Formation of Owsley County

Taken From Articles by Fred Gabbard

Booneville Sentinel


A few families moved into what is now Owsley County between the years of 1798 and 1810, but most of the county was uninhabited as late as 1815.  In 1815 an act of the General Assembly opened for sale at twenty dollars per hundred acres all vacant lands in the state.  Under this law the purchaser secured a warrant from the state treasurer which was in turn converted into a land office warrant authorizing the (survey?).  When (the surveying?) had been completed and returned to the land office it was registered and a land patent was issued to the owner within six months.


Much of the surveying done in locating these early claims was quite inaccurate and almost endless litigation has resulted from faulty titles caused by careless methods of surveying and marking boundary lines.


After the act of 1815 was passed making mountain lands more easily available, settlers began to come into the hill country rapidly and by 1843 practically every creek in the Three Forks area was thinly populated.


Many of the pioneers who settled Kentucky were veterans of the Revolutionary War.  Some of the Veterans who settled in the Three Forks area were Mathias Horn and Jesse Robertson of the Virginia Line; Thomas Stapleton of the North Carolina Line; David Snowden of the Pennsylvania Line; and Samuel Woods of the Third South Carolina Calvary.  Woods died in 1825 at the home of Peter Gabbard on the South Fork.  He was at that time receiving a pension from the Federal Government on account of injuries incurred in the line of duty while fighting the British and their Indian allies.


After the area around the junction of the Three Forks became fairly well settled, the people of lower Clay and Breathitt, and upper Estill circulated a petition asking for the organization of a new county.  Their main reason for desiring the creation of a new county being that very poor roads existed and it was difficult to travel the long distances to the county seats of Clay, Estill and Breathitt.


Thursday, January 12, 1843 the petition asking for the organization of the new county was presented to the General Assembly by Representative Ansel Daniel of Estill County.  The legislature passed an act to establish the county and the act was approved by Governor Robert P. Letcher on January 24, 1843.


The test of the act was as follows:

Sec. An Act to Establish the County of Owsley

Sec. 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, that from and after the first day of June next, all parts of the Counties of Clay, Estill and Breathitt contained in the following boundary:  Beginning at the mouth of Willow Shoal Branch on the Kentucky River in the County of Estill, thence south to James K. Harris’ house on Grassy Branch, thence with dividing line between Station Camp and Sturgeon Creeks, to line between Clay and Estill; thence with Clay and Estill line to Laurel line; thence with Clay and Laurel line until it crosses Pond Creek; thence up Pond Creek so as to include John Rader’s residence; thence with dividing ridge between Sextons Creek and Sturgeon to the head of Island Creek to the gap between Robert Morris’ and Henry Clark’s, where what is called the Estill Road crossed; thence a straight line to Lewis Sandlin’s residence, excluding him; thence a straight line to Levi B. Hunt’s residence on South Fork, including Hunt; thence up the South Fork of the Kentucky River to the mouth of Buffalo Creek; thence up the dividing ridge between the South Fork and Buffalo Creek to the head of Buffalo, and on the dividing ridge between the South and Middle Fork; thence with said ridge to the Breathitt Count line at the head of Long’s Creek; thence with the Breathitt County line to the head of Meadow Creek; thence with dividing line between South and Middle Fork to a point from which a straight line to the middle of Snag Shoal will include the house and buildings of Archibald Crawford; thence a straight line from Crawford’s to said Snag Shoal on North Fork of Kentucky River; thence up the point of the ridge between Bloody and Upper Devil’s Creek, to the Morgan County line; thence with Morgan line to Estill and Montgomery line so as to include the big bold rock on the waters of Miller’s Creek; thence a straight line to the mouth of Big Willow Shoal Branch to the beginning, shall be, and the same is hereby erected into one distinct county, to be called and known by the name of Owsley, in honor of William Owsley.


After the new political division known as the County of Owsley was organized by the General Assembly in 1843, Luther Brawner of Clay, Joseph Wilson of Estill, John V. L. McKee of Laurel and William Chenault of Madison were appointed by the Commissioners to locate a county seat for the new county.  These Commissioners were instructed to meet at the house of John Moore of Booneville on the third Monday of August 1843.


The Commissioners had much difficulty in locating the county seat, many citizens wanting it in Proctor, a small village on the main Kentucky River, named in honor of the Reverend Joseph Proctor, a famous Indian fighter and follower of Captain James Estill.


The citizens of South Fork held out for locating the county seat in Booneville, a small village which had grown up on the South Fork at the site of one of Daniel Boone’s old camps and had been named in honor of the great woodsman.


After some delay the Commissioners voted to locate the seat of justice at Booneville.  The General Assembly passed an act in 1844 providing that the “Circuit and County Courts of Owsley County shall here-after be held at the house now occupied by Lassiter J. Robertson, until a house for the purpose shall be prepared by the County Court of said County.”


Archibald McGuire and other residents of the Proctor section presented a petition to the General Assembly protesting against the location of the county seat and asking that it be re-located on Mr. McGuire’s property at Proctor.  February 29, 1844 the General Assembly passed an act requiring an election to be held in April 1844 to commence on the first Thursday and hold for three days to determine the permanent location of the county seat.  Two points were to be considered, one at Elias Moore’s at Booneville and the other at Archibald McGuire’s at Proctor, near the Three Forks.  The place getting the most votes was to be the permanent county seat and Booneville won by a small majority.


Governor Robert P. Letcher appointed James McGuire, Jr., as the first Sheriff of Owsley County, Wm. Morris as County Agent and James Anglin as Coroner.  Seven Magisterial Districts were created and the following men were appointed as the Justices of the Peace: William Clark, David Snowden, Hiram McGuire, William Morris, Lassiter Robertson, Pleasant Reynolds and George H. Brandenburg.  February 25, 1943 the General Assembly ordered the creation of an eight Magisterial District.  This was laid off to include all of the lands drained by Buffalo Creek.  Five Constables were appointed in 1843.


At the time Owsley was organized Circuit Judges were appointed by the Governor, as were the Surveyors, Coroner and Justices.  Sheriffs were nominated by the Justices and appointed by the Governor: County Clerks and County Attorneys were appointed by the Justices.  The Circuit Clerk and Commonwealth Attorney were appointed by the Circuit Judge.  This system of selecting officials was in effect until the new Constitution of the state went into effect in 1850.


Other laws in effect in 1883 included paying Constables 41 ˝ cents for whipping slaves, Jailers 37 ˝ cents per day for providing prisoners in jail, Sheriffs 41 ˝ cents for pilloring persons, for putting in stocks any person 21 cents, for ducking any person sentenced to this penalty 41 ˝ cents, for executing a condemned person $5.21.