Sunday, June 14, 2009

"We ain't paid no whiskey tax since 1793"

Whiskey Tax Proclamation

Whiskey Still

In early January 2003, the two-hundredth anniversary of my fourth great-grandfather’s death day and my third great-grandfather’s becoming the youngest member of the Lewis & Clark expedition, I joined my husband whose work had taken him to the east coast . I had lost both a job and my health insurance and gone off my anti-depressant rather precipitously which sent me into one of--thankfully few--scary yet strangely interesting bouts of madness, if madness is defined as a change in one’s judgment and perception.

We were settled in Princeton, New Jersey, and since I had only recently discovered that I had family ties to western Pennsylvania, I wanted to drive there to check it out. On the map, it didn’t look far. A child of the west, map distances frequently confound me, never really approximating the relative ease or difficulty of crossing a challenging landscape. Thus, I launched myself toward Claysville, Pennsylvania, with just enough money for the return gas: I had determined to avoid the toll roads.

This is how I discovered my ties to Appalachia.

On mountainous roads, in my husband’s little red import (he had not wanted me to go on this adventure), I discovered coal trucks, ice slicks, backwoods trailer homes, pockets of poverty and rural isolation. The leaves were stripped by winter and the only thing moving was smoke from a rare chimney. (Don’t let anyone tell you that genealogy is an armchair pursuit, for those seeking refuge in nostalgia while taking comfort in the present.

y Shannon ancestors (my mother’s wilder Irish side) were the frontiersmen in my family tree, not the pioneers, mind you, but the ones who seemed to leap further and further west into difficult terrains and conflicted situations, like the Lewis & Clark Expedition and the period known as Bleeding Kansas which served as the run-up to the Civil War. They were also around for the conflict in which the newly formed United States government first used the military against its own civilians in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

My first ancestor on my mother’s father’s side to arrive on the North American continent was orphaned here at age five in 1760. George David Shannon (born between 1755 and 1758, died in 1803) crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Ireland with his parents whose names are lost in the mists of time. His mother did not survive the crossing and her body was disposed at sea. The father, a businessman, must have panicked when he arrived in a Delaware port with a young child; he hastily delivered the boy to the home of an Episcopalian minister in Wilmington, then returned to Ireland, not to be heard from again. (One record states that he may have succumbed to an illness back in Ireland and died.)

The year must have impressed itself upon the boy as one of his most traumatic, and although the tale is told that he was treated as a member of the minister’s family, in all likelihood, he was signed over as an indentured servant because he wasted no time after reaching maturity setting out on his own. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, when Shannon would have been around 18, he enlisted as a private in Captain James Young’s company, 8th Battalion, Cumberland County Militia (Cumberland, Pennsylvania) commanded by Col. Abraham Smith. Eventually, he would leave the relatively civilized colony of Delaware for the haunts of southwestern Pennsylvania; one record states he achieved the rank of Captain for “gallantry in service.” [There are a number of Shannons, including possible relations James Shannon and John Shannon, both from Pennsylvania, who fought at Valley Forge.]

George Shannon married a farmer’s daughter, Jane Milligan, in Bedford, Pennsylvania, in 1783. Bedford is just north of the Pennsylvania turnpike, which was built along an old Indian trail, and at the center of the bottom boundary of the state; there is a recreated pioneer village there that you can visit which was closed on the January day I drove through. Also here is Espy House, where George Washington and his force of 13,000 headquartered as they prepared to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.

Claysville, Washington County, Pennsylvania, aerial view

After his marriage, Shannon and his bride crossed the mountains and settled near the town of Claysville, in Washington County, Pennsylvania, "upon lands now known as the Porter Farm, but then were called Waller’s Fort as a blockhouse had been erected there by the first settlers." After tromping around Claysville in the snow, trying to get information about any Shannons in the area from the local hardware store and checking out the cemetery up on a nearby hill, I wandered down to Wheeling, West Virginia, where the Lewis & Clark 200th anniversary was still being celebrated. Following the prescient purchase of Louisiana territories from the French, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find a way west. This was to enact America’s “manifest destiny” to occupy the entire continent; my ancestor, George Shannon‘s first-born son (also named George) would sign on to the Corps of Discovery and become its youngest explorer.

This was an era of major land grabbing fostered by the great colonial and expansionist European powers. America was in competition for the western half of the North American continent with the Russians, French, Spanish, and English.

But let’s back up just a bit: before Lewis & Clark, the powers that were saw a lot of land in the "then" west, now our mid-west, to secure, clear, and keep from native hands. Land speculation was in the air from the beginning of our colonization. Even before the Revolution, speculators had an eye set on quality real estate once the little problem of colonial independence was resolved. George Washington, who almost single-handedly launched the French & Indian War back in the mid-18th century, was one of the western region’s largest landholders, having surveyed and sent his surveyors, to scope out quality chunks of land.

According to Thomas P. Slaughter, “During the 1760s and 1770s Washington mounted a campaign for land on the frontier more impressive than any he ever executed as a general--and more successful. He had an acquisitive genius and was a ruthless exploiter of advantage.”
While most of Washington’s--and other land speculators'--lands were acquired legally, many massive sections of land were taken illegally; on a number of these plots there were frontier squatters of Scottish, Scots-Irish and German extraction. Many of these folks had been pushed out of their homes in the old countries by skyrocketing rents, or starved off their lands by famine and economic depression. They were mostly Protestants with the fearlessness, tenacity, and desperation to confront native peoples, wild land and animals, but who were not sufficiently financed to secure the land for themselves in most cases. What the frontier offered was land and freedom, although neither came in the size and quantities as promised in the promotional brochures that enticed foreign settlers to emigrate then migrate into the interior of the newly created United States. In short, they were tough people who scratched their survival on the western side of the Appalachians and never got very far ahead economically in this nation, which is true even of today.

*** In the federal election of 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama got himself into hot water by getting quote out in a quote he made at a private fundraiser. He referred to the people of rural and western Pennsylvanians as ‘a bitter people clinging to their guns and religion.‘ Although that was the quote heard round the world, what Obama was acknowledging before saying this, was that here was an area of rural poverty that had never received much help from the government, had lost many jobs, and were beaten down. The physical geography is one of rough rolling hills and mountains that harbor pockets of coal. In 2003 I saw small farms and dairies, and a lot of land that looked like you couldn’t do much with it except hunt varmints and maybe deer. (I actually found it very beautiful in the winter, but then I was off my meds and my rocker just a tad.)

In the late 18th-century there were enough hunters and farmers willing to make it a homeland of independence and freedom. They were self-sufficient and didn't depend on the cash economy of soft eastern money men. Instead of coal, these adventurous settlers relied on barter and trade, using their prized commodities of animal furs and whiskey. Any good frontier Scotsmen knew a thing or two about running a still, after all. This rural economy would soon clash with the evolving eastern markets in one of America's first tax rebellions. The Whiskey Rebellion took place in and around Washington County, where one in ten families owned a still and rural families were often better off than the townies because of it.

Several factors came together in a perfect storm to foment the Whiskey Rebellion. The first was the increasing immigration to the frontier by these aforementioned pioneers. Between 1720-1775, there were major migrations of Protestant-Irish and native Scots to the western lands, mostly along the spine and flanks of the Appalachian/Allegheny mountain chain. According to Thomas Slaughter, historian of the Rebellion, the American-born descendants of these early settlers lived “in a cohesive geographic area” in the mountains of what later became Pennsylvania, Virginia, then West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North and South Carolina.

There is an old joke about the arrival of people from Britain and Ireland that goes: When the English came to the North American continent, they put up forts and towns, courthouses and formed militias; when the Irish arrived, they squatted at the edges of these towns, dug the ditches, built railroads, churches and pubs; when the Scots came, they took one look at these urban developments populated by English and Irish, and headed west as fast as they could, toting their guns and seeking freedom.

Slaughter states that “Geography formed the heart of the western country’s character, and paradox marked the center of its topographical face. The western country lay at the crossroads of European wars for the continent. It stood at the military and geographical center of English and French contests for North America. It was isolated though, from the population centers of the English colonies--now American states--by the Appalachian chain of mountains.” The Eastern establishment politicians and settlers depended on these westerners to keep the Indians at bay and to clear as much area for white settlement as possible, although there was not much regard for their culture or compensation for their militia actions. In fact, most of the land was held by absentee landlords. America was in the early throes of European-styled stratification. “For most frontiersmen, life was very hard during the 1780s by any standard. For most it got worse over the decade. In 1780 more than one-third of western Pennsylvania’s population was landless.”

While most were having trouble hanging on to property, others, mostly outsiders, were heavily involved in land speculation, to the extent that the bottom 10% of taxpayers was falling behind in land ownership as the top 2% of taxpayers increased their land ownerships from owning 26 to 35% in the mid-1790s. As Slaughter puts it: “Speculators were never popular in the region. Washington and other absentee landlords monopolized much of the area’s best land while local farmers labored to scratch a living from what remained. Washington owned thousands of acres and did not even farm or live on them, although he tried to hide these facts by having his agent build dummy dwellings on these tracts. It just did not seem right to the local people.” The majority of settlers, roughly a quarter of the population were “croppers,” tenant farmers, developing the land but not owning it.
Washington was one of the largest absentee landholders, owning over 63,000 acres of trans-Appalchia. And, speculators and the excise men who came round trying to collect taxes, were none too popular among the landless farmers.

A major and distinctive population influx, an imbalanced landholding situation in a rural economy based on goods and an exchange of services rather than cash, and a heavily armed and fiercely independent culture, tipped the area into a bloody conflict that was violently put down by none other than the father of our country and one of its most prosperous landlords. Enter the whiskey tax.
I cannot drum up the spirit of George Shannon to ask him whether he knew of George Washington’s and others’ land speculations; all I know is that my ancestor did end up in western Pennsylvania, owned property there and later in southeastern Ohio, and lived at the heart of the region during this rebellion.

Reading the story of the western territories’ revolt against the whiskey excise tax imposed by George Washington and Alexander Hamilton in the late 18th century, I keep wondering what usefulness is this history to me, sitting here in my California coastal living room in the early years of the 21st century.
The immediate relevance has to do with the fact that I, too, live life close to the edge.

The frontier borders have certainly shifted and “civilization” has won over wilderness. I rest on the progress made by my ancestors, but that progress seems narrow if measured in terms of flush toilets, job protections, sales and transportation taxes. My neighborhood has the right to arm itself but this is mostly useful to thugs involved in the local drug trade. As far as I know there are no stills locally, although beer and wine making has a certain cache and there are suppliers for both operating within a one-mile radius. We’ll see what happens if marijuana is legalized and taxes attached to its sale, but right now there is a valiant struggle for those wishing to grow and provide it for medical reasons.

My greatest pleasure, books, are covered by sales taxes imposed by the state and county in order to maintain certain governmental services. In fact, I live in a city and county that has one of the highest local sales taxes of any in the country. My low and unsteady income is heavily taxed and because I do not own property, I feel the discrimination on my annual tax returns that would give back to me for “developing” the land.

While I do not identify completely with the conservative thinking of where my Shannon ancestors came from--western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, Kentucky and eastern Ohio, and later Texas--I can certainly empathize with the harsh realities of never getting ahead in a skewed economy. I might blame different causes, and I did vote for President Obama, but I take umbrage at those who easily dismiss these fellow Americans who ‘cling to their guns and religion‘ and wish that Obama‘s full speech, which was made at a private fundraiser and leaked, would have been quoted.

Many of these rough-and-ready frontiersmen made it possible for the rest of us to find our way over the mountains and move further west and they are usually the first in the queue to defend this country in distressed times. They value the school of hand-knocks over public education, are suspicious of government to the point of libertarianism, and are taxed beyond fairness while receiving little in return. Whiskey, for many of them, is one of life’s pleasures, and damn if you tax them for making and selling it!

A couple of foototes: Excerpt from the April 6, 2008, fundraising speech by then-candidate Senator Barack Obama, in San Francisco, which was secretly audiotaped and released to the media.
“I think it’s fair to say that the places where we are going to have to do the most work [in winning the election] are the places where people feel most cynical about government. The people are mis-appre. . . I think they’re misunderstanding why the demographics in our, in this contest, have broken out as they are. Because everybody just ascribes it to ‘white working-class don’t wann work -- don’t wanna vote for the black guy.’

That’s . . . there were intimations of that in an article in the Sunday New York Times today--kind of implies that it’s sort of a race thing.
Here’s how it is: in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn’t buy it. And when it’s delivered -- it’s true that when it’s delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama (laughter), then that adds another layer of skepticism (laughter). . . .

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.

So it’s not surprising them that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

References Borneman, Walter R. The French & Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America (HarperCollinsPublishers, New York: 2006). Hogeland, William. The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty. (Scribner, New York: 2006). McConnell, J.H., great-grandson of George Shannon (notes transcribed by Gary Sherman Shannon and James Ray Shannon from a letter by Aunt Winnie Shannon which was passed down to them), Slaughter, Thomas P. The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution (Oxford University Press, New York: 1986), p. 65. Tanneyhill, R.H. “George Shannon 1760-1803“ in “Biographical for Hon. Wilson Shannon, Governor of Ohio: 1838-1844.“ History of Belmont and Jefferson Counties. Zacharias, Frances Shannon (granddaughter of William Russell Shannon and Nannie J. Sweatt). Our Side of the Shannons (Frank R. Soares, February 22, 1979), based on interviews with Nannie Shannon Giffen (daughter of William Russell Shannon and Nannie J. Sweatt), Edith Hoag Manley (grand-daughter of William Russell Shannon), and Ruth Wilkins Havrilla (niece, and great grand-daughter of William Russell Shannon).


  1. Great job connecting your personal ancestry through George Shannon to the wider historical perspective of the struggles of the United States to come into its own through the Whiskey Rebellion.
    You write very well, explaining situations that led to significant consequences for the country, and I love the inserts of your quest for discovery of your ancestors.

  2. Stumbled upon you searching for the lyrics to "Copper Kettle". Got hooked and read thru most of your postings and love it! Nice job!

    I also have ties to Western PA, TN, KY, SW Ohio and can identify with your travels there.

    Just an old white guy...

  3. Was just looking for information on George and Jane, their daughter Lavinia (sister to your George) was my 5th Great-grandmother. Am also interested in the historical perspective of my family history and am getting quite close to establishing a family relationship between my Shannons and CLARKS (and a Duvall relative, through Clark who was friends with Thomas Jefferson) Keep finding Millikens among these families and it occurred to me they might be connected to Jane Milligan. Interstingly, I also founf our current president among the Duvall descendants.