My grandfather spent most of his days underground, as a cutter in his cousin’s coal mine in Imperial, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh. At night, he would arrive home looking like he had been through an explosion. Outside the kitchen door, my grandmother kept a large metal tub full of water to soak the coal dust off his clothes.
Most nights he would open a quart of light pink wine after dinner and shoot the breeze with his buddies, at the kitchen table in the winter and outside on rockers the rest of the year, and then fall asleep in his clothes. The wine came from his two dozen or so cherry trees. My grandmother’s job was seven kids and a constant supply of cherry pies. In the coal cellar, rows of wooden shelves were lined with her Mason jars of cherries, peaches, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and rabbits. The rabbits, skinned and headless, floated in vinegar and spices. Green pears ripened on a shelf, individually wrapped in newspaper. A five-gallon stone crock of shredded cabbage stood in the corner, fermenting into sauerkraut. There was no refrigerator.
My grandfather died in 1951 in the same small white frame house where he was born in 1886, a house that his father had built in 1884. I was in fourth grade when he died. He and my grandmother lived downstairs in two rooms, my parents and I upstairs. In what is now Whitehall, an upscale Pittsburgh suburb, the house sits on an acre that my great-grandfather bought in 1883 for $250.
Along with the cherry bees, that acre was home to a pig or two, a lamb, some chickens, a couple of rabbit dogs, and, under a pear tree, a sturdy two-hole outhouse. “Their toilet’s inside and they eat outside,” I remember my grandfather saying, remarking on the peculiar practices of some of our newer neighbors.
He never had a car, or much of a road. The front street was dirt or mud in the summer and covered with ashes in the winter. Each morning after breakfast (usually sauerkraut), he would toss ashes from the coal furnace onto the street. There was no gas furnace or salt truck.
The street was eventually paved when one of our neighbors called the mayor after a rainstorm and told him that a house full of kids was aflame. The firetruck, unable to make it through the mud, convinced the local council to appropriate funds for some asphalt.
Those harsh times, impoverished by today’s standards, fostered a certain autonomy and self-sufficiency—and vulnerability. Supermarkets didn’t supply the lamb chops, the news didn’t come from Peter Jennings, and the wine didn’t come from a liquor store. In its self-reliant daily grind for essentials, it was an existence not altogether dissimilar from the toil and obstacles faced by small farmers and laborers in western Pennsylvania a century earlier.
Hard times, exhausting work, and homemade spirits were fundamental components of life at the close of the 18th century in Pittsburgh. “In Washington County, there were about 500 stills by 1790, one for every ten families,” writes Thomas P. Slaughter of Rutgers in The Whiskey Rebellion. “The desire to fill local needs and discover a profitable commodity for inter-regional exchange led farmers to distill their grains into whiskey.”
Slaughter tells the story of how a federal excise on domestic spirits ignited an armed insurrection in 1794 by 7,000 settlers in western Pennsylvania, the first large-scale resistance to a federal law. “Independent of habit,” declared anti-excise petitioners in Westmoreland County at the time, “we find the moderate use of spirits is essentially necessary in several branches of agriculture.” For one thing, whiskey, a principal medium of exchange in the undeveloped barter economy of the region, was utilized to secure an adequate supply of agricultural laborers. Independent frontiersmen migrated to western Pennsylvania seeking land and prosperity, and for many, to escape the grip of laws and Eastern values. Mountains and self-determination separated them from the wealth, army, and culture of the Eastern elites and central government.
Unfortunately, a profound disparity existed between their inflated expectations of liberty and fortune and the harsh realities of frontier life. The best land around Pittsburgh was owned by Eastern speculators. “Croppers,” laborers who farmed the land of others and paid their rent in crops, made up one-fourth of the population. Housing was typically a small dirt-floored cabin, the economy was in decline, and the settlers learned to expect nothing of value from the state or national government. Despite promises from Eastern politicians, the inhabitants of the region lacked protection from Indians, the Spanish still frustrated navigation on the Mississippi, and the lack of roads limited access to markets.
On March 22, 1791, Abraham Russ and his family were preparing for dinner at their cabin on the banks of the Allegheny River, 20 miles from Pittsburgh. Seven Indians arrived and requested to eat with them. After the Indians finished their meal, they scalped their hosts, killing one woman, four men, and six children, and then set fire to the cabin. “Almost everyone knew someone who had lost a wife to the Indians, or a child to a panther or bear,” reports Slaughter. “Widows could attest to the rage of the Monongahela at floodtide.”
Cosmopolitan Eastern visitors characterized Pittsburgh as “a parcel of abandoned wretches,” its inhabitants as “the scum of nature,” living like “so many pigs in a sty,” David McClure described undomesticated masses who considered themselves “beyond the arm of government and freed from the restraining influence of religion.”
“Female seduction was frequent, quarreling and fighting decidedly customary, drunkenness almost universal,” observed William Winans in Recollections of Boyhood Years in Southwestern Pennsylvania, 1788-1804. On Sunday, religiously, said Winans, men met not for church but to “drink, to settle their differences and to try their manhood in personal conflict.” With “very few exceptions,” Pittsburgh’s populace was “about as wicked as fallen human beings can be on this side of utter perdition.”
“Presbyterian ministers were afraid to come to the place,” observed John Wilkinsin 1783. “All sorts of wickedness was carried on to excess and there was no appearance of morality or regular order.” Others noted with horror the amount of whiskey consumed per capita and the number of one-eyed men, victims of eye-gouging. To most visitors and many residents, reports Slaughter, the “dominant traits of life” in western Pennsylvania were a combination of “irreligiosity, immorality and dirtiness.”
In this rebellious and godforsaken milieu, a federal tax on homemade spirits provoked the largest armed resistance to an American law between the ratification of the Constitution and the Civil War. By taxing the output of subsistence farmers, rather than land, the “moneyed men” of the Eastern elite—absentee land owners, international merchants, and security speculators—imposed an unjust and regressive tax that threatened the liberty and economy of the frontier. The enemies of freedom, they declared, were a remote Eastern elite who “make fortunes by the fortuitous concurrence of circumstances, rather than by economic, virtuous and useful employment.”
The Whiskey Rebellion began on July 16, 1794, as hundreds of armed men marched to the first large estate in the Pittsburgh region. Bower Hill, the home of John Neville, regional supervisor for collection of the excise. Following a two-day battle and several deaths, the mob torched Neville’s house, slave-quarters, and outbuildings.
In Pittsburgh, a lone horseman, waving a tomahawk, rode through the streets chanting his warning: “It is not the excise law only that must go down. The government’s high offices and salaries must go down. A great deal more is to be done. I am but beginning.” Rural hordes plotted the destruction of the city, called “Sodom” by the rebels. “It was an expression that Sodom had been burnt by fire from heaven,” explained Hugh Brackenridge, a leader of the anti-excise rebellion, “and that this second Sodom should be burned with fire from earth.”
In a call to arms against Pittsburgh and its garrison, 7,000 armed rebels met at Braddock’s Field on August I and raised a six-striped flag, representing four Pennsylvania counties and two counties in Virginia. Speakers called for a civil war, military alliances with Spain and Great Britain, and an independent Westsylvania.
The next day, President Washington called an emergency cabinet meeting. Portraying western Pennsylvania as exceptionally recalcitrant to taxation. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton advocated an armed response to vanquish the region’s “general spirit of opposition.” Two days later, Washington secured an official confirmation from Supreme Court Justice James Wilson that a state of rebellion existed. The anti-excise uprising had expanded to eight western Pennsylvania counties—Allegheny, Washington, Westmoreland, Fayette, Bedford, Cumberland, North Cumberland, and Franklin.
To crush the insurgence, the President nationalized 13,000 militiamen from Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania in late September and dispatched them to western Pennsylvania. The first casualty was a young boy in Myerstown, not complicit in the protests, who was rounded up in a mass search for suspects who had erected “liberty poles.” A physical debility kept the boy from standing as directed by his captors. He died from a gunshot wound to his groin. Two days later, the army killed a drunken man during a struggle at a tavern in Myerstown. Stabbed by a bayonet, the man uttered “Success to the whiskey boys” as his last words.
On October 4, President Washington arrived in Carlisle, outside Pittsburgh, a week after citizens had declared at a town meeting that the rebellion was over. The President, pronouncing that the time for “overtures of forgiveness” had ended, demanded “unequivocal proofs of absolute submission.”
After months of rampaging the Pennsylvania countryside in search of anti-tax rebels and traitors, the army accumulated 20 obscure characters for transport to Philadelphia, to be tried for treason. “Liberty poles” sprouted up each night along the army’s route.
Wearing “the appearance of wretchedness,” the Pittsburgh captives arrived in Philadelphia on Christmas day. A victorious army paraded its prisoners down Broad Street to the roar of immense crowds and the blast of artillery. The bells of Christ Church rang, ships displayed their colors in the harbor, and a band played as the procession and “rebels” passed by the President’s house.
For a variety of reasons, juries freed all but two of the defendants. John Mitchell, the owner of a small farm, and Philip “Wigle” Vigol were convicted of treason. Months later. President Washington pardoned both, while around Pittsburgh, Slaughter observes, “over 2,000 of the most disaffected frontiersmen migrated farther into the continent’s interior, thereby ensuring for themselves at least a temporary escape from the ever-lengthening arm and increasingly strong grip of the central government.”
Had he been living in those years, it is my bet that my grandfather, given his self-reliance, grit, and steely resolve to do things his own way, would have been out front in that migration.