The Whiskey Rebellion

Washington leading the troops
Washington leading the troops

As discussed in our post about Johnny Appleseed, hard cider and whiskey were both an important part of early frontier life.  Both could be used as a preservative, for barter and trade as well as a drink.  Whiskey was used in place of money in the western counties of Pennsylvania as coin or currency was seldom seen by farmers living in this remote area.  The estimate was twelve hundred pounds of wheat, oats , or rye could be distilled into 20 gallons of spirits.  Those spirits could be poured into jugs and hauled by mule 300 miles from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, where they could be sold at the high price of $1 per gallon.  Much easier than trying to transport wagon loads of raw grain or produce over the rough mountain roads.  Since it was portable and profitable, whiskey took the place of cash as farmers paid for dry goods and seed.  Merchants traded it for supplies.  Even ministers accepted payment in jugs of whiskey.  Not only that it had an important social role as well.  It was used to toast the happy couple at weddings and mourn the dead at wakes.  Whiskey was believed to warm the body in winter and rejuvenate health in the summer.  That is why when a tax was proposed on this life giving necessity all hell broke loose.

It was nearly twenty years after the American Revolution began, and the new country was struggling with a staggering war debt.  Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, knew that for the young country to be self sustaining, it needed to find a source of income.  A tax on whiskey would raise $800,000 a year, which would pay off the national and state debts.  However, Hamilton was not dumb.  He knew the independant western farmers would not like the tax, but the country needed revenue more.  They would have to suck it up for the good of the country.

In 1790, he proposed an excise tax on all distilled spirits produced in the United States, which was instituted by Congress in 1791.  Large scale producers of alcohol accepted the tax, as they had to pay an estimate of 6 cents per gallon they produced. This cost got smaller the more spirits they made.   A smaller producer, such as a family farmer, had to pay about nine cents per gallon produced.  That amounted to about $6 of the $20 these families received in income per year.  The farmers of Western Pennsylvania threw back their heads and howled.  Taxes?  What did we fight the revolution for if we are going to have taxes again.  This government doesn’t represent us.  We rebelled once, let’s do it again!  

The rebellion spread like wildfire.  There was not one state south of New York whose western counties did not protest the tax with violence.  Protests ranged from simply not paying to forcibly preventing the excise officer from setting up an office in the county.  The rebels threatened any family who offered to house the excite office as well as threatening the excise officer himself with bodily harm.  Any officer who was brave enough to stay was tarred, feathered and tortured.  Liberty poles with slogans against taxation were displayed.

Hamilton warned President Washington against the dangers of rebellion.  He should know as he was part of a group that pulled off a successful one.  However, Washington was still hoping to reason with the rebels.  He issued a proclamation calling for the citizens to pay the tax and obey the law, and had Congress pass a law that anyone interfering with tax collection would be tried in Philadelphia.  People threw a fit saying Washington was as bad as George III wanting to try colonists in England.

Tax collector being tarred and feathered
Tax collector being tarred and feathered

Stalemate lasted for two years with isolated incidents of violence, but in 1794 widespread violence broke out again.  US troops were called in to protect the tax collectors and a federal marshal was killed in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.  Several hundred men burned the home of the regional inspector, and Pittsburgh was aflame in riots and mob violence.   A rebel army 5,000 strong prepared to march on the city.  On August 4, 1794, Supreme Court Justice James Wilson declared the western counties of Pennsylvania in open rebellion against the US government.

On August 7, 1794, President Washington issued a proclamation which called out a militia of 13,500 under the command of General Harry Lee, the Governor of Virginia and father of Robert E. Lee.  This was the same size as the army which defeated the British.  Washington, himself, put his army uniform back on and set out at the head of the army to put down the rebellion.  Whether it was the sight of Washington back in uniform or the threat of federal troops, the rebellion collapsed.  Hamilton was thrilled, however, the other founding fathers not so much.  James Madison and Thomas Jefferson had remained silent on the issue as he had cut a deal with Hamilton.  They agreed to assume for Hamilton’s plan of the federal government assuming the states’ unpaid revolutionary war debts in exchange for moving the nation’s capital to a more southern location.  Those debts had to be paid somehow, so the two bit their tongues.  Jefferson did resign from the cabinet and later said, “the first error was to pass it; the second was to enforce it; and the third, to make it the means of splitting this Union.”

Twenty rebels were put on trial in Philadelphia from the whole debacle, and only two of them were found guilty of conspiracy against the government.  President Washington pardoned both men.  The whiskey tax stood for six more years, and the farmers of western Pennsylvania headed further west where the long arm of the federal government could not reach them.  This began the time honored tradition of moonshine.  In 1801, then President Jefferson repealed the whiskey tax.


Sources available on request

The US’s Earliest Gold Rushes

13177497_270804473261642_1336971837894627600_nMost people think of the gold rush as the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, California in 1848.  However, there were at least two previous to Sutter’s Mill.

The first gold rush was when gold was found in Cabarrus County, North Carolina in 1799.  Conrad Reed found a 17 pound nugget in a stream playing on his family’s farm.  The boy and his family thought it was just a pretty rock, and used it as a doorstop for several years.  Conrad’s father took the rock to a jeweler in 1803 who recognized it as gold, but did not tell Reed.  The jeweler “took the rock off his hands” for $3.25, which was equal to the wage for a week’s labor on a farm.  A year later a slave on the Reed farm found a 28 pound gold nugget, and the Reeds figured out something was going on.  The began mining their property and became very wealthy.  By 1824, over 2,500 ounces of gold from North Carolina had been deposited in the Philadelphia mint.

The second significant gold rush was in Lumpkin County, Georgia.  Gold was found in 1828, and there are a variety of stories of how it was found.  From slaves finding gold in a stream to settlers finding in the roots of a tree a storm blew over, the stories are numerous.  However, there are no contemporary documents verifying any of the claims.  Settlers rushed to the area to try their luck at mining.  A boom town of Auraria sprung up to accommodate miners, but later mining activities centered in Dahlonega.

However, there was a problem.  Some of the land the gold was found on had been designated for the Cherokee Nation.  Tensions between the minors and the Cherokee escalated as more people flooded into the area.  It was estimated that there were 4,000 miners working on Yahoola Creek alone by 1830 and that was only one area.  The money at stake was enormous as by that same year the Philadelphia mint received $212,000 in gold from Georgia.

Tensions culminated in the Indian Removal Act and it’s enforcement by Andrew Jackson in 1830.  This forced the Cherokee off their ancestral land and moved them further west to “Indian Territory” or what is now Oklahoma and part of Kansas.  This became known as the Trail of Tears.  The Cherokee appealed to the Supreme Court and won, but Jackson ignored the decision.

Settlers swooped in to grab the land vacated by the Cherokee in the 1832 land lottery on 40 acre tracks.  The Dahlonega Mint was established in 1838 to accommodate the amount of gold coming out of the Georgia gold fields.  The Cherokee were just out of luck.


Sources available on request

The Michigan Ohio War

Mitchell Map from 1787 Photo Credit- Mental Floss
Mitchell Map from 1787 Photo Credit- Mental Floss

When I say the War Between the States, most people think of the American Civil War, which began in 1861.  However, that is not the first time states in the union were at odds with each other.  An example of this was the conflict between Michigan and Ohio in 1787.

The United States enacted the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, which defined the border between Michigan and Ohio as “an east and west line drawn through the southerly bend or extreme of Lake Michigan.”  The goto map at this time to outline territorial borders was the Mitchell Map.  Unfortunately, John Mitchell had no formal training in as a geographer and lived in Britain at the time.  As a consequence the map was wrong.  However, it was the authority used to draw up the border between Michigan territory and Ohio.  This put most of Lake Erie’s coastline including Maumee Bay, where the Maumee River emptied into the lake, in Ohio.  Before the advent of railroads, waterways were how people and goods were transported.  The bulk of Lake Erie’s coastline and the Bay gave Ohio a great trade advantage over Michigan.

However, there was a problem.  In 1803, the Mitchell Map was found to be incorrect.  The line should have been drawn so that Ohio would not have any of the coastline of Lake Erie or Maumee Bay.  This was a significant blow for Ohio, and they tried to fudge the boundary such that it now ran northeast from the tip of Lake Michigan to Maumee Bay.  During this time, the Erie Canal was completed connecting New York City to Buffalo, NY and they Great Lakes.  It upped the amount of commerce coming through the Great Lakes to and from the Eastern seaboard.  There was a lot of money flowing down the canals and lakes.

Map showing the Toledo Strip- Photo Credit- Google Images.
Map showing the Toledo Strip- Photo Credit- Google Images.

No one noticed the fudged border until 1833, when Michigan territory applied for statehood.  The Toledo Strip, as it came to be known, was claimed by both Michigan and Ohio.  Then things got ugly.  To try to get Michigan to relinquish its claim on the Strip, Ohio’s governor, Robert Lucas, used his political connections to deny Michigan statehood.  Michigan governor, Stevens Mason, struck back and cranked through the Pains and Penalties Act in February 1835.  This law said anyone in the Toledo Strip supporting the state of Ohio could be jailed for up to five years and fined $1,000, which is $25,000 in today’s money.  To back up the threat, he sent in a Michigan militia of 1000 men.  Governor Lucas countered by sending in an Ohio militia of 600 men.  It was a powder keg waiting for a spark.

Skirmishes took place in the Strip and both side tried to occupy Toledo, but no one was hurt.  It was just a lot of posturing until  the Michigan militia attacked a Ohio surveying party at the Battle of Philips Corners.  There is a dispute as to what happened.  The Ohio party said the Michigan militia fired at them, but Michigan said they just fired into the air.  Whatever happened, it just ratcheted up tensions between the two.  There was no bloodshed until July when Michigan sheriff, Joseph Wood, attempted to arrest Major Benjamin Stickney for voting in an Ohio election.  Stickney, along with his creatively named sons One and Two, resisted arrest.  This ended up with Sheriff Wood being stabbed by Two Stickney with a pen knife.  Not exactly a high casualty rate.

However, it was enough to send the two sides to the bargaining table and troops were withdrawn.  MIchigan and Ohio could not come to an agreement until December when Andrew Jackson stepped in.  He wanted to keep Ohio’s electoral college votes in the Democratic column, so he gave the Strip to Ohio but gave Michigan the consolation prize of the Upper Peninsula.  Sweetening the deal was the $400,000 surplus, $231 million in today’s dollars, that would be divied up between the states and not the territories.  Basically, if Michigan didn’t take the deal and become a state, they would miss out on the cash.  

The war ended with ended on December 14, 1836 after both sides accepted the deal proposed by Jackson at the Frostbitten Convention in Ann Arbor.  It was not without controversy as many Michigan citizens felt  the Upper Peninsula was wasted space.  However, vast mineral deposits were discovered in the UP and Michigan became the top producer of copper by the time of the Civil War and its top source of iron by the end of the century.  Ohio and Michigan still act out their war in the annual college football games.


Sources available on request


Publick Universal Friend

13103477_261459150862841_2079380680862841846_nJemima Wilkinson was born in 1752 to a Quaker family in Cumberland, Rhode Island.  Her mother died when she was twelve, and she was raised by her older sisters who taught her the traditional education of girls at that time-  riding horses, gardening, and reading the basics of Quaker theology.  Historian Stafford C. Cleveland wrote in his 1873 History and Directory of Yates County she “took pleasure in adding to her good appearance the graceful drapery of elegant apparel”, and was a lady of “personal beauty”.

At 16, Jemima became involved in the “Great Awakening”, a religious movement sweeping New England in the 1770s.  Jemima often sat meditating alone on the Bible in her room.  Soon after, Jemima fell ill with typhus fever.  She descended into delirium from a high fever describing visions of heaven and angels.  Her pulse slowed and she became immobile for 36 hours, and everyone thought she would die.  However, she came back from the edge.  She informed her family Jemima Wilkinson had “passed to the angel world”.  What was now inhabiting Jemima’s body was a spirit destined to “deliver the oracles of God.”  She said she would only answer to the name Publick Universal Friend.

The Friend made her first appearance preaching at the Baptist revival meeting the Sunday after her recovery.  She took the meeting by storm and was soon travelling around New England and down to Philadelphia.  Her message was very close to Quakerism- repentance from sin, humility, the Golden Rule- but it struck a chord with her listeners.  She went on to eschew formal church services, hold the Sabbath on Saturday and encourage celibacy.  The doctrine was loose and really was simply do unto others, but coming from a girl claiming to be a reanimated spirit it was revolutionary.

After the Revolutionary War, the Friend’s followers created a community in Central New York.  This region became known as the “Burned-Over District” because of the fervor of their later religious movements.  However, feelings of the fellow pioneers were mixed about the Friend.  She cut a strange figure in a flowing cape and wide brimmed hat.  A popular story about her goes as follows:

“One morning, the Friend led a band of followers to a lakeshore, where she preached to them on the powers of faith. She built to a fiery conclusion and then proclaimed she was going to walk on water. “Have ye faith that I can do this thing?” she demanded of the crowd. “Yea, we believe!” followers replied. “Then if ye have faith,” the Universal Friend said, “there is no need for any vulgar spectacle.” And with that she turned around, got into her carriage monogrammed with her initials, U * F, and rode off.”

The only verifiable part of this story is the monogrammed carriage, which still exists.  Her influence prevailed until her death in 1819, but even that was controversial.  Stories said her body was smuggled out of the basement of her home, but it was interred in a vault on her property.

It was the first of many religious movements to come out of the Burned-Over District.


Sources available on request

The Great New Orleans Fire’s of 1788 & 1794

The fire began on a Good Friday around about 1:30 p.m. at the home of Army Treasurer Don Vincente Jose Nuñez, 619 Chartres Street, corner of Toulouse. The priests refused to allow church bells to be rung as a fire alarm because it was Good Friday. Within five hours almost the entire city was ablaze. There was a strong wind from the southeast which helped spread the flames. Around 856 buildings were destroyed.

The fire area stretched between Dauphine Street and the Mississippi River and between Conti Street in the south and St. Philip Street in the north. The fire destroyed virtually all the buildings in what is now known as the French Quarter. It spared the riverfront buildings including the Customs House, the tobacco warehouses, the Governor’s Building, the Royal Hospital, and the Ursuline Convent. Colonial Governor Esteban Rodríguez Miró set up tents for the homeless.

The Governor summarized the tragedy:

“If the imagination could describe what our senses enable us to feel from sight and touch, reason itself would recoil in horror, and it is no easy matter to say whether the sight of an entire city in flames was more horrible to behold than the suffering and pitiable condition in which everyone was involved. Mothers, in search of a sanctuary or refuge for their little ones, and abandoning – their earthly goods to the greed of the relentless enemy, would retire to out-of-the-way places rather than be witnesses of their utter ruin. Fathers and husbands were busy in saving whatever objects the rapidly spreading flames would permit them to bear off, while the general bewilderment was such as to prevent them from finding even for these a place of security. The obscurity of the night coming on threw its mantle for a while over the saddening spectacle; but more horrible still was the sight, when day began to dawn, of entire families pouring forth into the public highways, yielding to their lamentations and despair, who, but a few hours before, had been basking in the enjoyment of more than the ordinary comforts of life. The tears, the heartbreaking sobs and the pallid faces of the wretched people mirrored the dire fatality that had overcome a city, now in ruins, transformed within the space of five hours into an arid and fearful, desert. Such was the sad ending of a work of death, the result of seventy years of industry.”12734059_227514550923968_6798930360722564208_n

After six years of rebuilding, on December 8, 1794, another 212 buildings were destroyed in the Great New Orleans Fire of 1794. Still a colony of Spain, rebuilding continued in Spanish style, and most French-style architecture had disappeared from the city. The Mississippi River front buildings were sparred.