HISTORY OF MOONSHINE
Origins Of the Scots Irish
There are a lot of misunderstanding’s and stereotypes about the origin’s and history of moonshine and the men and women moonshiners that made it. In the process they made moonshine legendary and many became legends as well. To understand moonshiners you need to understand the reasons their ancestors fled Europe for the American colonies, why they ended up in the Appalachian mountains, the role they played in early American history, and the social, political, and economical issues they faced from the time they settled the Appalachian mountains until today. Most of what people think they know about moonshine and moonshiner’s is wrong. Part of the reason they have been so misunderstood is because of stereotypes that still exist today and because they kept their stories secret as much as possible to avoid unwanted attention from Revenue Officers and other law enforcement. Propaganda campaigns by the government also spread misinformation. Moonshiners passed down their craft and stories to family members and many of those stories have been lost, but some families have continued the tradition and passed down the stories for over 200 years. My family still lives on the land our ancestors settled hundreds of years ago. We have kept the tradition alive and passed down the stories of our ancestors every generation. Our community is so secluded and because of the ruggedness of the mountains, lack of development, and thousands of acres of national forest protecting and preserving this area, many of the old buildings are intact fully or partially. Foundations and rock fireplaces can be found all over these mountains. Old mines, some dating back to the Mississippians who lived here before the Cherokee over 1000 years ago, can be found, parts of old grist mills that ground the grain into mill that was used to make moonshine, and feed the families and animals of the early settlers still exist, and old sled roads and wagon roads still cover these mountains. In some areas it’s like walking back in time. It is a quiet, peaceful, and beautiful place, which makes it hard to believe the violence, pain, and suffering that took place here. There are stories about the Wild West, but the Appalachian Mountains were the first Wild West and many of its stories were lost to time outside of these mountains or have never been told publicly until now.
Virtually all my ancestors on my father’s side were in America before the 1800’s. Most of them were in Western North Carolina or what would become Eastern Tennessee by the 1800’s, some were here in the mid 1700’s. By the 1820’s, the few that were not in this area already had settled here. Originally, 90 percent of the people that settled in the Appalachian Mountains were Scots-Irish. Most of our culture is based on the Scots-Irish ways. To understand the people of these mountains you first have to understand who the Scots-Irish were. Most people think they were like any other group of people in Scotland at that time, but that is not true. The Scots-Irish were predominantly people that lived on the border between Scotland and England. They were made up of about 80 percent Scots and 20 percent English. They were known as the Border Reivers people and unlike the Highlanders they did not have clans, but they adopted a similar system of extended families and neighbors that stuck together and protected each other like the clans in the Highlands. They raised animals to survive instead of growing crops to sell. They divided their land between all their sons evenly and it became impossible for them to survive after generations of that practice because of the lack of land to graze their cattle and other animals on. They became raiders and developed a culture of lawlessness because their livelihood was destroyed by the lack of land and the constant wars between Scotland and England. Neither country had enough power to stop them. At first their raiding across the border was encouraged because of the tensions between the two countries. They also protected the borders from invading armies, or at least slowed them down and gave more time to prepare for war, but they got more and more out of hand and attacked farms on either side of the border, only sparing their own kin. They would steal cattle and take them back to graze on their lands as well as take anything of value they could carry on horseback. They became mercenaries after their skills became famous and fought in Scotland, England, and Ireland in various wars and played important roles in several major battles. They were not loyal to any country only their clan and fought against each other in some battles depending on which army paid them. They dominated the borders of England and Scotland from the 13th century to the 17th century. King James the VI of Scotland and I of England and Ireland was worried about the instability the border families created and wanted to suppress the native Irish in Ireland. He forced the Border Reiver families to move to Ulster Ireland, which was land he recently took from Irish nobility in hopes of solving the border problem between Scotland and England and used the highly effective warriors to keep the Irish from taking back control of Ireland. The first families were moved to Ulster in 1609. They were under constant threat of war with the Irish. The Irish tried to push them off their ancestral lands in a series of rebellions. After the Irish were conquered the British claimed land, it had lost in the war, but the English settlers were the ones who benefitted from it, not the Scottish, even though the army that went to Ireland to help protect the Ulster plantations and defeat the Irish were Scottish. In the 1700’s several laws were passed that took away rights to people that were not part of the Church of Ireland. Near the end of the 1700’s Scots Irish Presbyterian’s and Gaelic Irish Catholics joined together in a rebellion against the crown. It was during that time, and because of the religious and ethnic discrimination, that the Scots Irish began to migrate to the American colonies. They brought with them a unique culture, a blend of Scottish and Irish whiskey making that would become moonshine, ancient ballads and folk music that would help create country and western music, superstitions and beliefs in magic and witchcraft from their ancient pre-Christian ancestors that became known as Appalachian Voodoo, and hundreds of years of experience as some of the best light Calvary warriors and raiders in Europe. They later took some of the Native American fighting styles and incorporated it into their approach to warfare.
The Scots Irish in America
About 200,000 Scots-Irish came to America. At first, they settled in Pennsylvania in the western part of the colony. They were poor and most had to sell everything they had to be able to gain passage to America. Some that could not afford it still were forced to come over as indentured servants, the unsettled western lands were cheaper, but they came with their challenges. First, they were once again on a border. They formed a first line of defense to the Native Americans that were hostile and attacking colonist and their settlements. Second, the crops and livestock they raised were hard to get to market. Distilling was something that had been a part of their culture for hundreds of years. They began growing crops and planting orchards that they could distill and then get to market easier and without pressure to get it to market before it spoiled. They could also get a better price for their Whiskey and Brandy than they could for their crops. As more and more Scots-Irish came they filled up the back country in Pennsylvania new settlers began settling in the Appalachian Mountains. Soon the Appalachian Mountain region was full of Scots-Irish settlers. My ancestors came several different ways. Some came through the Shenandoah Valley and through the Cumberland Gap into Western North Carolina, most of which would become Tennessee after the American Revolution. Others came down the Great Wagon Road into the Piedmont and Foothills regions of North Carolina and then moved west into the mountains. Some came through the port in Charleston, S.C. They moved Northwest into the upstate of South Carolina and then into the mountains of Western North Carolina. They all brought with them the same fiercely independent spirit, not afraid to move into hostile land and settle it while living in the constant threat of war with the Native American’s and other European Nations, much like they had in Ireland and Scotland for the last several hundred years. They helped start the French and Indian War and many of them fought in it. The outcome of that war made it illegal for settlers to settle west of the continental divide, which many were already living west of that border and most ignored the crown when told to move back east. Soon others followed and as people came from Western Virginia and Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap, which became the first real access to the land west of the Appalachian Mountains. Many also came across the rugged Appalachian Mountains from North Carolina and formed the first permanent settlement West of the Appalachian Mountains.
They were the only people that were suited to conquer the western frontier at that time without support from the colony or British government. A large group in what is now Eastern Tennessee worked out a peace with the Cherokee and acquired a large tract of land forming the Republic of Watauga or Watauga Association in 1772, which was considered illegal by the British. They formed an independent government and were the first American settlers to declare their independence from Great Brittan. President Theodore Roosevelt later called it, “the first men of American birth to establish a free and independent community on the continent.” They were made up of mostly Scots Irish and part of a group from North Carolina that led the Regulator Movement. The Regulator Insurrection was an armed rebellion against the colonial government in North Carolina that began in 1766. In 1775 a large land purchase known as the Transylvania Purchase, which consisted of most of Kentucky and middle Tennessee, from the Cherokee set off a split in the Cherokee tribe led by Dragging Canoe and the new independent government successfully organized the defense of the Watauga Settlements.
When the American Revolution broke out in 1776 the land including what was the Watauga Settlement was annexed by North Carolina and became Washington County North Carolina and legitimized the Wataguan’s land claims. The Cherokee sided with the British and began attacking the settlements across the frontier. The Scots- Irish fought the Cherokee and soldiers under general Griffith Rutherford were sent to attack the Cherokee’s main towns. They destroyed the Cherokee towns, but most of the Cherokee were in the mountains still fighting the people on the frontier. The Overmountain settlements, as they became known, defended themselves from the Cherokee, who were supplied by the British. By the late 1770’s the war up north had become a stalemate and the French had agreed to join the Americans. Cornwallis was sent to attack the Carolinas to keep them under British control and they believed there was still a lot of support for the British in the South. He planned to grow their numbers as they marched through South Carolina and North Carolina. The British took Savannah, then Charleston and captured the American Army. They then launched an invasion of South Carolina. They went through the state without losing a battle. The American militia was untrained farmers that picked up arms and usually ran at the sight of the British Army. If not, they ran after the first shots of the battle. The British were brutal. At the Battle of Waxhaw in South Carolina many American forces dropped their weapons and surrendered to Tarleton but were all killed on the battlefield even though the British were required to give quarter to troops that surrendered. Horatio Gates lost his Army to the British at the Battle of Camden, then 200 patriot militia attacked Musgrove’s Mill and were defeated and pursued by Patrick Ferguson, a Scottish officer in the British army, and his loyalist militia that he raised in the Carolinas. Ferguson and his men formed Cornwallis left flank. Patrick Ferguson sent word for the settlers over the mountains to stay out of the war or they would come and kill them and burn their houses and towns to the ground. That was his biggest mistake. Even though the Overmountain Men militia they raised was not well supplied, marched a long distance quickly and almost starved to death because of it, they were still able to defeat Ferguson. They formed at Sycamore Shoals in present day Elizabethton Tennessee in 1780. They picked up men as they marched, including the militia that just lost at Musgrove Mills. They numbered around 1000 men, mostly Scots Irish. They came from a long line of raiders who practiced guerilla warfare going all the way back to the borders of Scotland and England. They picked up tactics from the Native Americans that they fought as well. They also used tomahawks instead of a bayonet and some had pistols as well as muskets that could shoot a musket ball of grapeshot, which is like a modern shotgun using buckshot. At the right distance they could hit more than one solider with the grapeshot, especially the tightly packed together British. They were almost all sharpshooters. They were forced to hunt small game like squirrels with their rifles and could not afford to miss because bullets and gunpowder were too expensive and hard to come by. They were deadly at a distance or in hand-to-hand combat. The Overmountain Men surrounded the mountain and marched up from all sides. They would fire on the British and then hide behind trees to reload. They advanced fast screaming like Indians. Ferguson and his men did not know how to handle them, and he retreated to the top of the hill with all his men. Sharpshooters climbed trees to get a good view of Ferguson and were able to shoot him from his horse. He fell and one foot was hung in the stirrup and his horse dragged him around the battlefield. Others shot him as he was being dragged. The mountain men charged and engaged in hand-to-hand combat and in 65 minutes a force of half the size of the British captured or killed the entire left flank of Cornwallis army. They continued to kill Fergusons men after they surrendered in return for what Tarleton did at Waxhaw. Their officers stopped them, but they held a quick trial and condemned some of them to death, which they carried out the sentence immediately. It took 150 years before the American government admitted that the Scots Irish were responsible for the turning point of the Revolution. They downplayed the importance of the battle for years.
The Overmountain Men were disbanded after the battle, but many of them stayed and joined the American forces and played an important role in the war. Nathaniel Greene was commander of the Continental Army in the Southern Campaign and after the battle of Kings Mountain he split his army into two groups. One smaller force under Daniel Morgan and the larger force under Greene. Cornwallis split his forces in two and chased Greene and sent Tarleton after Morgan. Cornwallis’s wanted revenge for The Battle of Kings Mountain Tarleton took the right flank of Cornwallis army, which included mounted Dragoons or Calvary and professional British soldiers. It was a larger, better prepared, better trained, and better supplied army than what Patrick Ferguson had. They met Daniel Morgan and his Calvary, Continental soldiers, and Militia, most of which were from Kings Mountain. He created one of the greatest battle plans in the war. He knew the British wanted blood and nothing less than a total defeat of the American forces would do. Tarleton marched his troops to meet Morgan as fast as he could. They were worn out when they got there, but Tarleton was not about to let them rest for risk of the Americans getting away. Daniel Morgan used several things to his advantage. Because of issues with militia retreating, he chose a place that had a river close by that made a retreat impossible. If his plan did not work, he would lose his whole army, but he knew if he lost the battle all was lost anyway. He also chose Cowpens because of the terrain. There was a large hill that he could hide some troops and Cavalry behind that was wooded and he could conceal troops in the woods also. There was a smaller rolling hill in front of that. He set his infantry on top of the small hill with their flanks exposed on purpose because there was a ravine on one flank and a creek on the other protecting them. He put his militia in front of the Infantry troops down the hill some. In front of them he put 150 sharp shooters; half were from the battle of Kings Mountain and the other half of the sharpshooters were from Georgia. He asked both militias to fire two volleys then retreat to the next line of Militia and reform. The British Cavalry advanced and the sharp shooters shot fifteen targeted officers. As they retreated to the next line of militia, they kept firing. The second row of Militia were to make it look as if they were disorganized and in a full-blown route after they fired two volleys at the advancing British Infantry then retreated to the left. Daniel Morgan put over 500 of his best infantry men on top of the hill and asked them to hold until the British charged and then withdraw over the hill so that Tarleton would think it was a full route and he was about to crush the American forces. Tarleton saw that most of the forces were militia and that they had no way to retreat. His men needed rest and food, but he thought he had caught up with the Americans and they chose a bad place for them to fight and could not risk letting them get away. The planed retreats just added to his sense of victory. When the British came over the hill, they were surprised to see a larger force than they originally saw and because they had not slept much on their long march and were out of food the charge up the hill in full uniform and carrying weapons wore them out even more. The militia that was in route turned and fired on the British stopping them in their tracks and the Continental soldiers fixed bayonets and charged. They overtook the British and even were able to get to the British cannons and turn them on the British. William Washington, a cousin of George Washington came out from behind the large hill and hit the British right flank and rear. Part of the American militia went behind the hill and came out from the other side and hit the British left flank and rear and the other part of the militia charged the British from the front. The shock caused some of the British to collapse, others surrendered, including the Scottish Highlanders. Unlike the Scots Irish, the Scottish Highlanders were mostly loyalist to the English. When Tarleton’s army was destroyed, he went to his reserves of light cavalry and ordered them to attack, but the refused. Tarleton tried to save his cannons but couldn’t and with only a few men on the battlefield still fighting Tarleton retreated to but was stopped by Washington who engaged in a sword fight with him. He was almost killed by one of Tarleton’s men, but his orderly shot him, saving Washington. Tarleton shot Washingtons horse out from under him and the battle was over and Cornwallis lost his other flank. Cornwallis now had only his main army.
The Battle of Kings Mountain raised the spirits of the backcountry people, but was disregarded by most other Americans. The battle of Cowpens raised the spirits of the Americans in the eastern part of the new country. It just shows how the two groups saw themselves as different even while fighting for the same side in a war for their independence. The two victories cost the British thousands of men, several cannons and other weapons and supplies. It also put Cornwallis in a position that he had to do something, or he was going to lose the war. He decided to drop all his unnecessary gear and chase Morgan, living off the land and moving fast. Greene and Morgan met back up and planed their next move. They decided to split their forces and send a smaller group to distract the British while Greene crossed the Dan River. Cornwallis decided he could not go any farther from his supplies and went to Hillsborough NC. Greene came back and led Cornwallis on a wild goose chase while waiting on reinforcements, which he got soon from Virginia and North Carolina, which doubled the size of his forces to around 4,000 men. He chose his battlefield and led his army to Guilford Courthouse NC. He began to prepare for an attack and used a similar plan to what Morgan used at Cowpens. Both sides took heavy casualties, but the British took far heavier casualties. In a desperate act Cornwallis used grapeshot in his cannons and fired on his on men that were in close combat with the Americans. He hit men on both sides. After this Greene retreated, but because of the large number of causalities the battle was largely considered a success. Soon it would become clear those three battles would win the war for America. Cornwallis had to retreat to Yorktown. Greene decided not to chase Cornwallis because his militia had gone home. He went to fight the small British forces that controlled South Carolina and Georgia. His next few battles ended in failure without the help of the backwoods men and Overmountain Men Militia’s. He was able to keep what was left of his army together and because of the causalities he inflicted on the British forces left they retreated to Charlestown giving control of the two states back to the Americans except for a few forts, which they soon abandoned, leaving the British with a small strip of coastline near Charleston and Yorktown as their only control in the South. George Washington came and laid siege to Yorktown and the French showed up in time to block their retreat by sea, leading to the end of the American Revolution. According to British commander Henry Clinton, the victory at Kings Mountain "proved the first Link of a Chain of Evils that followed each other in regular succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America."
The Whisky Rebellion
After the war America was in debt and had little money. It was not able to pay the soldiers and officers that fought the American Revolution and offered them land in newly acquired land in the west. Several high-ranking officers got land in Yancey County NC and some of my English Heritage comes from them. The American government was so broke by the time of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse that Greene had to borrow money in his own name to clothe and supply his troops for the last couple years of the war. For the Overmountain Men and surrounding areas, the war was not over and actually went on until 1794 as a series of Indian Wars called the Cherokee Wars against the Cherokee, Chickamauga, Creek, Shawnee, Delaware, Muskogee, and others still waging war against the Southern frontier. They fought them alone while the American government sent its troops up North to fight the Northwest Indian War. There were 35 battles and they were fought by militia mostly from the State of Franklin and led by John Sevier. North Carolina gave its new western lands to the government to help get NC out of debt, then they changed their minds and the area was in a state of limbo for 4 years until NC decided to give the lands to the US government for good. During this time the State of Franklin was formed to help protect the people and govern the people. The US was not able to send troops to protect the people in the western lands and the states were not able to either. It was up to the citizens to protect themselves. The last major battle in this area took place in what is now Rocky Fork TN near the NC state line and Burnsville, NC. The battle of Flint Creek took place in 1789 and was a complete victory for the militia, which was made up of men from Burnsville, NC and Jonesborough TN. A band of Native American warriors who had been attacking all up and down the western frontier had decided to camp there for winter. It is said that they got a lot of their flint to make arrowhead and spear points from that area and it was a naturally well-fortified place with only one way in and one way out. They had planned to raid surrounding areas for the winter to survive and make new weapons they needed to continue fighting before they went back to attacking forts and raiding farms on the frontier in the spring. 145 warriors were killed and only a few got away. The Native Americans moved south to Georgia and west and no major Native American battle ever took place again in East Tennessee or Western North Carolina until the Civil War. The next year a small band of warriors came back to get revenge for the massacre and attacked a homestead on Granny Lewis Creek while the husband and oldest son were away hunting. They killed his wife and small children, except one 12 year old girl, who they traded a rifle for her release a few years later. I am kin to the Lewis’ who were attacked at Granny Lewis Creek. They say the young girl was raped and came back with several half Native American children. The Scots Irish Mountaineers settled the rugged Appalachian Mountains and made roads and trails for people to use to cross the mountains and cleared the area of all hostile Indians that sided with the British and fought on the frontier for years after the Revolution and made further westward expansion possible, safer, and much easier for the people that came after them. They also turned the tide of war in the favor of America with their total defeat of one of Cornwallis armies at Kings Mountain and contributed in other battles to follow. It’s hard to imagine an American victory without the Scots Irish. In all honesty a lot was still the same in America. The rich ruling class, who many had ties to the old ruling class in Europe, controlled America and the poor were treated bad, without a real voice, and forced to fund more than their fair share of the new country.
Since the new country was in so much debt the first tax in American history was introduced in 1796. The government knew they needed the help of the frontier people to fight the Revolution and the Indian Wars and waited to tax them until all threats were dealt with. The first tax was the Whiskey Tax and even worse it was not fair to the Scots-Irish specifically. It taxed you based on the size of your still. In the east most people that distilled did it as a full-time job so it didn’t hurt them. They also didn’t need to distill for survival. In the West the mountain people had to distill to survive. It cost on average 2 bushels of corn to pay to get one bushel to market. If it was distilled, they could transport it cheaper, store it longer, and get a higher price than they could for just grain. The problem was they only distilled when their crops were in, and they needed to. They didn’t distill year-round so to tax them on the size of there still was unfair. To add insult to injury they claimed they needed the tax to help pay for the war and to protect the western frontier. Most felt like they contributed plenty to the war, they defended the frontier themselves without any support from the American or state governments in many cases and they raised the grain and didn’t feel like the government could tell them what to do with it. This led to the first Rebellion in American History led by a man from Ireland named David Bradford in the Western part of Pennsylvania. They attacked the tax collectors and George Washington called up 10,000 Militia and led them to put down the Rebellion. The Scots Irish farmers headed for the mountains with their stills when Washington’s troops arrived. Several leaders were arrested and convicted but were pardoned. Washington knew if he hung them, he could have a larger Rebellion on his hands. He had proved that the federal government had power, but in reality, no on in the entire Appalachian Mountain region was paying the whiskey tax and many assaults were made on Tax collectors. North Carolina was considered the hotbed of activity some of Washington’s advisors wanted to put Western North Carolina under martial law, but Washington refused to do that knowing he could not hold the country together if there was a civil war, which came closer than most people realize in the 1790’S. By not enforcing the tax law in the west Washington kept starting a large rebellion that would have led to civil war. By not changing the law and putting down the rebellion in Pennsylvania he proved that the new government had power. Thomas Jefferson would repeal the law when he took office. It came back briefly after the war of 1812. It wasn’t until after the American Civil War that the federal excise tax on spirits became a law and has been ever since except for period of prohibition. My family has made moonshine legally and illegally since the first whiskey tax was put into place after the American Revolution. The tax on whiskey after the American Revolution was repealed in 1802, but by 1813 a similar tax would be created during the war of 1812. By 1817 the tax was repealed, but another major war would require another tax on spirits and this time it was permanent.
The Civil War and Moonshine
By 1862 it was clear the Civil War would not be as quick and one-sided as both sides thought it would be. The tax on spirits was created again to help pay for the war. After the end of the Civil War in 1865 the South was devastated economically and socially. Before the war communities came together to help each other. After the war many people were in feuds with their neighbors over which side they supported in the war and horrific actions committed by neighbor's and their family during the war. The Appalachian Mountain region entered a depression that lasted until the 1970's. When the great depression hit most could not tell the difference. The region became secluded and cut off from the rest of the world. Trying to hold onto their land and feed their families became impossible for many.
After the Civil War many people took on making moonshine as a full-time job instead of just a seasonal one. They had to buy grain from local farmers to make it work. They paid more for grain to make their moonshine than a farmer could get at market and the farmer didn't have to travel to sell their grain. Many of the ex-raiders and their family members controlled much of the mountains and included some notable outlaws. Some gangs protected the moonshiners and delivered the moonshine to buyers keeping hostile neighbors or the law and revenue agents from getting their hands on it. Lewis Redmond was well known for doing that and became a Robin Hood like folk hero.
After the Civil War a lot of my family land was lost and my 3rd great grandmother Elizabeth Bradford and what was left of her family, went from landowners and farmers to sharecroppers. None of the Bradford’s owned slaves. Few slaves were in Yancey County. There were not enough large tracts of flat land to run a large plantation like other parts of America. My family acquired most of their land through land grants. They claimed unclaimed land and improved it, turning it into farmland. By doing this they were able to purchase the land at a cheap price from the State. They worked hard for it and farmed it growing all kinds of grain, sugar cane, and apple orchards. They also operated several grist mills. My family legally distilled corn whiskey and apple brandy before and after the Civil War. My 4th great grandfather, William Bradford, along with multiple other 3rd and 4th great grandparents and several cousins are listed on the tax list in 1866 for Yancey County for legally making liquor and paying taxes on it. William Bradford was targeted along with my 3rd great grandmother Elizabeth Bradford after her son John Bradford and his gang terrorized the county in the two years following the Civil War. John and his brother Easom killed Stephen Edwards, who turned them and their brother, William Ervin Bradford, in for deserting the Confederate Army. They also beat and robbed the Sheriff of Yancey County. Several other members of the gang murdered people that had hurt or killed their family and these revenge killings went on for generations. Joseph Shelton was part of the gang and ex Confederate soldier. Joseph was sent home in 1862 after an injury. Later that year Confederate troops rounded up young boys and old men in Shelton Laurel, the community first settled by Shelton’s in this region and home to many of his family. They were marched a short way up the road and executed them in what became known as the Shelton Laurel Massacre. Like the Bradford’s, Joseph joined the Union Army, he was a recruiter for several units including the 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry and recruited black and white men from the region to join “Kirks Raiders”. During that time, he killed a Confederate Soldier named Joel Holcombe, who was home at the time. Charges were brought against the Bradford’s and Joseph Shelton for the murders they all committed, but they went on the run to the Cumberland Gap region of Tennessee and Kentucky. The gang continued coming back to Yancey and Madison County N.C. and raiding, then going back into hiding.
A news article from the time period tells about horse theft ring in the area. When I looked closer, I found that most of the charges were against John Bradford’s gang and in later years against other cousins of mine, the Higgins brothers, and California John Wilson, who rode with them. What it does not tell you is that the horses were mainly being stole from members of the KKK. One raid went wrong and, on the way, back into Tennessee California John Wilson was met by a large group of the KKK. They beat him and almost killed him. California John promised to get his revenge. He ran into some of the men one day while in Burnsville. He was able to capture one member and took him to a store ran by family. He tied him up and beat him. He also sent for help with the others. He sent for Esau Shelton, cousin to Joseph and most other members of the gang. The man California John tied up got away and alerted his friends and soon a gun and knife fight was under way in the streets of Burnsville. Several were killed and sounded including California John, who survived.
Esau Shelton was younger and didn’t fight in the Civil War but did ride with the gang later on. He robbed a train station in Kentucky with other gang members and was hunted down for it. When two lawmen caught up to him a gunfight broke out. Esau wounded one man and was wounded himself. He was captured a few days later and like Joseph Shelton he was murdered young. A lot of the gang members were killed at a young age. John Bradford lived to be an old man, although it is believed he faked his death and moved back to Yancey County to finish what he started years before. He was poisoned at the age of 90 by the granddaughter of Stephen Edwards. Many people dispute this, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that it was true.
After the war and after the acts of revenge by John Bradford’s gang, William Bradford was arrested for having children out of wedlock. His sister had married John Honeycutt and had a large family. John Honeycutt was killed on Lottie’s Creek close to my 5th great grandfather, John William Bradford’s grist mill, William Bradford became guardian of their kids and helped his sister run the farm and raise her kids. This was around the 1840’s. William had several children at this time with Mary Cooper. By the Civil War William and Mary's kids were basically adults. It had been no secret, but after the Civil War, multiple charges were brought against them relating to having children out of wedlock.
My 3rd great grandmother Elizabeth Bradford watched her youngest son that was old enough to fight in the war join the Confederate Army, with one brother. Months later the 3 other brothers and her husband Sam Bradford Sr. joined. Sam Bradford Jr. was killed in Jonesborough Tennessee in 1862, Thomas Bradford was killed in the battle of Stones River later that year. About a year later Sam Bradford Sr. was sent home to die. His three other sons John, William Ervin, and Easom, all came home as well and hid out in a cave. That is when they were turned in to the Home Guard and sent to be hanged. After suffering so much and still raising a large family by herself, her husband died, and Elizabeth was left with just the cabin and a small amount of land. The other large tracts of land were sold off, but court records show that she was not paid, and they took the buyers to court, but never got the land back and didn’t get paid in full by her death in the 1870’s from what I can find. She was forced to become a sharecropper to provide for her family. In 1867 she was charged with not paying her full share to the landowner for the crops she raised. There is no way of knowing if she really did and this was another attack on the family, but no other woman was charged in Yancey County for anything like this or anything else and most people struggled after the Civil War. She was also charged with stealing 2 hogs to feed her family. This was another common issue with so many men killed, and women and children left to run a large farm by themselves. One of the outcomes of the charges was Elizabeth was forced to pay the officer involved and I believe that was the Sheriff, W.E. Piercy, who is listed on the front page of the warrant below. He wanted her son, John Bradford and other family members in his gang, but was only able to catch her, and old woman and William Bradford an old man.
Property tax was also introduced at this time and many people could not earn enough money to pay the tax and lost their land and suffered the same fate, but none were charged in Yancey County except my 3rd great grandmother. Her son William Ervin refrained from the revenge after the Civil War and lived close by to help his mother. Im sure John Bradford and the rest of the gang didn’t know how their actions would affect their family. Like I mentioned no other woman was treated like his mother in this region and the whole area was overrun with small bands of bushwhackers or gangs during and after the Civil War. Around 100,000 men hid out in the Appalachian Mountains during the war who deserted the military or were just avoiding being sent to war. This personal war between our family and the law as well as a war with the KKK who ran Yancey County for many years following the Civil War, would rage on for generations. Being born into it and carrying the last name of the prominent gang members made any other way of life hard to obtain for most of my family.
John Bradford and his gang have around 20 warrants that I know of. They ranged from murder, to horse theft and even highway robbery and assault of the Sheriff of Yancey County, W.E. Piercy. Most of John Bradford's gang members were relatives like Joseph Shelton, Easom Bradford, California John Wilson, Sanders Higgins, and later Esau Shelton. John Bradford and his brothers, Sam, Thomas, Easom, and William Ervin, as well as their father Sam Bradford Sr. fought for the South until Sam and Thomas were killed and their father was sent home to die. The remaining three brothers went home and hid out in a cave on the family farm. They were turned in to the Confederate Home guard and were captured and sent to hang for deserting the Army. They were locked up in a barn, but managed to dig under the wall and escape. Outside of their personal war they volunteered to be a part of Stoneman's Raid, which raided and burnt down a lot of N.C. This is where they learned a lot of their guerilla warfare tactics. Several also fought in the Kirk Holden War, which was the only war against the KKK. The governor, Holden, was impeached for the war and the government wanted to bring charges against members of the Army that was raised, mainly its leader, Kirk. Joseph Shelton was finally captured as a result and he was convicted around 1870 of Joel Holcombe's murder, but took it to the N.C. supreme court and won because soldiers were given amnesty for crimes that happened during the Civil War that grew out of the war. John came back over the course of the rest of his life and killed multiple other people that he felt had wronged him in some way including Stephen Edwards son Jim Edwards.
The revenue agents sent to stop the moonshiners were often outlaws themselves. The idea at the time was it took an outlaw to catch an outlaw. A lot of these federal agents abused their power and hurt and killed people, sometimes even women and children. The murder rate in this region was the highest in the country in this time period. A news article said in one graveyard alone near Shelton Laurel there were 48 people buried that were killed over feuds following the Civil War.
One famous Moonshiner that was involved with a legendary feud that was fueled by rifts created between friends and family over politics following the Civil War was George McCurry. He was another cousin of mine and was part of the first generation of outlaws and moonshiners after the Civil War, but were heavily affected by the aftermath of the Civil War. Many people in this generation had parents, brothers, or uncles that had fought in the Civil War. Politics became violent and you had to chose one side or the other after the Civil War. The Democrats were the party of the South and pro Confederate people and the Republican party was the party of Abraham Lincoln and the North. These party lines stayed the same for generations following the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln. After people saw first hand the cruel brutality of the KKK against black and white people many southern democrats changed sides and joined the republican party. It is said that Sid Peterson killed a close friend who went from life long Democrat to Republican. He also turned in people for making moonshine whos politics he disagreed with. He turned in the McCurry's for making moonshine and they confronted him. Jerome McCurry, George McCurry's younger brother was killed by Sid Peterson. The McCurry's led by George went looking for revenge. They burnt down Sid Petersons farm when they found out he was not there and had went into hiding from the McCurry's. Peterson only agreed to come out of hiding and turn himself in if the law could guarantee his safety. Peterson's was found not guilty by reason of self defense. George was arrested for burning down Sid Peterson's farm, but was not captured for a long time. He was involved in several murders and involved in a famous shootout with revenue agents that came to capture him at his still. He was not captured then. His story became well publicized and It was said that McCurry and Baxter Shelton, another family member of Joseph Shelton who rode with John Bradford, were the biggest thing since Lewis Redmond, another famous moonshiner and outlaw.
Prohibition, fast cars, and mobsters is what most people think of when they think of Moonshine. The truth is prohibition was only a small part of the story and came along over 100 years after the birth of moonshine. North Carolina has a unique history and Western North Carolina especially played a major role in prohibition becoming law. Most people think of prohibition starting in 1919, when it became a national law, but in 1908 some counties in Western North Carolina voted to go dry including Buncombe, Madison, and Yancey County. This made them one of the first in the nation. By 1909 North Carolina went dry and voted in a statewide prohibition. Decades of lawlessness, violence, and murders on both sides of the law played a big role in leading to statewide prohibition. Other options like the timber industry and factory work to make money also played a part. Moonshine had been one of the only and main sources of getting money in the barter society that still existed in the Appalachian Mountain region, until around the early 1900’s. For many families it was the first time leaving the mountains in generations, although some kept to the old ways.
The gangs that were crated by the Civil War and its aftermath had been going on for about 3 generations. Articles like the one from the Asheville Citizen Times in 1890 with the headline six men killed and twelve wounded at government still in Mitchell County were not uncommon at all during that time, especially considering there were 575 distilleries in the U.S. legally before prohibition and 227 were in North Carolina. It was not just the moonshiners and legal distilleries either. In 1885 several drunk sheriff deputies from Yancey County were reported to have tore up a grist mill mistaking it for a still. The Charlotte Observer, in 1903, said that Ed Ray a former U.S. Deputy Marshall and Revenue Agent killed a young boy for not telling him where his father’s still was. There was an $800 reward for Ed Ray in 1885. In 1877 he was charged with killing the two men he went to arrest for distilling and in 1884 he was charged with killing several men in an argument at a mine. It was a full on war that went on through Prohibition and the laws today still reflect it. Most people wonder when it became legal to make Moonshine like we do at Howling Moon Distillery. The answer is it was always legal and illegal at the same time and still is. It’s a catch 22. It is illegal to have a still in North Carolina without a permit, but to get a North Carolina distillery permit you must first have a federal permit. To get your federal permit you must have a distillery set up to apply. What changed is the law in North Carolina quit arresting people who were trying to set up a legal distillery. The game of cat and mouse has went on for hundreds of years between the government and moonshiners. The earliest known thump keg was in Western North Carolina in the 1870’s. Way before most people thought it was created. Its purpose was to make it possible to distill in one run. It double distills the moonshine. Before its creation and addition to a moonshine still you made your first run and kept, unable to sale it or use it until you had enough first runs to fill up the still again and redistill it into what was called the doublings or second run. The thump keg made it possible to set up and distill then move easier and faster keeping one step ahead of the law.
The last gang I know of in this area that made moonshine and could not be controlled was the gang of my cousin Hiram Wilson. He was run out of North Carolina in 1908. He went on the run to Colorado for several years. He was on the cover of the New York Times and many other major news papers for his murders, distilling and threat to kill any man who came to stop him. You can click on his name above and read his whole story. In his time he was more famous than Billy the Kid
The End of an Era
After all distilling was made illegal there was still violence. A lot of it made it to the big cities and got more coverage in big newspapers. The supped-up cars that could outrun the law came next. Gangsters and moonshiners both wanted cars faster than the law. In our region people out ran the law to take a care load of liquor to cities like Atlanta, where they could get more money for them, but what most people don’t know is the mountain region didn’t have good roads that fast cars could run on in the early 1900’s. We still had sled roads, which were made for a wooden sled to be pulled by a mule. That didn’t stop people like from this region like my great grandfather Wylie Bradford and others from moving large amounts of liquor. Deep in the mountains at that time the train ran and stopped at places no other machine could reach. Lost Cove was one of those places. Located in Yancey County North Carolina, it was created during the Civil War by people looking to escape the brutality of the war at home. It lasted for almost 100 years until the trains stopped running. The town has no road in or out. They sold timber and moonshine to survive. During prohibition the train would stop in Lost Cove and moonshine was loaded into bulk tank containers on the train. I have heard this same story from people all over Western North Carolina in isolated communities that had train stations. This would only work in an area so isolated that no one could walk up on this in action and alert revenue agents or local law enforcement. Lost Cove was the perfect place for local moonshiners to load their product on a train. Like I mentioned there was never a road to the town. There still isn’t. The trail is steep and rocky as well as several miles long from the trail head, which is reached by going to one of the most isolated parts of Yancey County and then turning up a gravel road that goes miles up a mountain without any houses or people besides an occasional hiker. At the top of the mountain the trail starts down into a gorge where Lost Cove is located. It is a rough area to hike if you get off the trail. There are steep mountains, rock cliffs that drop off into the Nolichucky River and it is known for its population of bears and rattle snakes. The river is used today for white water rafting, but during prohibition white water rafting was not going on and the river was to rocky and rough to navigate by boat. The only other way in would be to follow the train tracks in from Tennessee. Lost Cove also was a disputed area. It was not clear until the 1900’s which state the land was in. It is on the Tennessee and North Carolina border. At that time law enforcement could not cross state lines and capture a fugitive so Lost Cove was not regulated by either. It later that the rough area was surveyed and concluded that it was part of North Carolina. What would become the FBI was created near the end of prohibition because of the need to catch criminals who crossed state lines to get away. My ancestors used this to their full advantage.
After local law enforcement targeted my family following the Civil War and after large portions of their land was lost, many went deeper into the mountains into areas that were hard to access then and today. They built communities on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee and made moonshine on one side and lived on the other. They also were known to hide half of their moonshine in one state and half in the other. One time there was a bust and half of the moonshine on hand as well as the still was taken. They used the money from the other half of the moonshine to build a new still and were back up and running in no time. My great grandfather Wylie Bradford and his brothers and cousins ran several locations like this. Wylie died in 1925 and his life was a mystery. We were always told he was an outlaw, but little was said about him and you could not get anyone to tell you very much. Records show his brother Joe Berry Bradford was arrested for making Moonshine. His brother Bob Bradford who also went by Bob Edwards was arrested also and broke out of jail. He was on the run for a year when a U.S. Deputy Marshall recognized him at a train station in Knoxville, Tennessee and arrested him again. I can’t find much on Wylie as far as arrest records, but what records I can find point to the fact he was most definitely and outlaw. We know he was a moonshiner. I have part of one of his moonshine stills that has been passed down generations. I found out in researching him that his name was not Wylie. It was John, like his uncle who was such an outlaw after the Civil War. He was married 3 times, but no divorce papers can be found. He signed his real name on his first marriage certificate. After that he went by Wylie Bradford, but he had aliases and he never spelled his name the same on any document. In 1909 he faked his death. I can prove this because he signed the birth certificate of his last son in his second marriage in 1909, but his second wife was listed as a widow in the 1910 census and their last son together was just a few months old so there is no way they divorced, and she remarried in that time. In 1911 Wylie married my great grandmother Cora Honeycutt. All three of his wives came from families of outlaws. Cora had a son already but had never been married. At that time that was looked down on. We were always told that they moved a lot and I cant track all his moves, but he never stayed in the same place long. It was always said that Cora would have the wagon packed and food cooked when they would move and when Wylie came home they would leave in the middle of the night. I don’t know what all he was running from, but I found something that shocked me in my research. We never knew my grandfathers real name. We don’t know if he ever did either, but none of his kids knew it. He was listed as being born William Bradford, then on the 1930 census, 5 years after his father died, he was listed as Richard Bradford. After that he was listed as Hillard Bradford, which is the only name we ever knew him by. He has multiple birthdates and places of birth listed on documents also. I don’t know everything Wylie did, but I know someone doesn’t go to such great lengths to hide their identity, fake their death, and hide the identity of their children for no reason.
Shortly after my great grandfathers death the state and federal government declared war on Yancey County, North Carolina according to a 1926 issue of the Asheville Citizen Times. The Prohibition Enforcement Officer over the Carolinas and Tennessee claimed that the district made more moonshine that anywhere else in the South and that its border distilleries in Yancey County North Carolina, Cooke County Tennessee and Rayburn County Georgia were singled out as the worst in the region. A judge brought the attention to the state and federal authorities attention in a letter claiming that the area in and around Asheville, N.C. were overrun with illegal distilleries. This had a major impact on my family. It was around this time that much of the organized large scale moonshining came to a halt in the region. The safe havens created my family in communities deep in the mountains like the Whistling Gap and Rocky Fork on the North Carolina Tennessee line ceased to exist. Before these communities, which were in between Lost Cove, N.C., were communities that openly made moonshine and were a safe haven to outlaws on the run. Many went back to small scale distilling deep in the mountains with just one or two people running the still. Large scale distribution to the North by train through the mob and syndicate came to an end and each person had to find a way to transport their small amounts of moonshine to sale themselves. In the years to come famous gangsters and fast cars loaded down with moonshine outrunning the cops became the big stories in moonshine and the long and amazing prior 125 plus years of moonshine history got lost in the mix. My family started to travel and hop trains. Many of them ended up in California. Some stayed, but most came back. They all did pretty good for themselves considering the times. They worked in the logging industry in California. By the 1950’s most of them were back in Yancey County N.C. or across the mountain in Tennessee. Most of them built new houses and had new cars. I don’t know if they were that successful logging or if they carried on the family business on the other side of the U.S. There are so many mysteries in my family history that I most likely will never know the whole truth. I know they kept distilling when they came back from California, but not on the scale my family had for generations before. The knowledge and art of distilling as well as several family stills up to 150 years old have been passed down. I started Howling Moon in 2010 to share our family history and stories as well as our moonshine so they would not be lost to time. Few of us still know the stories or the old ways I have spent much of my life learning. I thought many of the stories were so outrageous they couldn’t be true, but after getting a 4 year degree in history from UNCA and spending over a decade tracking down the stories from multiple people, going through the records and archives, and looking through old news articles and warrants along with the information I already knew that had been passed down, I found out that the stories were actually toned down and the truth was almost unbelievable.