VAN STOCKUM: Joseph Hornsby -- An early Shelby Countian Part 1: Making it big in Williamsburg

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Following the lead of his father-in-law, Joseph Hornsby played a significant role in the development of Shelbyville. In the first of a 3-part series, he becomes a very wealthy Virginian.

By Ron Van Stockum

In 1797 or early 1798, a prominent Virginian departed Williamsburg and settled his family in Shelby County. He was Joseph Hornsby, who, in his few years in Kentucky, was to make a significant contribution to his new home.


When he arrived in Shelby County, Kentucky had been a state only five years. According to the 1800 census, Shelbyville, with a population of 262, was the seventh-largest town, and Louisville had only 359 residents.

The county restricted tavern prices: Whisky was 6 shillings per gallon, breakfast or supper, with tea or coffee, 1 shilling 3 pence; warm dinner, 1 shilling 6 pence; cold dinner, 1 shilling; and lodging, 'with clean sheets,’ 6 pence."

Those were the times when Hornsby came to Shelby County, but how he became one of those 262 residents is the story at hand, a yarn about the early days of our state and county and a man who was a strong thread of their history.

Hornsby had been born on May 24, 1740, in Great Yarmouth, a seaport in Norfolk County, England, but at age 17, he traveled to America to join his father’s brother, Thomas, in Williamsburg, Va., and to learn his business.

And, in 1769, at the age of 28, Joseph Hornsby married Mildred Walker, daughter of famed explorer and surveyor Dr. Thomas Walker of Albemarle County, Virginia.

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.

Dr. Walker had been guardian of young Thomas Jefferson and commissary general to Washington in the French-Indian wars. He had also negotiated land treaties with the Indians and defined a part of the Virginia–North Carolina border.


Father-in-law was an explorer

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.

Although the party did not view the Bluegrass, they did, however, reach the Kentucky River, which Dr. Walker named the “Milley.”

Conventional wisdom is that he named the river after the Indian 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, Va., where Walker erected his famous mansion, Castle Hill, which still stands as one of the principal landmarks of that area.


Inherited wealth

Thomas Hornsby, a planter in the generally agrarian society of the day, was married and had no children, but he obviously was pleased by his young nephew and impressed with his capabilities, for he left him practically his entire estate.

In his will, probated on June 15, 1772, he gave “unto my nephew Joseph Hornsby all my houses and lotts in Williamsburg, where I now live, with all the household furniture, all my store goods, my stock of horses and cattle and Negroes. I likewise give him all my plantations in James City County with all the Negroes....I also give unto Joseph Hornsby all my estate both real and personal that is not already bequeathed....”

Thomas Hornsby must have been one of the wealthiest of Williamsburg's citizens, for the inventory of the estate constituted eight pages when typed and included a number of houses, well furnished with high quality furniture. Its appraised value was 6,413 pounds sterling, 16 shillings and 5 pence, a huge sum in today’s dollars.

He had a house in Williamsburg, a plantation in York County, and three plantations in James City County.

Joseph, 32, when he inherited his uncle's estate, became instantly a very wealthy man. He would put his inheritance to productive use, and business prospered for Joseph Hornsby, between his uncle's death and the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.

In a newspaper advertisement on Dec. 15, 1774, he wrote of an intended trip to England in the following February, in preparation for which he would be having sales: "The subscriber has on hand about 1200 pounds sterling worth of European goods, which he would sell wholesale, at a low advance, and allow credit; also 500 acres of land, in James City county, to dispose of very cheap, and on long credit."

Uniquely powerful

In 1774, he was serving as one of the 12 justices of the peace for York County and the following year was elected as major of the Williamsburg Militia and named vestryman of his parish church.

Chris McManus, a direct descendant of Hornsby, has cited noted historian Daniel Boorstin as indicating that such a combination of civic roles was not uncommon for prominent citizens in those times.

Three of his children were born before the revolution, three during and three after. Five lived to marry and have families.

In 1783 he bought at public auction, the Peyton Randolph house, now on public tour in Colonial Williamsburg.

A big piece of Kentucky

This had been the home of Peyton Randolph (1721-1775), speaker of Virginia's House of Burgesses in the years leading to the American Revolution and the presiding officer of the First Continental Congress at Philadelphia in 1774.

His widow, Betty Randolph, had opened her home to the French general, comte de Rochambeau, when he arrived in Williamsburg with Gen. George Washington to prepare for the siege of Yorktown in 1781. The house served as the French headquarters until troops moved to the field.

On June 11. 1790, Hornsby’s wife, Mildred (Milley), died, leaving him eight children, between the ages of 1 and 19.

Before selling his Williamsburg house in 1798, Hornsby probably moved to Albemarle County to join his father-in-law at Castle Hill.

But McManus has reported that, according to one family tradition, Joseph Hornsby, in association with Walker and his children, had purchased 125,000 acres in Kentucky.

Next: A man to be trusted