Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Tales from the Whiskey Rebellion
By Scott Beveridge
Some of the better stories are hidden between the lines of David Froman’s eyewitness account of the infamous Whiskey Rebellion in the late 18th century in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Told in his memoirs, “Sim Greene and Tom the Tinker’s Men,” they reveal wonderful tidbits about the pioneers who settled the Monongahela River valley.
Froman had no idea steel would someday become king there when he first laid his eyes upon the lush forests in his new home. Later, some of his companions would encounter killer pirates downriver on the Ohio River while they traded their goods. Meanwhile, the faithful in these backwoods gathered for endless hours at tent revivals to worship the Lord, while others set about to exploit the natural resources they were discovering.
This author penned the book in a flowery prose, beginning with his following a group over the Allegheny Mountains in 1788 so he could establish the first schoolhouse in Elizabeth, the only town between Brownsville and Pittsburgh that had an established a system of streets at the time.
“Away it stretched until in the misty distance it seemed to merge with some clouds lying low along the western horizon,” he wrote about his first glimpses of the rolling green hills of America’s early wild west. “Long we stood on this farthest rampart of the great Appalachian chain feasting our eyes and feeling the thrilling power of the landscape.”
His party reached its destination from Philadelphia, having witnessed the migration of pack squirrels, averted a mountain lion attack and survived a fast-sweeping forest fire by hugging close to a small stream. He obviously had a fascination for the main character, Sim Greene, a colorful hunter, trapper and Revolutionary War hero who seemed to play a minor role in the tax revolt that became the first major uprising against the United States.
While Froman admitted that rebellion of President George Washington’s tax on Monongahela rye whiskey to pay down debt from the American Revolutionary War was dead wrong, his book leads one to believe he kept his opinions to himself while it took place because he was a good friend of the rebels. Had he been brave enough to speak out against the movement when it was in full force, the anarchists would have surely tarred and feathered him rather than permit him to tag along to their meetings and demonstrations. They had drawn a bitter line between their ranks and those who supported the new government.
While historians have long argued over whether the notorious Tom the Tinker was an individual or the character represented a group of protestors, Froman identified him with certainty as John Hollcroft of the Finleyville area. The farmer sneaked under the cover of night to destroy the whiskey stills of those who submitted to the tax, or posted warnings about how he planned to retaliate against the tax collectors.
After the tax fight was quelled, the men of Elizabeth built from a wood a marvelous schooner capable of carrying 250 tons of local goods down the Mon to New Orleans. Of course the ship, the Monongahela Farmer, was christened with a bottle of local rye whiskey and it completed its maiden voyage.
Froman wrote the book on his deathbed, and requested it to be published 50 years after his death so not to embarrass the farmers who fought the tax or any of their immediate heirs.
In the end, he resurrected the legacy of a friend – Harold Harden - who fled Elizabeth under the threat of arrest by U.S. marshals for his alleged participation in a tax riot. A rumor followed Harden’s escape that he had joined up with the pirates who hid out in a place called Cave-in-Rock that contained the many skulls of their victims. But, Froman eventually reported that the pirate under suspicion back home was actually the man's long-lost twin brother. The good brother, alas, had become a devout minister.
That tale left me wondering if this book, while it was hard to put down after all these years, should have been classified in bold print as a piece of nonfiction.