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The Whiskey Rebellion

Signals, April 2012

As we peruse with consternation our 2013 Allegheny County property tax assessments, with another group of aggrieved taxpayers: Western Pennsylvania farmers who violently opposed a 1791 excise tax on whiskey. This tax, contrived by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, was part of an effort to put the new federal government on a sound financial footing. Resistance to the taxation, which took the form of demonstrations, non-compliance and harassment of the tax collectors, was perceived by the government as treasonable —nothing less than a secessionist insurgency against the United States of America. Under President George Washington’s personal command, an army of 13,000, consisting of militias from Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland, was raised and deployed to Western Pennsylvania, suppressing the insurrection.

The excise of 1791 imposed a duty on every gallon of whiskey. The cash-starved subsistence farmers opposed both the tax and its imposition by what they perceived to be a remote, insensitive central government. The region’s timber, grain and meat were too heavy to be transported at a reasonable cost east across the mountains, and there was no certain market down the Ohio River. Whiskey was, therefore, the one commodity that could be relatively easily transported and profitably traded. A pack horse could carry at most four bushels of grain, but turn it into whiskey and the horse could carry the equivalent of twenty four bushels— that is, two eight-gallon jugs. Whiskey was consumed from cradle to grave by everyone on the frontier. It was indispensible to life, health and happiness.

A main focus of the tax resisters’ resentment was General John Neville (1731-1803), who represented power, wealth and social position as the Inspector of Revenue for the Fourth Survey District of Pennsylvania, a large area that included Bedford, Fayette, Allegheny, Washington and Westmoreland counties. Neville, a Virginian, became acquainted with the west as a soldier in Braddock’s expedition in 1755 and in Dunmore’s War. He was commandant of Fort Pitt from 1775 to 1777. Both the General and his son, Colonel Presley Neville (1755-1818), distinguished themselves during the Revolutionary War. Around 1775, General Neville began the construction of plantations known respectively as “Bower Hill” and “Woodville,” on either side of the creek known as Chartiers, seven miles from Pittsburgh. Both Neville and his son eventually owned houses in Pittsburgh as well.

The principal event of the Whiskey Rebellion was the July 17, 1794, burning of John Neville’s estate at “Bower Hill.” Some six hundred rebels converged on the estate, which had been fortified in expectation of trouble and manned by soldiers under a Major Kirkpatrick. They insisted that John Neville resign his commission. Neville had taken shelter in a nearby wood. When his absence was noted, the rebels demanded that they be allowed to search the house for Neville’s official papers. Permission was not given, and as violence seemed inevitable, the women in the house were permitted to find shelter across the creek at Presley Neville’s house, “Woodville.” The presence of the women there probably saved that Neville house from destruction. Gunfire was exchanged, and the leader of the rebels, James McFarlane, was mortally wounded. The rebels eventually forced the capitulation of the defenders at “Bower Hill” and proceeded to loot, then burn the entire plantation. The General and his son were able to find sanctuary in the city.

The Federal Government, as noted above, swiftly responded to this provocation by sending an army to punish the rebels, and some 2000 of them fled the area as the army approached. Twenty were arrested and taken over the mountains to Philadelphia for trial. None of them was ultimately convicted. The last troops left Pittsburgh in June of 1795. General Neville continued to supervise the collection of the tax. The document you see above, from the collection of the Sewickley Valley Historical Society, signed by John Neville as Inspector of the Revenue, lists duties on stills for the half year commencing the July 1 and ending December 31, 1798. The government collected $6689.84. (see at right)

In 1776, John Neville had bought a large island in the Ohio River five miles below Pittsburgh, first called Long Island, then Montour’s Island, and today known as Neville Island. In 1794, after the burning of “Bower Hill,” he built a house on this island.

In 1801, having rented out his Pittsburgh home, the General moved to Montour’s Island and died there on July 29, 1803. He was buried in Trinity Churchyard in Pittsburgh and subsequently moved to Allegheny Cemetery in 1902.

The surviving Neville plantation, “Woodville,” passed out of the Neville family upon its sale by Presley Neville in October 1814 to a Stephen Barlow for $12,000. The next owners were the Christopher Cowans; she was a niece of General Neville. Then came the Wrenshall family and the Fausets. After the death of Mary Wrenshall Fauset October 27, 1971, the property came into the possession of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation in 1976. Today “Woodville” is managed by the Neville House Associates.


Field Trip to “Woodville”

The John & Presley Neville House, 1375 Washington Pike, Bridgeville Saturday, April 14, 2012

A tour of the house and grounds at “Woodville” will be conducted by Rob Windhorst, President of the Neville House Associates. Rob graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania with a degree in marketing and history. He began volunteering at “Woodville” as a docent in the Fall of 1992 and in the following year began working with the Neville House Associates (NHA) in the development of their historic clothing program. In 1996, he joined the NHA Board of Directors as Director of Gardens, and for the next ten years, he worked to develop the demonstration kitchen garden that is located on the site today. In 2006, Rob was elected President of the Neville House Associates and is acting Executive Director. In 2007, he was instrumental in organizing the transfer of ownership of the site from Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation to the NHA. During the past six years, Rob Windhorst and the NHA have completed a room-by-room analysis of the house and have refurnished and restored each room at the site, creating a very accurate historical picture of life at “Woodville” from 1780-1820.

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