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In the United States, moonshining is seldom practiced outside the mountains and foothills of the southern Appalachians, and those parts of the southwest (namely, in southern Missouri, Arkansas and Texas), into which the mountaineers have immigrated in considerable numbers.

Here, then, is a conundrum: How does it happen that moonshining is distinctly a foible of the southern mountaineer?

To get to the truth, we must hark back into that eighteenth century wherein, as I have already remarked, our mountain people are lingering to this day. We must leave the South; going, first, to Ireland of 150 or 175 years ago, and then to western Pennsylvania shortly after the Revolution.

The people of Great Britain, irrespective of race, have always been ardent haters of excise laws. As Blackstone has curtly said, “From its original to the present time, the very name of excise has been odious to the people of England.” Dr. Johnson, in his dictionary, defined excise as “A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but by wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.” In 1659, when the town of Edinburgh placed an additional impost on ale, the Convenanter Nicoll proclaimed it an act so impious that immediately “God frae the heavens declared his anger by sending thunder and unheard tempests and storms.” And we still recall Burns’ fiery invective:


Thae curst horse-leeches o’ the Excise
Wha mak the whisky stills their prize!
Haud up thy han’, Deil! ance, twice, thrice!
There, seize the blinkers! [wretches]
An bake them up in brunstane pies
For poor d — n’d drinkers.


Perhaps the chief reason, in England, for this outspoken detestation of the exciseman lay in the fact that the law empowered him to enter private houses and to search at his own discretion. In Scotland and Ireland there was another objection, even more valid in the eyes of the common people; excise struck heaviest at their national drink. Englishmen, at the time of which we are speaking, were content with their ale, not yet having contracted the habit of drinking gin; but Scotchmen and Irishmen preferred distilled spirits, manufactured, as a rule, out of their own barley, in small pot-stills (poteen means, literally, a little pot), the process being a common household art frequently practiced “every man for himself and his neighbor.” A tax, then, upon whiskey was as odious as a tax upon bread baked on the domestic hearth — if not, indeed, more so.

Now, there came a time when the taxes laid upon spirituous liquors had increased almost to the point of prohibition. This was done, not so much for the sake of revenue, as for the sake of the public health and morals. Englishmen had suddenly taken to drinking gin, and the immediate effect was similar to that of introducing firewater among a race of savages. There was hue and cry (apparently with good reason), that the gin habit, spreading like a plague, among a people unused to strong liquors, would soon exterminate the English race. Parliament, alarmed at the outlook, then passed an excise law of extreme severity. As always happens in such cases, the law promptly defeated its own purpose by breeding a spirit of defiance and resistance among the great body of the people.

The heavier the tax, the more widespread became the custom of illicit distilling. The law was evaded in two different ways, the method depending somewhat upon the relative loyalty of the people toward the Crown, and somewhat upon the character of the country, as to whether it was thickly or thinly settled.

In rich and populous districts, as around London and Edinburgh and Dublin, the common practice was to bribe government officials. A historian of that time declares that “Not infrequently the gauger could have laid his hands upon a dozen stills within as many hours; but he had cogent reasons for avoiding discoveries unless absolutely forced to make them. Where informations were laid, it was by no means uncommon for a trusty messenger to be dispatched from the residence of the gauger to give due notice, so that by daybreak next morning ‘the boys,’ with all their utensils, might disappear. Now and then they were required to leave an old and worn-out still in place of that which they were to remove, so that a report of actual seizure might be made. A good understanding was thus often kept up between the gaugers and the distillers; the former not infrequently received a ‘duty’ upon every still within his jurisdiction, and his cellars were never without ‘a sup of the best.’... The commerce was carried on to a very great extent, and openly. Poteen was usually preferred, even by the gentry, to ‘Parliament’ or ‘King’s’ whiskey. It was known to be free from adulteration, and had a smoky flavor (arising from the peat fires) which many liked.” Another writer says that “The amount of spirits produced by distillation avowedly illicit vastly exceeded that produced by the licensed distilleries. According to Wakefield, stills were erected even in the kitchens of baronets and in the stables of clergymen.”

However, this sort of thing was not moonshining. It was only the beginning of that system of wholesale collusion which, in later times, was perfected in our own country by the “Whiskey Ring.”

Moonshining proper was confined to the poorer class of people, especially in Ireland, who lived in wild and sparsely settled regions, who were governed by a clan feeling stronger than their loyalty to the central Government, and who either could not afford to share their profits with the gaugers, or disdained to do so. Such people hid their little pot-stills in inaccessible places, as in the savage mountains and glens of Connemara, where it was impossible, or at least hazardous, for the law to reach them. With arms in hand they defied the officers. “The hatred of the people toward the gauger was for a very long period intense. The very name invariably aroused the worst passions. To kill a gauger was considered anything but a crime; wherever it could be done with comparative safety, he was hunted to the death.”

Thus we see that the townsman’s weapon against the government was graft, and the mountaineer’s weapon was his gun — a hundred and fifty years ago, in Ireland, as they are in America to-day. Whether racial character had much to do with this is a debatable question. But, having spoken of race, a new factor, and a curious one, steps into our story. Let it be noted closely, for it bears directly on a problem that has puzzled many of our own people, namely: What was the origin of our southern mountaineers?

The north of Ireland, at the time of which we have been speaking, was not settled by Irishmen, but by Scotchmen, who had been imported by James I. to take the place of native Hibernians whom he had dispossessed from the three northern counties. These immigrants came to be known as the Scotch-Irish. They learned how to make poteen in little stills, after the Irish fashion, and to defend their stills from intrusive foreigners, also after the Irish fashion. By and by these Scotch-Irish fell out with the British Government, and large bodies of them emigrated to America, settling, for the most part, in western Pennsylvania.

They were a fighting race. Accustomed to plenty of hard knocks at home, they took to the rough fare and Indian wars of our border as naturally as ducks take to water. They brought with them, too, an undying hatred of excise laws, and a spirit of unhesitating resistance to any authority that sought to enforce such laws.

It was these Scotchmen, in the main, assisted by a good sprinkling of native Irish, and by the wilder blades among the Pennsylvania-Dutch, who drove out the Indians from the Alleghany border, formed our rear-guard in the Revolution, won that rough mountain region for civilization, left it when the game became scarce and neighbors’ houses too frequent, followed the mountains southward, settled western Virginia and Carolina, and formed the vanguard westward into Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and so onward till there was no longer a West to conquer. Some of their descendants remained behind in the fastnesses of the Alleghanies, the Blue Ridge, and the Unakas, and became, in turn, the progenitors of that singular race which, by an absurd pleonasm, is now commonly known as the “mountain whites,” but properly southern highlanders.

The first generation of Pennsylvania frontiersmen knew no laws but those of their own making. They were too far away, too scattered, and too poor, for the Crown to bother with them. Then came the Revolution. The backwoodsmen were loyal to the new American Government — loyal to a man. They not only fought off the Indians from the rear, but sent many of their incomparable riflemen to fight at the front as well.

They were the first English-speaking people to use weapons of precision (the rifle, introduced by the Pennsylvania-Dutch about 1700, was used by our backwoodsmen exclusively throughout the war). They were the first to employ open-order formation in civilized warfare. They were the first outside colonists to assist their New England brethren at the siege of Boston. They were mustered in as the First Regiment of Foot of the Continental Army (being the first troops enrolled by our Congress, and the first to serve under a Federal banner). They carried the day at Saratoga, the Cowpens, and King’s Mountain. From the beginning to the end of the war, they were Washington’s favorite troops.


A Tub Mill


 And yet these same men were the first rebels against the authority of the United States Government! And it was their old commander-in-chief, Washington himself, who had the ungrateful task of bringing them to order by a show of Federal bayonets.

It happened in this wise:

Up to the year 1791 there had been no excise tax in the United Colonies or the United States. (One that had been tried in Pennsylvania was utterly abortive). Then the country fell upon hard times. A larger revenue had to be raised, and Hamilton suggested an excise. The measure was bitterly opposed by many public men, notably by Jefferson; but it passed. Immediately there was trouble in the tall timber.

Western Pennsylvania, and the mountains southward, had been settled, as we have seen, by the Scotch-Irish; men who had brought with them a certain fondness for whiskey, a certain knack in making it, and an intense hatred of excise, on general as well as special principles. There were few roads across the mountains, and these few were execrable — so bad, indeed, that it was impossible for the backwoodsmen to bring their corn and rye to market, except in a concentrated form. The farmers of the seaboard had grown rich, from the high prices that  prevailed during the French Revolution; but the mountain farmers had remained poor, owing partly to difficulties of tillage, but chiefly to difficulties of transportation. As Albert Gallatin said, in defending the western people, “We have no means of bringing the produce of our lands to sale either in grain or in meal. We are therefore distillers through necessity, not choice, that we may comprehend the greatest value in the smallest size and weight. The inhabitants of the eastern side of the mountains can dispose of their grain without the additional labor of distillation at a higher price than we can after we have disposed that labor upon it.”

Again, as in all frontier communities, there was a scarcity of cash in the mountains. Commerce was carried on by barter; but there had to be some means of raising enough cash to pay taxes, and to purchase such necessities as sugar, calico, gun powder, etc., from the peddlers who brought them by pack train across the Alleghanies. Consequently a still had been set up on nearly every farm. A horse could carry about sixteen gallons of liquor, which represented eight bushels of grain, in weight and bulk, and double that amount in value. This whiskey, even after it had been transported across the mountains, could undersell even so cheap a beverage as New England rum — so long as no tax was laid upon it.

But when the newly created Congress passed an excise law, it virtually placed a heavy tax on the poor mountaineers’ grain, and let the grain of the wealthy eastern farmers pass on to market without a cent of charge. Naturally enough, the excitable people of the border regarded such a law as aimed exclusively at themselves. They remonstrated, petitioned, stormed. “From the passing of the law in January, 1791, there appeared a marked dissatisfaction in the western parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. The legislatures of North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland passed resolutions against the law, and that of Pennsylvania manifested a strong spirit of opposition to it. As early as 1791, Washington was informed that throughout this whole region the people were ready for revolt.” “To tax their stills seemed a blow at the only thing which obdurate nature had given them — a lot hard indeed, in comparison with that of the people of the sea-board.”

Our western mountains (we call most of them southern mountains now) resembled somewhat those wild highlands of Connemara to which reference has been made — only they were far wilder, far less populous, and inhabited by a people still prouder, more independent, more used to being a law unto themselves than were their ancestors in old Hibernia. When the Federal exciseman came among this border people and sought to levy tribute, they blackened or otherwise disguised themselves and treated him to a coat of tar and feathers, at the same time threatening to burn his house. He resigned. Indignation meetings were held, resolutions were passed calling on all good citizens to disobey the law, and whenever anyone ventured to express a contrary opinion, or rented a house to a collector, he, too, was tarred and feathered. If a prudent or ultra-conscientious individual took out a license and sought to observe the law, he was visited by a gang of “Whiskey Boys” who smashed the still and inflicted corporal punishment upon its owner.

Finally, warrants were issued against the lawbreakers. The attempt to serve these writs produced an uprising. On July 16, 1794, a company of mountain militia marched to the house of the inspector, General Neville, to force him to give up his commission. Neville fired upon them, and, in the skirmish that ensued, five of the attacking force were wounded and one was killed. The next day, a regiment of 500 mountaineers, led by one “Tom the Tinker,” burned Neville’s house, and forced him to flee for his life. His guard of eleven U. S. soldiers surrendered, after losing one killed and several wounded.

A call was then issued for a meeting of the mountain militia at the historic Braddock’s Field. On Aug. 1, a large body assembled, of whom 2,000 were armed. They marched on Pittsburgh, then a village of 1,200 souls. The townsmen, eager to conciliate and to ward off pillage, appointed a committee to meet the mob half way. The committee, finding that it could not induce the mountain men to go home, made a virtue of necessity by escorting 5,400 of them into Pittsburgh town. As Fisher says, “The town was warned by messengers, and every preparation was made, not for defense, but to extinguish the fire of the Whiskey Boys’ thirst, which would prevent the necessity of having to extinguish the fire they might apply to houses.... Then the work began. Every citizen worked like a slave to carry provisions and buckets of whiskey to that camp.” Judge Brackenridge tells us that it was an expensive as well as laborious day, and cost him personally four barrels of prime old whiskey. The day ended in a bloodless, but probably uproarious, jollification.

On this same day (the Governor of Pennsylvania having declined to interfere) Washington issued a proclamation against the rioters, and called for 15,000 militia to quell the insurrection. Meantime he had appointed commissioners to go into the disaffected region and try to persuade the people to submit peacefully before the troops should arrive. Peace was offered on condition that the leaders of the disturbance should submit to arrest.

While negotiations were proceeding, the army advanced. Eighteen ringleaders of the mob were arrested, and the “insurrection” faded away like smoke. When the troops arrived, there was nothing for them to do. The insurgent leaders were tried for treason, and two of them were convicted, but Washington pardoned both of them. The cost of this expedition was more than one-third of the total expenditures of the Government, for that year, for all other purposes. The moral effect upon the nation at large was wholesome, for the Federal Government had demonstrated, on this its first test, that it could enforce its own laws and maintain domestic tranquility. The result upon the mountain people themselves was dubious. Thomas Jefferson wrote to Madison in December: “The information of our [Virginia’s] militia, returned from the westward, is uniform, that though the people there let them pass quietly, they were objects of their laughter, not of their fear; that one thousand men could have cut off their whole force in a thousand places of the Alleghany; that their detestation of the excise law was universal, and has now associated with it a detestation of the Government; and that a separation which was perhaps a very distant and problematical event, is now near and certain, and determined in the mind of every man.”

But Jefferson himself came to the presidency within six years, and the excise tax was promptly repealed, never again to be instituted, save as a war measure, until within a time so recent that it is now remembered by men whom we would not call very old.

The moonshiners of our own day know nothing of the story that has here been written. Only once, within my knowledge, has it been told in the mountains, and then the result was so unexpected, that I append the incident as a color contrast to this rather sombre narrative. — 

I was calling on a white-bearded patriarch who was a trifle vain of his historical learning. He could not read, but one of his daughters read to him, and he had learned by heart nearly all that lay between the two lids of a “Universal History” such as book agents peddle about. Like one of John Fox’s characters, he was fond of the expression “hist’ry says” so-and-so, and he considered it a clincher in all matters of debate.

Our conversation drifted to the topic of moonshining.

“Down to the time of the Civil War,” declared the old settler, “nobody paid tax on the whiskey he made. Hit was thataway in my Pa’s time, and in Gran’sir’s, too. And so ’way back to the time of George Washington. Now, hist’ry says that Washington was the Father of his Country; and I reckon he was the greatest man that ever lived — don’t you?”

I murmured a complaisant assent.

“Waal, sir, if ’t was right to make free whiskey in Washington’s day, hit’s right now!” and the old man brought his fist down on the table.

“But that is where you make a mistake,” I replied. “Washington did enforce a whiskey tax.” Then I told about the Whiskey Insurrection of 1794.

This was news to Grandpa. He listened with deep attention, his brows lowering as the narrative proceeded. When it was finished he offered no comment, but brooded to himself in silence. My own thoughts wandered far afield, until recalled to the topic by a blunt demand:

 “You say Washington done that?”

“He did.”

“George Washington?”

“Yes, sir: the Father of his Country.”

“Waal, I’m satisfied now that Washington was a leetle-grain cracked.”

The law of 1791, although it imposed a tax on whiskey of only 9 to 11 cents per proof gallon, came near bringing on a civil war, which was only averted by the leniency of the Federal Government in granting wholesale amnesty. The most stubborn malcontents in the mountains moved southward along the Alleghanies into western Virginia and the Carolinas, where no serious attempt was made to collect the excise; so they could practice moonshining to their heart’s content, and there their descendants remain to-day.


Cabin on the Little Fork of Sugar Fork of Hazel Creek
in which the author lived alone for three years


On the accession of Jefferson, in 1800, the tax on spirits was repealed. The war of 1812 compelled the Government to tax whiskey again, but as this was a war tax, shared by commodities generally, it aroused no opposition. In 1817 the excise was again repealed; and from that time until 1862 no specific tax was levied on liquors. During this period of thirty-five years the average market price of whiskey was 24 cents a gallon, sometimes dropping as low as 14 cents. Spirits were so cheap that a “burning fluid,” consisting of one part spirits of turpentine to four or five parts alcohol was used in the lamps of nearly every household. Moonshining, of course, had ceased to exist.

Then came the Civil War. In 1862 a tax of 20 cents a gallon was levied. Early in 1864 it rose to 60 cents. This cut off the industrial use of spirits, but did not affect its use as a beverage. In the latter part of 1864 the tax leaped to $1.50 a gallon, and the next year it reached the prohibitive figure of $2. The result of such excessive taxation was just what it had been in the old times, in Great Britain. In and around the centers of population there was wholesale fraud and collusion. “Efforts made to repress and punish frauds were of absolutely no account whatever.... The current price at which distilled spirits were sold in the markets was everywhere recognized and commented on by the press as less than the amount of the tax, allowing nothing whatever for the cost of manufacture.”

Seeing that the outcome was disastrous from a fiscal point of view — the revenue from this source was falling to the vanishing point — Congress, in 1868, cut down the tax to 50 cents a gallon. “Illicit distillation practically ceased the very hour that the new law came into operation; ... the Government collected during the second year of the continuance of the act $3 for every one that was obtained during the last year of the $2 rate.”

In 1869 there came a new administration, with frequent removals of revenue officials for political purposes. The revenue fell off. In 1872 the rate was raised to 70 cents, and in 1875 to 90 cents. The result is thus summarized by David A. Wells:

“Investigation carefully conducted showed that on the average the product of illicit distillation costs, through deficient yields, the necessary bribery of attendants, and the expenses of secret and unusual methods of transportation, from two to three times as much as the product of legitimate and legal distillation. So that, calling the average cost of spirits in the United States 20 cents per gallon, the product of the illicit distiller would cost 40 to 60 cents, leaving but 10 cents per gallon as the maximum profit to be realized from fraud under the most favorable conditions — an amount not sufficient to offset the possibility of severe penalties of fine, imprisonment, and confiscation of property.... The rate of 70 cents... constituted a moderate temptation to fraud. Its increase to 90 cents constituted a temptation altogether too great for human nature, as employed in manufacturing and selling whiskey, to resist.... During 1875-6, highwines sold openly in the Chicago and Cincinnati markets at prices less than the average cost of production plus the Government tax. Investigations showed that the persons mainly concerned in the work of fraud were the Government officials rather than the distillers; and that a so-called ‘Whiskey Ring’... extended to Washington, and embraced within its sphere of influence and participation, not merely local supervisors, collectors, inspectors, and storekeepers of the revenue, but even officers of the Internal Revenue Bureau, and probably, also, persons occupying confidential relations with the Executive of the Nation.”

Such being the condition of affairs in the centers of civilization in the latter part of the nineteenth century, let us now turn to the mountains, and see how matters stood among those primitive people who were still tarrying in the eighteenth. Their situation at that time is thus briefly sketched by a southern historian

“Before the war these simple folks made their apples and peaches into brandy, and their corn into whiskey, and these products, with a few cattle, some dried fruits, honey, beeswax, nuts, wool, hides, fur, herbs, ginseng and other roots, and woolen socks knitted by the women in their long winter evenings, formed the stock in trade which they bartered for their plain necessaries and few luxuries, their homespun and cotton cloths, sugar, coffee, snuff, and fiddles.... The raising of a crop of corn in summer, and the getting out of tan-bark and lumber in winter, were almost their only resources.... The burden of taxation rested lightly on them. For near two generations no excise duties had been levied.... The war came on. They were mostly loyal to the Union. They paid the first moderate tax without a murmur.

“They were willing to pay any tax that they were able to pay. But suddenly the tax jumped to $1.50, and then to $2, a gallon. The people were goaded to open rebellion. Their corn at that time brought only from 25 to 40 cents a bushel; apples and peaches, rarely more than 10 cents at the stills. These were the only crops that could be grown in their deep and narrow valleys. Transportation was so difficult, and markets so remote, that there was no way to utilize the surplus except to distill it. Their stills were too small to bear the cost of government supervision. The superior officers of the Revenue Department (collectors, marshals, and district-attorneys or commissioners) were paid only by commissions on collections and by fees. Their subordinate agents, whose income depended upon the number of stills they cut up and upon the arrests made, were, as a class, brutal and desperate characters. Guerrilla warfare was the natural sequence.”




7 Ellwood Wilson, Sr., in the Sewanee Review.

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