Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Gen. John Neville was an aristocrat in every sense of the word. He possessed wealth, power, and prestige, but in 1794 many of his western Pennsylvania neighbors would have prefer­red to see him dead. They believed he had betrayed them when he accepted the position of inspector in charge of col­lecting the new tax on whiskey.

As the fledgling nation faced a severe economic crisis resulting from the American Revolution, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed that internal taxes be levied. Congress responded by plac­ing a tax on domestic whiskey and hired agents to collect it. Neville had once been the most beloved Revolutionary War hero of the entire Pitts­burgh region; now he was a despised traitor.

The federal government’s 1791 tax on whiskey enraged frontier farmers. Agents col­lected the tax, which was pay­able only in cash. Back country farmers turned their grain crops into spirits because it was too difficult to transport the raw grain to markets east of the Allegheny Mountains. Whiskey itself was the cur­rency of the remote wilder­ness: what farmers did not drink themselves they used to pay hired workers and to bar­ter when they went to market. They did not have cash to pay these taxes – they had whiskey. Without money, farmers faced a rigorous three hundred mile journey to Federal Court in Philadelphia, which meant time away from farming, fur­ther complicating their hard­scrabble existence. Angered, the farmers blamed Congress for passing such a harsh law.

Opposition to the excise tax spread wildly throughout the frontier, from Tennessee to Pennsylvania, but it was John Neville who incited violence in the Pittsburgh region. Ironi­cally, during the 1780s, a politi­cal balance, with Neville as its fulcrum, had kept Pittsburgh politics in check. At first, Neville protected the farmers while following the aristocrats, pleasing both parties. He then abandoned the backcountry farmers and joined the elite. Because the excise tax was an issue that so fundamentally affected the farmers, fighting erupted.

Gen. John Neville in no way resembled the country folk whose farms surrounded his home. Class distinctions were sharp, and he was rich and they poor. By 1790 he had acquired ten horses, sixteen head of cattle, twenty-two sheep, and eighteen slaves in a period when a single cow and one horse were a luxury to his neighbors. Livestock was not the only measure of Neville’s wealth, however. European furniture filled the rooms of Bower Hill, his clapboard mansion, while expensive paint and paper decorated its walls and carpet covered the floors. His treasured posses­sions included a map, a gun, and a sword collection. In addition to his worldly goods, Neville was known as the philanthropist who had estab­lished the first Episcopalian Church west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Neville did not live like his neighbors, nor did he think like them. For instance, he disapproved of farmers attack­ing Indians, an attitude his puzzled neighbors thought bizarre when the story of the Corbley family made its rounds on the frontier. Accord­ing to the story, Indians am­bushed the Corbley family early one Sunday morning and shot the wife, dis­membered the baby, and scalped the older daughters. Neville never bothered himself with what his neighbors thought. He was brave, princi­pled, religious, and stubborn. He believed his judgment to be better than that of the local farmers. Considering himself a gentleman of rank and pres­tige, he had dedicated himself to the good of the public, and the collection of the tax on whiskey typified his belief in the concept of noblesse oblige.

Ironically, Neville person­ally opposed the excise tax. As a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, he had voted in favor of a resolution condemn­ing it. Local residents believed that he had ignored them, and many thought he had accepted a bribe from the federal gov­ernment. Why else would he support such a law that he himself had denounced? For John Neville, however, duty to one’s country was more impor­tant than one’s personal beliefs and desires.

In August 1792, Neville established a tax collection office on land belonging to William Faulkner. A few days later twenty men, their faces smeared with vivid war paint to resemble Indians, attacked the Faulkner property. They stormed into the house, throwing furniture around as they searched for Faulkner. Several of the frustrated ma­rauders began to mutter threats about torching the house, but they settled for shooting holes in the ceilings of all the rooms, leaving the house in shambles. They later found Faulkner who had been searching for army deserters, and threatened him with tar­ring and feathering and the burning of his home. Faulkner wanted no trouble. He prom­ised to evict Neville.

General Neville knew it would not be easy to find another office and, as he wrote to George Clymer, he feared he would “be obliged to desist from further attempts to fulfill the law.” In fact, throughout 1793 Neville was unable to establish an office. Everyone knew that back country farmers were serious about fighting the whiskey tax, and Washington County’s magis­trates advised Neville that they could not guarantee his safety. “At all events I will venture to say,” he wrote in June 1793, “that the law will not be car­ried into execution until gov­ernment find it convenient to make examples of some of­fenders. Every exertion that has hitherto been made by two or three … officers has been defeated. The delinquents have passed unpunished, and in fact triumphed over the officer.”

June 1793 marked the first public demonstration against Neville. At a meeting of the Washington County militia, a group of one hundred gath­ered to burn him in effigy. Neville commented that the group had displayed “a great deal of illiberal stuff against me and the law, they exposed it [the effigy] during the day and in the evening consigned it to the flames, regretting that it was not me instead of the effigy.”

Although his neighbors loathed him, Neville’s aristo­cratic friends ardently sup­ported him. “John Neville, a man of the most deserved popularity,” wrote Judge Wilkinson of Buffalo, New York, “was appointed collector, for Western Pennsylvania; he was one of the few men of great wealth who had put his all at hazard for indepen­dence. Beside his claims as a soldier and a patriot, he had contributed greatly to the relief of the suffering settlers.”

In June 1794, John Lynn gave Neville a second chance to open an office. A few days later a dozen individuals who had coated their faces with black mud attacked the house. Lynn heard them approaching and blockaded himself in an upstairs room. The mob burst into the house and searched room by room for Lynn. They finally found him and when he removed the barricade, they grabbed him, shoved him around, forced him down the stairs, and threatened to hang him. They took him to an isolated place in the woods, where they chopped off his hair, stripped him of his clothes, and proceeded with the ritual torture of tarring and feathering. Lynn swore that he would never again allow an excise officer to work on his property. He was left tied to a tree, where he stood until found the following morning. Lynn told Neville to leave his land. Neville wrote that “his landlord ordered him off, and the people of the town are for immediately banishing him.”

It was little wonder that John Neville’s unpopularity mushroomed. That spring he launched a campaign against distillers who still refused to register their stills. Neville and Robert Johnson, one of his hired agents, began a full month of intense registration near the borders of Washing­ton and Fayette counties. Neville grew more detested by the day; he learned that sixty hostile farmers regularly fol­lowed him on his rounds. James Kiddoe resisted register­ing his operation, but Neville and Johnson forced him to comply. Not long afterward, a mob attacked Kiddoe’s farm­stead, destroying his still and setting fire to his house. Kiddoe felt lucky to have es­caped with his life. William Coughran obeyed the law and registered his still, but an angry crowd wrecked not only his still, but his grist mill and saw mill as well. Unable to save his property, he remained unharmed, even though his life was threatened.

One day in March 1794, Neville, his wife, and his granddaughter returned home on horseback after an excur­sion to Pittsburgh. As they climbed a steep hill, Mrs. Neville’s saddle slipped. The three stopped and Neville began to readjust it. While he worked, a man on horseback rode up. The stranger recog­nized Neville and cried out, “I must give you a whipping!” He leapt from his horse and grabbed Neville by his throat and hair. Neville flipped the man onto the ground and began to choke him. He re­leased him only after the as­sailant begged for his life. The attacker fled and the Nevilles returned home.

Several days later Neville heard rumors that the dissi­dents were planning to capture him. From that day candles burned all night in Neville’s mansion and he armed his slaves with rifles.

On May 31, 1794, District Attorney William Rawle ob­tained more than sixty sum­monses which required tax delinquent farmers to appear in District Court in Philadel­phia. The collection of the tax alone infuriated the farmers, but ordering them to Philadel­phia sounded the alarm for warfare. U. S. Marshal David Lenox, entrusted with serving the writs, departed Philadel­phia for western Pennsylvania on June 22, 1794. By mid-July he had completed serving the summonses in Cumberland, Bedford, and Fayette counties and managed to avoid violence.

Hugh Henry Brackenridge, a Pittsburgh politician and a member of western Pennsyl­vania’s aristocracy, hosted a dinner party on the evening of July 14, during which Lenox and Neville were introduced. Neville offered to guide Lenox through Allegheny County, an offer which the U. S. Marshal accepted.

In the early morning hours of July 15, David Lenox and John Neville set out from Bower Hill to serve several of the remaining writs. Before noon they had served four summonses, and at mid-day arrived at William Miller’s house. The summons infuri­ated Miller who flatly refused to accept a copy of it. As Lenox finished reading the document Neville turned and noticed a band of men approaching. The men – who had heard that a federal marshal was dragging farmers to Philadelphia against their will – brandished rifles and various barnyard weap­ons. Lenox and Neville de­cided to resist the attack and rode towards the mob. Un­flinching, they rode through the mob and past it, but after fifty feet separated them, a shot rang out from the ranks of the crowd. The bullet injured no one and the officials de­parted Miller’s farm. Lenox returned to Pittsburgh, Neville to Bower Hill.

On the very same day as the encounter at the Miller farm, the Mingo Creek militia gathered as word about the incident outraged its mem­bers. John Holcroft decided to lead many of the militiamen to Bower Hill the following morning to capture the marshal. They believed Lenox was at Neville’s Bower Hill and were unaware that he had returned to Pittsburgh. At dawn on July 16, 1794, tax agent John Neville watched grimly from his front porch as several dozen infuriated farmers charged his house. He ordered them to disband, but they ignored him and continued their siege. Neville ran inside, secured the doors, and pointed his gun through a chink in a barricaded window. The crowd stormed across the property, and when they were in range Neville fired. To the astonishment of his attackers, Neville sounded a signal horn and rifle fire burst from the slaves’ quarters. Stunned and overpowered, the attackers fled. Five were wounded, and one lay dead in Neville’s yard.

Neville believed that the assailants would return and sent out a plea for help. Maj. James Kirkpatrick and ten soldiers from Fort Pitt an­swered his call. At 5:30 P. M. more than five hundred rebellious militiamen paraded from Couche’s Fort. Although the undisciplined mob’s actions had been chaotic, this new force organized themselves and agreed upon an attack plan. They sought revenge for Neville’s murder of their comrade.

Before Bower Hill was sur­rounded, Neville retreated to a thickly wooded ravine. The militia, meanwhile, elected James McFarlane their leader; he dispatched written de­mands to the mansion. The militia called for Neville’s surrender, his papers, and the relinquishment of his current office, along with an oath stating he would never accept another excise office. Major Kirkpatrick offered McFarlane a six man search party to take any records from the mansion that they could find. McFar­lane responded that he would agree only if Kirkpatrick’s soldiers left. Kirkpatrick coun­tered that he could not dismiss his troops because the militia would evidently destroy Neville’s mansion. Before long the militia grew restless, sur­rounded the mansion and set fire to the barn, slave quarters, and storage bins. The women fled Bower Hill and as soon as their horses passed out of sight, the battle began and raged for more than an hour. McFarlane accidentally stepped out from behind a tree and was shot in the cross-fire. Eventually the kitchen of the mansion caught fire and Kirk­patrick surrendered.

Bower Hill crumbled and John Neville and his family sought safety in Pittsburgh. Later that evening, the militia captured U. S. Marshal David Lenox and took him to Couche’s Fort, where intoxi­cated farmers threatened his life and inflicted superficial throat wounds. The farmers celebrated their victory with whiskey and torture. But sev­eral hours after his capture, Lenox managed to escape and – much like Neville – re­treated towards Pittsburgh.

The so-called Whiskey Rebellion finally ended when Pres. George Washington decided to send troops to the region in fall 1794. Twelve thousand soldiers marched into western Pennsylvania from eastern Pennsylvania, as well as from Maryland, New Jersey, and Virginia. Officials captured twenty rebels, tried two of them and found them guilty; however, they were both pardoned. The tax on whiskey remained in effect, weakly enforced by collectors and rarely paid by farmers, until a Republican Congress slashed all internal taxes dur­ing the administration of Thomas Jefferson. Had Gen. John Neville sacrificed his home and honor among friends and neighbors for naught?


For Further Reading

Baldwin, Leland D. Whiskey Rebels: The Story of a Frontier Uprising. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1967.

Boyd, Steven R., ed. The Whiskey Rebellion: Past and Present Perspectives. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Brackenridge, Henry Marie. History of the Western Insur­rection of 1794. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Brackenridge, Hugh Henry. Incidents of the Insurrection in the Western Parts of Pennsyl­vania in the Year 1794. Philadel­phia: John McCulloch, 1795.

Clouse, Jerry. “The Whiskey Boys Versus the Watermelon Army.” Pennsylvania Heritage. 17, 2 (Spring 1991).

Craig, Neville B. The History of Pittsburgh With a Brief Notice of its Facilities of Communica­tion and other Advantages for Commercial and Manufactur­ing Purposes. Pittsburgh: J. R. Weldin Company, 1917.

Egle, William Henry. Pennsylvania: Genealogies Chiefly Scotch-Irish and German. Baltimore: Genealogical Publish­ing Company, 1969.

Findley, William. History of the Insurrection in the Four Western Counties of Pennsylvania in the Year 1794. Philadelphia: Samuel Harrison Smith, 1796.

Jones, Robert F. George Wash­ington. New York: Fordham University Press, 1986.

Knight, David C. The Whiskey Rebellion, 1794: Revolt in Pennsylvania Threatens Ameri­can Unity. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1968.

Shenk, Hiram H., and Esther Shenk, eds. Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: National Historical Association, 1932.

Slaughter, Thoms P. The Whis­key Rebellion: Frontier Epi­logue to the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.


Chadwick Allen Harp, a native of Jeffersonville, Pennsylvania, resides in Arlington, Virginia, and serves as the assistant to the dean for research at the George Washington University Medical Center, Washington, D. C. He received his bachelor of arts degree from George Washington Univer­sity’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences in 1989. His articles, essays, and short stories have appeared in the Washington Post, Arizona Republic, Washington Times, Montgomery Advertiser, Tampa Tribune, and Tampa Times. In addition to his nonfiction work, the author is currently working on two novels.