Rich in History

Owsley County was formed in 1843 from portions of Clay, Breathitt, and Estill Counties and was named for Governor William Owsley. Owsley County was Kentucky's 96th county. Parts of Owsley County were used to form Jackson County in 1858 and Lee County in 1870.

The first settlers in Owsley County were John Renty Baker and John Abner. They first settled in 1780 near the present Clay County line at Courtland. The exact year of their settlement is unknown, however, a gravestone found in a cemetery on Upper Buffalo Creek reads, "Milly, wife of John Abner, died March 1846."

John Renty Baker, along with his sons who were all gunsmiths, invented and developed hand-operated machines to cut the rifle barrels. John Renty's father, Robert Baker, developed the rifle that became known as the "Kentucky Rifle". John Renty Baker was known as one of the "Longhunters", spending more than a year at a time in the forests of Tennessee and Kentucky trapping and hunting. In 1766, John Baker hunted with Daniel Boone's brother-in-law, John Stewart. He lived on the Green River among the Cherokees in what is now Kentucky and made trips down the Cumberland River to Spanish Natchez, Mississippi to trade. After the death of his wife, John Renty Baker became a recluse and lived in a rockshelter near the mouth of Buffalo Creek and died there in 1820. He fathered at least 21 children.

The Bakers are the source of many colorful stories. They were involved in one of the longest and bloodiest family feuds in U.S. history, which began in 1843 when Dr. Thomas Baker (a grandson of Julius Bob) shot John Bales. Dr. Baker and John Bales were both married to daughters of John White and the two young couples became more intimate than is usual in this mountain country. Dr. Baker became insanely jealous of his wife and Bales. Finally, in a fit of rage, he deserted her and began suit for divorce but suddenly withdrew it. He went to the salt works, where Bates worked in Manchester, called him to the door and shot him with an old-fashioned "pepper box" pistol. Bates died, but while he was dying he cursed Baker and authorized $10,000 from his estate to be used toward his capture and conviction. The community was divided between those who did not feel a crazy man should be hung, and those who thought he should. The Whites prosecuted the doctor, but he was deemed insane and acquitted and moved to Cuba.

Baker eventually returned, and in violation of the U.S. Constitution he was tried a second time for the murder of Bates, convicted and hanged. Thenceforth there was "bad blood" between the Bakers and the Whites, involving the Garrards on one side and the Howards on the other, as allies to the respective clans.

In 1883 James Anderson Burns and his mother moved to the old “Burns Homestead” near Oneida, just south of Owsley County. Called “Burns of the Mountains,” James Anderson Burns was born August 2, 1865 in West Virginia. His father, Hugh Burns, a farmer and Primitive Baptist minister, had moved there from Oneida. The nearest school was 8 miles away so the Burns children studied in the evenings after chores. They learned to read from the Bible and an almanac. At night they gathered around the fireside while Hugh read Bible stories and prayed. At age 14, James learned that a new school was being built 3 miles away. He wanted to go, but had no money for books. He spent his summer digging ginseng roots and earned enough money to buy books and his first pair of store-bought shoes.

By age 16 James had completed the school’s curriculum, but what he wanted most was to learn about Kentucky. When he asked why they had left, his father told him about the feuds. James felt that his father had left their relatives to fight the battle alone and said, “I’m going to Kentucky.” His father made him promise to wait a year. A week later Hugh died from a heart attack.

Soon after Burns arrived in Oneida, his only living uncle took him to the family graveyard. Pointing to the graves, his uncle told him stories of the untimely deaths their relatives had suffered. Burns left with a burning determination to avenge their deaths. For the next four years, Burns earned a legendary reputation in logging and feuding. Then an event occurred that would change the direction of his life. He and several of his relatives attacked a cabin on Newfound Creek. Burns was hit over the head and left for dead. In The Crucible he wrote, “When I regained consciousness...I went to the top of a mountain and spent two days in lonely vigils. On the third day I slept. When I woke up...the urge of vengeance was gone and peace reigned within. I was determined that the feuds should be stopped.”

Burns returned to West Virginia and began to preach, following in his father’s footsteps. He went to Dennison University in Granville, Ohio, then returned to Kentucky in 1892. From 1893-1897 he taught in Clay County public schools. During the school year 1897-1898 Burns taught at Berea College, where he met Rev. H.L. McMurray. They became close friends and Burns told McMurray about the vision he had for the children of the Clay County Mountains. McMurray agreed to return with him.

At around that same time, Tom Baker, reputed to be the best shot in the Kentucky mountains, bought a note given by A. B. Howard, for whom he was cutting timber. Howard became furious, a fight ensued, one of the Howard boys and Burt Stores were killed from ambush, and the elder Howard was wounded. Thereupon Jim Howard, son of the clan chief, sought out Tom Baker's father, who was county attorney, compelled the unarmed old man to fall upon his knees, shot him twenty-five times with careful aim to avoid a vital spot, and so killed him by inches. Howard was tried and convicted of murder, but it is said that a pardon was offered him if he would go to the State Capitol at Frankfort and assassinate Governor Goebel, which he is charged with having done.

In Clay County, where this feud waged, the judge, clerk, sheriff, and jailer were of the White clan. Tom Baker killed a brother of the sheriff and took to the hills rather than give himself up to a court ruled by his foemen. Then Albert Garrard was fired upon from ambush while riding with his wife to a religious meeting. He removed to Pineville, in another county, under guard of two armed men, both of whom were shot dead "from the bresh."

Governor Bradley sent State troops into Clay County, and Tom Baker surrendered to them. Baker was tried in the Knox Circuit Court, on a change of venue, and was sentenced to the penitentiary for life. On appeal his attorneys secured a reversal of the verdict, and Baker was released on bail. The new trial was set for June, 1899. Governor Bradley again sent a company of State militia, with a Gatling gun, to Manchester where the trial was to be held. Baker was put in a guard-tent surrounded by a squad of soldiers. A hundred yards or so from this tent stood the unoccupied residence of the sheriff, at the foot of a wooded mountain. An assassin hidden in this house spied upon the guard-tent, and, when Baker appeared, shot him dead with a rifle, then took to the woods and escaped.

Shortly after Baker's death, four Griffins, of the White-Howard faction, ambushed Big John Philpotts and his cousin, wounding the former severely and the latter mortally. Big John fought them from behind a log and killed all four.

In his attempt to end the feuds, Burns organized a meeting of the clans in the old mill near Oneida. Around 50 men from both sides of the feud gathered to hear Burns speak about his dream of building a school. He said, “We’ve been teaching our children to hate each other for more than a hundred years. Let’s teach them to love each other and then we will have peace. Let’s join together to build a school.” After several minutes of silence two men, Lee Combs and Frank Burns, from opposite sides of the feud, came to the middle of the room and shook hands. At that moment, a school was born.

Burns and McMurray went up Sandlin Hill, climbed an oak tree, looked down on Oneida and picked a site for the school. The knoll they selected was owned by Martha Coldiron Hogg, who donated the property. Soon after Burns laid the cornerstone, men came from both sides of the feud to help build their school. “Big Henry” Hensley gave fifty dollars and Robert Carnahan gave twenty-five. Others brought lumber. The men often worked until midnight and slept on shavings. Burns had announced that the school would open on January 1, 1900. By Christmas they still needed 400 board feet of lumber. Then Frank Burns crossed the frozen river in his wagon loaded with logs he had removed from the loft of his cabin.

While the school was being built, four of the Philpotts were attacked by four Morrises, of the Howard side. Three men were killed, three mortally wounded, and the other two were severely injured. No arrests were made.

The school opened as planned January 1, 1900, called the Mamre Baptist College. Burns was named the first president. On the opening day of school there were 100 students--boys, girls, men, and women. The school was now in session with three teachers: Burns, McMurray, and C.A. Dugger. Classes ranged from grades one through eight. Tuition was $1 a month. Only a few were able to pay cash. Others brought farm animals, produce or coal dug on the family farm.

Finally, in 1901, the feuds came to an end. The two clans fought a pitched battle in front of the court-house in Manchester. At its conclusion, they formally signed a truce. The feud had lasted for 59 years and cost more than 100 lives.

City of Booneville

The first settler in the City of Booneville was James Moore, Sr. The site of his home is located just outside of Booneville in front of Booneville Homes apartments. James Moore, Jr., son of James Moore, Sr., built a two room cabin on the opposite side of the river from his parents. This home still stands, although it has been remodeled through the years, and is owned by Mayor Charles Long and his wife.

The Moore's land included all of Booneville, east across the South Fork River and toward Lerose. The community was known as Moore's Station and was later named Booneville after Daniel Boone. James Moore, Jr. was the first postmaster. Elias Moore donated land for a seat for the new county in 1843 and the town was incorporated Booneville in 1846.

The Owsley Court House Post Office opened in 1844 and was renamed Booneville in 1846. In 1858, Owsley County lost some of its territory to Jackson County and in 1860 to Wolfe County. In 1870, when Lee County was formed, again Owsley County lost some of its territory.

The Moores, Bowmans, Bakers, Gabbards, and Reynolds were the first permanent settlers. Most land patents came from Virginia. The three types included military service, grants from settlement or preemption, or warrants from the treasury. There are still families here who have their original land grants. In January 1929, and again on January 5, 1967, there were courthouse fires. All records were lost in the 1929 fire.

The Civil War in Owsley County, KY

Even though Owsley County was formed only 19 years before the Civil War, it led all counties in the U.S. in the percentage of white population who enrolled in the Union Army. During the war between the states, 13.64 per cent of the voters in the 1860 election volunteered for service. Only the state of Kansas furnished a larger percentage of volunteers according to population.

In the measurements of men who served both the Union and Confederate Armies, it was shown that soldiers from Kentucky and Tennessee were the largest and tallest men in the U.S. and in the world. In size they came up to the standard of the picked regiments of the armies of Europe and they could shoot straight.

Except for a handful who sided with the rebels, all who enlisted from Owsley County sympathized with the Union cause as did most of the citizens. A. B. Gilbert, state representative from Owsley County, cast the deciding vote in the general assembly as to whether or not Kentucky would remain with the Union. A known Democrat, his friends had expected him to go with the South, but his vote in favor of freedom was a blow to their cause.

The Cawood family had a family member murdered by Union sympathizers in revenge for a man who had been killed by the Confederates. Men were conscripted (forced to join). On one occasion when rebel soldiers were spotted by John Gilbert and his brother, Jim, they ran into the woods. Jim eventually gave up and fell into a fence corner. When the men in gray saw he was a cripple they told him they had no use for the likes of him. John succeded in eluding the group by shooting at them, killing a soldier by the name of Robin Raney. The next day Gilbert paid a man $10.00 to bury the man he had killed.

Two families were divided. Elihu Reynolds, a son of Richard Reynolds, Jr., and Lt. Hiram Hogg of Co. A., 13th Ky. Mounted Infantry joined the Confederacy and fought against their kin. Reynolds fought in every battle of his regiment. On one occasion, he alerted his companions in time to keep them from being captured. It was also recorded that Reynolds fought at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain and in the Battle of Jonesborough where he carried a wounded comrade to safety although he was wounded himself.

Others from Owsley County listed in the Orphan Brigade were Sgt Cornelius Frost, Co. K, 10th Mtd lnf.; William Pennington, Co. B, 5th lnf., who volun­teered March 20, 1863; Joseph 0. Williams and Wil­liam Zion, with the latter being killed in a skirmish at Dallas. Another soldier who had enlisted from the county was killed and two settled in the South. Reynolds and Lt. Hogg were the only two known to return to their homes.

One of the largest contingents ever to come through Booneville was the 1,000 men under the command of Confederate Col. Shelby Gibson. Of these, 500 camped near Booneville on the former Arch Wilson farm, with the remainder proceeding to the river bottom eight miles upriver at Wolfe Creek near the mouth of Deaton Branch. That night, one of the local folks counted 144 fires made to prepare food for the hungry men. Every dry scrap of wood they could find, including fence rails, was burned to keep the numerous fires going. Although they camped only one night, the home of a Union sympathizer was set afire by the troops at Wolfe 
Creek. The incident almost caused a battle between the two encampments simply because the lady of the house happened to be a sister of the Colonel’s. Gibson said there would have been a battle there and then, had he been present. He was so upset that he threatened to have the men under his direct command fire on the 500 at the upriver camp.

This may have been the same contingent of Confederate soldiers who reportedly spiked a cannon and rolled it into the river near the Sag during a hasty retreat. Union men were gaining on them and the wagon hauling the cannon broke down. The team hitched to it had also tired and was unable to pull the piece of heavy equipment any further. Because the men were afraid the gun might be turned on them if it were captured, they spiked it and rolled it into the river.

Union men also passed through the county. The Union Army's retreat, as inscribed on a historical marker outside the county courthouse, describes an event when General George W. Morgan's (USA) passed through the county seat, Booneville, on the way to the Ohio River in Greenup County. The Union unit was retreating from Cumberland Gap due to a disruption in supplies. The Union element made it to their intended destination in 16 days despite harassment from CSA Morgan's Raiders.

Booneville was the site of several small-scale Confederate raids/invasions. Bands of lawless men (many times claiming to be Union or Confederate—whichever served their goals) rode into the county, and in reprisal, Owsley men led similar raids into Breathitt and Wolfe Counties.

Notable People Associated with Owsley County, KY

  • Earle Combs
Earle Bryan Combs, born May 13, 1899 at Pebworth in Owsley County, played baseball for the New York Yankees from 1924 to 1935 and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1970.

He was an ideal leadoff hitter for the legendary teams of the 1920s and 1930s. During this time, he played with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He averaged nearly 200 hits and 70 walks a season helping him compile a .325 career batting mark.

He is featured in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A plaque to honor his birthplace stands on Highway 11 in Pebworth.

Combs left Owsley County to pursue an education in 1917 at the age of 18. After he left the county, he never returned for any considerable amount of time. Eventually in 1954, he settled in Richmond, KY after his extensive professional baseball career.
  • Daniel Boone
Daniel Boone made his way to Owsley County on a two-year hunt from 1769-1771. In 1784 he returned and surveyed some 50,000 acres for James Moore and Col. John Donelson. Boone used a huge rock at the mouth of Sexton's Creek, on which he carved his initials, as his starting
point in these surveys. (This rock, known as "Boone Rock" or "Goose Rock", is still there, located approximately nine miles south of Booneville on Highway 11 South. However, due to changes in the course of the stream throughout time, the initials are under water and cannot be seen, even during dry seasons.) Boone was impressed with this area and called it "a place where peace crowns the sylvan shade."

He owned his own land, of which a portion remained in the family until 1819 when Daniel Boone, Jr. transferred the last 1,000 acre tract on Meadow Creek to William Strong.

Daniel Boone's favorite camping spot, known as the "old encampment", is located half a mile south of Booneville between the highway and the river just below the area known as the "Sag". In later life, Daniel Boone learned that many claims he had to land were invalid because someone else had made official claims before he did.

Daniel Boone's granddaughter, Leah Schull Newman, and other Boone descendants, are buried in the Newman Cemetery located in the Pebworth area on Highway 11 North.

  • Dolly Bowling
Dolly Bowling made her first quilt at age nine. The "Dollie Star" is an original pattern she created and patented. Another exceptional quilt which Dollie collaborated on, "The Cherry Tree," is now part of the National Archives in Washington D. C. The quilt was selected as part of a featured exhibition which toured the U.S. in 1997.
  • James Klotter, Ph.D.
James Klotter currently serves as the Kentucky State Historian and professor of History at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky. He was an associate editor of the Kentucky Encyclopedia and served as the executive director of the Kentucky Historical Society for many years until his retirement. Dr. Klotter received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Kentucky. He has honorary degrees from Eastern Kentucky University and Union College. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of a dozen books including: A New History of Kentucky; Kentucky: Decades of Discord, 1865–1900; Kentucky: Portrait in Paradox, 1900–1950; William Goebel: The Politics of Wrath; The Breckinridges of Kentucky; Our Kentucky: A Study of the Bluegrass State; and History Mysteries.