VAN STOCKUM: Early Kentucky History: Part 1, Exploring, fighting and settling the commonwealth

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Many prominent statesmen played roles in Kentucky, and Shelby County’s, formative years

By Ron Van Stockum

Seven years ago, in 2007, I asked Walt Reichert, editor of the Shelbyville Sentinel-News, if there might be an interest in a series of historical columns. I suggested that I would probably run out of years before running out of columns. This has not been the case. I have written 120 columns, under the editorial scrutiny of Walt Reichert, James Mulcahy, and, during the past five years, under the direction of Steve Doyle, who has departed to be managing editor of the Greensboro News & Record.  Now I write for Steve’s replacement, Todd Martin, so I do not find myself running out of editors.


While I have written extensively about the exploration and settlement of Kentucky, with emphasis upon Shelby County, I still believe that a review of some of this early history is appropriate. Accordingly, in a series of columns, I shall present a chronology, highlighting in short paragraphs, historical events, some significant and some routine, some humorous and many tragic.


Historian Robert S. Cotterill has stated that “determining who was the first man to explore Kentucky is as unprofitable as it is difficult.”  It was his belief, however, that the history of Kentucky began with Dr. Thomas Walker's expedition in 1750.  Commissioned by the Loyal Land Company, which had been given 800,000 acres to be located in the West, Walker entered Kentucky with five companions by way of a mountain pass, which he named the Cumberland Gap after the Duke of Cumberland.

While the party did not view the Bluegrass they did reach the Kentucky River, which Dr. Walker named the “Milley.”  Conventional wisdom is that he named it after the Native American name, “Millewakane.”

To the contrary, it is my belief that he named this river after his wife Mildred (Milley) Thornton Walker, whose first husband, Nicholas Meriwether, had left her an estate of 15,000 acres near Charlottesville, Virginia. This is where Walker erected his famous mansion Castle Hill, which still stands today as one of the principal landmarks in that area.


There is a great deal of conjecture surrounding the identity of the first white man to enter what is now Shelby County.  Relating journals and maps of the early explorers to present locations is a difficult task at best.  According to noted Kentucky historian Willard R. Jillson, in 1751 Christopher Gist, representing the Ohio Company, made his way to Drennon's Lick in Henry County.  Ascending Drennon Creek, he came into what is now eastern Shelby County, and, after crossing the headwaters of Bull Skin and other branches of Brashear's Creek – including Guist Creek, which still bears his name – came down into the valley of Big Benson Creek and thus to the Kentucky River, in the vicinity of Frankfort.


July 9:British General Edward Braddock suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of the Monongahela River in his attempt to capture French Fort Duquesne – in what is now modern-day downtown Pittsburgh – during the French and Indian War.  Braddock was killed, but his volunteer aide-de-camp, 23-year-old Col. George Washington, performed heroically in rallying the fleeing troops.


February 10:Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years’ War, called the French and Indian War in America.

October 7:King George III’s Proclamation of 1763 prohibited settlement or purchase of any land west of the Monongahela River, in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The proclamation outlawed private purchase of Native American land, which had often created problems in the past. Instead, all future land purchases were to be made by Crown officials "at some public meeting or assembly of the said Indians". Furthermore, British colonists were forbidden to move beyond the line and settle on native lands, and colonial officials were forbidden to grant lands without royal approval. The proclamation gave the Crown a monopoly on all future land purchases from Native Americans.


June 7:Celebrated annually as “Boone Day” by the Kentucky Historical Society. Daniel Boone, from the top of an eminence on Red River during a long hunt with John Finley, first “…. saw with pleasure the beautiful level of Kentucke (sic).”

During their extensive hunting trip into Kentucky between 1769 and 1771, Daniel Boone and his brother Squire wandered far and wide, undoubtedly reaching the Falls of the Ohio, present day Louisville.  Going or coming, one or both of the brothers may have traversed present Shelby County.


Robert McAfee, accompanied by his brothers, paused long enough in what is now Henry County, near the Kentucky River, to describe vividly Drennon's Lick.  In moving on toward present Mercer County, he may have passed through the area drained by Clear Creek in which Shelbyville was later located.

October 9: Daniel Boone, accompanied by his brother Squire while guiding families toward the Cumberland Gap to settle in Kentucky, is attacked by Native Americans. Six of the party are killed, including his eldest son, James, 16, who was brutally tortured.  The plan was abandoned.


James Harrod gathered together several young men to build a town near the headwaters of Salt River.  The group assembled in early March near old Fort Redstone in Pennsylvania on the Monongahela River.  Several dugout canoes, constructed from large yellow poplar logs, were gathered for the trip down the Ohio.

The party then, with Harrod as their elected leader, embarked and proceeded down the Monongahela to Fort Pitt and then down the Ohio.  Despite reports of Native American threats and depredations, Harrod and his party continued downstream arriving at the mouth of the Kentucky River, 541 miles below Fort Pitt, with 31 men.  From here they proceeded ninety miles upstream where they established Harrodstown.

June 16: The first pioneer settlement in Kentucky, Harrodstown, later Harrodsburg, was established. It was abandoned later that year because of the threats of attack, and the need for Harrod’s men to join the Virginia militia in [Virginia Governor] Lord Dunmore’s War against the Native Americans.  Harrod, with a larger force, returned to Harrodstown the next year and reestablished the town.    

October 10: Governor Dunmore defeated the Shawnee and Mingo tribes under Chief Comstock in the Battle of Point Pleasant, on the Ohio River near present Point Pleasant, W.V.


March 17:At Sycamore Shoals, a rocky stretch of rapids along the Watauga River near present Elizabethton, Tenn., Judge Richard Henderson, representing himself and the other partners of the newly formed Transylvania Company signed a treaty with the Cherokees.  The company gained a title of sorts to a large unoccupied territory north of the Tennessee River that presently constitutes the southern half of Kentucky.

[Faragher, 110-13]  Henderson planned to establish a settlement in Kentucky and to issue land warrants independent of the governments of Virginia and North Carolina.  His treaty was in violation of the King’s Proclamation of 1763 and denounced by the governors of Virginia and North Carolina.

Henderson had already directed Daniel Boone, whom he had employed for the purpose, to lead a party of woodcutters to blaze a trail into Kentucky.  Boone, in anticipation of the signing, had departed on his mission several days earlier with thirty to thirty-five men including his younger brother Squire.

March 24:Fifteen miles from their destination, the Shawnees attacked Boone’s party, while camped three miles south of present Richmond. Two trailblazers were killed. Later, Felix Walker, a member of Daniel Boone’s party representing Buncombe County, N.C., delivered a lengthy inane speech, referring frequently to his county and, in the process, adding “bunkum” to the lexicon.

April 1: Boone and his party reached their chosen site, the mouth of Otter Creek on the Kentucky River, and commenced building a fort.  This was not strange land to Boone and his brother Squire who had explored this area during their long hunt of 1769-71.

April 20: Judge Henderson arrived with the main party and wasted no time in directing that the fort, consisting at that time of only a few rude cabins, be moved about 300 yards to higher ground.


Next: Squire Boone establishes his claim to the “Painted Stone” tract.


Ron Van Stockum can be reached at ronvanstockum@mac.com. His has written several books, including, most recently, Coming to Kentucky: Heaven is a Kentucky of a Place, and, Kentucky and the Bourbons: the Story of Allen Dale Farm, Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers,and Remembrances of World Wars, may be purchased at Terhune’s Style Shop in Village Plaza Shopping Center in Shelbyville or from Amazon.com.