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.
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. 

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—“Wildcat Willy’s Distillery,” which opened on East Broadway in 2018.

This arti­cle is a con­tin­u­a­tion of an ear­li­er piece by Harry, The Whiskey Rebellion in Kentucky.

  • Harry is a Mt. Sterling native who has lived in Clark County since1999. He has a pas­sion for the past and has researched and writ­ten exten­sive­ly about the his­to­ry of this area.