Historical Markers
Washington County Historical Marker
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Washington County

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
County Courthouse, Main Street and Cherry Way, Washington

Dedication Date:
December 17, 1981

Behind the Marker

A county named after George Washington, ironically, became the site of the first significant armed resistance to national power, one that Washington, as President, felt obliged to march against with an overwhelming military force of some 13,000 men. Washington himself owned some 5,000 acres of land in western Pennsylvania, much of which he had personally surveyed on several trips to the region.
Map of Washington County in 1790, before its division.
Washington County in 1790, before its division.

Originally part of Virginia, Washington County, Pennsylvania was created from a portion of Westmoreland County on March 28, 1781. According to an act of the Pennsylvania legislature, the division of the counties was "to allow the inhabitants of the area west of the Monongahela River to have more convenient courts and public offices rather than the inconvenience and hardship of being so far remote from the seal of justice and records in Westmoreland County." By 1800, Washington County had been split into Allegheny, Greene, and Beaver counties.

Most of the settlers were English, Welsh, Irish, and Scotch-Irish. They were joined by smaller numbers of Pennsylvania Germans and Swiss, all drawn to western Pennsylvania by opportunities for cheap land and economic opportunity. Despite their religious and cultural differences, the settlers also demonstrated a fierce independence from the state and federal authorities in Philadelphia, whom they found unresponsive to their problems. Western Pennsylvanians believed that the national government had been slow to end the Indian wars, or to negotiate an agreement with Spain that would enable them to float their products down the Mississippi River for sale in New Orleans, where merchants were eager to sell them to buyers throughout the Atlantic world.
Oil on canvas of <i>Black Horse Tavern,</i>
Black Horse Tavern, by J. Howard Iams, circa 1930.

Tar and Feathering
Tar and Feathering, by J. Howard Iams.

Running diagonally across the state, the Allegheny Mountains made overland transportation to eastern markets both slow and expensive. So western farmers had turned their grain into whiskey, sealed it in wooden kegs, and hauled the liquor over the mountains on the backs of donkeys or horses where they could sell it at a considerable profit in eastern markets. When Congress passed an excise tax on whiskey in 1791, Washington County's farmers considered it yet another punishment for a region that depended on the manufacture of whiskey for a livelihood.

The new excise tax on whiskey threatened the whole economy of their region, which depended heavily on whiskey marketed locally and to the army. So instead of complying with the tax, they passed resolutions against it and attacked those who tried to enforce it - most notably John Neville, a transplanted Virginian and friend of Washington who had initially opposed the tax but changed his mind once the government determined to enforce the law in his region.

In September 1791, Robert Johnson became the first excise officer attacked by the so-called "Whiskey Rebels." Others followed as angry farmers became adept at tarring and feathering tax collectors. The Whiskey Rebellion would reach its climax here in Washington, and in adjoining Fayette, Westmoreland, and Allegheny counties, between late July and early August 1794.

The violence led President George Washington to muster a federal army to suppress the rebellion. Although the Whiskey rebels agreed to submit to the tax measures before the soldiers reached Bedford County, Washington led his troops there as a demonstration to one and all that he would enforce the laws of the new federal government.
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