Enoch: The Whiskey Rebellion in Clark County

Published 8:00 am Saturday, November 4, 2023

Reaction of Kentuckians to the whiskey tax of 1791 was swift and universal: they refused to pay.  Tax collectors posted regular notices in the Kentucky Gazette.  These were ignored.  There were no immediate consequences to distillers for flouting the law.  That began to change five years later, when William Clarke accepted an appointment as U.S. Attorney for the Kentucky District.  Even then, it would be two more years before the prosecutor brought charges in federal court against a Clark County distiller.

Notice to distillers in the Kentucky Gazette

At the November 1798 term of federal court, Clarke obtained grand jury indictments against Pleasant Hardwick for having three unregistered stills, William Trimble for distilling spirituous liquors without a license, and Ambrose Bush for having three unregistered stills.  The following June, five more Clark Countians were indicted—Edmund Hockaday, John Galbraith, Levi Stewart, Robert Peoples, and Thomas Wills.  None would be convicted.

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Trimble and Bush would receive especially harsh treatment from the prosecutor.  One historian of Kentucky’s early federal courts stated, “Nothing in the records explains why William Trimble and Ambrose Bush inspired such attention, but the number and variety of charges against them indicated that they were marked men.”  Both of these Clark County pioneers resided in the Bush Settlement.

William Trimble

William Trimble married Mary McMillan, a daughter of James and Margaret (White) McMillan of Augusta County, Virginia.  The Trimble and McMillan families settled on Lower Howard’s Creek in the spring of 1784.  The three Trimble sons all became judges.  President John Quincy Adams appointed Robert Trimble to the U.S. Supreme Court.

William was accused of multiple offenses, civil and criminal, from the information of two revenue collectors, George Mansell and James Morrison.  He was the first person in Kentucky to be tried for violating the Revenue Act.  In July 1799, he pleaded that he “doth not owe the debt.”  The jury agreed.  The outcome surprised no one, as similar cases were pending against five of the jurors, including three from Clark County—Bush, Peoples, and Galbraith.  As a further insult, the judge ruled that the defendant (Trimble) was to “recover his costs from plaintiff (Clarke).”

William Clarke had to endure a lecture from Judge Innes on the proper manner and form to bring charges in his court.  Then, William Miller, the Commissioner of Revenue who had succeeded Col. Thomas Marshall, strongly criticized Clarke’s handling of the case.  “The interests of the United States have been [damaged] by this defeat in a way that is mortifying.”  As further embarrassment, Morrison filed charges against Clarke (later dismissed).

Following his death in 1806, Trimble’s estate inventory included “1 Still” valued at 13 pounds 16 shillings.  This suggests he continued his distilling operation after the uproar over the whiskey tax died down.

Ambrose Bush

Ambrose Bush was a younger brother of Captain Billy Bush and perhaps the most ardent Baptist of the family.  He was a charter member (1769) of the Blue Run Baptist Church in Virginia.  When the family sojourned near present-day Abingdon, he joined a new congregation formed there in 1781 and would later be ordained an elder.  Ambrose moved to the north side of the Kentucky River with other church members in 1784.  He settled on land purchased from his brother Billy near the old Providence Elementary School.

William Clarke fared no better against Bush than he had with Trimble.  Clarke filed five separate charges—one for each of three unregistered stills, one for not paying the duties, and one for using an unregistered still to produce peach brandy, two barrels of which were seized by George Mansell, Collector of Revenue.  The charges were argued on multiple occasions before the court, with several juries empaneled and discharged.  The cases dragged on until June 1800, when Ambrose was tried before two separate juries on the same day.  After hearing the evidence, both juries found him not guilty.  They also ordered that Ambrose recover his costs from Mansell, presumably for the peach brandy.

Ambrose’s estate inventory, recorded in 1816, listed his “still, cap, worm and flake stand,” so he, like Trimble, probably continued in the whiskey business.

In those days, there was no proscription against churchmen producing or consuming alcoholic beverages.  Indeed, one of the most famous pioneer Baptist ministers in Kentucky, Elijah Craig, was an early whiskey maker—his namesake brand is still produced today.

Churches did frown on drunkenness, however.  Providence Baptist Church, Ambrose’s congregation, frequently excluded members for “drinking too much spirituous liquor.”  In one remarkable instance, the church charged Ambrose’s son, Jeremiah, with intoxication five times in five years.

We might add in closing that Kentuckians’ aversion to paying whiskey taxes continued unabated for over two centuries.  Colorful tales of moonshiners, revenuers, and white lightning became part of our folklore.  In an ironic twist of fate, moonshine, or unaged distilled spirits, is now a popular beverage produced commercially—and legally—in a variety of flavors.  And Winchester now has its own—Regeneration Distilling, which opened on East Broadway Street in 2018.