Where in the World? Clark County’s whiskey rebellion

By Harry Enoch

Reaction of Kentuckians to the whiskey tax of 1791 was swift and universal. They refused to pay. Notices were posted regularly in the Kentucky Gazette; these were ignored. There were no immediate consequences to distillers for ignoring the law.

That began to change five years later when William Clarke accepted 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.

At the November 1798 term of court, Clarke obtained grand jury indictments (technically called presentments) 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.

Trimble and Bush would receive especially harsh treatment from the prosecutor. The author of a book on Kentucky’s early federal courts, Mary Tachau, 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. We will consider their cases separately.

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. Robert Trimble, regarded as one of the most brilliant who ever served on the bench, was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President John Quincy Adams.

William was accused of multiple offenses, civil and criminal, from the information of two revenue collectors, George Mansell and James Morrison.

In July 1799, his civil suit was the first one in Kentucky to go to trial under the revenue act. He pleaded that he “doth not owe the debt” and 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 the “defendant to recover his costs from plaintiff.”

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 committed by this defeat in a way that is mortifying.” As further embarrassment, Morrison filed charges against Clarke (later dismissed).

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

Ambrose Bush

Ambrose Bush was a younger brother of Capt. 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 the other church members in 1784. He settled on land he purchased from his brother Billy near the old Providence Elementary School.

William Clarke fared no better against Bush than he had against Trimble. Clarke filed five separate charges — one for each of the 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. Clarke’s motions for new trials were denied. The record did not reflect whether the government returned the peach brandy.

Ambrose’s estate inventory, recorded in 1816, listed his “still, cap, worm and flake stand,” so he, like Trimble, may have 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, Elijah Craig, was an early maker of bourbon whiskey—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 the space of 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. Winchester will have its own when “Wildcat Willy’s Distillery” opens on East Broadway later this year.

Harry Enoch, retired biochemist and history enthusiast, has been writing for the Sun since 2005.