How did Kentucky really come to be? We have to look back at what was going on in Virginia. The tip was taken in part from an explanation of the Land Entry Book of Kentucky County, Virginia housed at the Kentucky Department of Library and Archives in Frankfort, KY.
The Revolutionary War had been in progress for nearly two years in 1776. Washington’s army had been driven from New York and forced to retreat across New Jersey. In the west, the Indian nations had changed their minds; they were no longer going to stay neutral. They began to harass the frontier settlements when, in October 1776, a small war party captured for a time the daughters of Daniel Boone and Richard Calloway. By December, Indians were attacking a detachment which was bringing gun powder to the early frontier forts on what was to become Kentucky and, in the process, killed several including a man by the name of John Gabriel Jones. This was followed by the siege of McClelland’s station and the death of James McClelland and Charles White.
When January 1777 began a new year, all the inhabitants of Kentucky (then Virginia) were forced to abandon their cabins and run quickly for the forts at Boonesborough and Harrodsburg. Many of course did not make it to safety.
Let’s look back now to December 1776. This was the birthday of Kentucky County, Virginia. It had been formed from the western part of Fincastle County, VA with the borders of the county closely approximating the current boundaries of Kentucky. Many counties in Virginia changed boundaries through the years making it difficult for researchers to often trace their families there. Fincastle County faced the same problem. It existed for about four years and then, as with other counties was sub-divided. Out of Fincastle County came three new counties – Lincoln, Jefferson and Fayette. I think you will agree that those names sound familiar. Kentucky County was totally abolished in November, 1780.
The records of Kentucky County was thought by historians to be lost. But thankfully, the wrong name had been placed on the book. It had been labeled as the “Jefferson County Entry Book A” and was housed in Jefferson County, VA. The Kentucky County Entry Book was likely transferred to Jefferson County by George May, the surveyor of Kentucky County who later served as the surveyor of Jefferson County. By 1789 – Kentucky was not yet a state – the original land entry books were ordered to be recopied by the court and Alexander Breckinridge was assigned the task. He was then the surveyor of Jefferson County. His report stated that “A considerable part of these entries are recorded in very indifferent books, some of which were formed of sheets of paper stitched loosely together and covered with course lines, which have become so mutilated as to endanger the loss of some entries and others so defaced it is with difficulty they can be read.”
Breckinridge complained that no revenues had been collected in the district, “due to the expense of carrying on two expeditions against the Indians”, and he requested relief from the state treasury. The Virginia legislature provided what were called “books” at public expense, but offered no other funds. It would appear however that the old Kentucky County entry books were somehow recopied as ordered and have remained in the Jefferson County records since.
What is an entry book? It is an official document of the county maintained by the county surveyor to determine the priority of the distribution of vacant state land. Under the regal government, enterprising citizens were allowed to purchase several hundred acres of the public domain by entering, surveying and improving the tract. After they possessed the land for three years, they would receive a patent or grant for the land. The law also permitted a tract to be “preempted” by adding improvements. The settler had three years in which to enter and survey the land. When a tract of land was entered with the surveyor, it was no longer called vacant land and couldn’t be claimed by anyone else. Claiming land by preemption involved some definite risk since there was no public record of the preemption. If two people claimed the same tract of land by preemption, the one with the first legal entry normally had preference, even though it many times required legal action to secure the claim.
Now, let’s go back to the Revolutionary War for a moment. When the war first began, settlers still continued to move westward, hunting for new land. But, the new state government of Virginia made no provision for them to obtain title to their claims. In May, 1779, the state passed a land act which they assumed would resolve all land problems on the frontier. The legislation called for the appointment of commissioners who would hold court in the frontier villages to determine which settlers and preempters had the best claim to the land. They would then issue certificates and warrants. Those who were true settlers and who had lived in the area for at least one year prior to 1778, or who had raised corn on their claims, were issued a certificate of settlement which entitled them to 400 acres of land at the place of their residence, and a preemption warrant for an additional 1000 acres adjacent to their settlement. (Refer back to the long series I did on all the settlers coming before the commissioners and entering either 400 or 1000 acres with some being denied?)
The settler had to give a description of the land to the surveyor (again, referring back to that series where various waterways, salt licks, neighboring tracts, etc. were shown), then paid a fee of two pounds and have the land surveyed. The law stated that the preemption tract could be obtained by paying a fee of 200 pounds but the entry was deferred until April 26, 1780 to allow time for all the settlement claims to be entered first.
During these court sessions I covered before, the commissioners also heard the testimony of men who had gone west to establish preemption claims but who had not lived yet on the frontier. If these preempters had built a house (cabin) or any sort of a hut on their claim – or many any improvement (normally corn grown), they could also obtain title by entering the tract and paying a fee of two hundred pounds. Those who made an actual settlement after 1778, but before 1780, were awarded “settlement preemptions” of 400 acres which could be entered at the price of forty pounds. None of these preemption warrants could be legally entered with the surveyor until April 26, 1780. A little confusing? Yes.
Now there were other people involved in addition to settlers and preempters. There were people who possessed old military warrants issued for service with Virginia during the French and Indian War. Some of these military warrants had been entered in Kentucky (while it was still part of Fincastle County, VA) and this was sufficient to hold the land. Veterans or their assignees who had not claimed land on these warrants prior to 1777 were allowed to claim land in Kentucky at any vacant site they chose. These military warrants could be entered at any time after the surveyor opened up his land office.
Virginia also sold treasury warrants for land to anyone at the same price as the preemption warrants. To obtain a tract by virtue of the purchase of these treasury warrants, it was necessary for the owner to find a vacant site and enter it upon his treasury warrant. However, entries based on treasury warrants could not be legally entered before May 1st, 1780, thus giving those with preemption warrants an earlier choice.
Are you beginning to get the picture of why this was such a confusing process and why people settled on the wrong tract of land? So many dates, so many rules, so many steps.
By 25 April, 1780, 357 separate entries had been made on settlement certificates for 142,800 acres. Most of these were made prior to March 8th, afterwards only men with military warrants were making entries. On the 26th, citizens with preemption warrants were able to make their entries, a huge crowd showed up at Wilson Station. Over 100 men made entries that day for 107,267 acres. Another 50 men had entered an additional 13,492 acres on military warrants. For the next three days more and more men came (and some women!) with their preemption warrants and by the evening of the 29th of April, 459 entries had been made. There was a large crowd at the station; some still wanted to enter warrants and others were interesting in purchasing claims. The noted George Rogers Clark finally closed the office, told the men to return home and report to their militia officers. The office stayed closed through the 8th of May.
With the reopening of the office, land seekers were waiting in great numbers; it was then legal to enter land on the treasury warrants. 64 men entered 159 claims on the 9th of May for 119,526 acres. From that day the land office remained opened on most working day with numerous claims being entered.
An entry dated the 12th of May indicated that the land seekers were required to draw lots to determine what order they would be seen by the Commissioners.
During the year in which the Kentucky County land office was in existence, 5018 entries were made that included all the best land in the central part of the state, north of the Green River and west of the Appalachian plateau. No claims were permitted south of the Green River as this was the area set apart for Virginia veterans of the Revolutionary War. Very few settlers wanted land in the eastern mountains.
Several unusual entries can be found in the book. George Mason of Fairfax County, VA claimed land for importing several hundred people into Kentucky. He apparently was allowed to enter the claim but it had no basis in law so was not awarded. John May, on the 13th of May, a county surveyor, had an entry for 800 acres “upon old Treasury rights.” That appeared to be illegal since treasury warrants were not supposed to be entered until May – but perhaps for his work, he was allowed the claim. Richard Johnson, on the 29th of April is for the withdrawal of an entry made at the Blue Lick in 1774 upon a Governor’s warrant, and the re-entry made with another warrant. It is thought that perhaps he thought the Governor’s Warrant wouldn’t be legal since the governor, Lord Dunmore, had fled from Virginia in 1775.
The land entries in the entry book are very vague as to their location, yet some were very precise. Entries such as “on Gilbert’s Creek, a branch of Dicks River” stated “on the north Side of Kentucky below the mouth of Dicks River at a Path on the Topp of a hill about ¼ east of the Canoe Landing and running north 250 poles east 640 P South 250 W 640 poles.” Most of the entries were far less precise and gave an approximate location based on the nearest waterway – or named another man’s claim with no other location shown.
If you think this was confusing, difficult and time consuming … think of what the surveyors had to face!