Westsylvania: The Fourteenth Colony
Colonialism, tax evasion and a whole lot of bourbon whiskey.
If Westsylvania Were A State…
Total Population: 5.3 million residents (just under 4 million registered voters)
Prospective State Capital: Pittsburgh, WS
Number of House seats: 7 (+4)
The history of Westsylvania predates the birth of the nation as its eastern border largely follows the Proclamation Line of 1763. The line was established by King George III and forbade settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains, labeling areas west as an “Indian Reserve.” This move was bitterly contested by colonialists in the American colonies and was a contributing factor to the American Revolution.
In the colonial era the western boundaries of many colonies were loosely defined, often leading to border disputes between states. In the early 1770s, Pennsylvania and Virginia both laid claim to areas within Westsylvania. This is due to the way the colonies defined their boundaries in their original charters. Pennsylvania laid claim to all lands 5 degrees of longitude west of the Delaware River. Virginia laid claim to all lands west of its coastal towns, south of the Ohio River from sea to sea. (Yes, the original colony of Virginia originally laid claim to all land west of their original settlements out to the Pacific Ocean. This was actually common at the time as both Massachusetts and Connecticut made similarly expansive land claims.)
Before the two colonies resolved their border dispute, a third party entered the fray to turn the disputed areas into its own independent colony. Disgruntled settlers in the region coalesced to create The Ohio Company and negotiated a land transfer with the indigenous peoples who occupied the land. These lands were later merged with The Indiana Company (a rival land grant company with similar goals) to create the proposed colony of Vandalia. The name Vandalia was chosen to honor the reigning queen’s Germanic heritage as she to descended from the Vandal peoples. Had it been granted colony status, it would have been the fourteenth British American colony and the only colony without direct access to the Atlantic Ocean.
The Whiskey Rebellion
The Vandalia proposal never received an official decision from Britain as it was quickly overshadowed by the Revolutionary War. (It didn’t help that Vandalia submitted its own declaration of independence just 106 days before The Declaration of Independence we’re all familiar with.) The war sidelined the Vandalia movement until it was revived in a new form in the mid-1790s.
Following the Revolutionary War, the new American federal government had debts to pay. This led to the first ever federal tax on a domestic good: distilled spirits. Those living in the more remote, mountainous edges of the new country balked at the idea. These rebellious settlers saw few benefits from their federal government as they lived on the fringes of society and felt little obligation to support said government via taxes.
“They had all just fought in the Revolutionary War, which was about taxation without representation. Then they were remote on the frontier and had very little political agency, and all of a sudden they were again being taxed without representation — which they had just fought a war about.” -Meredith Grelli, co-owner of Pittsburgh’s first distillery opened since Prohibition.
Disputes between settlers and tax collectors increased throughout the years following the new tax and came to a head in July 1794. A federal marshal was attacked while attempting to serve subpoenas for those who failed to pay the tax. This quickly evolved into an armed standoff with disgruntled countrymen encouraging their peers to overthrow federal powers present in Pittsburgh to establish a new mountainous state of “Westsylvania.” President George Washington responded by personally leading 13,000 troops on a march to Pittsburgh. This show of force proved successful as the tax evaders scattered prior to the troops’ arrival.
“I think people in this area tend to think of the Whiskey Rebellion as being concentrated in Western Pennsylvania. That’s where the confrontation occurred over the tax, but the failure to pay the tax or the protest against the tax extended all along the trans-Appalachian frontier. -W. Thomas Mainwaring, professor of history at Washington & Jefferson College.
While no present-day statehood movement exists, the cultural lineage of Westsylvania lives on today. Some see the history of Westsylvania as the emergence of America's first “red” state: suspicious of coastal elites, fond of guns, and hostile to taxes from big government. There’s also the continued commitment to whiskey as the famed Bourbon County, KY falls within this region. This sentiment has clearly endured across generations and shapes current political attitudes in both West Virginia and eastern Kentucky