal government.

Westmoreland County’s deputy excise officer John Lynn also fell victim to the Association and faced tarring and feathering as well.

And Washington County’s own General John Neville would escape bodily injury but would hear of his likeness being burned in effigy by a mob of around one hundred.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

For Charles-Henri Sanson, the position he was in on January 21st, 1793 had to be awkward at best. One holding the position of royal executioner under King Louis XVI of France, he now stood at the guillotine watching the hairs on the back of his monarch’s neck, moments before watching the blade sever the life blood from the king.

Word of the mania gripping France took time to cross the Atlantic, but when it did, it renewed some of the more passionate feelings of revolution, but also brought an uneasiness to the Federalists who had gained a stronger foothold in the Capital with the retirement of Thomas Jefferson from Washington’s cabinet. Could a French-like fervor develop within those that were fighting the excise tax?

While that fear was mostly unfounded, the energy of it seemed palpable to Hamilton. To him, all of this unchecked violence only served to destabilize the federal government. The more radical elements of the West had Hamilton’s full attention and were driving the narrative.

But for the average farmer, the original goal hadn’t changed. They simply needed to get the law revised to something more realistic - something that better fit the economics of the region.

But if it weren’t bad enough for the farmer’s facing a stubborn federal government, now they had a new problem coming from the other direction. And his name was Tom the Tinker.

No one knows with 100% certainty who Tom the Tinker was, but his voice was strong and his mission well-known around the region. And Tom was definitely no voice for the farmer - just the opposite, in fact.

His method for killing of Mr. Hamilton’s tax was to write essays in newspapers and pen threatening letters to any of the farmers who dared comply with the law. If they did, he would offer to mend their stills, which was a sarcastic way of saying he would riddle them with bullets. And complying with a federal officer might also mean the burning of your barn and the killing of your livestock by Tom the Tinker’s men.

A farmer named William Cochran was one of the first to feel the heat of these threats. He had been told he would be tarred and feathered and his barn burned for complying with the government.

One of the inspectors said that he was warned, there wouldn’t be a house left standing in Allegheny County of any person complying with the law.

William Richmond, who had ratted out some of the rioters in the Robert Wilson affair had his house burned to the ground, as well as his barn filled with the season’s store of hay and grain.

And it wasn’t just action that would set off Tom the Tinker’s men - all you had to do was speak favorably about the law and you could face retribution.

So where was the poor farmer to turn? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Where Is The Federal Government?

What possibly could have been going through George Washington’s mind at this time? His Secretary of the Treasury was urging military action. His Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson had declined to serve out a second term, frustrated with the Hamilton faction, and his new Secretary of State Edmond Randolph was urging diplomacy.

Washington was no stranger to Western Pennsylvania. As a youth, his first job was as a surveyor and he made maps of the Northern Neck of Virginia, not far from the Alleghenys. As a young officer in the British army he would take part in an incident that would kick off the French and Indian War and under his leadership, he would have to surrender troops at Fort Necessity - in what would become Fayette County. He also owned land in the region - land that he had been thinking of selling due to all of the recent instability.

As Jim Ambuske of the Washington Library at Mount Vernon mentioned during our interview, Washington’s decision making would go through a process. And that process always started with the enlistment of opinions by some of his most trusted confidants.

22 min

“His style came from 7 Years War with family of Braddock -aide to camp

Braddock solicited opinions from others. Washington took that.

Asked officers to solicit written opinions. Then gather them in a council of war. Look for consensus. Sometimes knew what he wanted to do, but solicit opinions.”

And while he had enjoyed a fairly diverse cabinet through his first term, things were changing in his second. Randolph would not only take up Jefferson’s seat at the Secretary of State, but he would also become the lone opposition to Hamilton’s influence on Washington. Hamilton would soon become frustrated with his counterpart and would threaten to leave the cabinet like Jefferson did, but whether it was a tantrum or a genuine disgust with his ability to get things done, he soon changed his mind.

As for his excise law, well Congress, under the suggestion of Hamilton rival and Western Pennsylvania Congressman William Findley, finally acknowledged the issues farmers were faced with traveling to Philadelphia’s federal courts and on June 5th, 1794, changed the law to allow writs to be heard in local state courts. And that action alone may have helped to ease the tensions, if not for a plan that had been brewing for some time between Alexander Hamilton, Attorney General William Bradford, and William Rawle, a federal district attorney in Philadelphia.

A little less than a week before the change in the excise law, these three men worked to place 60 writs in the hands of U.S. Marshal David Lenox, to be served on western farmers who hadn’t paid the tax. His timing of departure would mean those being served would have to appear in Philadelphia under the old rules. What was curious was that the summons required the offenders to appear in Philadelphia courts in August, when they were closed. Attorney General Bradford later remarked that he never intended to hear the cases in Philadelphia and he was just pushing for compliance. But why would these men do something so provocative during a time when the countryside was on the brink of insurrection.

And this is where having a polarizing figure like Alexander Hamilton at the center of the argument creates rampant speculation between historians. Was he trying to provoke the use of the military to show federal authority, or was this simply trying to enforce the law already on the books and the change was simply inconvenient timing?

But for many farmers and distillers in Western Pennsylvania, unaware of the approach of David Lenox, it was Tom the Tinker that posed the most imminent danger.

James Kiddoe, who had complied with the law, watched in horror as his still and his house were shot up. And as if that wasn’t enough, the vandals returned later and destroyed his grist mill and confiscated some of his property.

William Cochran was also revisited and sustained additional damage to his property and had his still mended.

Whether it was the Mingo Creek men, the Washington County democratic society, or Tom the Tinker’s men, Liberty Poles soon began rising across the region and flags with Don’t Tread on Me began to dot the landscape. Liberty Poles had been used since pre-Roman times to signify freedom from slavery. A red cap or flag would be placed at the top of the pole. They had been used in the colonies since the time of the Stamp Act and to dismantle one was an act of aggression.

For General Neville, it was time to make his voice heard. He sent out a notice that all stills needed to be registered before the end of June. Attempts were made to open offices in Westmoreland and Washington Counties. Both buildings took gun fire by night attackers, but somehow managed to stay opened.

Concerned for the state of his own property, Neville prepared his slaves for the possibility of attack on his home Bower Hill. And his attempts to send tax reports back to Philadelphia soon became fruitless as his men were being assaulted and their records stolen.

Meanwhile, Robert Johnson was back in the news. He had set up an office in Washington County, in the home of John Lynn. The rebels sent the two of them a message by pulling the excise tax office sign off of the house. When that didn’t work, 12 men painted in black soot broke into the house, called for Lynn to come downstairs, tied him up, threatened to hang him, and then dragged him out in the woods and tarred and feathered him. He was told to swear to never open another office in his home or to reveal the identity of any of his attackers. He was bound naked to a tree and left alone, only wiggling free by the next morning. Not having made mention of his compliance in the paper, the vandals returned and destroyed another part of his home. Meanwhile, Robert Johnson finally decided enough was enough and he quit the tax collecting game.

You’ve Been Served

With possibly the worst job in the United States at the time, U.S. marshal David Lenox had arrived in Western Pennsylvania in late-June with those 60 writs in his hand.

Having served a large number of writs without issue, Lenox was in Pittsburgh preparing for the final leg of his journey when he attended a dinner party hosted by local politician Hugh Henry Brackenridge. It was there that he made the acquaintance of General John Neville. Neville offered to chaufer Lenox around the countryside and Lenox graciously accepted.  But the next morning, when the party took off to serve the first of four writs, the hair on the back of Neville’s neck must have stood up as he realized there was a posse of 30-40 men shadowing them.

They came to the farm of a war veteran named William Miller. Miller had been a long time supporter of General Neville, but today he knew wasn’t going to be a friendly visit.

Miller knew he had no means to pay the tax, nor could he afford the expensive trip east to get to court. In an attempt to avoid this circumstance, he had tried desperately to sell his farm so he could start a new life in Kentucky - but no offers were forthcoming. And so the day he had dreaded and had hoped to avoid was upon him. And not only did he have a Federal Marshal from Philadelphia on his land, but he was insulted to see that the man he had long supported had joined in to add to his misery.

Lenox read the writ aloud and then told William to pay the $250 on the spot or be sent to Philadelphia.

Seeing William’s agitation, the posse started to move in. Neville said something to Lenox and next thing you know, the two men are riding their horses full speed toward the mob. As they darted through and past the hodgepodge of angry farmers, a shot rang out...no one knew who shot and luckily no one was injured. Lenox took off for Pittsburgh and Neville returned to his home at Bower Hill.

Having prepared for this moment for quite some time, Neville gathered the enslaved men on his property, gave them instructions, and dug in for the evening. But to his surprise, night fell without incident.

But the next morning, the silence was broken early by the sound of a band of angry farmers shouting at his home. “Send out the marshal” they yelled.

The leader of the mob appeared to be John Holcroft, a local agitator who had taken part in Shays Rebellion years before, and a person thought to be Tom the Tinker. There was no telling what this mob had in mind. Neville stepped to his door and began shouting at the men to disperse. Then men started charging the hill, Neville aimed his gun at the crowd of men storming toward him and shot and killed a cousin of William Miller. The farmers pulled back, but Holcroft gave the order to fire on the house. For 25 minutes a series of gunshots rang across the front of Bower Hill with some of Neville’s servants firing back.

Neville, who was quite the sharpshooter, hit four more men and Holcroft had to order a retreat. They decided to stop at Couche’s Fort about 4 miles away, and put the word out that they needed reinforcements.

Neville, sensing this was just the beginning, sent word to Major Abraham Kirkpatrick at Fort Lafayette that he desperately needed help. Kirkpatrick responded by bringing with him a group of 9 men to help protect the plantation.

Bower Hill Attack

Overnight, Major Kirkpatrick had urged the General to evacuate the house. There was no telling how many men would return to avenge the loss of Oliver Miller in the morning and Neville’s presence would only inflame the situation. As distant drums could be heard the next morning, Neville was led to the safety of the woods and waited in a ravine to hear the fate of his plantation. Soon the drums grew louder and a force of some 600 men started filtering up the road and between the trees. If they were a ragtag band of farmers the day before, today they were an organized fighting unit, under the command of Captain James McFarlane, a local Revolutionary War hero.

They immediately ordered Neville to come out and resign his post. Major Kirkpatrick informed the militia that the General wasn’t there. When they persisted, he asked that the General’s family be allowed to leave, as Kirkpatrick’s men had no intention of leaving their post. With the family spirited away, a massive gun battle ensued, engulfing the area in a heavy smoke for at least a full hour. During a brief silence, the leader of the rebels, Captain McFarlane assumed incorrectly that parley had been called for and that a negotiation for surrender was to begin.

Standing up, he was cut down immediately by a bullet - and died on the spot. This confused and incensed the rebels who spared no ammunition in firing at the house. They also torched many of the buildings but listened to the enslaved residents pleas not to touch their quarters. Kirkpatrick, with no chance of being able to overcome these great odds came out of the house and surrendered.

The militia put him under arrest and carted him away. Meanwhile the rebels broke into the house and raided the General’s whisky supply. They ended the affair by burning the mansion to the ground.

At one time, one of most elegant and prestigious homes west of the Alleghenys, Bower Hill now only sat smoldering in ruin.

In next week’s conclusion to the Whiskey Rebellion, an angry mob marches on Pittsburgh. Alexander Hamilton succeeds in convincing Washington of the need to raise a militia. And George Washington becomes the first and only American president to head an army as it prepares to put down an insurrection. That’s next time, on Whiskey Lore.

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life, LLC

Research, stories and production by Drew Hannush

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Once again, I want to send out a thank you to Dr. Jim Ambuske and Jeanette Patrick from the Washington Library for their help in this episode. As we tie things up next week, I will also share with you some of the interview we had about my favorite president, President George Washington and we’ll get some initial thoughts in on George Washington’s distillery before I unveil the story of Washington’s distiller James Anderson. It is all coming up next week on Whiskey Lore.

And until next time, cheers and slainte mhath.