As explorers, long hunters, and scouts increasingly reported about Kentucky lands, people decided poor men could become rich, land was inexpensive, and everyone was equal in this "paradise." Reality was very different. Many settlers failed to own farms on the fertile land and, instead, worked for others as tenants. During the Revolutionary War, as Kentucky was settled, the British armed Native Americans who considered Kentucky lands within their territory. Frequent raids and attacks made settling dangerous, resulting in generally unfriendly relationships.
Kentucky settlers came by two routes: flatboats down the Ohio River, or on foot or horseback along Wilderness Road through Cumberland Gap. Wilderness Road was less expensive but more dangerous than the Ohio River, due to greater dangers of Native American attacks and hazardous conditions. Coming down the Ohio River, some stopped at Limestone Landing (modern–day Maysville) to continue by land, while others left at the Falls of the Ohio. Traveling on Wilderness Road entailed a narrow, rough trail with one branch leading to Fort Boonesborough, and another going to Fort Harrod. The latter branch eventually extended to Louisville.
Settlement was a family affair involving relatives and close friends. This made trips safer and meant fellow travelers would help you get settled, clear the land, plant and tend crops, and provide support. The real threat of Native American attacks meant settlers inhabited forts or stations; log cabins in square or rectangular arrangements and connected with tall stockades — fences that, with the cabins, created an enclosed space. Forts, like Lexington, Boonesborough, Harrodsburg, and Louisville, were larger and held more people. Groups of relatives or settlers who migrated from the same neighborhoods built stations, such as Bryan’s, Strode’s, and Logan’s. Anyone arriving at a station in need generally received help.
Frontier life was difficult, dangerous, and primitive. Settlers first planted crops, particularly vegetables. They hunted wild game, caught and slaughtered pigs, and fished. Cows offered milk, and, in turn, butter, clabber (a food similar to cottage cheese), and cheese. Settlers built small, cramped log cabins for shelter. These provided no privacy and few comforts. Typical one–story structures had one door, no windows, and a fireplace. Fireplaces contained open fires for food preparation. Common diets included meat, cornmeal recipes, dairy products, vegetables, and fruit from trees they planted. Salt, necessary for meat preservation, was scarce. Trips to local licks to boil down salty spring water had many hazards.
Ventures outside fort or station walls proved perilous. Basic chores required protection. When Native Americans interrupted Mrs. Robert Shanklin milking a cow, she jumped a fence to safety, holding two buckets and spilling not a drop! Both Native Americans and settlers took captives. Shawnees captured Daniel Boone and his daughter, Jemima, on separate occasions. Chief Black Fish even adopted Daniel Boone before he escaped! Another well–known captive was Mary Draper Ingles, in 1775, whose harrowing escape with a Dutch woman included near–starvation, temporary insanity, and cannibalism attempts! Less is known about Native Americans held captive by settlers, who sometimes took women, children, and the elderly prisoner when they attacked Native American villages. Daniel Boone assisted in negotiations for exchanges of at least thirty captives taken in a 1786 raid on Shawnees.
Despite difficulties, time was sometimes found for entertainment. Fort Harrod’s initial settlement included just enough women for a four–handed reel. Some men stood guard while others danced. These rare opportunities offered occasion for luxury. Daniel Trabue remarked, regarding women’s clothing at a 1779 ball: "...everything looked anew."
Hard labor, infrequent washing, and heavy use made clothing a challenge. Women spun thread for cloth. Common fabrics included wool, linen, "linsey–woolsey" (linen and buffalo hair), and leather. Men wore hunting shirts, breeches, leggings, "weskits" (vests), and "capotes." Women wore smocks, skirts, aprons, corsets, and shawls.
Despite hardships, settlers still considered religion and education to be important. Though the Anglican Church was the official church of the colonies, settlers’ backgrounds included Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Catholics. Anglican minister Reverend John Lyth led the first Christian service in 1775, at Fort Boonesborough, under a tree; prayers mentioned King George. Presbyterians, including anti–slavery advocate Reverend David Rice, came in 1780. By 1781, Baptist congregations, including "The Traveling Church," began forming. The next decade brought other Christian denominations.
With scarce opportunity and resources, education slowly developed in Kentucky. Using spelling books and the Bible, Jane Coomes, John May, Joseph Doniphan, and Thomas Parvin taught informal classes when conditions allowed.
Although the Revolutionary War’s end brought peace among Kentucky settlers, clashes with Native Americans continued into the 1790s, ending, at least for awhile, with the Battle of Fallen Timbers (1794). The frontier developed into a more settled, orderly landscape where forts and stations evolved into towns.
Featured Author Nancy O’Malley, UK