Smith Rebellion

by Karen Ramsburg

As the most significant Pre Revolutionary war site west of the Susquehanna River the Justice William Smith House is the most important historical site in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.  In 1765 it served as the meeting place over a nine month period of time where the first armed resistance was organized against British Military Authority.  This rebellion changed the course of American History and gave rise to ideas that would later impact our U.S. Bill of Rights 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.

Scots-Irish immigrant William Smith and local magistrate who owned the house was considered the master mind behind Smith’s Rebellion.  His use of legal precept to defend the rebellion gave the Black Boys, so called because they painted their faces black to avoid identification a legitimacy and legal standing that other rebellions lacked because it was fought in accordance with the law.

Terry Bouton in his book, Taming Democracy believed that March 6, 1765 the day of the Sideling Hill affair was the beginning of the end for British and Colonial rule.  On this day James Smith, brother-in-law to William Smith and ten men stopped a pack train carrying trade goods belonging to George Croghan, deputy Superintendent of Indian affairs, bound for Fort Pitt.  This eighty one pack horse train was believed to be carrying trade goods that were still illegal because no treaty ending Pontiac’s War had been signed. 

The Proclamation and Indian Trade Act of 1763 had specified that any goods that could effectively rearm the Indians to continue warfare were considered illegal.  George Croghan was well aware of this law and chose to evade it because the opportunity to create vast wealth far outweighed the potential consequences if caught. What James Smith and his men considered an act of self-defense  had an impact on events on both an international and national level which caused a ripple effect all the way to the English Parliament.  The Sideling Hill affair prevented the consummation of huge land speculation deals between wealthy Philadelphia merchants and important investors such as George Washington and Ben Franklin.  It hampered Franklin’s efforts to offer a national currency scheme in lieu of The Stamp Act that Prime Minister Grenville was contemplating as a means to reduce the national debt on the French and Indian War.  In addition, it enabled Franklin to reopen attempts to replace the Penn’s Proprietary Government with a Royal Government after Parliament had already decided against this idea.  These events set the stage for revolution.

In 1765 Croghan’s tomahawks, scalping knives, powder, lead, and rum were ultimately bound for Illinois.  His desire for wealth was shared by the wealthy Philadelphia merchants Baynton, Wharton & Morgan as they loaded wagons carrying trade goods ordered by Fort Pitt’s commander Henry Bouquet to aid in treaty negotiations.  Croghan had plans to amass vast riches from trading with the Indians.  He also had hopes of participating in land speculation from gaining access to Indian territory as a result of his trading.

The 1765 frontier in Pennsylvania was close to complete and total anarchy because there was a brutal war for survival between Scots-Irish immigrants and Indians over land.  Croghan’s trade goods in the wrong hands would only make life for the settlers even more unbearable.  The Penn’s incompetent pacifist government was incapable of mounting a response.  The British Military was overwhelmed by the new lands added as a result of the Treaty of Paris ending the French and Indian War.

The inhabitants of Cumberland County described their suffering and need for assistance in their March 1765 Remonstrance but soon discovered that their pleas would be ignored and concluded they must fend for themselves.  The frontier mirrored John Locke’s premise that self defense and ultimately rebellion and revolution were justified if government failed in its duty to protect the citizen’s rights to life, liberty and property.  British philosopher John Locke wrote his second Treatise on Government in 1690.  Ideas such as the right of rebellion in defense of oneself explain why his theories would become the basis of our Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution.  In March of 1765 Locke’s theories formed the legal basis for the creation of the Black Boys. 

At Pawling’s Tavern located near present day Greencastle, Pennsylvania the goods were transferred from wagons to eighty one pack horses.  This shipment was worth £3,000 sterling.  Some accounts state the goods weighed up to 30,000 pounds.  As the loading progressed a cask of scalping knives accidentally broke open and knives spilled out over the ground which alerted the Black Boys of the danger that was coming.

William Duffield met this train near Justice William Smith’s house.  He asked the drivers to store the goods until they could be determined if they were in fact illegal; however, the pack train drivers refused to stop and continued west towards Fort Pitt to McConnell’s Tavern, present day McConnellsburg where Duffield asked one last time for them to peacefully stop.

The following day on March 6 at 1:00 PM during a snow storm James Smith and ten Black Boys attacked a train.  After shooting four horses the pack train stopped.  The drivers were told to get their personal property and leave for Fort Loudoun.  Smith and his men burned sixty three loads of contraband.

After the attack Capt. Robert Callender alerted Lt. Charles Grant at Fort Loudoun.  He detached Sgt. Leonard McGlashen and a platoon of men to retrieve the undestroyed goods.  In searching for anyone connected with this event McGlashen captured and detained eight suspects for questioning.  At this point McGlashen returned to Fort Loudoun.

The arrest and detention of the eight men led to the first of two sieges of Fort Loudoun.  This first siege did not end until after the Black Boys had captured several members of The Black Watch who were used to demand a prisoner exchange.  In addition, McGlashen had captured and detained a number of rifles owned by the Black Boys.  The continued refusal to return the guns by Lt. Charles Grant commanding officer at Fort Loudoun led to increasing hostilities that would ultimately lead to a second siege of Fort Loudoun November 10, 1765.

After two days of shooting up the Fort, Lt. Grant asked for a truce under which the siege was settled.  Grant turned over the guns to local magistrate William McDowell and The Black Watch was then  given a free pass to withdraw to Fort Bedford.

One of the important aspects of this rebellion that is often overlooked is William Smith’s and the Black Boys use of the civil law as a weapon of rebellion.  This tradition goes back to the English civil war where Protestant rebels used English civil law against the Royalist.  In Smith’s Rebellion they created their own system of passes and inspections of traders heading west to Fort Pitt.  William Smith asserts to Lt. Charles Grant that neither the Pennsylvania Proprietary Government nor the British Military Authority has any validity in this case because William Smith declares himself to be the civil law.

On June 27 William Smith was charged with having encouraged and protected the rioters.  His hearing was scheduled July 30 before Governor Penn where he defended himself by noting that Lt. Charles Grant at Fort Loudoun is interfering with the civil law and that Grant’s actions were illegal.  This results in a warrant that was sworn out for Lt. Grant.

Over the course of the nine month rebellion the Black Boys have asserted their right of self-defense.  They are the first armed resistance against British Military Authority.  They force the capitulation of a unit of the best military in the world.  On January 10, 1766 William Smith was removed as a Justice of the Peace and a warrant was issued for his brother-in-law James Smith and for the moment this ended Smith’s Rebellion.


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