From Patriot to Insurgent: John Fries and the tax rebellions

On Facebook page ‘Frisian Americans‘ the question popped up what role certain Frisians played in the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania in 1794. We checked, and the short answer is: none. The Whiskey Rebellion was a revolt of the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch farmers resisting the taxation of whiskey. It was crushed, without ice, by the young federal government. Interestingly, a former captain of the Continental Army by the name John Fries led a militia to restore federal authority. Only five years later, however, this same John Fries led a revolt against yet another government tax, the house tax. A revolt that became known as the Fries Rebellion. So, Frisians after all in the rebellions. Or not?

It is common knowledge that the relation between Frisians and taxes always has been precarious. Especially if go-it-alone farmers come into play. Already in the first century AD, Frisians revolted against taxes imposed by the Romans. But think also of the saga of the so-called freedom privileges Frisians enjoyed since the Early Middle Ages, which basically revolved around the question to whom Frisians had to pay tribute or taxes. One of the medieval taxes was the huslotha (‘house plot’) tax to be paid to the Frankish king. With this reluctance for taxes in mind, and the surname Fries (pronounce as ‘freeze’), one might be tempted to draw the conclusion those Pennsylvania Dutch must have been true and genuine Frisians of origin. Tempting, indeed. But too easy, as we will see.

1. The Kirchenleute of Pennsylvania

Kirchenleute is a German word meaning ‘church people’ and refers to the Lutheran and Reformed immigrants from protestant Europe, mainly originating from Germany. But also from, for example, the Netherlands and Switzerland. The Kirchenleute spoke a German dialect known as (Pfalz) Dietsch. Hence they are often named Pennsylvania Dutch or the Dutch Community, despite they had no specific Dutch background. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Pennsylvania Dutch were the biggest immigrant group in America behind the English-speaking population. At the end of the twentieth century, almost 60 million Americans considered themselves of German descent. That was a quarter of the population. Again, that was a quarter of the American population. How is that for the ‘Dumb Dutch’, as Pennsylvania Dutch were being nicknamed and yelled at?

Pennsylvania Dutch

The term Kirchenleute gives away a lot revolved around religion with these early protestant immigrants coming to America in the early modern period. Many different denominations, schisms and faiths existed among them, and still do. A general distinction is being made between the so-called Plain Dutch and Gay Dutch. The Gay Dutch are the Kirchenleute, and were more liberal in the sense they did not restrict themselves socially all that much and enjoyed most benefits of the world. The Plain Dutch are the Sektenleute ‘sectarian people’ and include, among other, the Amish and the Mennonites. Plain Dutch were descendants of the German and Swiss Anabaptist reformers. These reformers did separate themselves, in various degrees of orthodoxy, from society (Grimminger 2009). Minne Simens or Menno Simons (1496-1561), a priest from the terp village of Witmarsum in province Friesland, is the founding father of the Mennonite community. Mennonites, also rejecting the use of violence, were an influential both economic and political community in the Dutch Republic, and also had much support in northern Germany.

Furthermore, many Dutch followers of the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers, emigrated to America. This after the English writer William Penn (1644-1718) personally stimulated the Friends to do so, and having visited the Netherlands three times. William Penn, founder of the Pennsylvania Colony, was of British-Dutch origin and a Quaker. His mother came from the port city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

From the second quarter of the nineteenth century, also Ostfriesen ‘East Frisians’ from Lower Saxony, Germany started to migrate to the United States, in significant numbers. We hear the reader think: “Oh no, not Saxons moving west. Not again!”. The Ostfriesen settled more to the east, in the State of Illinois, than the German migrants earlier did. Especially in towns like Alton, Freeport and Quincy. Around the year 1900, Ostfriesen also had established themselves in northern Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota. But also in Butler County in Ohio many settled, think of football player Jared DeVries from Aplington. These tall immigrants mostly came to the United States for the economic possibilities it offered. As for religion, most Ostfriesen were Reformed and Lutheran too. In the more rural areas they even established separate communities according to their church denomination (Frizzell 1992).

In the early nineteenth century, large numbers of Dutch farmers, among which quite a number Frisians from province Friesland, migrated to the States as well. These genuine Dutch settled in the states of Iowa, Illinois and Michigan mainly, especially the towns Holland and Grand Rapids in West Michigan. Despite the fact better economic possibilities were the main pull factor to emigrate, these settlers still were religiously conservative and often member of the Dutch Reformed Church.

2. Three tax rebellions

On the 4th of July 1776, the Thirteen Colonies declared themselves independent from the kingdom of Great Britain. The War of Independence lasted until 1783. A war of the Continental Army against the Loyalists and that of Britain. The rebellious colonies were supported by Spain, France and the Dutch Republic. Interesting fact, Great Britain hired many soldiers from Germany, of which quite a number defected once in America. In a way they were fighting their fellow countrymen. It were the States of Province Friesland who recognized the United States in February 1782, being the second state in the world to do so after France. In September that year newspaper the Independent Gazetteer reported that at the town of Franeker in province Friesland, people celebrated the independence of the United States with fireworks (Dijkstra 2021).

After the United States of America was finally a reality, the young federal government needed to show its muscles toward its own citizens. Who was boss after all this republicanism, fighting for freedom, and liberty? Anarchy lay in wait. The war was over and now a country had to be built up. Not that sexy but vital. To function as a state you need money. A normal government gets this mostly through levying taxes. So did the States and it immediately led to three tax revolts in the period between 1786 and 1799.

The first one was Shays’s Rebellion during 1786-1787, and took place in central and western Massachusetts. Albeit he was only one of many other insurgents, it was the Irish Daniel Shays who led a militia of about 1,200 men, and who attacked the federal arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts. Shays troops were easily defeated, and Shays fled to Vermont. Nevertheless, it was sign the fresh government was not fully in control yet.

The second tax revolt was the Whiskey Rebellion. This one happened in western Pennsylvania in 1794, after liquor was being taxed. Whiskey was the most distilled alcohol and it is how this rebellion received its name in history. Taxing whiskey had a, probably, unforeseen indirect effect for farmers. Surplus of corn was used by farmers to convert into whiskey. This could be preserved much longer than corns, and it was easier to transport east over the mountains. Furthermore, whiskey functioned as de facto currency due to shortages of coin. In other words, taxing whiskey hit those farmers notably hard.  

Fries’s Rebellion

The third, and for this post the most relevant, tax revolt was the Fries Rebellion, and it took place in the year 1799. Again in south-eastern Pennsylvania. In German-Dietsch dialect the rebellion was named the Heesses Wasser Uffschtand ‘hot-water uprising’. The reason to impose this tax was the Quasi-War with France with as consequence the States had to raise a standing army again. In total 2 million dollar was needed, of which Pennsylvania alone had to cough up more than 10 percent (McIntosh 2021). It was a Direct Tax on slaves, on land, and on private dwellings. The height of the tax on dwellings, which specifically aroused emotions among the Kirchenleute in Pennsylvania – note there were not held many slaves in Pennsylvania – was determined by the number and size of the windows of a house. This was executed by the hated federal taxmen called assessors.

Maybe taxing houses triggered ancient social memories of the times also the Frisians were forced to pay a house tax to the Frankish rulers who had conquered Frisia in the eighth century. A levy, as mentioned earlier, called huslotha ‘house plot’. Read our post With a Noose through the Norsemen’s Door for more detailed information.

raising Liberty Poles

The German-speaking Kirchenleute of Pennsylvania traditionally were ambivalent and low in trust toward the central government. Toward both parties, Federalists and Republicans. Legitimacy of the new-born federal government, and thus national taxation as such, was accepted by the Pennsylvania Dutch. But they feared too direct involvement of a too powerful federal government. Let alone if assessors literally came onto your yards and into your homes to count and measure with a ruler your windows.

“[the government was] laying one thing after another and if we do not oppose it they will bring us into bondage and slavery

(Bouton 2000)

People also thought the burden of the Direct Tax was disproportionate among the people, and spared wealthy merchants and industrials. On the other hand, federal assessors regarded the Kirchenleute not as being true Patriots since many were religious pacifist and (thus) had not taken up arms against the oppressor the king of Great Britain during the War of Independence. This preconception toward the Kirchenleute did not help either to overcome the difficulties.

In Milford Township house owners refused to pay and assessors were being harassed. Protestors started to wear uniforms of the Continental Army, and raised the former Liberty Poles of the revolution again. Liberty Poles were raised in the ‘70s to oppose the British tax. In March 1799, a posse of hundred farmer rebels rode out to Quakertown where they captured several assessors, who were quickly released with the message for President Adams to end the “damned house tax” among the Pennsylvania Dutch (Longley 2020). Today they all would have ridden out with their tractors, but back then it was still classic horsepower.

One riot one Marshal, and the federal government send in a US Marshal to restore order among the Pennsylvania Dutch. The Marshal made several arrests in the town of Bethlehem and had them temporarily locked up in the Sun Inn. Again a posse of rebels rode out. This time to Bethlehem. Through negotiations the rebels were able to release the Marshal’s prisoners. Noteworthy, the whole affair went without a single shot being fired, which is not a minor detail for the pacifist Kirchenleute. Tavern Sun Inn is still there by the way. To have at your own free will a rest, a meal and maybe a drink.

Federal troops were sent to Pennsylvania, and in April the rebellion was crushed down. Forty-five insurgents were charged with treason. Leader John Fries and four others actually were prosecuted for treason, and seventeen others for lesser crimes. The trials were sensational, and the public and press loved it. May 1799, John Fries and three others were sentenced to be hanged for treason. On 23 May, President Adams pardoned John Fries and his followers. According to John Adams they were guilty only of high-handed riot and rescue, and not of making war on the United States. The reason to charge the leaders of the rebellion of treason, which was quite exceptional, was the fear within the States of a Jacobite insurrection of their own (Newman 2000).

3. John Fries

John Fries was born in 1750 in Hatfield Township, Pennsylvania. He is said to have been of Welsh descent, at least according to his youngest son. John’s father, Simon Fries, apparently came from Wales. It is quite a mystery how a German became a Welshman. Based on his surname and American experience he is probably German, and he even had a German passport (Newman 2000, 2005). John Fries was bilingual English and German. When he was twenty-one years old, he married Margaret Brunner. She belonged also to the Pennsylvania Dutch, thus German, community. Fries’s personality was that of a talker, a storyteller, and of someone who had humor. John Fries owned a small plot of land, and had as occupation auctioneer. He furthermore served during the War of Independence as captain in the Continental Army.

In 1794, John Fries was asked by the federal government to lead a militia to crush the Whiskey Rebellion. And he did, although we do not know how to what extent his actions contributed to restoring order.

During the Fries Rebellion in 1799, however, it was John Fries who took the lead in organizing the rebellion. He was a respected member of the community and was, as said, was a Patriot veteran. According to John Fries, the Direct Tax on dwellings was unconstitutional. February that year, he set up meetings to mobilize the insurrection. And it was John Fries who led a troop of 100 men that rode to Quakertown early in March, and later that month again to the Sun Inn in Bethlehem where about 400 rebellions had surrounded the inn. At Bethlehem John Fries was also the leader who negotiated the release, on bail by the way, of the federal prisoners from the Sun Inn. As said, John Fries was successively arrested, charged and convicted for treason, to be hanged, and then pardoned by the President. A true rollercoaster. After he was set free, he simply resumed his occupation as auctioneer again. In 1818 he died, at Trumbauersville, Pennsylvania.

4. Surname Fries  

Fries, stemming original from Vriese, Vrēse, Vrieze, der Friese, is a widespread surname in Germany and, to a lesser extend, in Switzerland too. Within Germany, Fries occurs more in Ostfriesland, which has to do the late introduction of surnames during the Napoleonic period; people all said they were Frisian. Vries or De Vries is a very common surname in the Netherlands (check our post Know where to find your sweet potato) and to be found more frequently in province Friesland and the coastal area. Together with the surname Jansen, Vries is even the most common one in the Netherlands. The reason for it is probably the same explanation concerning the Napoleonic period as with Fries in Germany. In Denmark, Sweden and in the Netherlands, the surname Fries or Friis (like Achton Friis) can also be found but in limited numbers. Often, surname Fries or Vries, and all its variations, is explained as being ethnically Frisian. Someone descending from Frisia, Fresia, Friso, or Friesland.

Interestingly, in old oberdeutch or Upper German speech, ‘friesen’ had a different meaning. Upper German is spoken in the far south of Germany and in Switzerland. Here fries meant ‘to dig, or to make ditches’ (Schweizerisches Idiotikon website). A friesen was a skilled worker who cultivated swamplands and drained too wet grasslands. Emblem or symbol of friesen workers was the Friesenbeil. A long small axe used to dig ditches and cut sods. In the region around Scheidt (Saarbrücken) in Rheinland-Pfalz in Germany, quite a number friesen workers were hired in the seventeenth century. Often originating from Switzerland. The friesen worker left but the name Fries stayed (Ballas 1996, Wörterbuchnetz.de website). And believe it or not, there is a company named Scheidts Landscaping in Illinois. Of course, friesen in this context is related to the Dutch word frees and verb frezen, meaning respectively ‘a cut’ and ‘to mill/to cut something in long straight lines’. Compare also German Fräsen.

The Friesenhaus (built ca. 1690) on Kaiserstraße St. in Scheidt, now part of Saarbrücken, southern Germany. The house has been demolished by the Kreissparkasse in 1971. The house was owned by Friesen migrants from Switzerland, namely the Blatter and Mauer families (Ballas 1996). Do we see a Friesenbeil ‘friesen axe’ in the foreground?

Also, in the south of Germany, a fries could have yet another meaning, namely a ‘great fighter/fighter of unusual strength’ (Namenforschung.net website). But no further lead is given.

Note that, of course, there are more alleged connections and ties with Switzerland besides the surname or occupation Fries/fries. Find out in our post Make way for the dead! which sagas exist in the cantons of Switzerland about the Frisian origin of the Swiss. Really! They were, it goes without saying, great tall warriors who migrated from Frisia to Switzerland.

5. Conclusion

Basically, this whole post was initiated because of the alleged involvement of Frisians and John Fries with the famous tax revolts in the United States. Examining all the available facts to us, we might just as well not have written this article at all, and certainly not have posted it on our blog. As far as we are concerned, John Fries is a distant offspring of a Swiss migrant worker who irrigated the wet fields in Germany in the second half of the seventeenth century. Who knows, his family made a stop-over in Wales before finally ending up in Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century.

When digging into the backgrounds of John Fries, we wondered if there was any excuse to write a post about it on our website since John Fries had no connection with Frisia or with Frisians. However, the history of the Swiss friesen migrant workers opened our eyes how the native Frisians got their tribe name 2,000 years ago. In our post A severe case of inattentional blindness: the Frisian tribe’s name we explain why, how and when the Frisians got their name. A must read for everyone whose surname is Fries, Vries, De Vries, De Vreese, or Vrieze, and for everyone who considers her- or himself Frisian or of Frisian descent. What turns out: the term friesen workers and the tribe name Frisians have, albeit independently from each other, an identical origin. Go read it!


Note 1 – The history of the area around Scheidt (Saarbrücken) resembles that of the Woldgebied area in province Groningen, the Netherlands. There Saint Walfrid cultivated the swamps before he was killed by Vikings, and he is commonly depicted with a spade instead of a Friesenbeil. Read our post Walfrid, You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Note 2 – If interested in the part the Frisians played in American history, including the bourgeois liberties of the Declaration of Independence, see our post History is written by the victors – a history of the credits.

Suggested music

Further reading

  • Ancestry, Fries Family History (website)
  • Ballas, H., Die Wiederbesiedlung Scheidts nach 1670 durch Einwanderer aus der Schweiz (1996)
  • Bouton, T., “No wonder the times were troublesome:” The Origins of Fries Rebellion, 1783-1799 (2000)
  • Clouse. J.A., The Whiskey Rebellion: Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Frontier People Test the American Constitution (1994)
  • Davis, W.W.H., Fries’s Rebellion 1798–99. An armed resistance to the house tax law, passed by Congress, July 9, 1798, in Bucks and Northampton Counties, Pennsylvania (1899)
  • Deering, A., The Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania and Carlisle (2014)
  • Dijkstra, A., De Hemelbouwer. Een biografie van Eise Eisinga (2021)
  • Flank, L., Historic Bethlehem and the Fries Rebellion (2021)
  • Fries History, Family Crest & Coats of Arms (website)
  • Frizzell, R.W., Reticent Germans. The East Frisians of Illinois (1992)
  • Grimminger, D.J., Pennsylvania Dutch tune and chorale books in the early republic: Music as a medium of cultural assimilation (2009)
  • Grubbs, P., Fries Rebellion (2015)
  • Klotz, L., The Fries Rebellion of 1799, Quakertown, Bucks County (2018)
  • Library of Congress, The Germans in America (website)
  • Longley, R., What Happened During the Fries Rebellion of 1799? The Last of Three American Tax Revolts (2020)
  • McIntosh, M.A., President John Adams and the Fries Rebellion, 1786-1787 (2021)
  • Namenforschung.net (website)
  • Newman, P.D., Fries’s Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution (2005)
  • Newman, P.D., The Federalists’ Cold War: The Fries Rebellion, National Security, and the State, 1787-1800 (2000)
  • Ridgway, W.H., Fries in the Federalist Imagination: A Crisis of Republican Society (2000)
  • Schweizerisches Idiotikon (website)
  • Vernoemingen.nl, Waarom noemden Friezen zich De Vries? (2012)
  • Wörterbuchnetz.de (website)

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