Copyright © 2017 John F. Oyler
August 3, 2017
The Whiskey Rebellion Reenactment
The middle of July marked the two hundred and twenty third anniversary of the climax of the Whiskey Rebellion, the burning of John Neville’s mansion, Bower Hill. As is their custom a group of dedicated history buffs reenacted that event, on the grounds of Woodville Plantation.
Key to this event were the members of Wayne’s 4th Sub-Legion, a group of volunteers dedicated to recreating the campaign and camp life of the twelve members of the Army of the United States who were sent from Fort Fayette to defend Bower Hill against insurgents on July 17, 1794.
For this reenactment they were supplemented by volunteers representing the Neville family and their servants, and a representative group of Western Pennsylvania farmers and militiamen protesting the Federal government’s enforcement of a tax on the production of whiskey.
Two days earlier the farmers’ opposition to the law reached the boiling point when U. S. Marshal David Lenox attempted to serve a writ summoning William Miller to federal court in Philadelphia to answer charges that he had not paid the excise tax. Lenox and Federal Tax Inspector Neville were denied access to Miller’s home and decided to leave when several warning shots were fired.
The next day thirty angry “rebels” went to Bower Hill, demanding Lenox be surrendered to them. Neville’s response was a gunshot that killed Oliver Miller. The exchange of gunfire resulted in a stalemate with the rebels withdrawing but threatening to return the next day.
Overnight the rebel force, mustering at Fort Couch, grew to over five hundred. In the interim Neville had been reinforced by a dozen soldiers led by his brother-in-law Major Abraham Kirkpatrick. The leader of the insurgents was Major James McFarlane, an experienced Revolutionary War veteran.
Before the rebel horde reached Bower Hill, Neville escaped and hid in a nearby ravine. The women and children were allowed to leave the house and flee to Woodville. After an hour of exchanging gunfire it became obvious the soldiers were hopelessly outmatched.
When a flag of truce was displayed in the house, Major McFarlane stepped into the open and was immediately killed by a gunshot. The rebels responded by burning first the outbuildings and finally the mansion; the soldiers were forced to surrender.
Despite being staged at a different site than the actual battles and relying on a much smaller number of combatants, the reenactment was quite credible and the discussion of what the audience was seeing, before and after the fact, was extremely instructive. It made me wish I were young enough to participate.
It would be unusual for me to visit Woodville Plantation and not come away with several interesting new bits of information. This time the source was the archaeologist-in-residence for the summer. She was displaying a large quantity of artifacts that had been discovered during various construction projects on the property.
During her discussion she showed a shard from a piece of pottery that has been attributed to the Monongahela people, the native Americans who inhabited this area from about 1000 AD to 1600 AD. Like the mound builders in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys these people were much farther on the path to civilization than the Eastern Woodlands and Plains Indians who succeeded them.
The Monongahela people had perfected agriculture and lived in huts in villages surrounded by a circular stockade. Apparently there were numerous such villages in this region. They were able to make and use tools and were especially competent in pottery. The causes of their demise five centuries ago are unknown, as is true of the Mound Builders and of the Anasazi in the Southwest.
In each case the possibilities of drought, or the Little Ice Age, or infectious diseases from Europe, or of domination by other aggressive indigenous peoples have been suggested. It is easy to wonder if they would have had a better chance to be assimilated into the culture of the European invaders than the warlike Eastern Woodlands tribes who supplanted them.
When I asked the archaeologist if there was any documentation of the existence of a Monongahela village in the Woodville vicinity, she referred me to Dr. Ron Carlisle’s excellent book “The Story of Woodville”, which does indeed confirm this information. I am embarrassed that I was unaware of this.
We are grateful to the dedicated group of individuals who are committed to preserving the heritage of the Chartiers Valley, and especially those involved with Woodville Plantation.