by Joyce Wilson
Reprinted from Owsley County: A Romantic History
Settlers came from the Carolinas and Pennsylvania but mostly from Virginia, seeking fame, fortune and freedom. Men, women, boys and girls - each possessing the hardy individualism and sterling qualities necessary to a pioneer spirit—crossed the rugged Appalachian mountains to fight disease, misfortune and wild animals. When they reached the hunting ground favored by the Indians—a land of legend and a land where legend become a fact—they liked it and stayed.
Hacking and sawing trees, hewing logs, the intrepid pioneers lived in huts and caves until they erected their simple log cabins. Then they cleared new ground and tended crops. Using only the bare essentials, they bore families and brought civilization to the mountain wilderness leaving their stamp on the colorful history of Kentucky and Owsley County.
It was one of the last areas in the state to be settled. Dr. Thomas Walker came in 1750 with Joshua Fry, Peter Jefferson, William Churton and Daniel Weldon to explore the territory, but they came only as near as Three Forks Country.
The first settlers, John Renty Baker and John Abner penetrated the wilderness by boat, settling near the present Clay County line at Courtland. Exact year of their arrival is unknown but they were here when the Gabbard family came to Indian Creek circa 1790. A gravestone found on Upper Buffalo Creek is inscribed: “Milly, wife of John Abner, died March 1846”.
Owsley County once included all or most of Jackson County and Lee County south of the Kentucky River, as well as a portion of present day Breathitt. Formed January 23, 1843, the original boundaries were taken from portions of Breathitt, Clay and Estill Counties and was valued at $238,396.00. Ninety-sixth in formation, it was named in honor of Judge William Owsley, a prominent lawyer, legislator, circuit and appellate judge of Garrard County who became governor of Kentucky in 1844, serving one term.
Due to Henry Gabbard’s inability to write the English language, he wrote in German the original order requesting the creation of Owsley County. He and his wife, Barbara Hunseker, are buried at Esau Cemetery.
The majority of settlers got their patents from Virginia. They were of three kinds: those which rose from military service; grants from settlement or preemption; or on warrants from the treasury. Some families still have their original land grants, some dating back to 1813.
The climate was considered temperate and healthy. In summer it lacked the sultry heat which Virginia and Carolina experienced and breezes blew from the rivers. Winters lasted only three months and were not considered severe. On rare occasion, weather was freakish such as the big snow on May 20, 1894, when corn was knee high and had already been plowed twice.
Along with the bull-tongue plow, the rifle was a dire necessity. The trusty flint-lock kept many a family from starvation but few of the firearms survived the pioneer period. Most were converted to percussion or gave way to a shorter rifle, yet the wilderness rifle such as Boone used, endured as a symbol of the Kentucky frontier.
Once it was realized there was little danger from the Indians, settlers moved into the territory. The first large settlement was incorporated as the county seat March 1, 1847, three years after the county was formed. Because the boundaries of the city have never been expanded, Booneville has never had a population greater than 200. The 1850 census listed 15 families for the little village.
Since the county was not in existence in 1840, it was not listed in that year’s census, but in 1850 total population was 3,613 with 136 slaves; 1860 there was a population of 5,205 whites and 112 slaves. Due to the formation of Lee County and possibly to the freeing of slaves the 1870 population was reduced considerably to 3,812. The formation of other counties eventually reduced Owsley County to approximately one third its original size.
Forgotten family names listed in those early censuses were Schoolcraft, Bullock, Blunt, Luker, Brummet, Allanbaugh, Eades, Brian, Waite, and Griffen. Negro families bore the names of Jett, Guess, Curtis, Grigsby and Minter.Caucasion family names included Moore, Abner, Gilbert, Pendergrass, Evans, Morris, Brandenburg, Seale, Reynolds, Gabbard and Bowman.
Old Cornelius Bowman was born about 1740 in Virginia He and his family meandered to Muddy Creek in Estill County around 1790 It was his boys who followed James Moores daughters to South Fork Country while Maw and Paw stayed closer to civilization. After Neal’s wife, Susannah, died and he was getting on in years, the old man was persuaded to come to Owsley County with his sons.The story goes that the old man grieved so over the loss of his wife he almost lost his mind. The sons went back to Muddy Creek, dug up the remains of their mother and moved her back to Owsley (it was Still Clay County then). Her body was taken by pack hens to old Neal’s cabin where he requested her remains be laid on his bed. That night he crawled into lid beside her coffin to sleep. The next day she was buried on a nearby hill. Old Neal soon joined his beloved Susannah and was laid by her side to rest. (Some of the now decendants of Cornelius have heard the story handed down through generations that Susannah was in a covered wagon with Cornelius and died during the trip. thus the philosophy that "Bowman men had way too much grit to do what Cornelius was reputed to have done!!) The elderly Bowmans, their son Cornelius Jr., and wife, Betty Moore Bowman, are all buried near the residence. of Willard Campbell. The mouth of the branch where widow Betty Bowman lived many years she the death of her husband still bears her name.
The county’s surface coal was of the best quality, both bitumunous and cannel. Forty feet under the surface were found veins of the finest coal nearly 10 feet thick. Until the advent of strip mining the largest underground mine of any duration was the wagon minion Fish Trap Hill owned by Henry Campbell and Dr. W. H. Gibson. During the 30’s the mine produced almost all coal for local consumption.
Specimens of Iron and lead ores and lithographic stone were discovered the summer of 1866 which were said to be of superior quality. A Handbook of Kentucky published in 1903 quoted it as having a ‘line polish.’ The quarry was supposedly inexhaustible but Its location was not given.
Lumber was a booming business with walnut logs felled for making gunstocks and fine furniture.
Log rafts tied together with whalen strips and raft pins, were ridden downriver to Frankfort on high tides. The men returned to St. Helens or Beattyville by train then hiked home across the hills.
The 1870 tobacco was a substantial cash crop. The leaf declined in popularity but was revived again in 1915 and is presently the major source of income. Lexington, the world’s largest loose leaf tobacco, market is only 80 miles from the county seat. Cattle drives continued through the 1920’s with herds leaving by way of Clay County along the old state road from Manchester to the Richmond market.
One night in 1912, a covered wagon driven by a man by the name of Collins arrived on Cow Creek coming from the direction of Breathitt or Perry County. Collins, his wife and six children asked to spend the night at the home of Woolery Eversole. It was nigh into fall and the children were barefoot. Before leaving the next day the family stopped at the general store, hitched up the team of horses, one black, one white, and purchased a pair of shoes for each child. The eldest was only nine. If they were successful in reaching their destination in Arkansas no one ever learned. They were never heard from again. But the family and their wagon were the last known to pass through the country marking the end of the covered wagon era.