Monday, February 27, 2012

This post continues the story of Rebecca Bradford Miller’s brother, our great, great uncle, William Bradford. In the last post we learned that Rebecca and her brothers lost their father, Samuel Bradford, probably very soon after their move (in about 1783) from Cecil County, Maryland, to Fayette County, southwestern Pennsylvania.

Of this time, family researcher, Shirley Ramsey writes: “It appears that the father of William died when the son was but a child, and the little fellow was placed in a family of strangers, somewhere in Virginia, with whom he lived until he grew to the years of manhood. In 1819 he left Virginia, came to Adams County [Ohio] and settled in West Union where he stayed for a year, then moved to Sprigg Township and settled in Fox's survey, No. 401, on the Ohio River where he lived and died."

This post will examine the period of “lost time” on which the preceding paragraph is notably silent – that is, from when William as a child was “placed in a family of strangers” until the time that he, as a fully grown, married man, moved to Adams County, Ohio.

I submit that it was to his Uncle James Bradford’s family, just over the county line in Washington Co, PA (an area that historically was considered part of Virginia1) that young William was sent. What of the “strangers” remark? Though relatives, possibly these people were like strangers to the young William. While the families probably lived near each other in Cecil County, Maryland, William’s uncle and family had moved west earlier, and this youngster probably had not seen his relatives for a long time. Thus, they would have been as “strangers” to William. His uncle James had become fairly well-to-do and William’s mother, Sarah Bradford, having just lost her husband, probably felt it wise to send her young son to live with her better-situated brother-in-law in the next county.

Here, William would have grown up with his cousins, including the “older and wiser” David, and William’s association with this particular cousin changed his world.

For this cousin, David Bradford, grew up to become the infamous instigator of the little known, but very important incident in American history known as the Whiskey Rebellion.

For more information about the Whiskey Rebellion, the reader is encouraged to search online for the many accounts of this historical event2, as well as to review posts from this blog (just put “Whiskey Rebellion” in the blog search box).

To summarize, in 1789 the Federal Government imposed a tax on whiskey, a commodity of great importance to farmers of southwest Pennsylvania who converted their huge crops of grain into whiskey to make it easier and far more economical to ship east). They were understandably angered by the imposition of this new tax.

David Bradford (who, again, was cousin to our Rebecca and her brothers, including William Bradford, the subject of this post) was, in fact, the ringleader of this rebellion. And he brought his younger cousin William right into the middle of the fray!

David and other insurgents were certain that President George Washington was going to send troops to quell the rebellion. In order to discover more details of the government’s plans, David concocted a plan to steal the US mail. From the September 13, 2009, post we read:

At the Black Horse Tavern in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, David Bradford, his cousin, William, and others meet to discuss the rebellion. A plot to steal the mail is devised, and it is decided that William and John Mitchell will do the deed.

On July 26, 1794, they intercept the mail near Greensburg, about 20 miles east of Pittsburgh. William and John tie up the carrier and grab the mailbag, but only snatch letters that look pertinent to the rebellion. They race away, taking the mail to Benjamin Parkinson [William’s future father-in-law], and then to David Bradford. They meet at the Black Horse and the dispatches are opened. They find several letters denouncing their actions. David Bradford is incensed and decides that it is time to take action.

Word reaches the President and within days Washington orders a militia 13,000 strong to quell the rebellion. However, by the time they arrive, the rebellion has collapsed. Many are arrested, but David Bradford flees to Spanish-held western Florida (present-day Louisiana).

William was not so lucky. The government sought to make an example of the rebellious settlers and illustrate the newly created government's power to enforce its laws. Many were arrested and our great, great Uncle William Bradford and his accomplice in the mail theft were eventually indicted3. The original document is very difficult to read, and it must be remembered that this is written in the legal language of the era:

In the Circuit Court of the United States of America in and for the Pennsylvania District of the Middle Circuit

The grand Inquest of the United States of America for the Pennsylvania District upon their respective oaths and affirmations do present that John Mitchell and William Bradford late of the County of Washington in the District of Pennsylvania Yeoman - on the twenty sixth day of July in the year of our lord one thousand seven hundred and ninety four in the county of Allegheny - in the district aforesaid with force and arms in and repose one Thomas Gould in the peace of God and the said United States of America. Then and there being which said Thomas Gould was then and there carrier of the mail of the United States of America from the town of Pittsburg to the city of Philadelphia in the District aforesaid feloneously did make an assault and [him] the said Thomas Gould in danger of his life then and there feloneously did put and the said mail of the United States of America from the person and against the will of the said Thomas Gould so being carrier of the same then and there feloniously and violently did steal take and carry away against the form of the act of the Congress of the said United States of America in such case made and providence and also against the constitution peace and Dignity of the said United States of America.

Thomas Gould
John Baldwin
Arther Gardner
John Cannon Esq
James Carr
D. Caldwell

Luckily, President Washington eventually pardoned these two rebels who had been convicted of treason. The whiskey tax was repealed in 1802.

So what of William? As mentioned above, thought he was indicted, he was eventually pardoned. He married the daughter of one of the rebels, and after a few years moved north to join his brother, the “other” David Bradford, of Adams County, Ohio, and then on to nearby Maysville, Kentucky (see previous three posts) where he led a seemingly happy, successful, and comparatively uneventful life.

This, then, is the story of the “lost time” in the life of William Bradford.

It is difficult to pass judgment on these men, including our relatives. After all, it was less than two decades earlier that these same men or their fathers fought a revolution over, in part, unfair taxation. Thus the Whiskey Tax must have seemed eerily similar to the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Revenue Act, and finally the Tea Act of 1773 which inspired the Boston Tea Party, catalyst to the American Revolution. It may be that their methods were not well thought out, but their passion on this issue is certainly understandable.

Perhaps it is easier to interpret history through the eyes of one closer to the event. Here is an account written by a nephew of William:

“William Bradford, a relative of the writer, had procured the pouch near Greensburg and brought it to Canonsburg for inspection. What a tale this old "Black-horse" [Tavern] could unfold if to its crumbling walls speech were possible. After my graduation at Washington College in 1850 I taught a select school in Aberdeen , Ohio , opposite Maysville , Ky. , and boarded for a time in the family of Benjamin Bradford; a son of this same William Bradford and one of the wealthy and most highly respected citizens of the town. His father, this notorious William Bradford, was a large landowner in Braden County, Ohio, and was esteemed quite rich for those times, lived in Kentucky, and loaned his money in Ohio . I occasionally saw him, an old man "leaning upon the top of his staff." At that time I had learned but little of the Whiskey Insurrection, knew nothing of the history of the Black Horse tavern, the interception of the mail, and was not aware that I was in the company of one of the men who dared to "holdup" Uncle Sam's mail coach, carry off the pouch to Canonsburg and rifle the bag. Had I known these things he would immediately have become an object of greater interest to me that he was. As old Dungee of Canonsburg seemed to be afraid even in his old age to confess that he had ever been a slave, so I suppose that William Bradford would have hesitated to make any free utterance as to what he knew of the "Black Horse" tavern, and his illegal handling of the mail. Away with the old "Black Horse" then to make room for a modern structure which shall never be the haunt of men who neither fear God nor regard men. D. G. Bradford.”

I can understand how William and our other ancestors of this period would have wanted this incident “swept under the rug,” but from my 21st century perspective, I actually feel a bit of guilty pride in these proud and committed men who thought they were doing their best to preserve the new and hard-fought American way of life out on the frontier. And while their methods were rough4 and yes, even illegal in the stealing of the U.S. mail, certainly they were not the first or last to apply harsh methods to what they felt was a justifiable end.

I, for one, am proud to claim these people as my ancestors, and will leave judgment to history and the only true Judge of all.

* * * * * * * * * *

Postscript: During my early years of family research on the Bradford’s, there was never any mention of our connection to the Whiskey Rebellion. There was an obscure reference to us being “related to Attorney General Bradford.” Years later, when I learned that our Rebecca Bradford was cousin to David Bradford of Whiskey rebellion fame, the attorney general issue was borne out by the facts: According to Wikipedia, prior to the Whiskey rebellion, David was “the sixth attorney to be admitted to the Washington County Bar Association. A brilliant young lawyer, he quickly established a very successful practice, and by 1783 he had been appointed deputy attorney-general for Washington County [PA]”(

David Bradford Home, Washington County, Pennsylvania

(picture courtesy of

1: Throughout the early 18th century, what is now Washington County [Pennsylvania] was claimed by both Virginia and Pennsylvania. It wasn't until March 28, 1781, that the drawing of the Mason-Dixon Line officially gave this land to Pennsylvania. (

2: One such site of interest is:

3. The original document of indictment which is held at the National Archives is available to read online at:

4: “Over the next three years the excise act was somewhat modified but the tax was still considered unfair by the whiskey boys who conducted a tug-of-war against the government regarding the disposition of their profits. Unfortunate tax collectors, mostly locally based federal employees, were harassed and threatened. Between 1791 and 1793, a handful of excise men were roughed up and intimidated, but this was quite restrained behavior for the wild frontier of a young country which, on the issue of unfair taxation, had less than two decades earlier wrenched independence for itself by violent revolution.” (

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