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He was born in Hatfield township, Pennsylvania in about 1750. His father, Simon Fries, was a German immigrant. He trained as a cooper but eventually took a career as an auctioneer. He married Margaret Brunner in 1770, and they had ten children.
He served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, commanding a company. He was in action at White Marsh, Camp Hill,[disambiguation needed] and Crooked Billet. His defeat of a British foraging raid made him locally famous. He later also commanded a company in the government's campaign to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.
At the time of the rebellion named for him (1799-1800), Fries was living near Charlestown (present-day Trumbauersville). As an itinerant auctioneer, he became well acquainted with the German-Americans issues in the southeastern part of Pennsylvania. Starting in February 1799, he organized meetings to discuss a collective response to a tax the federal government had levied.
Federal officers who were sent to Pennsylvania to collect its portion of the tax were resisted by a party of opposition which Fries had rallied from among the German speaking populations of Montgomery, Lehigh, Bucks and Berks counties. At Bethlehem, 7 March 1799, the United States marshal was compelled by this party to release 30 prisoners who had been arrested for refusing to obey the law. The rebellion was at length put down by the militia which U.S. President John Adams ordered out, and among those captured was Fries, who was subsequently twice tried and on each occasion sentenced to death. In April 1800 he was pardoned by President Adams, who at the same time proclaimed an amnesty to all concerned in the rebellion.
After his reprieve, Fries continued his auctioneering career. Some sources report that he became a prosperous merchant of tin ware in Philadelphia, but Thomas Denton McCormick states there is no evidence to back this story, and also says he just continued his auctioneering career. Fries died at his home south of Trumbauersville in 1818. A segment of PA Route 663 near Trumbauersville is named in his honor.