Historical Sketches of Owsley County

By: Fred W. Gabbard

Booneville Sentinel


In the year of 1606 King James I of England granted to Virginia Company a large territory in the new world which included the territory now comprising the Commonwealth of Kentucky.  After the settlement of Virginia the land which is now Kentucky was part of Fincastle County, Virginia.  In 1776 this portion of Fincastle County became Kentucky County.  In 1730 Kentucky County was divided into three counties known as Fayette, Lincoln and Jefferson, by act of the legislature of Virginia.  In 1786 the county of Madison was organized from a portion of Lincoln County.


In 1792 Kentucky was admitted into the Union as the 15th state.  After Kentucky became a state the original counties were subdivided into various counties, one of which was the county of Clay, which was organized in 1806 and named in honor of General Green Clay.  Clay was taken from territory which had earlier belonged to Madison.  In 1807 Estill was organized from portions of Madison and Clark, and in 1839 Breathitt was formed from parts of Clay, Perry and Estill.  It was from these three counties, Clay, Estill and Breathitt, that the county of Owsley was formed in the year 1843.  Owsley was named in honor of William Owsley, a prominent Judge of the Kentucky Court of Appeals and later Governor of the state. 


The original boundaries of Owsley County included what is now Owsley, most of what is now Lee, and a considerable portion of what is now Jackson and Wolfe.  The territory comprising the original boundaries of Owsley County were first seen by white men in 1750 when Dr. Thomas Walker and his company passed through this area near the junction of the three forks of the Kentucky River, now the site of Beattyville.  Dr. Walker’s journal states that he was accompanied on this trip by Ambrose Powell, William Tomlinson, Colby Chew, Henry Lawless and John Hughes.  Dr. Walker also gives us some idea of the abundant wild life to be found in Southeastern and Eastern Kentucky of that date.  He says, “We killed in the journey 13 buffaloes, 8 elk, 53 bears, 20 deer, 4 wild geese, about 150 wild turkeys, besides small game, we might have killed three times as much if we had wanted it.”


A few years after Dr. Thomas Walker explored this area, the McAfee brothers passed through on one of their hunting trips.  After the McAfees the next person to explore the region of the Three Forks was Daniel Boone.  In 1770 Boone had a camp on Station Camp Creek in what is now Estill County.  It was near the mount of this creek that Boone camped alone while his brother Squire Boone returned to North Carolina to get a supply of ammunition, upon Squire’s return, the two spent the following winter on Station Camp.


During 1770 – 1771 the Boone brothers made numerous hunting trips up the South Fork of the Kentucky River.  They established a temporary camp near the mount of Buck Creek at what is now the town of Booneville.  While camping at the mount of Buck Creek, on one of his trips up the South Fork, Daniel found the nest of a goose on top of a large rock in the middle of the river, just above the mouth of the stream now known as Sextons Creek.  Boone called the whole of the South Fork by the name of Goose Creek after the finding of the goose’s nest, and this name was applied to the stream for many years. 


1n 1784 Daniel Boone as a deputy surveyor of Lincoln County, surveyed 50,000 acres of land for John Donelson and James Moore.  With him were William Brooks and Septimus Davis as chain carriers, and Edmund Calloway as marker.  The survey calls “Beginning one mile from the mouth of Sextons Creek - - - - - .”


In 1816 Septimus identified the beginning corner to Andrew Bradley, then surveyor of Clay County.  The John Donelson mentioned in the survey referred to was the brother of Rachel Donelson Jackson, wife of Andrew Jackson.  The Donelson’s at that time lived near Harrodsburg.


Most of the first land entries made in what is now Owsley County were made by men who were more interested in land speculation than in settling on the land entered.  This was true of the greater part of southeastern Kentucky.


The first person known to have settled on the South Fork, then known as Goose Creek, was one James Collins who built a cabin on Collins Fork of Goose Creek in 1780 and shortly afterward began the manufacture of salt there.


The first persons to become permanent settlers in the area now composing Owsley County were James Moore, John Abner, Henry Gabbard, William Baker and William Neal (spring of 1798).  The families of these five men moved in about the same time although they did not come together.  John Abner and William Neal had made a hunting trip up the South Creek after having killed several large buffaloes in the canebrakes fork as early as 1780 and legend has it that they named Buffalo near the mouth of the creek.


Most of the early settlers in Southeastern Kentucky were originally from Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Pennsylvania.  They came for many different reasons, some to hunt, others in search of lands and there is much to indicate that many came in search of legendary treasures, notably Swift’s Silver Mines.


The early inhabitants of the Kentucky mountains were mostly English, French, German, Scotch and Irish.  The pure Anglo-Saxon race which many orators and writers have insisted on locating in the hill country does not exist, nor has it ever existed.  The mountain people represent a mixture of the early Colonial stock which first settled the various sections of the United States.


A more or less legendary silver mine brought numerous adventures to the headwaters of the Kentucky River at an early date.  The story is that of the Swift Silver Mine which tradition has handed down for generation in various sections of the hill country.  The legend is that from 1760 to 1769, one John Swift, in company with some Shawnee Indians discovered and mined a great amount of silver in Eastern Kentucky.  The presence of a band of hostile Cherokee Indians forced Swift and his men to bury their treasure and flee for their lives.


About 1790 Swift and the Shawnees, who alone with him knew the location of the buried treasure, returned to their cache.  There Swift slew his companions while they slept and being unable to carry away the silver by himself he again returned to the settlements empty-handed. Shortly thereafter Swift lost his eye-sight; and was never again able to re-locate the silver.


Tradition places the location of Swift’s mining activities along the Paint River, the headwaters of the Kentucky River, Laurel County, Jackson County, Breathitt County, and at various other locations.  Local tradition has it that John Abner, who with William Neal, made a hunting trip up South Fork in 1780 told of having met a Shawnee Indian who claimed to have helped Swift mine the silver somewhere near the Three Forks of the Kentucky River.  He also informed Abner that the silver was so plentiful that if the white men were only smart enough to locate it they could shoe their horses more cheaply with silver than with iron.


According to some historians this rumor of buried silver brought about the death of Colonel James Harrod, the founder of Harrodsburg.  The story is that in 1793 Colonel Harrod was approached by one Bridges, a former enemy, who now appeared to be very friendly, and who claimed to have located the Swift Silver Mine near the Three Forks.  Harrod and another man accompanied Bridges to the Three Forks and upon arriving there they separated and went hunting, the intention being to kill some game for food to be used while camping there.  The third man had gone only a short distance when he heard a shot, thinking that one of his companions had already killed a deer, he returned to camp and upon arriving there found Bridges greatly excited and claiming to have heard a shot and seen signs of hostile Indians.  Harrod did not reappear and Bridges insisting that he had been killed by Indians, persuaded his companion to return with him immediately to the settlements.


Sometime later a searching party ascended the Kentucky to the Three Forks in an attempt to find Harrod.  Near the present site of Proctor they found the bones of a man and pieces of a hunting shirt which was identified as Harrod’s.  In the meantime Bridges had made his escape and was never more heard of.


Thus perished Colonel James Harrod one of Kentucky’s earliest and boldest settlers, and to this day no student of the past has been able to locate his final resting place.


Some of the early surveys were the following: In 1783 Richard Moore, 2,000 acres on South Fork; John Abner, 1,000 acres on Kentucky River.  In 1784 Jno. Bailey, 3,000 acres on Sturgeon; Joseph Boone, 1,000 acres on Sturgeon; Daniel Boone, 1,000 acres on South Fork; Samuel Overton, 10,000 acres on South Fork; Richard Neal, 3,000 acres on South Fork; Carnegg and Paul, 300, 306 acres on the Three Forks; John Carman, 300,306 acres at Three Forks; Benl. Wynkoop, 50,000 acres at Sextons Creek.


Another attraction which brought many of the first hunters into the Three Forks area was the “wolf scalp laws.”  The Kentucky General Assembly in 1795 passed an act offering a bounty of three shillings for the head of each wolf under six months old and eight shillings for the head of each wolf over six months old.  The legislators had an early precedent for this law, Edgar the Saxon King of England, who succeeded to the throne in 958 having sponsored a similar measure which had brought about the extermination of wolves in England.


The Wolf Bounty Law immediately became very popular and the early settlers devoted much of their time to hunting wolves for the sake of the bounties.  In 1812 the Sheriff of Clay County upon investigating the unusual number of wolf scalps being brought to Manchester by one hunter, learned that wolves were being reared in pens on a small creek located between Buffalo and Indian Creek.  That creek has since this occurrence been called Wolf Creek and is now a part of Owsley County.


December 21, 1837, an act was passed raising the bounty to six dollars per scalp.  An act of March, 1847 lowered the bounty to three dollars per scalp, and placed a bounty of fifty cents per head on wildcats.  After Owsley became a county in 1843, between the years of 1843 and 1879 the County Court of Owsley county allowed claims totaling $109.00 for wolf scalps and $565.00 for wildcat scalps.