VAN STOCKUM: Joseph Hornsby -- An early Shelby Countian Part 3: A chronicle of the early days of Shelby County

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Joseph Hornsby played a significant role in the development of Shelby County. In the last of a 3-part series, we learn more about Hornsby’s life through excerpts from his extensive diary.

By Ron Van Stockum

Joseph Hornsby started keeping a chronicle of events in Shelby County in 1798, shortly after his arrival here.


Chris McManus of Washington, D. C., a direct descendant of Hornsby, arranged a number of years ago for his family to donate this significant chronicle of early Shelby County history to the Filson Historical Society of Louisville.

It is an insightful account of farm life in the early days of Shelby County and establishes some of the historical events that led to Hornsby’s prominent position and the county’s early development. His will, which follows, also includes details about his significant land holdings and their delineation for the future.

One could assume that Hornsby, a methodical and scholarly individual, had kept similar meticulous records while living in Virginia as well.

The diary, titled by Hornsby as Memorandums Planting Gardening &c &c, covers the period from February 1798 to December 1804, but it is missing much of 1800, all of 1801 and all of 1802.

McManus has said he believes that these missing pages may have been handed down through a different branch of the family.

The diary is lengthy. A typewritten transcript exceeds 150 pages. I have perused the document and highlighted chronologically several extracts of special interest. The Filson Historical Society has granted permission to publish the following extracts. My comments attempt to put the sometimes difficult-to-decipher verbiage into perspective.


Excerpts from the diary

February 7, 1798.Sow’d 1 Bed or Square with Early Sandwich Peas 9 rows.

Planted 1 Squ with Beans, the five rows the North side of the Square Maragan Beans, the four Rows south side green Genoa Beans.

February 21, 1798.Planted in the square North side the West Asparagus Beds & in the first Row beginning at the S E end, & next the Asparagus Beds 40 super fine Male Peach Stones to Stick No 1, the Peaches were red to the Stone, they were given me by Mr. Wilkinson at Bottomsbridge; next in the same Row 37 Peach Stones very good & chiefly of the Female kind, saved some myself when in Virginia last Fall, & some were given to me by Mr. Wm Hornsby.

There are dozens of mentions of asparagus in the diary. I quote from the April 27, 2012, Wall Street Journal:

“Asparagus was a staple crop at Monticello, and though [Thomas] Jefferson hardly ever entered the kitchen, he was constantly advising the friends and neighbors who received gifts of his vegetables – endives, say – to ‘prepare it like asparagus.’"

Hornsby’s wife, Mildred, was a daughter of Dr. Thomas Walker, famed explorer, who had been a guardian to the young Thomas Jefferson.

July 2, 1799. Hot & dry Weather, I wrote today to Mr Nicholas M Lewis, to my Brother Mr Wm Hornsby, to Hon[ora]ble John Tyler, to Mr Charles Copeland, & to Mrs. Peachy Wills.

Obviously in connection with the sale of Peachy Wills’ land in Shelby County, including the main tract of Allen Dale Farm, for which she had given Joseph Hornsby the power of attorney.

July 25, 1799. Thunder Storm with hard Wind & a heavy Rain, broke down some of my New ground Corn & laid allmost the Whole of it flat to the ground, & did some damage to my Old ground Corn.

November 1, 1799. Very fine day I with my Family set off to visit Doctor Knight by invitation but meeting Colo James Southall & his Son Peyton I returned back with them.

The diary contains some 20 references to Dr. JohnKnight, involving social visits as well as medical services.

November 9, 1799. Saturday fair day, sett off & call'd on Mr Laurence Ross, then on Mr. Alexr Breckinridge who informed us that Major William' s Land was in dispute & that it was not surveyed agreeably to entry, we went on & call'd on Mr Stucky then on Moses Tyler & then home in the afternoon.

This is an example of Hornsby’s involvement in land disputes, so prevalent in Kentucky in those times. In 1795, LawrenceRoss had sold an ill-defined 350-acre tract to Robert Polk Allen, founder of Allen Dale Farm, three of whose siblings later married children of Joseph Hornsby. In 1797 Henry McQuait, owner of a tract that overlapped Allen’s, initiated a suit which was not settled until 1825.

August 3, 1803. I went to Town with Doctor Knight, the Election not being over, I voted for Colo Sanford to go to Congress & for Mr Alexr Reid & Doctor Wardlow to go to the Assembly, Colo Sanford, Major Wm B Ballard & Doctor Wardlow were elected, . .

This was an example of Hornsby’s involvement in local politics.

September 25, 1803 Sunday Clear, went with my Son Joseph to my Son in law Mr Thos Allen's & went with them to the Old Lady's & heard a Sermon preach'd by The Revd Mr Cameron, than return'd to Mr Thos Allen's & staid all Night.

Hornsby frequently attended the services held by Rev. Cameron, as recorded in many of the diary entries.

The “Old Lady” was undoubtedly Ann Pollock Allen, (1743-1805), mother of Robert Polk Allen of the family that later produced President James Polk.

December 12, 1803.Bullskin was too high to ford, as I had advertised for a meeting of the Trustees of the Shelby   to be held in Town today

There are many mentions of The Shelby Academy, for which Hornsby was a founding trustee.Duanne Puckett writes in The New History of Shelby County, Kentucky, that “the Land Endowment Act or Academy Plan was enacted in 1798 and was Kentucky’s first attempt to establish a system of education. Shelby County took advantage of the plan with the aid of a group of concerned citizens and replaced the Graded School when it erected Shelby Academy on what is now College Street in Shelbyville.”

January 13, 1804. Cloudy cold morning my Son in law Mr Thos Allen & Wife with my Daughter Peggy (who is gone to live with them) all set off after breakfast home.

McManus said he believes that Hornsby felt that Peggyneeded a mother figure and younger guidance than he could give alone.

February 2, 1804. Mr Richard Haynes fetch'd his Stack of Hay yesterday & today & carried from me 3 Barrels of Corn & 1 Side of Soal Leather to cut out Shoes for Peggy & myself, sent a Calf skin to him some time ago, the Corn is to pay for his making Shoes at 8/6 per Barrel & his Charge for mak[in]g Shoes for me is 6/ per Pr & for Peggy 4/6.

It is of interest that in America, 21 years after the Revolutionary War, much trade was still in pounds and shillings (e.g. 4/6).

February 15, 1804. saw Mr John Pope this morning, waited in Town to see him, he inform'd me my Land cause would be tryed in May, it is in the General Court at Frankfort.

April 20, 1804. Cloudy with Rain almost all day, Doctor Moore came here this morning & bled Peggy, & about an hour after bled her again, at which time She fainted & continued fainting almost all day, before which Dr. Moore had given her some Jallop & Calomel, when Peggy was not fainting she was pukeing, & I thought her expiring.

Fear of bleeding to death was high at that time. George Washington, before his death on Dec. 14, 1799, had been bled heavily four times, losing perhaps 80 percent of his blood.

April 21, 1804.Cloudy with several showers of Rain, Doctor Moore went home early this morning & I think my daughter Peggy out of danger.

Chris McManus, referring to this entry, makes a wry comment: “The primitive treatment of those days might lead us to read a second meaning, undoubtedly unintended, into Joseph Hornsby's entry: ‘Doctor Moore went home early this morning & I think my daughter Peggy out of danger.’

June 4, 1804.         I went to Louisville, where I met with General Brackenridge [sic] who wishes to take a Mr Denny's & a Mr Tyler's &c depositions in the Suit depending between Alexr Brackinridge & myself, I agreed to it, & we appointed Wednesday the first day of August for that purpose to meet at the begining Corner, Genl Brackinridge agrees to my taking any depositions I may please, & to my asking any questions &c, & no advantage is to be taken by either party, & he is to call at my House.

Because of the system for granting land in Kentucky, many disputes arose as a result of overlapping surveys. Many suits, as appears evident in this case, were brought before the courts in order to clarify title. It appears that Joseph Hornsby and General Brackanridge (sic.) were cooperating for this purpose.]

June 11, 1804.I went to Shelbyville to meet the Directors of the Shelby Academy as directed to meet by my Advertisement, also to meet Mr Justinian Cartwright to whom I had wrote who had agreed formerly to locate & survey the Land for the Academy.

Another entry indicating action by Hornsby as a director of the Shelby Academy. He seems to have been a leader among board members.


The end

At the end of 1804, the diary ceases. Three years later, on Nov.17, 1807, Hornsby died and was buried in the family cemetery on his farm, Grasslands, near Finchville.

About the time of his death, his youngest daughter, Peggy, who had survived two life-threatening illnesses, married John Allen. She died at age 66, having had eight children.

Joseph Hornsby’s last will and testament was signed on March 6, 1799, and the witnesses included General Joseph Winlock and Dr. John Knight, prominent residents of Shelby County.


Historic connections

Winlock and Knight share Kentucky Historical Marker Number 1409, off KY 55, 3 miles south of Shelbyville.

One side features Winlock: “Soldier and statesman. Served entire Revolutionary War, rising from private to captain. Came to Ky., 1787. Delegate to first Ky. Constitutional Convention, 1792. State senator from 1800 to 1810. Commissioned a Brig. Gen. in State Militia, 1812. Commanded regiments to aid Gen. William Henry Harrison in Northwest Territory.”

The other side features Knight. Dr. John Knight (1751-1838) had served as a surgeon under the command of Col. William Crawford during the disastrous Sandusky Expedition of 1782. Captured along with his commanding officer, he was forced to witness the agonizing death of Crawford, who had been tethered naked to a stake and forced to walk barefoot on red-hot coals. Fortunately Dr. Knight was able to escape before receiving similar treatment, promised for the following day. He survived to become one of the original town trustees of Shelbyville and a prominent practicing physician.

In 1818, Knight’s daughter, Effey, married Dr. John Allen, son of Robert Polk Allen.

Knight’s consent to this marriage, endorsed on the marriage bond, is a testament to his stability of character, despite his frightful experiences years before in the Revolutionary War:

“This is to certify that I have agreed to give my Daughter Effey Winlock Knight to Dr. John Allen and I sincerely wish she may prove a good wife, for his sake, for her own sake, but above all for the sake of Jesus Christ.”


Hornsby’s holdings

On Dec. 13, 1807 Hornsby’s will was produced in the Shelby County Court, proved by the witnesses and recorded. It may be viewed today in the office of the Shelby County Clerk in Will Book 2, commencing on page 199.

His estate included, 2,400 acres on the waters of Plum Run and 400 on Fox Run in Shelby County, and 400 in Washington County, a total of 3,200 acres of fertile Kentucky land.

Most of this land was left to his two sons, Joseph Walker Hornsby and Thomas Walker Hornsby, and his daughter Hannah’s husband, Nicholas Meriweather Lewis. In apparent conformity to customs of the time, no land was left to his daughters.

He left half his hogs and sheep to his two sons and singled out his eldest son, Joseph, to receive his surveying compass and chain and watch.

His personal and household effects, including a great quantity of silverware, undoubtedly sterling of the highest quality, weredistributed among his five surviving children.

Like other owners of large plantations, especially those from Virginia, Joseph Hornsby was a large slave-holder, leaving to his heirs more than 40 slaves of various ages, identified by name and carefully grouped to maintain family integrity.

His youngest daughter, Peggy, 18 at the time he signed his will, was a specific concern of Hornsby’s, as represented in this clause of his will:

“& my Will & desire is that my dear daughter Margaret [Peggy] Hornsby may live with & be brought up by either my dear daughter Hannah Hornsby or my dear Daughter Mildred Lewis as my dear daughter Margaret may like best, & I do most sincerely beg that they will pay proper attention to instruct her Infant Mind in all that is praiseworthy &c.”

Joseph Hornsby had been a good steward of the fortune left him in Williamsburg by his uncle in 1772 and had added to its value to the advantage of Shelby, his adopted Kentucky county.

As a public-spirited citizen, he had done much, through his leadership and ability, to contribute to the development of a state and a county that had been created only five years before his arrival.