The Lure of the Middle Grounds
Students will name and discuss some of the things which attracted early settlers to Kentucky and some of the sacrifices which settlers and their families had to make to start a new life in this land.
Why did people want to leave the safety of their homes and travel through dangerous and uncertain conditions to a place they'd never seen? Program 2 examines the hopes and sacrifices of the Green family at their home in western North Carolina while "their man" is exploring and hunting in the wilderness of Kentucky.
The White Man Comes to Kentucky (1650-1782)
During the early colonial period Kentucky was claimed first by the Spanish, later by the French, and then by the English. Following DeSoto's exploration of the lower Mississippi River in 1541, Spain asserted that all lands touched by that river and its tributaries belonged to her, but it is doubtful that the conquistadors ever visited Kentucky. In the 1670's LaSalle explored the lower Ohio River and claimed the lands watered by it and its tributaries for France. The French interests, however, lay more in trading with the Indian than in acquiring his land. Thus, it was the English colonists of the 18th century who first expressed more than a passing interest in the territory beyond the Appalachian Mountains.
A few adventurers from Virginia and North Carolina probably visited eastern Kentucky during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, but the first organized effort to explore the area west of the mountains resulted from the formation of the Ohio and Loyal Land companies. Following the creation of the latter in 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker, the company's surveyor, and several companions journeyed through Cumberland Gap and traveled inland to the area of the present day Barbourville, where they established a supply post. They cleared a few acres of land, constructed a log cabin, and killed and salted down deer, bear, and other game for food. For several months Walker's group wandered around the interior of eastern Kentucky (traveling through what is now Magoffin County, they pitched their camp at Salyersville, and explored and named the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River) and then returned to Virginia.
Soon after Walker's adventure, Christopher Gist of the Ohio Land Company visited the west, traveling down the Ohio River to Kentucky. News of an Indian encampment at the Falls of the Ohio (present day Louisville) discouraged Gist from further westward explorations, but his journal included a secondhand description of the falls area and his own observations of the West's scenic beauty:
After I had determined not to go to the falls, we turned from Salt Lick Creek to a ridge of Mountains that made towards the Cuttaway River [Kentucky River]. From the Top of the Mountain we saw a fine level country S W as far as our Eyes could behold, and it was a clear Day. We then went down the mountain and set out S 2B W about 5 thro rich level land covered with small Walnut Sugar Trees, Red Buds, etc. Gist's Journal,
--March 18, 1751
The glowing accounts that Walker and Gist gave to their companies fanned interest in Kentucky. Following the close of the French and Indian War in 1763 and the signing of the 1768 treaties of Hard Labor and Stanwix (by which the Cherokee and Iroquois ceded to Britain their claims to land in the Ohio Valley), hunters, explorers, surveyors, and land-hungry speculators began to push across the mountains. The best known of the early hunters was Daniel Boone, who made several trips to Kentucky from his Yadkin Valley home in North Carolina. He later described what he saw:
The buffalo were more frequent that I have seen cattle in the settlements, brouzing on the leaves of cane or croping the herbage on those extensive plains. Sometimes we saw hundreds in droves, and the numbers about the salt springs were amazing. In this forest, the inhabitants of beasts of every kind natural to America, we practiced hunting with great success.... --Adventures of Col. Daniel Boone
Boone and his companions dodged Indians, slept in caves, and explored the land but made few material gains. Their patient wives remained at home to raise the children and attend the crops. Some of the early explorers gained the nickname, "Long Hunters," because of their extended stay in the wilderness. A party of forty North Carolinians led by Colonel James Knox was among the best-known Long Hunters. They explored central Kentucky and named Dix River for a crippled Indian chief who befriended them.
In 1773 surveyor Thomas Bullitt and a party of Virginia land speculators charted land now occupied by Louisville and visited salt deposits at Big Bone Lick. With Bullitt was James Harrod, who returned to Kentucky a year later and built the state's first permanent settlement. Harrod and thirty-one men came down the Ohio River to Kentucky, proceeded to the mouth of Landing Run Creek, traveled overland to the Salt River, and on to the site of Harrodsburg (originally called Harrodstown). The men drew lots to decide which cabins to build first. However, before more than four or five were completed, Indian problems developed, and the men temporarily left their embryonic settlement. They returned a few months later, erected additional cabins, cleared land, and planted crops. During the winter of 1776 a fort was constructed at Harrodsburg to protect settlers scattered about the area.
Although Harrodsburg was the first Kentucky fort, Boonesborough became the most famous, due to the farsighted efforts of North Carolina land speculator Richard Henderson. In March 1775 Judge Henderson purchased from the Cherokees seventeen million acres of land that Virginia claimed as part of Fin-castle County. He named his acquisition "Transylvania" and dispatched Boone and thirty others to clear a road for the thousands of settlers to whom Henderson expected to sell the land known as the Wilderness Trail, the road was only a pathway, barely wide enough for a man on horseback, extending from the Cumberland Gap to the Kentucky River. At the western end of the road the trailblazers built a fort to protect themselves and the forthcoming settlers from hostile Indians.
In May 1775 Henderson requested that representatives from the other Kentucky settlements (Saint Asaph, Boiling Springs, Harrodsburg) meet at Boonesborough. Henderson spoke to the assembly of his dream of a large colony, independent of Virginia, with himself as a proprietor. He not only predicted a brilliant future for Transylvania, he also dealt with the realities of defending and governing the colony. The representatives approved nine legislative acts that established a judiciary, specified punishments for various crimes, outlawed profane swearing and Sabbath breaking, set sheriff and clerk fees, provided for a militia, preserved the range, encouraged the improvement of horse-breeding, and urged the preservation of wild game. Unfortunately, this forward-looking program failed. Most of the early settlers had come to Kentucky to obtain cheap land and to escape the laws of the eastern colonies; therefore, they were reluctant to pay Henderson's prices or take orders from a dictatorial land company and the high-handed Henderson.
In the summer of 1776 disgruntled delegates from Boonesborough and other settlements met at Harrodsburg and elected George Rogers Clark and Gabriel Jones as their spokesmen to the Virginia legislature, instructing them to request protection for the western frontier. Determined to possess the land despite Henderson's claim, Virginia created Kentucky County out of the larger Fincastle and made provisions for the newest county's representation in the Old Dominion's legislature. Thus, Henderson's claim to central Kentucky was invalidated, although Virginia later granted him 200,000 acres between the Ohio and Green rivers.
Following the outbreak of hostilities between Great Britain and the American colonists, Indian atrocities increased in the western country. The frontiersmen believed the British encouraged these attacks; so while he was in Williamsburg, Clark requested that Virginia aid Kentucky in fighting the red man. The executive council gave Clark 500 pounds of gunpowder but could not guarantee other assistance.
On his return to Kentucky, Clark found the Indian menace so severe that many settlers had returned east while others had sought protection by moving into the forts. Learning that British garrisons, who occupied former French posts in Illinois, were allied with the natives, Clark returned to Virginia, talked with state officials, and received money and supplies to out-fit volunteer troops. Because frontiersmen were reluctant to leave their families unprotected, Clark enlisted about 150 men from the eastern portion of Virginia to march against the northwestern forts. They arrived in Kentucky in May 1778, drilled on Corn Island for nearly a month, and in June-when the river was high enough to permit boats to float over the falls, Clark and his company of rag-tag militiamen began their trek into the Northwest. The motley band succeeded in capturing three British forts - Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes - but the residents at Vincennes soon repudiated their allegiance to the Americans and the fort again became an English stronghold. Fearing that the British would march against the other American-held forts, Clark and his men resolved to retake Vincennes. After weeks of wading through swollen streams and swamps, they recaptured the fort and the infamous Colonel Henry Hamilton (unjustly called the "hairbuyer" because Americans believed Hamilton payed his Indian allies for American scalps).
Clark's success alleviated some of Kentucky's worst Indian unrest. Yet, for many pioneers living in Kentucky's infant settlements, the expedition came too late. A few weeks after Clark's militia departed for Illinois, Boonesborough was attacked by four hundred Indians led by a French Canadian. Daniel Boone, captured earlier by the Indians, had escaped and returned to Boonesborough to warn them and to aid in preparations for the fort's defense. During the thirteen-day siege the Indians resorted to every possible means of chicanery. In vain they tried to tunnel into the fort, to burn it, and to tempt the settlers to leave its protection. The red men finally retreated.
Indian problems also plagued other forts during the Revolution. In the spring of 1780, forces led by a British officer captured Ruddle's and Martin's forts, and in August of 1782 Indians lay siege to Bryan's Station and the settlement at Mount Sterling. However, as the bronze warriors withdrew from the latter, a band of Kentuckians rashly chased the retreating foes across the Licking River. At Blue Licks they were ambushed. Sixty men, including one of Daniel Boone's sons, were killed during the encounter. The enemy's losses remain unknown but were much less.
The Battle of Blue Licks virtually ended organized Indian attacks in Kentucky, although frightening incidents continued to plague isolated settlers. However, as the number of settlers increased, the Indian menace faded. During the final two decades of the 18th century, Kentucky experienced phenomenal growth. In 1792 she became a state, and by 1800 the commonwealth boasted more than 220,000 residents.
- Copy individual map of Kentucky or draw a large (wall size) map of the state. Label: Cumberland Gap, Ohio River, Big Sandy River, Licking River, Kentucky River, Dix River, Green River, Wilderness Trail, Falls of the Ohio, Harrodsburg, Boonesborough, Saint Asaph, Boiling Springs, Blue Licks. Draw in your county and town. What route did early settlers take to get there?
- Hold a contest to see which student or group of students can prepare the best list of items an explorer or Long Hunter should take for a six-month trip to the Kentucky wilderness.
- Invite a local historian to talk to the class about the explorers and early settlers in your area.
- Write and illustrate an essay (or poem) about how the Indians felt about the arrival of white explorers, hunters, and settlers in Kentucky. Read more about Indians to get a better feel for their reactions.
- Make a frontier diorama depicting a flatboat on the river or a fort on the frontier. Use popsicle sticks or soda straws to build the flatboat and fort.
- Draw a mural that illustrates what the students have learned about exploring and settling Kentucky.
- Write letters from explorers or early settlers to family members back in Virginia. Describe what the frontiersmen have seen and done in Kentucky. Tell relatives why they should come west.
- Discuss with the class the grammar used by frontiersmen and the grammar that is acceptable today. Ask students to rewrite quotes from early explorers and pioneers into language we use today.
- Ask students if they have ever moved to a new location? Why? Have them describe their feelings about the change. Consider other places where they might move (towns in Kentucky, other states, countries or even outer space). Ask the same questions about why they would move there, advantages vs. disadvantages, and their feelings about being there.
Bentley, James R.
A Letter from Harrodsburg, 1780
Filson Club History Quarterly, 50 (Oct., 1976), pp. 369-71.
Letters of Thomas Perkins to Joseph Palmer, Lincoln County, Ky., 1785
Filson Club History Quarterly, 49 (April 1975), pp. 141-68.
Pioneers in Kentucky, 1773-5
Filson Club History Quarterly, 55 (July 1981), pp. 268-83.
*Lofaro, Michael A.
The Life and Adventures of Daniel Boone
*Harrison, Lowell H.
George Rogers Clark and the War in the West
McDowell, Robert E.
Bullitt's Lick: The Related Saltworks and Settlement
Filson Club History Quarterly, 30 (July 1956), 241-69.
Reprinted in Lowell H. Harrison and Nelson Dawson, eds.,
A Kentucky Sampler
Green River Pioneers: Squatters, Soldiers and Speculators
Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 75 (July 1977), pp. 171-90.
*Rice, Otis K.
Young, Chester Raymond, ed.
Westward into Kentucky: The Narrative of Daniel Trabue
*Denotes books from The Kentucky Bicentennial Bookshelf series.