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Nicholas Meriwether Chapter 4: Tragedy strikes the family

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By Ron Van Stockum

On June 11, 1784, Nicholas Meriwether returned to Louisville with his family.  On Aug. 7 he wrote a lengthy and enlightening letter to his father-in-law, Captain Meriwether, describing in subdued terms his trip down the river:

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“An agreeable passage of seventeen days, the water being very low.”

After discussing arrangements for the purchase of boats, he strongly recommended:

“By no means take aney Stock on Board the Boat your familey comes in.  Sail all night unless exceeding dark & be upon the way earley in the mornings when you do stop, & stay but little time at a place.”

The threat of Indian attacks, especially from the north bank of the Ohio, was still very real, and Meriwether, whose trip had been free of Indian interference, wanted his father-in-law, who was planning to bring his own family west, to benefit from his experience.

Near the end of this letter, he wrote, “We want much to see our little Daughter . . . ,” a further indication that his wife had given birth earlier in the spring while en route to Louisville.

He also railed against “a set of Vilians that are combined in Rogary, and ready to perpetrate the most vilianous acts of unjustice.”

By this date he had relinquished his position of executor of George Meriwether’s estate, an action he said he regretted.  He was concerned about the financial well-being of his brother George’s widow, Patsy (Martha), back in Virginia.

He informed his father-in-law that crude cabins were renting for 36 pounds a year and expressed the hope that by improving his lots with these cabins, he would be able to provide proper support for Patsy and her family.

He said he wanted to initiate immediately because the time given for improving was to expire the following June.  He continued on a more positive note:

“I am at a grate loss for to make out money to clear out my lands & George’s & support my Familey but hope I shall be able to rub through by suffering a little longer – My two younges sons have Recovered the Smallpox.”

Deaths in the family

But tragedy struck Nicholas Meriwether’s family the following autumn. Between Oct. 4 and Nov. 18, 1784,  four of his sons died, and on Nov. 27, his wife, Elizabeth, also died. Neither family papers nor public records reveal the cause of these tragic deaths.

In an article about epidemics in the The Encyclopedia of Louisville, Nancy Baird reported that river and port towns have been known throughout history for high illness and death rates.

In the early days of the 19th century, residents and visitors to Louisville suffered from communicable diseases brought down the river by visitors. It was further cursed with swampy areas along the banks of the Ohio and ponds south to the Salt River, breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

Baird also reported a smallpox epidemic in the year that Meriwether brought his family to Louisville. Thus, there is reason to presume that Meriwether’s two sons might have not fully recovered from smallpox and that the disease had spread to other members of his family.

In court often

At this critical time Nicholas Meriwether and his family were living on one of his two half-acre lots on the north side of Main Street between Sixth and Seventh, where he kept one of the first houses of public entertainment in Louisville.

His financial and legal problems were soon compounded.  Still short of cash on Dec. 18, 1784, three weeks after his wife’s death, he borrowed 100 pounds, 18 shillings from one George Edwards. Not having received payment on the March 15, 1785, due date, Edwards brought Meriwether into court where a jury found “for the Plaintif one hundred Pounds Eighteen Shillings – Damages two Pounds ten Shillings.”

In April 1785 Meriwether again was sued, this time for 5 pounds, 19 shillings.  In response to another suit, Meriwether was charged with appropriating for his own use a saddle lost by one Reuben Camp.

The files of court cases covering this period abound with suits against Nicholas Meriwether, who was struggling to extricate himself from serious financial difficulties.

About this time he submitted to William Christian a detailed proposal for erecting a salt works at a total estimated cost of 2,099 pounds. He included an analysis of operating such a facility and the profit to be anticipated.

A big life change

Danville, the location of the recently established court for the District of Kentucky, with its jurisdiction over land disputes, now became a focus of Meriwether’s attention. Writing from Danville on May 7, 1786, again to his father-in-law, Meriwether did not mention the tragedy at the Falls a year and a half earlier. His anxieties, however, remained:

“I am very unwell myself with a Bad Cough which I fear will prove fatal.”

After describing in considerable detail his complicated financial problems, Nicholas Meriwether inquired about his brother’s widow, Patsy.

He suggested that if she came to Kentucky, she would be safe on the land at Beargrass Creek, but if the danger of Indians should grow worse, she could easily remove to the fort at the Falls:

 “Should she come I wish her to Bring my little Daughter with her.”

Most widowers on the frontier did not remain unmarried long, and a bond was signed on Oct. 12, 1786, for Meriwether’s marriage to Elizabeth Daniel, sister of the late Walker Daniel, renowned frontier lawyer and first attorney general for the court for the District of Kentucky.  

Purchasing Painted Stone

Meriwether’s financial situation brightened considerably with this marriage.

Typical of the reinforced alliances between prominent families in the early settlement days of Virginia and Kentucky, Nicholas’s daughter, Patsy, married her stepmother’s brother, Martin, a year and a half after her father’s marriage.  

Nicholas and Elizabeth became deeply involved in land transactions with Martin and with Robert Daniel, Walker Daniel’s executor.

On Jan. 27, 1787, less than four months after his second marriage, Nicholas purchased a 442-acre tract, which included Squire Boone’s original 400-acre settlement, the Painted Stone tract in what became Shelby County.

In October 1789 he purchased Benjamin Pope’s 400 acres directly to the south and carved out of these two tracts a 760-acre farm, where he established his residence, which he called Castle Hill.

Meriwether retaliates in Shelby

On Nov. 8, 1792, during the second session of the Kentucky General Assembly, “a petition of sundry inhabitants of the County of Shelby was presented and read, praying the redress of sundry grievances.”

One grievance was the appointment of Daniel M’Cleland as a justice of the peace and thereby a member of the county court, a potent political post.

The “sundry” inhabitants had not wasted much time in submitting a petition only a few months after the establishment of both commonwealth and county. This petition was at first tabled and then taken up the next day by reference to a special committee.

The House of Representatives adopted a resolution of this committee:

“RESOLVED as the opinion of this Committee that so much of the said petition as relates to the said Daniel McClelland is groundless and malicious.”

It seems clear that Nicholas Meriwether had instigated this petition.  Ten days after the house resolution, Nicholas wrote to John Bradford, editor of the Kentucky Gazette, filling in background not apparent in the official record.  Segments of his letter, which occupied three-fourths of the front page on Dec. 1, 1792, are:

 “In aged life, [he was forty-three and had thirty-six years yet to live!] retired to the peaceable enjoyments of my family and farm; struggling under a heavy debt, occasioned by unforeseen misfortunes. . . . [I] am determined . . . to prove the words . . . in the petition, . . . viz “Your petitioners conceive themselves highly dishonored by the appointment of Daniel M’Cleland to the honour of a justice of the peace in our said county, who stands charg’d as a felonious hog thief, and who confesseth publically the fact of marking in his own mark and claiming for his own another man’s hogs.”

Meriwether criticized M’Cleland for objecting to his (Meriwether’s) being recommended to the governor as justice of the peace because of involvement in an allegedly fraudulent land transaction.

Meriwether traced in intricate detail a sale of 300 acres from George Holeman’s settlement and preemption, which involved Squire Boone, Jonathan Boone Sr., Jonathan Boone Jr., and a Virginia gentleman named James Holmes.

Next: Daniel M’Cleland Responds