Philip Alston (counterfeiter)

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Philip Alston (Feb. 18, 1740/41 – after 1799) was an 18th-century counterfeiter, both before and after the American Revolution, in Virginia and the Carolinas before the war, and in Kentucky and Illinois afterwards. He is associated with Cave-in-Rock and John Duff, as well as an early settler of Natchez, and the Cumberland and Red River valleys in Kentucky and Tennessee.

Early life in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia[edit]

Philip Alston was born Feb. 18, 1740 or 1741, the son of Solomon and Sarah Ann "Nancy" (Hinton) Alston.[1] Alston is believed to have been born in the British colony of South Carolina, but moved with his family to North Carolina colony at an early age.[2] He is also believed to have been married in 1765, in North Carolina, to a woman named to be either Temperance Smith, granddaughter of Capt. Nicholas Smith and great-great granddaughter of Robert Bell (Speaker of the House of Commons), or Mary Molly Temple.

Philip Alston is known to have had five children:

  • Frances Alston, born about 1766, who married James D. Dromgoole (1758–1818) in 1782.
  • John McCoy Alston, born in 1767, and is likely the John Alston that proved the 1799 deed. Philip Alston's wife was Mildred McCoy.
  • Philip Alston, Jr., who is the recipient of a number of slaves in the 1799 deed.
  • Elizabeth Elise Alston, who married John Gilbert.
  • Peter Alston, the counterfeiter and river pirate some identify as Little Harpe's partner in the murder of Samuel Mason.

It is not known when Philip Alston learned and started counterfeiting, but in 1770–1771 he and his brother, John Alston, were wanted by the law for counterfeiting activities in North Carolina, and in 1773, in the colony of Virginia as well.[3] With authorities targeting counterfeiters in North Carolina as well as the neighboring colonies of Virginia and South Carolina, the Alston brothers fled, in 1772 or 1773, to Natchez on the Mississippi River,[4] about 200 miles upriver from New Orleans.

Natchez, British West Florida/Spanish West Florida Mississippi Territory[edit]

Upon arriving in Natchez, British West Florida, in 1772 or 1773, Alston became "a prosperous speculator and planter, and, in 1776, possessed some of the finest palatial mansions in that gay city."[2] Under the overall leadership of John Blommart on April 22, 1781, Alston, his brother John, and other settlers, as well as allied Choctaw, led an uprising against Spanish authorities, who officially took possession of British territory in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris, and controlled Natchez at the time. Soon after they captured Fort Panmure, the rebels split into pro-American and pro-British factions. Alston, his brother, and John Turner wanted to execute the Spanish garrison and raise the American flag. Led by Blommart and Thomas Hutchins, the other side won the argument and sent the garrison away. Meanwhile, Spanish forces defeated a British attack on Pensacola, which had been expected to relieve the settlers at Natchez. On June 23, Spanish soldiers retook Fort Panmure without firing a shot, capturing Blommart and John Alston, the brother of Philip. Other leaders had fled, Hutchins to the Carolinas and Philip Alston to the Cumberland River of Tennessee, where he had already established a second home.[5][6] Before he fled Natchez, Alston supposedly stole a crucifix from the Catholic Church.[2] Alston also appears in Spanish records as Phelipe Alston.[7]

Tennessee, Kentucky, Cave-In-Rock, Spanish West Florida Mississippi Territory, and New Madrid, Spanish Louisiana Territory[edit]

On May 13, 1780, Alston signed off on the Cumberland Compact, a forerunner of the Tennessee State Constitution, at Fort Nashborough, modern-day Nashville, Tennessee, the first governing document for the Tennessee settlers of the Cumberland Valley, which places him in the Cumberland Valley even before he flees Natchez. He may have been living at Mansker's Station, near modern-day Goodlettsville, Tennessee.[8]

Following his escape from Natchez, Alston and John Turner joined Chickasaw leader James Logan Colbert and a mixed, roving band of Natchez refugees, Cumberland settlers, and Chickasaw, numbering around 600, who attacked Spanish shipping on the Mississippi River in 1781 and 1782.[9] The Pennsylvania Gazette, a colonial newspaper in Philadelphia, reprinted a letter in the fall of 1783 that identified Alston as both the "famous money counterfeiter" but also a leader of the band raiding Spanish shipping on the Mississippi.[10]

Around 1783, or at least by the summer of 1784, Alston moved northwest and settled in modern-day Logan County, Kentucky where he built Alston's Station, or fort, near the Red River, below the mouth of the Big Whippoorwill. He farmed in the summer of 1784 and manufactured salt at Moate's Lick that autumn, assisted by old John Stuart. "He traded his salt for skins and then traded the skins off at Natchez or the Eastern States for goods, and he also, became the first merchant. Shortly afterwards, he and James Dromgoole did business together". In 1795, the settlers around Alston's Station included Jesse and Wm. (William) Green, Dromgoole (also spelled Drumgole), and Stuart and Matthew McClean.[11]

In 1786, Alston began counterfeiting again.[12] Alston and Drumgole celebrated Independence Day that year by stealing back a former slave of Philip Alston named King, who had been sold out of his estate, seized by Spanish authorities when he fled from Natchez earlier in the decade. The complaint lists him as the "robber", which may be a reference to the crucifix story.[13]

In 1788 Logan County, Kentucky residents rose up against Philip Alston for his counterfeiting activities and banished him from the county. Later that year, or in 1789, he moved to the area of Alston's Creek in northern Logan County, but did not remain there long. Fearing for his safety, Alston moved around often over the next two years. First, he went to Alston’s Lick, now in Muhlenberg County, and shortly thereafter to Livingston County, and finally to Henderson County, all in western Kentucky, before crossing the Ohio River into Illinois in 1790.[12]

In 1790, he was at Cave-in-Rock with John Duff, though for what purpose is not recalled definitively in the histories. Though Alexander Finley, the normally-reliable author of the 1876 The History of Russellville and Logan County, Ky, tells us that Alston became a "fast friend and disciple of the notorious counterfeiter, Sturdevant",[14] Roswell or "Bloody Jack" Sturdivant did not arrive at Cave-in-Rock for at least another generation. [15] "Duff the Counterfeiter", notorious outlaw in the area during the 1790s, is believed to be the same Duff who became a disciple of Alston and learned his counterfeiting skills from him.

According to Finley, Alston soon moved back to Tennessee and "from there to Natchez, where he found his old enemies, who became his fast friends. He rose in the estimation of these Spaniards until he was appointed an empresido of Mexico in New Madrid, Spanish Louisiana Territory. When in the midst of his success and returning fortune death stepped in and sealed his fate."[16]

Also, in 1790 Alston was working with James O'Fallon in the Yazoo land scandal, which among other things, had it been successful, would have settled a large group of Americans in southern Mississippi, aligned with the Spanish. On September 16, 1790, O'Fallon had completed the organization of the Yazoo Battalion, expected to be raised to secure the land. Both Alston and Drumgold (Drumgoole) were listed as captains of and John Alston, brother of Philip, as a lieutenant of infantry riflemen.[17]

Alston fades out of the American records in the 1790s, which may have been due to his joining with the Spanish colonial government in the lower Mississippi Valley. On Jan. 22, 1793, he sold goods to his son-in-law, John Gilbert in Logan County, Kentucky, and appeared there six years later, on October 22, 1799, to prove another deed involving Gilbert.[18][19] One account notes Alston and his son Peter also practiced their counterfeiting operation at Stack Island, in the lower Mississippi River about 170 miles upriver from Natchez. This would have been around 1799, in conjunction with the river pirates who operated off the island under the leadership of Samuel Mason, formerly of Cave-in-Rock.[20]


  1. ^ Linda F. Harris. Sept. 1999. Descendents of Solomon Alston.
  2. ^ a b c Finley 18.
  3. ^ Kenneth Scott. 1957. “Counterfeiting in Colonial North Carolina.” North Carolina Historical Review. 34:467–482.
  4. ^ Alex C. Finley. 1876, Reprint c. 2000. The History of Russellville and Logan County, Ky. Reprint: Russellville, Ky.: A. B. Willhite. 18 (number from reprint).
  5. ^ Albert James Pickett. 1851. Chap. 22. “Extreme Perils and Sufferings of the Natchez Refugees.” History of Alabama, and Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi, from the Earliest Period.
  6. ^ D. Clayton James. 1968. Antebellum Natchez. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press. 26–27.
  7. ^ A copy of the proceedings between Guillermo Vousdan and Hannah Lum ending on April 28, 1795. University of Notre Dame Archives. [1]
  8. ^ Will T. Hale and Dixon L. Merritt. 1913. A History of Tennessee and Tennesseans: The Leaders and Representative men in Commerce, Industry and Modern Activities. Chicago and New York: The Lewis Publishing Co. 94–97.
  9. ^ James 27–28.
  10. ^ Misc. Newspapers. The Colonial Records Project. North Carolina Department of Archives and History.
  11. ^ Finley 21–23 25, 42.
  12. ^ a b Finley 42.
  13. ^ Sue Moore. July 30, 2001. Alstons. Post to (Mississippi/Southwest Territory) mail list.
  14. ^ Finley 42–43.
  15. ^ Otto A. Rothert, The Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock. Otto A. Rothert, Cleveland 1924; rpt. 1996 p. 272.
  16. ^ Finley 43.
  17. ^ Ginny Walker Bush, coordinator. 2000. “Yazoo Land Companies 1789.” Mississippi state site. American Local History Network.
  18. ^ Finley 37.
  19. ^ Muhlenberg Co., Kentucky, Deed Book 1. 13. Transcribed at
  20. ^ T. Marshall Smith. 1855. Legends of the War of Independence, and of the Earlier Settlements in the West. Louisville, Ky.: J. F. Brennan, Publisher. 342–344. Online at
  • Otto A. Rothert, The Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock, Otto A. Rothert, Cleveland 1924; rpt. 1996 ISBN 0-8093-2034-7

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