Nicholas Meriwether Chapter 1: The hazards of locating land in frontier Kentucky

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By Ron Van Stockum

“Your Country is infested with hostile Indians and both you and Nicholas are liable to be taken off any day, . . . “


Captain William Meriwether wrote this to his son, William, May 27, 1786.


It seems fitting to follow a series of columns about Squire Boone, one of the original Shelby Countians, with an account of the life of another frontiersman, Nicholas Meriwether (1749-1828).

But please note those dates and life span, because when telling the story of the Meriwether family, you note quickly that there is a partiality for the given name Nicholas. Throughout this story, these dates are included to denote one from the other.

But this Nicholas Meriwether, nearly five years younger than Boone, was in frontier Kentucky in 1779, possibly earlier, and quickly became very active in the development of the Falls of the Ohio (Louisville) and in that part of Jefferson County that in 1792 became Shelby County.

Though Boone was primarily a warrior and secondarily a land locater, Meriwether was the opposite. But like other pioneers, he did travel in dangerous country, and needed to keep his rifle handy. 

As an educated man from a prominent Virginia family, he became heavily involved in the economic and political scene.    

Meriwether, who was active, influential, ambitious and aggressive, was not averse to expressing his opinions in writing. He left a record of his career in his correspondence and especially in the records of his many legal contests.

Through the marriage of his grandson Thornton Meriwether to Bettie Allen, he would become the great-grandfather of Sue Thornton Henning, who, in the early 20th Century, created a nationally recognized Jersey cattle operation at Allen Dale Farm in Shelby County.

Nicholas, a descendent of the Nicholas Meriwether who established this family in Williamsburg, Va., in about 1649, was born in Louisa Country, Va., a few miles east of Charlottesville on June 4, 1749.

His father, also named Nicholas, died in 1758 when his son was only 9 years old. There is evidence that the estate left his widow was dissipated, necessitating the establishment of a trust fund by the children to provide for her support.


The roots

Nicholas (1749-1828), though not a wealthy man, had descended from a line of Meriwethers who had intermarried with Virginia families of equal status, such as the Crawfords, Thorntons, Lewises, Peachys, and Gilmers.

His great-uncle, yet another Nicholas (1699-1739), married Mildred Thornton, second cousin of George Washington. After the death of her husband, Mildred married Dr. Thomas Walker, the famed explorer and surveyor.

Through this marriage, Walker came into possession of Castle Hill, an estate of 15,000 acres near Charlottesville, part of the original grant from George II to Nicholas Meriwether (1667-1744). Here in 1764 Walker built a mansion that stands today as one of the historic landmarks in this area.


Family marriages

A cousin of Nicholas Meriwether (1749-1828) was Captain Meriwether Lewis, private secretary to President Thomas Jefferson and co-leader with William Clark, brother of George Rogers Clark, of the first overland expedition to the Pacific Northwest (1804-1806).

On 1 June 1771 bond was given for the marriage of Nicholas (1749-1828) to Elizabeth, the daughter of his father's brother, William Meriwether. Nicholas’s brother George, 4 years older, earlier had married Elizabeth's sister Martha.

Marriage of first cousins was not unusual in those days, but these marriages of brothers to first cousins who were sisters created some interesting relationships.

Nicholas's uncle, Capt. William Meriwether, became his father-in-law as well, and his brother George became his brother-in-law.


Into Kentucky

Capt. Meriwether assumed a position of mentor to his dead brother's sons.

In the spring of 1779 his own son William, Jr., having turned 21, visited Kentucky, perhaps accompanying or joining Nicholas, who appeared on the frontier about the same time.

Nicholas was present at a session of the Virginia Land Commission (Fleming Commission), which had been established by the Virginia Land Act of 1779 to issue certificates to rightful claimants of settlement and preemption rights.

At Harrodsburg on Oct. 28, 1779, representing Clough Overton, Nicholas accepted a certificate for the latter's 400-acre settlement, after paying the required fees.

In performing its mission, The Fleming Commission had traveled throughout Indian-infested western Virginia during the “hard winter” of 1779-80” at great hazard.

While conducting its affairs at the Falls of the Ohio on Nov. 22, 1779, the commission had issued a certificate to Squire Boone, for his brother-in-law Benjamin Vancleve, for a settlement of 400 acres and a preemption of 1,000 acres for the Painted Stone tracts on Clear Creek in present-day Shelby County.


Land and Native Americans

It is obvious that Capt. Meriwether had encouraged members of his family to identify and purchase rich virgin land in Kentucky both in his name and for themselves. Land in Virginia was becoming "farmed out," because the nitrogen and potash that growing tobacco had sucked from the soil were not replenished.

These were difficult times for Kentucky settlers. The Indian allies of the British were a constant threat to those who were exploring, surveying or settling these fertile lands. Even three years after the end of the Revolutionary War, Native Americans continued to attack Kentucky settlers. Capt. Meriwether, still at Louisa but getting ready to depart for Kentucky, wrote his son William on May 27, 1786:

"Your country is infested with Indians, and both you and Nicholas are liable to be taken off any day, . . . I have to caution you not to be forward in going in pursuit of Indians, where your honor is not at stake. I do expect to see you in the course of the summer or fall."

To that point, as late as 1790, Indians killed Betsy Vancleve when she and five men were returning from preaching at Painted Stone Station.

Regardless of hazards, there is evidence of great activity on the part of Nicholas Meriwether after his arrival in Kentucky. The entry book of George May, surveyor for Kentucky County and subsequently for Jefferson County, contains many entries by Meriwether.

Once a warrant for land had been obtained, the essential next step was that of making an entry. This consisted of presenting the warrant to a county surveyor and identifying in writing the area where a survey was desired. Thus, others could be informed of what land had been claimed.

The earliest of Meriwether's entries, on Nov. 6, 1779, was one made jointly with John May and John Hawkins for 50 acres on both sides of Licking Creek to include the two salt springs known as Lower Blue Licks.

 Five days later this entry was withdrawn, probably because an earlier entry for this area had been found.


An educated man

The letters of Nicholas Meriwether, considered along with reports of his activities appearing in land cases, reflect a level of education uncommon on the frontier.

He picked up familiarity with the country and a facility with compass and chain so as to establish a demand for his services.

As a "land locator," he was aggressively interested in acquiring land in this virgin country, as a service to others and, in the process, for his own benefit. He made himself available for hire to others who either were not as capable at locating, marking and entering land or did not wish to accept the inconvenience or danger of frontier living.

As an example of his hazardous undertakings, he made a line of unofficial surveys along Clear Creek in Shelby County during the “hard winter” of 1779-80

However, it obviously took more than an education and a keen mind to perform these functions.

Meriwether must have learned a good deal about the lay of the land and about the location of unclaimed desirable land.

In addition he had to know how to travel in the wild, unsettled regions between the few small habitations or forts.

At a time when many of Kentucky's early settlers were subject to the continuing attrition of Indian attacks, locating land remote from settlements was extremely dangerous.

It is possible that the ability that Meriwether demonstrated in 1779 may have been gleaned during earlier visits to Kentucky.


Land choices

Meriwether's entries in May’s book include large tracts but also reveal an appreciation for strategically located small tracts, such as Rocky Island at the Falls of the Ohio – 40 acres – and Sandy Island below the Falls – 30 acres.

The number of entries made jointly by May and Meriwether indicate that Meriwether had located land for John May, brother of the county surveyor.

Only the designated surveyor of a county, or his deputies, was authorized to make official surveys. No evidence has been found that Meriwether belonged to either of these categories, but it is likely that, either representing himself or as an agent for others, he frequently joined a survey team to identify the area involved.

Next: Shelby connections