Sketches of Washington
One hundred and fifty years ago there was established in the wilderness of Kentucky, a little town that was destined to play a part of tremendous importance in the early history of the state. Distributing point for the mail of the whole Northwest Territory, and County seat of an immense Mason County, Washington, for fifty years, was the acknowledged center of this vast region.
On of the prophets of old hath said, “Without vision the people perish.” Our early Kentucky pioneers were all men of vision, for without vision they could not have endured. Simon Kenton, dauntless pioneer that he was, had his imagination fired by tales of wonderful cane lands in Kentucky. The vision haunted him, but for long months he searched for it without success. In 1775, in the month of May, descending the Ohio river for the fifth time, he and his companion, Thomas Williams, landed at the mouth of Limestone Creek, now Maysville, pushed into the interior and found the most luxuriant cane brakes, far beyond Kenton’s expectation; the can was from 6 to 15 feet high, Simon Kenton and Thomas Williams cleared an acre of land in the center of the cane brake. The clearing was located on Lawrence Creek near a fine large spring, just 3 ½ miles from the site of Washington and a camp was erected here. Kenton planted corn, which he had brought with him, and raised the first crop of corn cultivated by white man north of the Kentucky River. Simon Kenton had taken “planting possession” of what was to be Mason County.
It was not until 1784, however, that Kenton’s Station was definitely established and Simon Kenton then became self-appointed host to welcome all pioneers who landed at Limestone. Not only welcomed them but used his influence to persuade them to locate near his station. Many of them were persuaded. Simon Kenton knew men, consequently, Mason County received the “cream of the pioneers” and later Washington was filled with illustrious men. Among the first of the pioneers were William Wood, a Baptist minister, and Arthur Fox, a young surveyor of Virginia. In 1785, they bought from Simon Kenton a seven hundred acre tract of cane land and laid out the town of Washington. In 1786 Washington was established as a town by the Virginia legislature. William Wood and Arthur Fox were the men of vision, so the town was laid out a mile square, and it is beautifully located on level upland. One historian tells us that its founders held a dream of it becoming the capital of the United States. Be that as it may, during the recent Washington Bi-Centennial celebration, hundreds of letters from all over the United States were sent to this post office to be stamped with the Washington, Ky. postmark. The present postmistress is Miss Mary Wood Taylor, a great grand daughter of Dolly wood, who was the first white girl child born in Mason County on December 14, 1786. Miss Taylor is also a great, great granddaughter of Arthur Fox, co-founder of Washington. The fitness of her historical background should give her the position for life.
The first Federal census ever taken in the United States was in 1790. There were five towns in Kentucky at that time. Lexington with a population of 843, Washington 462, Louisville 200, Bardstown 216 and Danville 150. In 1800 the Census Bureau reported 30 towns. Washington was the second largest town in 1790. In 1800 it was the third largest town in the state, with a population of 570. Lexington still held the first place having a population of 1,795. Frankfort stood second at 628. Louisville grew slowly at this time, reporting 539.
Washington flourished during the first 25 years of its existence. In Simon Kenton’s Biography, we read: “After all, Kenton’s Station, if not Kenton himself, founded Washington. If his station had not stood to the north, there would have been no town there for a number of years. The town site was a cane brake gradually cleared away as the cabins were built, but for a long time its present Main street was no more than a rude wagon road through the cane, connect by narrow winding paths, leading to the primitive homes, set deep in little clearings in the cane forest. At the end of its first five years, it boasted 119 cabins – a remarkable record then for the West. Limestone also became a town, but called Maysville – in 1787 laid out on 100 acres – the property of John May and Simon Canton.” And Mayslick, eight miles from Washington, on the Buffalo Road to the Blue Licks, began to be settled. Mayslick gave the world the distinguished Daniel Drake, famous as physician, teacher and author.
During recent years, we are beginning to realize the tremendous part Simon Kenton played in the settlement of the Northwest. In Kentucky many looked upon him as a man raised up by Providence for a special purpose and whose miraculous deliverances from the greatest perils were confirmation of the belief that he was in truth a child of Providence.
Simon ’s life fulfills our dreams of adventure, glamour, and intrepid daring. We red this inscription in his Biography: “It is not enough that a man should be great, but that he should also come at the proper season.” The beautiful memorial bridge spanning the Ohio River at Maysville was dedicated to Simon Kenton by the Limestone Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution as a fitting tribute to the heroic part he played in the settlement of Northern Kentucky.
Mason County was established in 1788, a vast Mason county which encompassed all the territory lying between the Big Sandy and the main branch of the Licking River from its mouth to its source.
The first stone Court House in Kentucky was built in Washington in 1794, two years after Kentucky was admitted as a state. The Court House was built by Lewis Craig, a Baptist minister from Virginia, who combined the trade of stone mason with that of preaching, and was remarkably good at both. Not many miles away in the quiet graveyard at Minerva, Lewis Craig now lies at rest.
The Court House was an imposing building 50 feet long, 23 feet wide and two stories high. It was built of limestone, the walls two feet thick. The building was surmounted by a cupola and spar 20 feet high, upon which was a gilded ball and weather vane. Extending across the entire front of the building was a beautiful colonial porch with eight massive stone pillars and a paved floor.
There were clerks’ offices at the side and a whipping post in the rear. Above the main door were carved the initials of the builder “L.C.” and the date “1794.” For 115 years this splendid building endured, and would have stood for centuries to come, if not a lightening bolt not struck the building August 13, 1909, and it was destroyed by fire.
It could have been saved, but the sprstitious [sic] negroes made no effort, only whispered, “There ain’t no use trying to put out lightening fire, it cain’t be done ‘ceptin with milk. And they ain’t enuff milk.” [Or, they might have been thinking about that whipping post out back. – ed.]
So perished the chief glory of Washington and removed from the state an old and interesting landmark, which was visited, each year, by hundreds of people. On the grounds of the old Court House, a bronze tablet has been placed, which reads:
“Site of the first Court House in Kentucky.
Built by Lewis Craig in 1794.
Destroyed by fire 1909
Placed by Washington Study Club.
The Washington Study club has taken as its objective the marking of all historic sites and buildings in Washington. Last year the Club placed three bronze tablets and one wooden marker. Other sites will be marked as the treasury expands.
The first clerk of the Court was Robert Rankin, who held the office in 1789. He was followed by Thomas Marshall, who in turn, was succeeded by Col., Marshall Key. It was a community of cultured, scholarly people, and the Court House resounded with eloquence s the brilliant lawyers of that period, many of them with more than a local reputation, pleaded within its stone walls.
William Preston Johnson tells us “that nowhere were the characteristic traits of Kentucky people more fully displayed in Mason County. The intellectual vigor of the settlers is evinced in the ‘Kentucky Law Reports’ of an early period, which show legal ability and acumen rare in any county.”
Alexander K. Marshall, brother of the Supreme Justice, was the pioneer lawyer of Mason County; then followed Judge john Coburn, Judge William McClung, Judge Adam Beatty, Governor John Chambers, James Paxton, and Judge Walter Reid.
Some years later came Francis Hord, Henry Waller, Thomas Payne, Henry Reeder, Harrison Taylor, John D. Taylor, Dr. John A. McClumb, Frank T. Chambers, son of Gov Chambers, and Rochester Beatty, son of Judge Adam Beatty. One of the most brilliant lawyers ever produced in Mason County, was Judge Adam Beatty, who lived near Washington on land now owned by Judge William H. Rees, of the Appellate court of Kentucky. All of Judge Beatty’s sons were men of ability and prominence. One distinguished son, Dr. Armond Beatty, was president of Centre College for many years. A grandson, William H. Beatty, who lived on the farm until he was grown and reared as a member of his grandfather’s family, was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California for more than 25 years. The Beatty farm was later owned by Judge William Savage, whose wife was Miss Martha Miller, of Millersburg. Today, Judge Rees, of the Court of Appeals, is the third distinguished lawyer to own this farm.
In 1848 the county seat, after a bitter battle with the legislature, was removed to Maysville, and thereafter the Court House was used for educational purposes. Collins tells us that the most celebrated female school of the West at that time, 1807 to 1812, was taught by the cultured Mrs. Louise Carolyn Warburton Fitzherbert Keats, who was a sister of Sir George Fitzherbert, of St. James Square, London. Here “were taught all the arts suited to their sex.” Many distinguished women attended this school. The daughters of John C. Breckenridge, Governor Thomas Worthington, and Gov. Findlay of Ohio. Mrs. Keats also had in her school young women who became the wives of Gen. Peter B. Porter, of New York, U.S. Secretary of War, Gov. Duncan McArthur, of Ohio, and John J. Crittenden, of Kentucky. Another celebrated school was that of Mann Butler, Kentucky historian of 1834.
One of the outstanding schools held in the old Court House was that of Rev. Robert McMurdy, and Episcopal clergyman. The McMurdy school was quite famous and attracted pupils from all over the county as well as Kentucky. There were many graduates from this celebrated school. In Maysville, there are diplomas in existence. They were received by Mrs. Parry Browning Owens, the mother of Mrs. Robert Baline and Mrs. George Keith, the Misses Lida and Lottie Berry’s mother, and the mother of Mrs. Anne Delia Power Yellman.
Rev. Lorin Andrews, another teacher of that early period, was afterward “Missionary and Judge in the Sandwich Islands.”
One of the many French Huguenot families were emigrated from France during the later part of the eighteenth century, was that of Monsieur and Madam Mentelle. We are told that Monsieur Mentelle taught in the little college in Washington, Mason County, Kentucky, and a second daughter, Jeanette, was born there in 1797. In 1798 the family arrived in Lexington, where the Gazette carried the advertisement of their intention to open a private school to teach the young of both sexes in the French language, and dancing. Madame Mentelle was the daughter of Dr. LeClair, physician to Napoleon, and was a most accomplished violinist and graceful dancer. Mentelle Park, Lexington, bears their name. Among their descendants are the Vimonts and other well-known families of Kentucky.
Mason County should take great pride in the fact that within its limits in the town of Washington were more newspapers established in the early period of Kentucky’s history than in any other town in the state with the sole exception of Lexington. “The Mirror” was published in 1797, followed by the “Western Messenger” in 1803 and the “Republican Auxiliary” in 1806. The “Dove” was published from 1808 until 1814. David V. Ronnels was editor of the “Union” published from 1814 until 1824.
From a copy of the “Union” published at Washington June 11, 1823, the following items are taken: “David V. Ronnel’s Female academy established 1813.” “Transylvania University in Lexington has now opened a Medical Department and Dr. drake, of Cincinnati, has been engaged to teach medicine.” “Negro woman, two boys and six girls belonging to the heirs of Paul Overfield. The sale will be held at the home of James Best.”
In Kenton’s Biography, we read that Abner Overfield came to Kenton’s Station in November 1784. Collins’ History tells us that this was the second family to be established here, and that Abner Oldfield also built the first stone house and had in it “the first glass windows in Mason County.” Abner Overfield’s daughter, Mary, who became the wife of Joseph Morris, was the fourth white child born in Mason County. The first white child born in Mason County was Colonel Joseph Logan, son of John Logan. Col. Logan was born September 27, 1785 in McKinley’s blockhouse, which was built by James McKinley on the old Buffalo Trace, south of Washington. The land is now owned by Charles J. Hunter Sr., and has been in the possession of the family for a hundred and fifty years.
The first bank in Northern Kentucky was established in Washington in 1809. General Harry Lee, a man of great intelligence, who came from Virginia in 1785, was the first president of the bank. Robert Taylor, some of whose descendants, the Durrets and the Taylors live near and in Washington today, was the first cashier of the bank. The building is still standing and was recently marked by the Washington Study club. The door of the vault, with its quaint old lock and heavy bolts, is most interesting.
Washington at this time was the center of fashion and education. People came from Lexington to shop at the 16 stores of which Washington boasted. From Collins’ History we read: “It had from 15 to 20 flourishing mercantile houses, two taverns, one of them was “Abner Hord’s Tavern in 1824,’ 10 mechanic shops, three rope walks and three churches.” We are told that the first Methodist Church organized in Kentucky was in the cabin of Thomas Sevenson [sic – Stevenson?] in 1786, two and a half miles southwest of Washington. It was organized by Benjamin Ogden. The first Baptist Church in the state was organized in Washington. It was called Limestone until Washington became the county seat, then changed to Washington. Reverend William Wood donated the ground upon which the church stood and was the first pastor. William Wood also gave the ground for the old Baptist Cemetery, setting apart a corner for strangers. Many early pioneers are buried there. We find the names of Biggars, Curtis, Thorpe, Johnson, Downing, Wood, Taylor, Goggin, Hunter, Durrett, Gault, Machir, Humphrey, Blanchard, Lamb, Tucker, Walker, Stevenson, Ward, Claybrooke, Owens, and many others.
Washington had the distinction of being the distributing office of the whole Northwest Territory, consequently was the first Post Office in Kentucky, and sent out mail to seven states. Records show that quarterly returns were made by the Washington post office October 1, 1794, by one Thomas Sloo. Edward Harris, Grandfather of General Albert Sidney Johnston, was appointed the second postmaster by President Washington.
The first appropriation in the state for fire protection was $1,000.00 given to the town of Washington by the Kentucky Legislature. The money was used to dig 22 public wells and many of them are still in use today. Early historians tell us that these constitute “the first water works west of the Alleghenies.” Three of the wooden curbs were restored in 1931 by the Washington Study club. The restoration of others is planned.
Washington, in those early days, was the largest hemp market in the United States. On the David Hunter farm, a land grant from Patrick Henry in 1785, was produced the first wheat ever grown in Mason county. Half of the men cut the wheat while the other half stood on guard, rifles ready for marauding Indians. As you all know, the Indians never lived in Kentucky, but their deadly raids continued until the dawning of the new century.
Kenton’s station, being the northernmost outpost, was in constant peril. The Indians would cross the Ohio River and swoop down upon the settlers without a moment’s warning. Only the constant vigilance of Simon Kenton repeatedly saved the lives and homes of the pioneers.
It was not until Colonel Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his “Winning of the west,” that Kentucky pioneers received their just due, and the significance of the repulse of the third British attack was brought to national attention. Col. Roosevelt proves conclusively that there would have been no United States, as we know it today if the Kentuckians at Bryan’s Station and Boonesborough had not withstood the furious Indian onslaughts financed and led by the British.
One of the moist distinguished families immigrating to Washington in those early days, was that of Dr. John Johnston, who has the honor of being the first physician in the town. He built the house in which his famous son, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, was born. The house is still standing but in a dilapidated condition. A movement by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to buy and preserve it as a historic shrine was turned down by the owners. Dr. Thomas Nelson was another early physician of that period.. He also had a famous son, General William Nelson, of the Union army. We are told that the two boys played marbles together. Each of them was educated at West Point. One of the curious coincidences of the Civil War occurred in their lives. At the Battle of Shiloh, General Johnston and General Nelson commanded opposite forces. There Gen. Albert Sidney Johnson lost his life. The U. D. of C’s on April 16, 1932, erected a monument to commemorate the birthplace of this distinguished Confederate General.
Edward Harris, of Newburyport, Mass., was the grandfather of Albert Sidney Johnston, his daughter, Abigail, having been the second wife of Dr. Johnson. Edward Harris was a man of remarkable culture and ability and as you have been told, was appointed the second postmaster of Washington. Not far away from the Johnston home lived Rev. John A. McClung, lawyer, author, and preacher, a brilliant and eccentric man, whose death by drowning at Niagara Falls, has always been shrouded in mystery. His brother, Alexander Keith McClung, the famous duelist, was a picturesque character, the type of Southerner who belonged to ante-bellum days. He was a midshipman in the Navy at 16, a lawyer in Mississippi at 20, and by the time he was 30 had fought five duels. Thereafter, his reputation saved him from further challenge. During the Mexican War he was Lieutenant colonel of a Mississippi regiment and though severely wounded at Monterrey, had himself carried on a litter on the field of Buena Vista. He held important positions under the government and acquired great fame as a writer, orator and statesman. At the age of 45, he became weary of life and committed suicide.
In marked contract with the lie of Alexander Keith McClung is the inscription found carved in stone in the old Presbyterian graveyard at Washington. It gives us the history of another soldier of long ago:
In Memory of
Captain Charles Ward
Born January 30, 1769
Died January 2, 1839
Aged 70 Years
As pioneer – he was brave, intrepid and fearless.
As a Public Officer – honest and faithful to his trust
As a Citizen – upright, public spirited and charitable
As a Christian – devout.
As you may have been told, Dr. John Johnston was the first physician in Washington, then came dr. basil Duke and Dr. William Nelson. Dr. John Banks came a later period and he was followed by Dr. James Taylor, who practiced medicine in Cincinnati before the Civil War. Dr. Simon Morgan Cartmell was also an outstanding physician of this time. A grandson, Dr. William Cartmell, is located in Maysville at the present time.
Dr. E. C. Dimmitt was another well-known physician. After him came Dr. Joshua Barnes. Dr. Barnes was followed by Dr. Alexander Hunter, who served the community for almost 50 years. Dr. Louis Marshall practiced here in later years, and today, Dr. M. E. Pollock, whose grandfather was a physician in Germantown, serves the community.
In Judge Charles Kerr’s History of Kentucky we read that the cultured Englishman, Fortesque Cuming, made his tour in 1808 and 1809, coming from Pittsburgh to Maysville by boat and riding horseback from there to Lexington and Frankfort, stopping at the principal inns along the road. He deplored the fact that sheets were not generally used “save in English inns or places of fashionable resort.” He praised Mr. January’s tavern at Maysville, and spoke in complimentary terms of the courtesy and intelligence of Mr. January himself. He found Maysville with only 60 houses, but the greatest shipping post below Pittsburgh.
At Washington, “a flourishing town three and a half miles from Maysville” he had an excellent dinner at Mr. Elbert’s tavern and hired a horse at fifty cents a day to ride to Lexington.
Captain Waller was his obliging and interesting host “at Millersburg, and when he reached Lexington, he alighted at Joshua Wilson’s Inn” (site of Phoenix Hotel).
On opposite hills overlooking the town of Washington are two historic old homes. On the east stands the interesting Marshall home, built in 1800 by Captain Thomas Marshall, a brother of the Chief Justice. The home is now owned by Miss Louis [sic?] Marshall, a great, great, great, granddaughter of Capt. Thomas Marshall. The beautiful old colonial porch has recently been restored – surrounded by forest trees, this house, set upon a hill, attracts visitors from everywhere. The Marshall home is one of the historic buildings included in the C. W. A. project for preservation for posterity.
The Chief Justice’s mother and father, Mary Randolph Keith and Col. Thomas Marshall, came here to spend their last days. They lie buried in the family graveyard in back of the house. On the stone of the Chief Justice’s mother, at her request, are inscribed these words – “Good, but not great; useful, but not ornamental.’ Mary Keith Marshall was the mother of 15 children, one of them [John Marshall], the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. If that doesn’t constitute greatness, what does?
Overlooking the town from the west is beautiful “Cedar Hill,” the present home of Mrs. Lucien Coggin Maltby. It was built in 1807 by governor John Chambers, who was appointed territorial governor of Iowa by President William Henry Harrison. Gov. Chambers was a remarkably able man and brilliant lawyer. Col. Lucien Coggin bought “Cedar Hill” almost a hundred years ago, and it has been in the family continuously ever since, Mr. Lucien Maltby having been a grandson of Col. Coggin. The spacious grounds, the long, low porch, the broad hill with its lovely stairway, give one the feel of gracious welcome. It has always been a hospitable home and those traditions re kept by the present owner. Gen. Grant and many distinguished guests have entertained here.
One of the most attractive houses in Washington is the Wood home, now owned by Mrs. Nellie Wood Boggs. The Wood home was built in 1815 by Mr. William Murphy, the third postmaster in the town and a relation to the Woods. His portrait still hangs in the house, a very dark and solemn gentleman. The Wood home is a colonial red brick, the square porch most inviting. The doorway is perfect, reeded columns on each side and a beautiful fanlight above. The porch and its lovely doorway are admired by every passerby. In the rear of the house is an old-fashioned garden. It was originally laid out in squares, hundreds of Madonna lilies bordered its walks, lilac bushes here and there, snowballs, hundred leaf roses, the York and the Jacqueminot, rows of sage and thyme. Yellow jonquils in the springtime and the air perfumed with the fragrance if purple violets and lilies-of-the-valley. Miss Jennie Wood’s garden was a fairyland to the children of long ago.
Several blocks away on the same side of the street stands the Marshall Key home, a stately brick residence in which Harriet Beecher Stowe was a guest. Col. Key’s daughters attended a school in Cincinnati in which Harriet Beecher taught. During her memorable visit, she was taken to see some slaves sold on the old slave block in front of the Court House. This incident gave her the inspiration for “Topsy” and Uncle “Tom” ofUncle Tom’s Cabin. The Washington Study Club has placed a bronze tablet on this building which reads: “Harriet Beecher Stowe was a guest in this house in 1833.” Col. Marshall Key was the third Clerk of the Court. Col. Key’s wedding journey, from the perspective of today, is unique. He married Miss Harriett Selman, of Cincinnati, and their wedding journey was made on horseback.
The first stretch of macadam road in the state was the four miles from Maysville to the end of Washington, which was completed in 1830. This, as you all know, is a part of the old National Road, extending from Zanesville, Ohio to Florence Alabama. In 1885 the stretch between Maysville and Lexington was said to be the finest macadamized road in the whole country. The Maysville, Washington, Paris, and Lexington Turnpike Company was incorporated in 1827 with a capital stock of $325,000.00. Andrew McConnell was the first president of the road and it was largely through his untiring efforts that the road was built.
Henry Clay championed the building of the road with fiery eloquence and Andrew Jackson became extremely unpopular by vetoing it. It was over this road that Clay and other illustrious men journeyed to Washington City.
The founders of Washington, as you have heard, were most ambitious. An old map drawn in 1794 gives the names of the streets and many of the homes. Running parallel with main are Water and Green Streets. In the center of town, at right angles with Main, is William Street, Kenton’s line at one end and York Street at the other. York was evidently an important street. Franklin Academy, said to be one of the oldest schools west of the Alleghenies, was located there. The first Methodist church was built on York Street, and scarcely a block away was the First Presbyterian Church and graveyard. The Presbyterian Church was organized 14o years ago. A memorial celebration will be observed June 7th of this year, 1936.
Not far from the Presbyterian Church was the Forman Home, a stone house which is still standing. The Forman home sent out pioneer missionaries to India. Forman [Christian] College in Lahore, India is a tribute to the whole-hearted service of Dr. Charles Forman, one of India’s first missionaries. Some of his descendants, wonderful people, are in India today, working “where the harvest is plenteous but the laborers are few.”
Miss Alice Gill, a great granddaughter of Dr. Basil Duke, tells the following stories: Dr. Basil duke came from Maryland to practice law in Kentucky. He scanned the fields of Lexington and in Washington, then located in Washington, it looked more promising. Dr. Duke married Charlotte Marshall, a sister of the Chief Justice [John Marshall]. The Duke home is still standing; it has the distinction of having had on its walls the first wallpaper ever used in Washington. Dr. Duke’s daughter, Jane, married Harrison Taylor. At the wedding a young Democrat was asked to make a toast. Democrats at that period were not as popular as they are today. The young man arose and said, “May democracy flourish, when the daughter of a Duke marries the son of a Taylor.”
From 1830 to 1840 Washington was visited intermittently by deadly cholera epidemics. The death rate was enormous and the town almost depopulated. Before this visitation, Washington was at the height of prosperity, a community of cultured and distinguished people, commercially successful, with unusual education facilities – its future seemed assured – but fate or man decreed otherwise. In 1848 the final blow came with the removal of the County Seat to Maysville. The dream of a beautiful city, the vision of long ago came to an end.
In Simon Kenton’s biography we read, “Washington is a sad little town now.” Yes, it is, but there endures in our memory hearts the vision of our glorious past-for somebody has said, “We are our past, we may not cling to the past, but the past clings to us.”
by Edna Hunter Best, 1936, for the 150th Anniversary of the
Founding of the Town of Washington