The Early History of the Fort Knox Area
Updated On: 4/3/2013 2:49:51 PM
First Settlers Arrive When America Is Declaring Independence
The initial Euro-American entry into the Fort Knox area is uncertain, but by the last quarter of the 18th century, numerous hunters, surveyors, explorers and fortune seekers had traversed that part of Kentucky. By that time, such well-known pioneers as Thomas Bullitt, Michael Stoner, and Daniel and Squire Boone had been active in the area.
The earliest known attempt to settle this area took place in July 1776, when Share, Sweeney and company led by Samuel Pearman traveled by flatboat to the mouth of the Salt River. Pearman and his companions laid claim to several thousand acres along the Ohio and Salt Rivers. They built a small log cabin at the junction of the Salt and Rolling Fork Rivers, but numerous Indian attacks forced them to retreat to Virginia. Settlement attempts were not abandoned, however, and the next few years saw continued efforts to establish permanent settlements.
Louisville was surveyed as early as 1773, but no settlement took place there until 1778 when an encampment was built on Corn Island in the Ohio River. By the following year, the salt licks located to the south of Louisville were being exploited. The earliest and most important of these was Bullitt Lick (also known as Saltsburg), which was located near the northeastern boundary of Fort Knox.
In that same year, Brashear’s Station (also known as Froman’s Station and Salt River Garrison) was established just below the mouth of Floyd’s Fork. Continued Indian raids forced the closing of the salt works. By 1780, it was once again in operation, this time defended by a Mud Garrison, constructed of a double row of piles filled with dirt and gravel, and located on the north bank of the Salt River about 1/2 mile above the mouth of Bullitt’s Lick Run. This renewed attempt at settlement was joined by the establishment of Dowdall’s Station located on the north bank of Salt River at a pool just above the river’s falls (near present-day Shepherdsville).
Meanwhile, efforts were being made further west to establish permanent settlements.
John Severns, a surveyor, had entered the country and established a homestead in an area later known as Severn’s Valley. A large party of settlers including Jacob Van Meter, Samuel Haycraft and Capt. John Vertrees joined him later in that year. Although many of the settlers returned home to Pennsylvania following an extremely severe winter, Samuel Haycraft and Col. Andrew Haynes stayed to build stations in the valley. Capt. Thomas Helm, who also built a station, later joined them. These three stations or forts formed a triangle, the interior of which later became Elizabethtown.
A portion of the major road known as the Cumberland-Ohio Falls Trail developed between the Severn’s Valley settlement (present-day Elizabethtown) and Louisville via Bullitt’s Lick. An optional course north of Severn’s Valley led to the mouth of the Salt River, following roughly the route of the present-day Dixie Highway. These roads, along with the Salt and Rolling Fork Rivers, provided major avenues of transportation and helped open the area for further settlement. They also provided paths through the Muldraugh Escarpment, a previous deterrent to travel.
Squire Boone claimed title to the land around Doe Run in 1786. The community that sprang up in this area was known as Little York, Va., as Kentucky was still a county of Virginia. Little York became the county seat of Meade County for a short period.
Other settlements were established in Hill Grove, Stith’s Valley and along Doe Run and Otter Creek around 1784. These settlements were small, fortified family establishments. By 1789, and into the 1790s, Revolutionary War veterans with military land grants settled the West Point area. Among these early settlers were Thomas and Samuel Pearman, Henry Ditto, George Ball, Isaac Vertrees, Joseph Enlan, William Withers, John Hay, Thomas Barbour and John Campbell. Fort Knox now encompasses large portions of these original grants.
Lincoln Family Farm Established In Radcliff/Fort Knox Area
The Mill Creek and Cedar Creek Valleys were also settled around this time. A Baptist church was erected in the Mill Creek area in 1783. It was here that President Abraham Lincoln’s family carved out a home. In 1803, Thomas Lincoln (the president’s father) purchased a 238-acre farm near the southern boundary of present-day Radcliff/Fort Knox on Battle Training Road. Thomas brought his mother, Bersheba (or Bathsheba), his sister and her husband to live there. Thomas moved away to present-day LaRue County, along Knob Creek, from 1807 to 1816 before departing to Indiana. Bersheba remained in the Mill Creek community until her death in 1833 and is buried in the old Mill Creek Cemetery (now the Lincoln Memorial Cemetery). She was the first of the family buried in that consecrated ground. Nancy Brumfield, aunt of the president, her husband, William Brumfield, and their daughter, Mary Crume, complete the three generations of Lincoln’s buried side by side.
Early Settlements Take Formin 1790s
By the 1790s settlements began to take on more formal characteristics. In 1792, Kentucky became a state and Hardin County was formed from Nelson County.
The Salt River had become an extremely important means of transportation for flatboat trade; three inspection stations were established to check cargoes of tobacco, timber, flour, hemp and farm produce. These stations were located at Taylorsville, Shepherdsville and 1/2 mile below the mouth of Long Lick Creek, the latter very near or just within the present boundaries of Fort Knox. River commerce clearly played an important role in developing the early settlement pattern of the Fort Knox area, particularly in Bullitt and Hardin Counties.
Most settlements before 1800 were located on major rivers or streams. Elizabethtown was officially incorporated and named in 1796. Garnettsville was established in 1792 on Otter Creek. Shepherdsville was officially incorporated in 1793. Sometime before 1794, a settlement known as Bealsburg apparently was established on Pitts Point at the junction of the Salt and Rolling Fork Rivers. West Point was formally laid out in 1796.
Agriculture, Timber, Salt Mainstays of Area Economy
During early settlement, the major economic pursuits were agricultural production, timber cutting and salt making. The latter had a particularly interesting and colorful history, as well as being extremely important to the rest of Kentucky. Salt (used mainly as a preservative for game, which was the principal source of food) was a necessary and valuable commodity during the early historical period.
The Revolutionary War with Great Britain cut off normal sources of salt and the mountains, and acted as a barrier to practical, cost-effective transport of salt into the frontier. When Bullitt’s Lick was established in 1779, it was the first commercial salt works in Kentucky and the only one west of the Alleghenies during the remainder of the Revolution. After the war, Bullitt’s Lick and other salt works in the area were the main suppliers of salt for many years.
Nowhere else was there such a concentration of wells and furnaces. The industry also provided an impetus for support services such as timber cutting, cooperage, carpentry and other necessary trades. Eventually, however, salt making became unprofitable, as steamboats brought cheap imported salt; by 1830 all the salt works had closed.
In the early part of the 19th century, Shepherdsville, Louisville, West Point, Graniteville and Elizabethtown figured prominently in the settlement pattern with nuclear family farmstead being scattered around these points. As the Indian threats abated, it became safe for a wider dispersal of individual farmsteads; but the necessity remained for the maintenance of a tie to some larger town for specialized goods and services.
Not all settled areas identified strongly with a particular town. Some, such as Hill Creek, Cedar Creek, Smith’s Valley, Doe Run and Otter Creek settlements, were concentrated within a particular valley. This was particularly true in the area that in 1823 became Meade County. It had very few incorporated towns in 1800 but numerous nuclear settlements.
As the century wore on, however, more towns were established in response to population increase and a greater need arose for goods and services not produced on farms. Additionally, people occupying a particular area often referred to it informally by a specific name. These unofficial settlements usually centered on a store, church or a school.
In many cases, these “settlements” provided the day-to-day needs, and the larger towns provided more specialized professional services and merchandise. Examples of such settlements in the Fort Knox area included Pleasant View, Bloomington, Pine Tavern, Bartles, Shady Grove and Steel’s Crossroads.
The average landowner in the Fort Knox area during the 19th century was a small-scale agriculturalist. Not as common but also present were larger-scale planters who occupied large floodplain areas mainly along the Salt, Rolling Fork and Ohio rivers. These operations were similar to the plantations of the Deep South and probably accounted for most of the slave population in the area.
Kentucky, as a whole, did not account for a large proportion of slaves in the southern states. The percentage of slaves in Kentucky was only 24.73 percent in 1830 and declined to 19.5 percent by 1860. The average Kentuckian in 1860 did not own any slaves, and the average slaveholder owned less than 10.
Staple crops were corn and tobacco, but hay and wheat were also grown. Bullitt County also produced some barley.
The differences between the small farmer and the planter were not limited to size of their farms. An important and early business was milling. Most of the successfully operated mills were located on Otter Creek, Doe Run and Hill Creek.
The Coleman or Doe Run Mill (now the site of Doe Run Inn) was built around 1800. Garnettsville also had a number of mills, including Overton’s and Grable’s Mills. The Van Meter Mill was farther upstream. Overton apparently built the first flourmill on Otter Creek sometime before 1813, and a town known as Plain Dealing grew up around it. The Overton Mill in Garnettsville was a saw and gristmill. The record is not clear whether these mills were one and the same.
Grable’s Mill was in existence as early as 1805. There was also a Crabb’s Mill near Garnettsville as early as 1804. Samuel Sterrett in Garnettsville later built another mill. The foundations of two of the Garnettsville mills are still visible and are presently within the Fort Knox reservation. David Brandenburg, the son of Solomon Brandenburg, for whom the Meade county seat is named, also built a mill in 1813 at what later became Grahamton. A Mr. Tull and a Mr. Bunger owned Mills or Mill Creek.
Most of these early mills were gristmills, but probably the most famous and successful of all was the textile mill at Grahamton. The Grahamton Manufacturing Company, which built the mill in 1836 or 1837, was a Louisville-based firm which was established in 1829. The mill was one of the earliest textile mills in Kentucky, and the first one to be established west of the mountains.
The first dam and millrace were built of wood but replaced by stone in the early 1850s. At first, only a textile mill was built; but in 1865 a larger stone flourmill was erected. It operated for a few years, until the business declined and it was converted to a warehouse. The mill produced a variety of goods, including cotton and wool yarns, linens, cottonades, jeans and a special cloth known as Otter Creek Stripe. During the Mexican War, the mill supplied canvas for Army tents. Cotton grain sacks were made from the 1860s up to the time the mill was taken over by the McCord Company and converted exclusively to a spinning mill.
A town sprang up around the mill, and the townsfolk were longtime employees of the company. Also associated with Grahamton was Rock Haven, which acted as a wharf and shipping point on the Ohio River for the textile goods. Only ruins remain of the original mills. Camp Carlson, an Army Recreational Area, is now located in the vicinity of this extinct community.
Construction of the Louisville and Nashville Turnpike began in 1837 and by 1849 the macadamized road reached the Kentucky state line 108 miles to the south. The turnpike was meant as a thoroughfare for farmers and businessmen from Louisville to the Kentucky/Tennessee state line. The turnpike became a popular stagecoach route and allowed travelers from Louisville to reach Nashville in three days.
Historic Bridge Tours Available
On Fort Knox
Famous travelers of the road include writer Bayard Taylor and Swedish singer Jenny Lind. Use of the road for products and goods traveling between Louisville and Nashville diminished after 1859 when the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (located east of Fort Knox) was constructed. Today an asphalt surface covers the underlying limestone macadamized road and the U.S. Army Garrison Fort Knox welcomes visitors to the “Bridges to the Past” walking tour along a preserved portion of the historic turnpike.
The trail is located approximately one mile south of West Point, Ky., on U.S. Route 31W or eight miles north of Fort Knox Main Gate on U.S. Route 31W. Notable features on the walk include three limestone arch bridges that are over 150 years old. These limestone bridges are among the oldest standing in Kentucky.
Small, rural settlements in the Fort Knox area were numerous. In addition to these small centers, a number of populated towns developed and flourished during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
One of the earliest was established in 1831 and named Pittstown after the Pitts brothers, its founders. The name later changed to Pitts Point. The town was located at the junction of the Salt and Rolling Fork rivers in Bullitt County. Its main function was as a docking point in the steamboat trade, as the Salt River was normally navigable only to a point just beyond the town. It acted as a major distribution center for the area.
By 1860, the town had grown to a population of 300, including physicians, carpenters, hotel proprietors, bakers, saddle and harness makers, a fish dealer, a minister, a blacksmith, mason and builders and schoolteachers. As the steamboat trade declined, particularly with the coming of the railroad in 1859, Pitts’s Point began to wane in importance, and by 1874, its population had dwindled to less than 100. The Army purchased it around 1947 and, at that time, it was virtually a ghost town. Several cemeteries are the only remnants from that community.
Another established town was called Stithton. The Stith family, for whom the town was named, moved into the area in 1859 presumably from Stith Valley, in Meade County. Prior to their entry, there was probably already a small settlement known as St. Patrick’s. A Catholic church was built there in 1831. The church was later replaced by another structure built in 1899, which is now the Post Chapel.
Stithton was located in Hardin County in what is now the southeastern portion of the Fort Knox cantonment area. It served as a major center for goods and services for all the small farming communities nearby, including Mill Creek, Easy Gap, Steel’s Crossroads and probably some of the adjacent Meade County settlements. Stithton was a stagecoach stop in its early years and later was traversed by the Louisville and Nashville Turnpike, which was built in 1829 to 1835 and connected the town of Elizabethtown and West Point. The Louisville and Nashville Railroad also ran through the town.
Between Stithton and Tip Top, there was a large gooseberry farm. The Army purchased Stithton in 1918. A “New Stithton” sprang up nearby, but it too was purchased when the Army post was expanded in 1942. Documentary sources have chronicled the destruction of nearly all the buildings associated with Stithton to make way for Army construction in the area. The Post Chapel is the only recognizable building from the Stithton of 1918.
Kentucky Settlers Join both
Northern and Confederate Forces
Most of the important settlements in the Fort Knox area were established before the Civil War. At the start of the war, the Kentucky legislature voted to remain neutral; the state supplied more than 90,000 men to the Union Army and more than 30,000 troops for the Confederate cause, although citizens in the Fort Knox area were nearly equally divided between Union and Confederate sympathies.
Throughout the war the Union forces controlled the area, occupying Fort Duffield above West Point at different times during the conflict. Fort Duffield was located on what was known as Muldraugh or Pearman Hill on a strategic point overlooking the confluence of the Salt and Ohio rivers and the L&N Turnpike, the main road into Louisville. By November 1861, the 9th Michigan Infantry had begun constructing breastworks and fortifications atop the hill, while the 37th Indiana Infantry camped below the hill. Regular use of the fort ended in 1862 and was used irregularly throughout the rest of the conflict.
In August 1862, the Confederate Army, under Gens. Braxton Bragg and Kirby Smith, led an offensive to Kentucky. Many thought they would attempt to take the city of Louisville and possibly drive into northern soil. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s Union forces, on the march from Tennessee and Alabama, hurried in the direction of Louisville for its defenses. The Union troops moved through the area along the L&N Turnpike, passing through present-day Fort Knox. Bragg’s victory at Munfordville on Sept. 17 proved costly as it allowed Buell to gain ground on the Confederates. Bragg moved his Army in the direction of Bardstown allowing Buell to arrive in Louisville ahead of the Confederates in late September. The two Armies finally battled at Perryville, Ky., on Oct. 8.
In late December 1862, John Hunt Morgan and Confederate forces besieged two nearby Union garrisons guarding two railroad trestles on Muldraugh Hill. Both trestles were destroyed, and more than 600 Federal troops were captured as a result of the raids. In this same raid, Morgan captured Elizabethtown after a brief battle. Morgan made a lightning-fast move across the area again in 1863. His route took him across the Rolling Fork River to an overnight camp at Garnettsville before moving on to Brandenburg. From there he ferried his troops across the river and led them on an extended raid across southeast Indiana into Ohio.
During the war, guerilla warfare plagued the area. Under such guerilla leaders as Ben Wigginton, numerous attacks were made on area communities with citizens or businesses loyal to the Union. Other bands sought to represent the Northern cause, but in either case, most simply were bandits who preyed on the local populace.
Area Prosperity Reaches Peak in 1850s
Fort Knox area population and economic diversity increased primarily during the first half of the 19th century. By the 1850s the area had probably reached its peak in prosperity. Subsequent years saw the beginning of a decline, which was clearly evident by the late 19th century. For instance, by 1890, Hardin County was classed as a pauper county, because it spent more than $9,000 more on services than it collected in revenues. Land also carried a low assessment and much of it was too exhausted for cultivation.
A number of factors contributed to this decline. At least part of the decline was probably due to the limitations the natural setting prescribed on economic activity. Much of the Bullitt County and some of the Hardin County portions of the post are characterized by a highly dissected topography with relatively little arable land. Virtually all of Meade County and most of the remaining Hardin County potions of the fort are of karstic topography, characterized by underground drainage, moderate to severe erosion hazard under cultivation and usually only moderate potential yield.
The best areas from an agricultural standpoint are in the broad floodplains of the Ohio, Salt and Roiling Fork rivers along with the limited floodplain areas in some of the smaller stream valleys. These areas are small compared to the entire post.
Added to the limited agricultural potential is the lack of good mineral deposits or other resources suitable for industry. Thus, large numbers went west from 1855 to 1880 in pursuit of new opportunities.
The decline was also attributable to outside influences. For instance, it has been noted that the production of salt became unprofitable when steamboat transportation made the importation of salt less expensive. Pitt’s Point thrived until the railroad was built and precluded the need for river transport. Although the Civil War did not have a significant, direct impact on the area, the effect of the war and reconstruction did have a dramatic, albeit indirect, impact on the economy of the area and Kentucky in general. Additionally, a variety of factors encouraged the growth of Louisville and Elizabethtown at the expense of smaller towns.
By the time the Army began land acquisition in the early 20th century, only Stithton and West Point were moderately prosperous. Pitt’s Point declined to a rural hamlet; Garnettsville and Grahamton never grew out of the small-town phase; and development in Bullitt County was suppressed by the growth of Louisville. Vine Grove, which was established in 1850 and moved to its present location in 1865, was growing, but it leveled off into the small town it remains today.
Prosperity Returns With
In late September and early October 1903, a noteworthy event took place at West Point and the surrounding area.
Military troops came to the area to engage in mock battles. Large-scale military exercises at Fort Riley, Kan., proved successful the previous year. The positive outcome paved the way for new military maneuvers at West Point. Army regulars from the Department of the Lakes and National Guard troops from Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin numbered 13,000 strong and pitched their tent city in West Point.
Not since the Civil War had so many Soldiers been gathered at that place. They named their temporary home Camp Young.
It was named after the Army’s first chief of staff, Samuel Baldwin Marks Young, a Union veteran of the Civil War.
Soldiers present for the war games were divided into two opposing forces. A fictional conflict was scripted that pitted the Blue Army, stationed on the Ohio River at Louisville, against the Brown Army, based along the Tennessee River in Nashville, Tenn. The scenario found the Brown Army near Louisville, where they had arrived after a successful campaign.
Now, with the Blue Army recently re-enforced and on the offensive, mock battles were carried out under the supervision of umpires.
The success of the maneuvers prompted Army officials to consider making the location a permanent installation, but it would be another 15 years before that consideration became reality.