The Daily

A Continuing Tea Party: “A gripping and sensational tale of violence, alcohol and taxes”

During the late 1800’s, my Great Grandfather grew up in Washington, Pennsylvania – about a half hour west of Pittsburgh. He begat my Grandfather who begat my Dad. That baby in the bottom right of the photo is my Granddad sitting on his Father’s knee in 1915 at a Reunion. James Thompson was awarded a medical degree from Washington & Jefferson College in 1895 and like many of the Scots and English settlers of what had been known as The Wilderness he was proud and stubborn.

Dr. James Thompson’s 1895 Diploma From W&J


This is, in part, a story about Appalachia – particularly Washington, Pennsylvania and the people who live there (like my family).

George Washington’s first Wilderness Expedition took him through Cumberland Gap (Maryland) in 1748. He complained bitterly in his journal about everything he came across: the mud, the bugs and the people – who he described as “a set of people as ignorant as the Indians”.[1] But connecting the American East to the what was known at the time as The Wilderness was more than a patriotic endeavor: Washington was after land for speculation.

To his credit, Washington accepted military promotions without pay in order to achieve the station he felt commensurate to his dignity. Which also afforded him the patriotic thrill of battle.

“I heard the bullets whistle, Washington proclaimed, “and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”[2]

But Washington’s prejudice regarding the Wilderness mountain settlers was not uncommon. Alexander Hamilton and his Federalists (advocates of a strong Federal government and Central Bank), considered themselves “men of wealth and opulence, who could buy and sell the whole race of ragged whiskey drinkers twenty times over.” This attitude was reflected in our Federal government’s decision, after the Revolution, to pay creditors before soldiers[3]. While the families who fought the war struggled and waited, Washington himself undertook to buy up their parcels and other targeted Appalachian tracts before the Government made good on its promises. Part of the lore is that Washington secretly held up the soldiers’ payments so that he could make more deals with families who otherwise had no hope of income. Mount Vernon was cash strapped, after all, and apparently too big to fail.

During these perilous times, ‘financial radicals’ made themselves known. As early as 1732, a salt tax ignited populist furor equated in pamphlets and broadsides with the presence of a standing army to enforce the tax.[4] After the Revolutionary War, Massachusetts farmers (unpaid for their service) were pursued by creditors holding high lending rates (some of the same banks that the Federal Government chose to pay before the soldiers). The farmers staged a 1786 courthouse riot that moved toward a Federal weapons arsenal in Springfield. The Shays Rebellion, as it is known, was quickly put down and only strengthened the hand of Hamilton, Washington and the Federalists against regional and Wilderness populations.

Ordinary folk (the ones getting paid last), began to treat taxes as attacks on their liberty. Taxes were, after all, the reason for the Revolution. And even though The Wilderness had representation in theory, it must not have felt like it given the priorities of the Federal government. At least to the farmers of Massachusetts.

In 1791, Hamilton conceived of the new nation’s first excise: a whiskey tax. Large town producers were easily able to absorb the cash/discount price but smaller rural producers were forced into the alternative and punitive bond[5]. In the Wilderness, particularly at The Forks (where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio – present day Pittsburgh) whiskey became synonymous with liberty.

Whiskey is elemental, alchemical – the product of boiling down the involved substances to their very essence. “Fermentation makes a virtue of spoilage, but whiskey won’t spoil.”[6] Wilderness settlers consumed whiskey in epic amounts. That certainly describes by Grandfather but I have insufficient personal knowledge to comment regarding Dr. Thompson.

In September of 1791, the taxman came to the Washington, Pennsylvania. At first, he identified himself as a teacher but soon after

Being “somewhat deranged in his understanding”, (he) also suffered the delusion that he was an excise man charged to travel the United States enquiring whether distillers were in compliance with the new law. The fellow’s vociferous claims to association with the tax soon resulted in an assault by a band of locals. Correspondence from James Brison to Governor Mifflin, 1792.

The mob of men that set upon the government agent were outfitted in women’s dresses and blackface for disguise. Indian disguises were also used for these rituals.

As Daniel Hamilton and the gang applied hot, noxiously fuming tar to the shaved pate and nude body of (the tax man, variously referred to as Robert Wilson or Johnson), the sludge’s oiliness was absorbed by his skin, and a scalding crust grabbed hair, holes, and pores clung everywhere. When he was sufficiently sticky the gang applied poultry feathers, which, when shaken over a freshly tarred victim, or when he was made to lie down and roll in them, bonded only with time and effort. The triumphant gang took his horse and fled. Anguished by the scorn due all public enemies, the taxman was left alone in the dark forest.[7]

Following this warning, as Hamilton considered bringing Federal troops to The Forks, Wilderness citizens formed the Mingo Creek Association at a local church for the purpose of mustering local militias against the Federal Government. Their plan was to storm and take Fort Pitt at the Forks.

What happened next – on November 13, 1791 – is known in local lore as The Dreadful Night.


[1] Thomas P. Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion, Page 79.

[2] Id. at 80.

[3] William Hogeland, The Whiskey Rebellion, Page 33.

[4] Slaughter at 16.

[5] Hogeland at 70.

[6] Hogleland at Page 65.

[7] Hogeland, at Page 23.