Thwaites, R. G., "Daniel Boone" Chapter IX

From: Reuben Gold Thwaites (1853-1913) book, "Daniel Boone" (1902)
Chapter IX (pages 113 - 128)

The Settlement of Kentucky

Kentucky had so long been spasmodically occupied and battled over by Shawnese, Iroquois, and Cherokees, that it can not be said that any of them had well-defined rights over its soil. Not until white men appeared anxious to settle there did the tribes begin to assert their respective claims, in the hope of gaining presents at the treaties whereat they were asked to make cessions. The whites, on their part, when negotiating for purchases, were well aware of the shadowy character of these claims; but, when armed with a signed deed of cession, they had something tangible upon which thenceforth to base their own claims of proprietorship. There was therefore much insincerity upon both sides. It is well to understand this situation in studying the history of Kentucky settlement.

Colonel Richard Henderson was one of the principal judges in North Carolina, a scholarly, talented man, eminent in the legal profession; although but thirty-nine years of age, he wielded much influence. Knowing and respecting Daniel Boone, Henderson was much impressed by the former's enthusiastic reports concerning the soil, climate, and scenery of Kentucky; and, acting solely upon this information, resolved to establish a colony in that attractive country. He associated with himself three brothers, Nathaniel, David, and Thomas Hart, the last-named of whom in later life wrote that he " had known Boone of old, when poverty and distress held him fast by the hand; and in those wretched circumstances he had ever found him a noble and generous soul, despising everything mean." Their proposed colony was styled Transylvania, and the association of proprietors the Transylvania Company.

It will be remembered that in the treaty of Fort Stanwix (1768) the Iroquois of New York had ceded to the English crown their pretensions to lands lying between the Ohio and the Tennessee. The Transylvania Company, however, applied to the Cherokees, because this was the tribe commanding the path from Virginia and the Carolinas to Kentucky.

In March, 1775, a great council was held at Sycamore Shoals, on the Watauga River, between the company and twelve hundred Cherokees who had been brought in for the purpose by Boone. For $50,400 worth of Cloths, Clothing, utensils, ornaments, and firearms, the Indians ceded to Henderson and his partners an immense grant including all the country lying between the Kentucky and Cumberland Rivers, also a path of approach from the east, through Powell's Valley. At this council were some of the most prominent Cherokee chiefs and southwestern frontiersmen.

When the goods came to be distributed among the Indians it was found that, although they filled a large cabin and looked very tempting in bulk, there was but little for each warrior, and great dissatisfaction arose. One Cherokee, whose portion was a shirt, declared that in one day, upon this land, he could have killed deer enough to buy much a garment; to surrender his hunting ground for this trifle naturally seemed to him a bad bargain. For the safety of the pioneers the chiefs could give no guarantee; they warned Boone, who appears to have acted as spokesman for the company, that "a black cloud hung over this land," warpaths crossed it from north to south, and settlers would surely get killed; for such results the Cherokees must not be held responsible.

This was not promising. Neither was the news, now received, that Governors Martin of North Carolina, and Dunmore of Virginia had both of them issued proclamations against the great purchase. The former had called Henderson and his partners an "infamous Company of Land Pyrates"; and they Were notified that this movement was in violation of the king's Proclamation of 1763, forbidding Western settlements.

The company, relying upon popular sympathy and their great distance from tidewater seats of government, proceeded without regard to these proclamations. Boone, at the head of a party of about thirty enlisted men, some of them the best backwoods-men in the country, was sent ahead to mark a path through the forest to Kentucky River, and there establish a capital for the new colony. They encountered many difficulties, especially when traveling through canebrakes and brush; and once, while asleep, were attacked by Indians, who killed a negro servant and wounded two of the party. Boone won hearty commendation for his skill and courage throughout the expedition, which finally arrived at its destination on the sixth of April. This was Big Lick on Kentucky River, just below the mouth of Otter Creek. Here it was decided to build a town to be called Boonesborough, to serve as the capital of Transylvania. The site was 11 a plain on the south side of the river, wherein was a lick with sulphur springs strongly impregnated."

To Felix Walker, one of the pioneers, we are indebted for the details of this notable colonizing expedition, set forth in a narrative which is still preserved. "On entering the plain," he writes, "we were permitted to view a very interesting and romantic sight. A number of buffaloes, of all sizes, supposed to be between two and three hundred, made off from the lick in every direction: some running, some walling, others loping slowly and carelessly, with young calves playing, skipping, and bounding through the plain. Such a sight some of us never saw before, nor perhaps ever may again." A fort was commenced, and a few cabins "strung along the river-bank;" but it was long before the stronghold was completed, for, now that the journey was at an end, Boone's men had become callous to danger.

Meanwhile Henderson was proceeding slowly from the settlements with thirty men and several wagons loaded with goods and tools. Delayed from many causes, they at last felt obliged to leave the encumbering wagons in Powell's Valley. Pushing forward, they were almost daily met by parties of men and boys returning home from Kentucky bearing vague reports of Indian forays. This resulted in Henderson losing many of his own followers from desertion. Arriving at Boonesborough on the twentieth of April, the relief party was "saluted by a running fire of about twenty-five guns." Some of Boone's men had, in the general uneasiness, also deserted, and others had scattered throughout the woods, hunting, exploring, or surveying on their own account.

The method of surveying then in vogue upon the Western frontier was of the crudest, although it must be acknowledged that any system more formal might, at that stage of our country's growth, have prevented rapid settlement. Each settler or land speculator was practically his own surveyor. With a compass and a chain, a few hours' work would suffice to mark the boundaries of a thousand-acre tract. There were as yet no adequate maps of the country, and claims overlapped each other in the most bewildering manner. A speculator who "ran out" a hundred thousand acres might, without knowing it, include in his domain a half-dozen claims previously surveyed by modest settlers who wanted but a hundred acres each. A man who paid the land-office fees might "patent" any land he pleased and have it recorded, the colony, and later the State, only guaranteeing such entries as covered land not already patented. This overlapping, conscious or unconscious, at last became so perplexing that thousands of vexatious lawsuits followed, some of which are still unsettled; and even to-day in Kentucky there are lands whose ownership is actually unknown which pay no taxes and support only squatters who can not be turned out - possibly some of it, lying between patented tracts, by chance has never been entered at all. Nobody can now say. Thus it was that we find our friend Daniel Boone quickly transformed from a wilderness hunter into a frontier surveyor. Before Henderson's arrival he had laid off the town site into lots of two acres each. These were now drawn at a public lottery; while those who wished larger tracts within the neighborhood were able to obtain them by promising to plant a crop of corn and pay to the Transylvania Company a quit-rent of two English shillings for each hundred acres.

There were now four settlements in the Transylvania grant: Boonesborough; Harrodsburg, fifty miles west, with about a hundred men; Boiling Spring, some six or seven miles from Harrodsburg; and St. Asaph. The crown lands to the north and east of the Kentucky, obtained by the Fort Stanwix treaty, contained two small settlements; forty miles north of Boonesborough was Hinkson's, later known as Ruddell's Station, where were about nineteen persons; lower down the Kentucky, also on the north side, was Willis Lee's settlement, near the present Frankfort; and ranging at will through the crown lands were several small parties of "land-jobbers," surveyors, and explorers, laying off the claims of militia officers who had fought in the Indian wars, and here and there building cabins to indicate possession.

Henderson had no sooner arrived than he prepared for a convention, at which the people should adopt a form of government for the colony and elect officers. This was held at Boonesborough, in the open air, under a gigantic elm, during the week commencing Tuesday, the twenty-third of May. There were eighteen delegates, representing each of the four settlements south of the Kentucky. Among them were Daniel and Squire Boone, the former of whom proposed laws for the preservation of game and for improving the breed of horses; to the latter fell the presentation of rules for preserving the cattle ranges. The compact finally agreed upon between the colonists and the proprietors declared "the powers of the one and the liberties of the others," and was "the earliest form of government in the region west of the Alleghanies." It provided for "perfect religions freedom and general toleration," militia and judicial systems, and complete liberty on the part of the settlers to conduct colonial affairs according to their needs. This liberal and well-digested plan appeared to please both Henderson and the settlers.

But the opposition of the governors, the objections raised by the Assembly of Virginia, of which Kentucky was then a part, and finally, the outbreak of the Revolution, which put an end to proprietary governments in America, caused the downfall of the Transylvania Company. The Boonesborough legislative convention met but once more - in December, to elect a surveyor-general.

The day meeting had no sooner adjourned than Transylvania began again to lose its population. Few of the pioneers who had come out with Boone and Henderson, or had since wandered into the district, were genuine home-seekers. Many appear to have been mere adventurers, out for the excitement of the expedition and to satisfy their curiosity, who either returned home or wandered farther into the woods to seek fresh experiences of wild life; others had deliberately intended first to stake out claims in the neighborhood of the new settlements and then return home to look after their crops, and perhaps move to Kentucky in the autumn; others there were who, far removed from their families, proved restless; while many became uneasy because of Indian outrages, reports of which soon began to be circulated. Henderson wrote cheerful letters to his partners at home, describing the country as a paradise; but by the end of June, when Boone returned to the East for salt, Harrodsburg and Boiling Spring were almost deserted, while Boonesborough could muster but ten or twelve "guns," as men or boys capable of fighting Indians were called in the militia rolls.

The infant colony of Kentucky had certainly reached a crisis in its career. Game was rapidly becoming more scarce, largely because of careless, inexperienced hunters who wounded more than they killed, and killed more than was needed for food; the frightened buffaloes had now receded so far west that they were several days' journey from Boonesborough. Yet game was still the staff of life. Captain Floyd, the surveyor general, wrote to Colonel Preston: "I must hunt or starve."

As the summer wore away and crops in the Eastern settlements were gathered, there was a considerable increase in the population. Many men who, in later days, were to exert a powerful influence in Kentucky now arrived - George Rogers Clark, the principal Western hero of the Revolution; Simon Kenton, famous throughout the border as hunter, scout, and Indian fighter; Benjamin Logan, William Whitley, the Lewises, Campbells, Christians, Prestons, MacDowells, McAfees, Mite, Bowman, Randolph, Todd, McClellan, Benton, Patterson - all of them names familiar in Western history.

In the first week of September Boone arrived with his wife and family and twenty young men - "twenty-one guns," the report reads; Squire and his family soon followed; four Bryans, their brothers-in-law, came at the head of thirty men from the Yadkin; and, at the same time, Harrodsburg was reached by several other families who bad, like the Boones, come on horseback through Cumberland Gap and Powell's Valley. This powerful reinforcement of pioneers, most of whom proposed to stay, had largely been attracted by Henderson's advertisements in Virginia newspapers offering terms of settlement on Transylvania lands. "Any person," said the announcement, "who will settle on and inhabit the same before the first day of June, 1776, shall have the privilege of taking up and surveying for himself five hundred acres, and for each tithable person he may carry with him and settle there, two hundred and fifty acres, on the payment of fifty shillings sterling per hundred, subject to a yearly quit-rent of two shillings, like money, to commence in the year 1780." Toward the end of November Henderson himself, who had gone on a visit to Carolina, returned with forty men, one of whom was Colonel Arthur Campbell, a prominent settler in the Holston Valley.

This increase of population, which had been noticeable throughout the autumn and early winter, received a sudden check, however, two days before Christmas, when the Indians, who had been friendly for several months past, began again to annoy settlers, several being either killed or carried into captivity. This gave rise to a fresh panic, in the course of which many fled to the east of the mountains.

During the year about five hundred persons from the frontiers of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina had visited and explored Kentucky; but now, at the close of December, the population of all the settlements did not aggregate over two hundred. The recent outbreak had much to do with this situation of affairs; but there were other causes conspiring to disturb the minds of the people and postpone the growth of settlement - the clashing of interests between the Transylvania Company and the governors of Virginia and North Carolina, uncertainty as to the possibilities of a general Indian war, the threatened rupture between the colonies and the English crown, and the alarming scarcity of provisions and ammunition throughout Kentucky.

Nevertheless, over nine hundred entries had been made in the Transylvania land office at Boonesborough, embracing 560,000 acres, and most of these tracts were waiting to be surveyed; two hundred and thirty acres of corn had been successfully raised; horses, hogs, and poultry bad been introduced, and apple and peach trees had been started at several settlements. The germ of a colony was firmly planted, laws had been made, the militia had been organized, civil and military officers had been commissioned, and the face of several slight Indian attacks the savages had been repelled and the country maintained. Most promising of all, there were now twelve women in the country, all of them heads of families.

The principal pioneers were nearly all of sturdy Scotch-Irish blood, men of sterling merit, intensely devoted to the cause of American liberty, and destined to contribute powerfully to its aid in the great war which had now begun, and concerning which messengers from over the mountains had during the year brought them scanty information.