The Origin of Louisville & the Louisville Area

The Origin of Louisville & the Louisville Area

Compiled by John Schwarz

August, 2000

Crossing the Allegheny Mountains >>>

Crossing the Allegheny Mountains

By the mid-1600's, many small farmers in Virginia had pushed inland from the Atlantic coastal plain region. The interests of the western farmers differed from those of the coastal aristocracy. The westerners wanted fewer political and economic regulations and resented the British restrictions on colonial trade. By 1700, the growing population took up all the land along the tidal rivers and creeks. So many moved further westward into the central plain region and even into the mountain valley areas on the eastern edge of the Allegheny Mountains. Germans and Scotch-Irish from Pennsylvania also settled in the mountain valley areas. But tensions continued to grow between the colonists and Virginia's British-appointed governors. In 1772, governor Lord Dunmore, to further his own ambitions, awarded more than 30 land grants in the vicinity of the Falls of the Ohio. (Kentucky and West Virginia were a part of Virginia at that time.) The recipients of these grants were prominent Virginians whose favor Dunmore needed, and they probably viewed the land as a speculative-type investment rather than as a place of domicile. Be that as it may, it was the first incentive offered for development in the State. Prior to that, Kentucky was considered Indian territory and had no permanent white settlements. In general, Dunmore and the wealthy eastern families that controlled Virginia's government had little use for the vast far-off land in Kentucky. They saw little economic incentive in developing land that was impractical to access because of the Allegheny Mountains, and where the constant threat of Indian raids made living conditions treacherous.

The growing population, however, was desperate for new land. In 1774, colonists from Pennsylvania ventured into central Kentucky and established Harrodsburgh; it was the first permanent white settlement in the State. A year later, in 1775, Daniel Boone led a group of settlers from Virginia through the Cumberland Mountains (at Cumberland Gap). From there he turned north along a well-defined Indian trail which ran almost straight north from Cumberland Gap to Lake Erie. Boone incorporated about 50 miles of this Indian path into his own roadway, turning westward at a point near the present town of Manchester. Here herds of buffalo had trampled a veritable street through the forest to central Kentucky, and at the end of this "street" Boone established Boonesborough on the Kentucky River near present-day Lexington. Another branch of the Road led to Harrodsburg. His route became known as the Wilderness Road and was the only usable route through the mountains to Kentucky. This opened the floodgate for land-hungry farmers, and by 1800 about 200,000 settlers had traveled the Wilderness Road. When the first U.S. census was taken in 1790, the Bluegrass Region in central Kentucky (which included Louisville) was the only region west of the Appalachian Mountains that had a population density of more than two people per square mile. (Areas along the southern Missippi River and the Gulf of Mexico had sizable populations, but were not a part of the Union at that time.)

As the Revolutionary War receded, settlers continued to pour into the rich plains of Kentucky. The Wilderness Road still brought many, but the great flood came by way of the Ohio. By the tens of thousands they floated downstream. Some turned aside to pole up various streams. But for the most part they kept on to Maysville, Kentucky whence they made their way over the well-beaten road to the valleys of the Licking and the Kentucky rivers. By 1787, the population of Kentucky was more than 200,000.

<<< The Origin of Louisville & the Louisville Area

The Development of Neighboring States >>>

The Development of Neighboring States

Boone's road through the Cumberland Gap also opened the door for settlers in North Carolina to move into the Tennessee region, which at that time belonged to the British colony of North Carolina, but was isolated from it by the mountains. Settlers arrived in the Nashville area in 1779. Previously, permanent settlers were living in the Tennessee region as early as 1769. Memphis was not established until 1819, although a fort had been built there in 1682. Tennessee became a state in 1796, four years after Kentucky. The states north and west of Kentucky (Ohio and Indiana) were slower to develop. Marietta, Ohio, founded in 1788, was the first permanent white settlement in Ohio. Within a short time, several other communities developed along the Ohio River. Many settlers were Revolutionary War veterans who received land in payment for their military service. Ohio became a state in 1803. The first permanent settlement in Indiana was at Vincennes, founded by the French about 1731. Earlier, during the 1720's, there were French trading posts near present-day Ft. Wayne and Lafayette. During the War of 1812, the United States defeated British and Indian forces in southern Indiana and settlers were free to develop the land in southern Indiana. Indiana became a state in 1816 with Corydon as its capitol.

West Virginia, on the other hand, developed long before Kentucky. Settlement there began in 1726 by Germans seeking greater religious freedom, followed shortly after by Scotch-Irish from Northern Ireland. The Indians often attacked the settlers, who were taking over their hunting grounds. The pioneers built a number of forts and blockhouses, many of which formed the beginnings of towns and cities, including Wheeling (1769), Point Pleasant (1770), and Charleston (1788). The region had become an important lumber industry in 1755, when people started to use water-powered saw mills to produce lumber. But then in 1763, King George III refused to let the colonists in America take any land west of the Allegheny Mountains until treaties could be made with the Indians for peaceful settlement. The Scotch-Irish ignored the order. The Germans and the Dutch paid no attention to the order because they could not even read it. The situation was resolved in 1768 by treaties in which the Indians gave up all claims to the land between the Allegheny Mountains and the Ohio River, and by 1775, about 30,000 settlers lived there. In 1794, the first iron furnace west of the Alleghenies was built in West Virginia; and by 1808, large quantities of salt were being produced. Further discoveries of mineral resources continued the economic development of the western section, and in 1815 natural gas was discovered near Charleston. An oil well drilled in 1860 began a stampede for oil. It was 1863, however, before West Virginia became a state.

Southern regions of the country, along the lower Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, developed much faster than the states to the north because access was not blocked by mountains. Biloxi was founded in 1699, it was the first French settlement in Mississippi. In 1702, a fort was founded at Mobile, and in 1716 the French founded the second settlement in Mississippi at Natchez on the Mississippi River. Natchez eventually became the cultural center of the South. New Orleans was established in 1718, and in 1719 Baton Rouge became the site of a military outpost. Vicksburg became a major port on the Mississippi River after its establishment as a Spanish outpost in 1790.

The southern settlements, even though under French or Spanish flags, were an important destination for products developed in the eastern Atlantic coast states. These products were sent over land to Pittsburgh, and from there shipped to the South via the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. This was a constant source of irritation to the British who wanted all colonial trade to be between Britain and the colonies. To discourage colonial trade to the South, Britain discourage settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains because trade from these settlements would be more closely tied to the South than to the East. At the same time, Britain needed colonial support to obtain control of the Spanish and French territories in the South and along the entire Mississippi River valley. This interplay resulted in numerous wars between the British, French, Spanish, and Indians.

<<< Crossing the Allegheny Mountains

The Transportation Network >>>

The Transportation Network

Prior to the Wilderness Road, the only long distance road over which commercial traffic was regularly driven was the road between New York and Philadelphia. It was completed in 1732. By 1776, the completion of additional roads made it possible to journey from New York to Savannah by way of Philadelphia and Baltimore. In 1794, the first turnpike was completed. (It ran between Philadelphia and Lancaster.) This was soon followed by many others including one from Baltimore to Frederick, Maryland. This road was then extended to Cumberland, Maryland. Cumberland was an important center on the eastern edge of the Allegheny Mountains and was the head of navigation on the Potomac River which ran through Washington, D.C. and into Chesapeake Bay. After the Revolutionary War, in order to facilitate settlement of the west, Congress appropriated funds to build a road, later called the National Road, that would run through southern Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. The road was started in 1808 and the stretch from Cumberland to Wheeling was completed in 1817. A road from Wheeling to Zanesville and south to Maysville, Kentucky had been previously completed in 1797. (See Fig. 1.) Because of congressional wrangling, the National Road took many years to complete. The stretch from Richmond, Indiana to Terre Haurte, Indiana wasn't completed until about 1850.The road reached Vandalic, Illinois in 1852 where it ended. The best part of the road ended at Terre Haurte since by 1840 long distance rail traffic had became practical.

Water travel west of the Appalachians was dominated by the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. New Orleans, the oldest major port on the Mississippi River and located at its mouth, was established in 1718. Pittsburgh, the oldest port on the Ohio River and located at its source, was established in 1764, although a fort had been built there in 1754. St. Louis was established as a trading post in 1764. Other early Ohio River port towns were: Wheeling, established by settlers in 1769; Pt. Pleasanr, West Virginia, established about 1770; Louisville, established by settlers in 1778; Marietta, Ohio, founded in 1788; Cincinnati, established by settlers in 1788; Evansville, Indiana, founded in 1816; Memphis, established in 1819; and Paducah, Kentucky, founded in 1827. Before the advent of the steamboat, travel upstream from New Orleans was very laborious. It took 30 men three months to push a flatboat upstream just from New Orleans to Cairo, so very few such passages were made. Until 1817, only 20 barges made the northward journey per year. It was cheaper and more convenient to haul stuff from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh by horse and from there ride the current downstream. Pittsburgh therefore became the distribution center for imports into the river country, while New Orleans was the gathering point. Wagons made the journey from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in 20 days, and as many as 3000 passed over the route in a year. Completion of the National Road from Baltimore to Wheeling added even more river traffic. Boatsmen made the return trip from New Orleans back to Pittsburgh via the Natchez Road, built around 1810. It ran from New Orleans to Nashville. From there, the boaters made their way to Maysville, Kentucky which was then the northern end of the road to New Orleans. Earlier roads connected Maysville to Zanesville, Ohio and Wheeling, West Virginia.

<<< The Development of Neighboring States

The Early Development of Kentucky >>>

The Early Development of Kentucky

The termination point of the Wilderness Road was in the center of a region now known as the Bluegrass Region. This region of north-central Kentucky is an area of gently rolling pastures conducive to raising horses, cattle, and sheep. It is also excellent for growing corn, tobacco and numerous food crops. The Bluegrass Region lies between the Ohio River on the north, the Appalachian Mountains on the east, and a region of domelike knobs and interlaced flood plains on the south. The knobs resemble volcanic cones and contain light soil that wears away quickly. For this reason it is usually left wooded to hold the soil. The knobs in this region start at the Ohio River (about 25 miles south of Louisville), run roughly 50 miles in a southeasterly direction, and then east to the Kentucky River. (See Fig. 2.) The settlers that arrived in the center of the Bluegrass Region via the Wilderness Road spread throughout the Region, many traveling westward and settling in regions east and southeast of Louisville.

In 1776, the start of the Revolutionary War brought dramatic political changes. Virginia declared itself an independent commonwealth and Lord Dunmore was driven from the colony. That same year, Kentucky was made a county of Virginia. These events facilitated the purchase land in Kentucky and provided additional impetus for many Virginians to migrate west into the neighboring Kentucky territory.

The years that followed the Revolutionary War saw great changes in Kentucky. Fewer and fewer of the settlers pouring in were of the backwoods type. Kentucky emerged swiftly from a land of clearings into a community of farms and plantations. In 1785, the first newspaper west of the mountains was published at Lexington, and in 1792 Kentucky became the 15th state with Frankfort as its capitol.

The settlers that arrived in Kentucky found much to their liking. Early in the 1800's, horse breeders recognized the superior feeding qualities of pastures in central Kentucky and the region became a leading horse and mule producing region. Hemp, used for making rope, was an important crop during the 1800's, and by the mid-1800's, Kentucky produced nearly all the nations hemp. Major tobacco farming started in 1825, and by the 1860's Kentucky led the nation in tobacco production. Potato growing became a major crop in the St. Matthews area which eventually became known as "the potato capital of the world"; at one point it was the second-largest potato shipper in the country. Whiskey began to be produced in vast quantities by the 1820s, culminating in the standardization of a fine, aged amberred brew known throughout the world as bourbon, after Bourbon County.

<<< The Transportation Network

The Early Development of the Louisville Suburbs >>>

The Early Development of the Louisville Suburbs

In 1773, Captain Thomas Bullitt arrived in the Louisville area to survey the lands. When Louisvile was settled in 1778, it was not the only settlement in the area. Five years prior to that (1774) a settlement had been established at Harrods Creek. And after that, settlers began arriving via the Wilderness Road route. By 1778, the first homes had been built in what are now Anchorage and Jeffersontown, and in 1779, settlement began in the St. Matthews area. All of these communities flourished, and by 1797 Middletown and Jeffersontown had both been incorporated, 31 years before the incorporation of Louisville. In addition, these communities grew at a much faster pace than Louisville did. The reason for this seems to be in the topology of the land, and the background of the early settlers entering the region. These settlers were mostly farmers seeking to establish homesteads for growing crops and raising farm animals. The area east of Louisville contained an abundance of creeks and fertile soil. It was land suitable for growing fruit, vegetables and grain, and for operating dairies and raising livestock. The land in the immediate Louisville area was not as inviting in these respects. There were no creeks worth mentioning to the west of the city, and while Beargrass Creek was a dominant waterway just to the east, in the immediate Louisville area, where it emptied into the Ohio River, it was mostly a swampy-type region undesirable for settlement. (See Fig. 3.) Furthermore, in colonial days the mainstay of cities were craftsmen who specialized in specific trades. These craftsmen depended on a large population of people in need of their services, and early Louisville was not in that category.

<<< The Early Development of Kentucky

The Origin of Louisville >>>

The Origin of Louisville

Long before the days of Christopher Columbus, American Indians used lands just to the west of the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains as their hunting ground. West Virginia and large areas of Kentucky were abundant with wildlife -- buffalo, bear, elk, deer, wild turkey, and numerous small game Few Indians actually settled in these regions, instead they lived outside these areas (in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, for example), and only entered them on hunting expeditions to replenish their food supply. The Indians helped maintain this food source by practicing wildlife conservation methods, such as limiting their kill to that necessary for their immediate needs, burning away forest areas to encourage the growth of grasslands that buffalo thrive on, and by not inhabiting the area. When American settlers began to migrate across the Appalachians into the Kentucky and West Virginia areas, the Indians repeatedly attacked them in an effort to discourage settlement in these hunting grounds that were vital to their existence. The British-appointed governors did little to thwart these raids because Britain wanted to keep Americans on the seacoast from manufacturing goods for settlers who had pushed beyond the mountains. (Britain's aim was to have all manufactured goods come from England.)

When the Revolutionary War broke out, the British encouraged Indian raids by supplying them with guns and ammunition, thus in effect using them as allies in their war against the colonists. The primary source of these supplies were forts held by the British in Illinois. These forts had been built by the French who initially explored and controlled the Mississippi River area. But in the French and Indian Wars of 1689-1763, the British defeated the French and claimed all their land east of the Mississippi River. (This did not include New Orleans which at that time was a part of Florida which was under Spanish rule.) In addition to encouraging Indian attacks against the settlers in Kentucky and West Virginia, the British also encouraged attacks against river traffic on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. This was significant because these rivers were the major trade route for the colonists to ship their products to numerous Mississippi and Gulf coast plantations, and to the world market. This route became even more important when the British began enforcing trade restrictions on the colonists and, after the start of the Revolutionary War, closing American ports on the Atlantic.

In 1778, George Rogers Clark obtained permission to lead a campaign against the British-held forts in Illinois that were supplying the Indians with arms and ammunition. Clark proposed to establish a base for this campaign at the Falls of the Ohio. Clark, who happened to be in the region when the Revolutionary War began, considered the Falls to be a point of strategic importance in controlling traffic on the Ohio River. These falls were unusually large. They consisted of a series of rapids that lowered the water level 26 feet over a distance of one mile, and required a roughly two mile land route to circumvent. Boaters had to dock and transport their cargo and flatboats around the falls by land, and in so doing became easy targets for enemy raids. So later in 1778, Clark left Pittsburgh with about 200 soldiers and a band of settlers seeking homes in the West. On an island opposite Beargrass Creek, he left the settlers after having built for them a stockade and cabins. Such was the origin of Louisville. Clark also erected a storehouse for his excess supplies and left 10 soldiers as a guard. The island site was probably chosen because of its vantage point in controlling river traffic, while at the same time providing maximum protection against enemy attack. The settlers soon moved to the Kentucky shore, however, and established a fort (Fort Nelson) at the foot of what is now 7th Street. Eventually flooding washed the island away. After a successful campaign in Illinois, Clark withdrew to Fort Nelson and made that his base. Because of Clark's efforts, Indian raids throughout the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River were significantly reduced, allowing much faster settlement in these areas.

<<< The Early Development of the Louisville Suburbs

The Development of Louisville >>>

The Development of Louisville

After the Revolutionary War ended, there was no military need for the Louisville settlement. Soldiers were free to return to their homes, and many of the original settlers, being mostly farmers, had probably already moved to more fertile land in the outlying areas. Those who remained were primarily occupied in transporting cargo over the roughly two mile land route around the falls. This involved providing wagons, and building an inventory of flatboats so that travelers had the option of leaving their incoming boat at one end of the falls and picking up a different one at the other end. The boatsmen that arrived on these flatboats were a class apart, and as rough and crude as any group in American life. Floating day after day on the river, they fought, danced, and gambled with what little money they possessed, and they knew the dives of every river port. Such were the men who were continually passing through Louisville, and in a sense, defining the nature of the settlement.

As river traffic increased, the settlement was able to support other businesses: a general store that sold food and supplies to boaters, a tavern where travelers could exchange news and enjoy some social life, and an inn providing food and overnight lodging. It was the equivalent of the later-day truck stop. Gradually, however, rudimentary industrial operations began to develop, including boat building, a distillery that produced whiskey (established in 1783), and the production of salt (used as a food preservative). The region became the most important center for the production of salt for the whole western country. (The salt-making in the Shepherdsville and Fairdale areas eventually employed hundreds of workers in round-the-clock operations.) By 1780, the population of Louisville had grown to about 800. Then in 1800 the first ocean going ship reached Louisville, and in 1811 the first steamboat (which greatly increased up-river travel). By this time, Louisville had become an important frontier and river flatboat trading place.

As settlers began developing their homesteads throughout the Bluegrass Region, Louisville acquired a new purpose. Farmers began producing more than they could consume, or trade within their immediate communities. Tobacco production, in particular, increased rapidly after the War of 1812. Farmers therefore sought distant markets and a means of transporting their products to those markets. In many cases this meant using river transportation, of which the Ohio River was unique because it gave access to ports all the way from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, and beyond that to foreign markets. But most farmers did not want to get involved with the equipment, skill, and time required to provide water transportation, even over short distances. A better option was to transport their products by land to a river port that could arrange shipment to other markets. Louisville became the logical river port for this to take place, because even for farmers in the central part of the Bluegrass Region, it was the closest Ohio River port available. Furthermore, by 1817 many steamboats were traveling the Ohio River, so that by 1820 Louisville had become a major river port. Businesses began to emerge for processing hogs and cattle into pork and beef and other products before being shipped. Farmers soon found it more economical to drive their cattle directly to Louisville for slaughtering and processing, rather than perform these tasks themselves. In 1830 a Butchertown development began near Beargrass Creek where herds of pork and beef arriving from the east along the Frankfort Pike (now Frankfort Ave.) could be processed. The butchers that did this work were soon joined by tanners, coopers who made barrels used in shipping meat, and other tradesmen such as soap makers and candle makers. By 1830, Kentucky was a major supplier of hogs, mules, workhorses, prepared meats, tobacco, salt, flour, and corn for the plantation markets of the South. The Louisville & Portland Canal was completed in 1830, and boats no longer had to unload to pass through the falls. River traffic began to increase dramatically, and so did the amount of produce reaching Louisville from the farm areas.

<<< The Origin of Louisville