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Philip Alston (counterfeiter)

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Title: Philip Alston (counterfeiter)  
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Subject: Piracy, Cave-In-Rock, Illinois, Natchez, Mississippi, Tavern, Counterfeit money, Cumberland Compact, Peter Alston, Stack Island (Mississippi River)
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Philip Alston (counterfeiter)

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 later 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 North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia

In 1770–1771, he and his brother, John Alston, were wanted for counterfeiting in North Carolina, and by 1773, in Virginia as well.[1] With authorities targeting counterfeiters in North Carolina and as well as the neighboring colonies of Virginia and South Carolina, the brothers fled in 1772 or 1773 to Natchez on the Mississippi River[2] about 200 miles upriver from New Orleans.

Natchez, Spanish Mississippi Territory

Upon arriving in Natchez, Alston became "a prosperous speculator and planter, and, in 1776, possessed some of the finest palatial mansions in that gay city."[3]

Under the overall leadership of John Blommart on April 22, 1781, Alston, his brother John, other settlers as well as allied Choctaw, led an uprising against Spanish authorities which 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 Alston's brother John. Other leaders had fled, Hutchins to the Carolinas and Philip Alston to the Cumberland Valley where he had already established a second home.[4][5]

Before he fled Natchez, Alston supposedly stole a crucifix from the Catholic Church.[3]

Alston also appears in Spanish records as Phelipe Alston[6]

Tennessee, Kentucky, Cave-In-Rock, and back to Spanish Mississippi Territory

On May 13, 1780, Alston signed off on the Cumberland Compact, the first governing document for the 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.[7]

Following his escape from Natchez, Alston and John Turned 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.[8] 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.[9]

About 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. Green, Dromgoole (also spelled Drumgole), Stuart and Matthew McClean.[10]

By 1786, Alston began counterfeiting again.[11] Alston and Drumgole celebrated Independence Day that year by stealing back one of Alston's former slaves named King who had been sold out of his estate seized by Spanish authorities when he fled in Natchez earlier in the decade. The complaint lists him as the "robber" which may be a reference to the crucifix story.[12]

By 1788, Logan County residents rose up against Alston's counterfeiting 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 didn't remain there long. Fearing for his safety, he moved around quite a bit over the next two years, first to Alston’s Lick, in now 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.[11]

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 History of Russellville, Kentucky, tells us that Alston became a "fast friend and disciple of the notorious counterfeiter, Sturdevant",[13] the Sturdivants didn't arrive at Cave-in-Rock for another generation. Duff was the counterfeiter in the area in the 1790s and some believe that's when Duff became a disciple of Alston and learned his counterfeiting skills.

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. When in the midst of his success and returning fortune death stepped in and sealed his fate.[14]

Besides meeting with Duff in 1790, Alston was also 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. By 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 riflemen.[15]

Alston fades out of the American records in the 1790s which may have been due to 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.[16][17] 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.[18]


Philip Alston was the son of Solomon and Sarah Ann "Nancy" (Hinton) Alston.[19] He's believed to have been born in South Carolina, but moved with his family to North Carolina at an early age.[3] He's also believed to have been married in 1765 in North Carolina, her name was 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. Alston genealogists list 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.


  • 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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