by Robert E. McDowell
The time was 150 years ago. The place was the home of Joseph Brooks in Bullitt County. The occasion was a strange reunion of hard-faced old men with cold, piercing eyes.
They had been woodsmen and hunters, scouts, settlers and traders. They had been the pioneers, the first to push into the wild, dangerous land of Kentucky. More than a quarter of a century had passed since those troubled times. They had exchanged their fur caps for wool hats, their fringed buckskin for linen and broadcloth.
Now they were being recalled to show exactly where the old Wilderness Road once had run.
For even as early as 1811 that famous trace -- the most important in the history of Kentucky -- had fallen into disuse. The very route it had taken through the woods had been forgotten, and the title to thousands of acres of disputed land depended on rediscovering its location.
Summonses went out all over the state from the Bullitt Circuit Court for the few remaining settlers who had been familiar with the trace in the early days:
To Squire Boone in Indiana Territory, to Jacob Vanmeter and John Tuel and James Patton, who had come to Corn Island with George Rogers Clark in 1778.
More Than 20 Came
They were ordered to appear at the house of Joseph Brooks, which had been an important way-station on the last leg of the Wilderness Road. Altogether, more than 20 of these veteran pioneers responded to the call.
Some had prospered; some were embittered; but for the moment they seemed to have put their troubles and concerns behind them.
From the 22nd to the 26th of August, 1811, they foregathered at Brooks Spring, drinking, reminiscing. They walked the old road from the Blue Lick Gap in Bullitt County to the Fern Creek Crossing in Jefferson, pointing out its route to the County surveyor, relating the incidents that had occurred along it.
Here Walker Daniel, first attorney general of Kentucky, had been killed by savages. There Col. John Floyd, one of the most colorful characters in Kentucky's history, had been ambushed. Squire Boone showed a tree on the bank of Fern Creek, which still bore the marks where William Moore had hacked it with his big butcher knife in 1779.
Their depositions were duly taken down by the justices of the peace, and finally, on August 26, the session ended.
Never again were so many famous Kentucky pioneers ever to be assembled at one time and place. Nor was it likely that it could have been done later. Their ranks were thinning too rapidly.
The Wilderness Road officially started at Wadkins Ferry in West Virginia. It wound through the Great Valley of the Shenandoah in Virginia and entered Kentucky at Cumberland Gap. At the Hazel Patch (eight miles north of present day London, Ky.) it forked. One fork went to Boonseboro. The other, which was the main road, went on to Harrodsburg, then to Brashear's Station at the mouth of Floyds Fork on Salt River, then to the Saltworks at Bullitts Licks, three miles west of Shepherdsville, and finally, to the Falls of the Ohio, or Louisville, where it stopped.
A great deal of research has been done on the eastern end of the road. It has been studied, mapped, marked. But for some reason, the last link from Harrodsburg to Louisville has been completely ignored. After 1811, its route was forgotten again, and no one knew where it ran except in a general sort of way.
If it hadn't been for aging, brittle papers -- depositions and surveys -- filed in the Bullitt County Courthouse, its route might have been lost for good.
Was Frontier Lifeline
Yet it was the lifeline of Clark's army at the Falls, the main route of travelers and settlers going to Harrodsburg and on to Richmond in Virginia. Salt was transported over it by pack train from the works at Bullitt's Lick to Clark's forces, as well as to the interior settlements.
Originally most of this end of the road had been a great buffalo path. Buffalo, according to the woodsmen, could lay out a road as well as any man. These buffalo traces came from all directions, from the Bluegrass, from the Barrens, from Severns Valley, converging on Bullitts Lick like spokes.
The path that was later to become the Wilderness Road, after leaving Harrodsburg, meandered along the ridge between the waters of Chaplin Fork and the Town Fork of Salt River through Anderson County to the headwaters of the East Fork of Cox's Creek in Nelson County.
U.S. 62 probably follows its route closely as far as Bloomfield. State Route 48 follows it from Bloomfield through Fairfield along the East Fork of Cox's Creek to Highgrove on U.S. 31-E. From Highgrove, it continued along the East Fork of Cox's Creek through Bullitt County to Solitude, where it forded the main stream of Cox's Creek.
There were several crossings of Salt River between Cox's Creek and the Saltworks at Bullitts Lick. The traveler could ford the river just below the mouth of McCulloughs Run and follow the buffalo trail on the north side to Brashears Station on Floyds Fork near its mouth, and thence into Bullitts Lick.
State Road 44 follows this trace closely; and the ruins of an old stone spring house, which can be seen from the highway on the south side just past the Floyds Fork Bridge, marks the site of Brashears or Salt River Garrison. It was known by both names in pioneer days.
If Salt River were in flood, the traveler could keep to the buffalo path on the south side and take the ferry to Dowdalls Garrison about a mile above Shepherdsville. Or he could ford the river at Shepherdsville, which was the best crossing of all.
Once across the river, these routes all fell into the buffalo road on the north bank. Driving along State Route 44 today you are more often on the old Wilderness Road than off it.
At Bullitts Lick, the Saltworks was established in 1779. It was Kentucky's first industry and supplied salt for all the wilderness west of the Allegheny Mountains. Salt from Bullitts Lick was even shipped back up the Ohio by pirogue and keelboat as far as Pittsburgh.
Cahaz Knob, a high peak like a Mexican sombrero, loomed above Bullitt's Lick -- a landmark then as now.
From the Saltworks, this great game road led northward across the Blue Lick Gap. The Blue Lick Road in Bullitt County follows the same route; and the old John Dunn house, a beautiful example of early Kentucky architecture, which was built of brick baked on the site around 1805, can still be seen on the north side of the gap.
Blue Lick Road crosses Blue Lick Run on a dilapidated iron bridge, side by side with the original buffalo ford. A mile or two farther, it crosses Clears Run near where Clears Cabins stood -- a pioneer fortification built by George Clear before 1783.
About a mile beyond Clears Cabins, the road dips down to cross a small branch of Brooks Run. Here Col. John Floyd, of Jefferson County, was ambushed by Indians in 1783. With his brother, Charles, and several others, Floyd had ridden off from his station on Beargrass Creek for the Saltworks. He was wearing a bright scarlet cloak. It made him an excellent target, and he was mortally wounded at the first fire.
Charles, seeing him reel in the saddle, sprang up behind him and rode back the way they had come, holding his brother in his arms. They reached the Fishpools about five miles distant. There the wounded colonel was given shelter in the cabin of Col. James Francis Moore, an old companion at arms. Floyd died two days later.
"The Next Stop"
Still following the Blue Lick Road from the scene of Floyd's ambush, the next stop on the Wilderness Trail was Brooks Spring. This was a well know camping ground. Squire Boone was familiar with it as early as 1776.
In the spring of 1779, he and James Lee and William Moore spent the night there. Boone had killed a buffalo at Bullitts Lick and they were returning to the Falls with the meat. They camped about 300 yards west of the trace because of the danger of Indians.
And in 1811, Squire led all the old men who had come to give their testimony to the place where he had camped that long-ago night, and showed them where John Lee had hacked a bawdy joke on a beech tree with his tomahawk along with the date 1779. The clerk faithfully copied the inscription in Boone's deposition.
Brooks Spring is still plainly visible beside the road but the fortified cabin which Joseph Brooks build in 1783 is gone.
Brooks was a Pennsylvanian, who had emigrated to Kentucky, arriving at the Falls in 1780. He went to live first at the Spring Station, then in December, he moved to Bullitts Lick. In 1784, he moved out onto his own land at Brooks Spring on the last leg of the Wilderness Road -- a dangerously exposed location -- and his house soon became a refuge for travelers.
He was a trader and planter, who acquired immense holdings of land. He founded the Manns Lick Saltworks in 1787, and thus became one of Kentucky's first industrialists.
About half a mile north of Brooks Spring, the road crosses a second little branch of Brooks Run, where another bloody episode took place.
On the morning of August 12, 1784, Walker Daniel, first attorney general of Kentucky, left Sullivan's Old Station for the Saltworks at Bullitt's Lick, in company with George Keightley, a merchant from Ireland, and William Johnston, clerk of the Jefferson County Court.
The party stopped for a while at Col. James Francis Moore's cabin near the Fishpools. While there they met several people coming from the Saltworks, who reported they had seen no Indian sign along the way. So Walker Daniel and his companions continued.
As they reached the branch of Brooks Run, they were suddenly fired on from ambush. Walker Daniel and George Keightley were killed instantly. Johnston was wounded. However, he managed to reach Joseph Brooks's house about a half a mile farther along the trail. Nearby settlers sallied forth and recovered the bodies, which were taken to the Saltworks and buried the following day.
The unmarked grave of Kentucky's first attorney general lies somewhere within the bounds of the old lick.
After passing the site of Walker Daniel's slaying, the buffalo trace followed a remarkably straight course to the Fishpools. These were a series of perhaps a dozen rising and sinking springs just north of the Jefferson County line between the Blue Lick Road and Preston Highway.
Several of them are still running, but the deepest and most dangerous of these holes was filled up with logs from a cabin nearby after a cow had fallen in it and drowned.
About a quarter of a mile down the branch from the Fishpools, Col. James Francis Moore raised his cabin sometime before 1783, and a little pioneer community, which was known as the Fishpools, rapidly grew up.
The buffalo trace forked a short distance north of Moores Spring, and the eastern path skirted the ponds and swamps and led to the feeding grounds on Beargrass. The pioneers used this route in times of high water. It went from Colonel Moore's house to Kuykendals Old Mill near Buechel, then to Sullivans Old Station at Goldsmith Lane and Bardstown Road and finally to the Falls. The Old Shepherdsville Road follows the same route today.
The other fork, the main buffalo trace, continued straight on along what is now the Preston Street Road. Okolona straddles the famous Wilderness Road, which forded Fern Creek where Preston Highway crosses the northern ditch.
Beyond the Fern Creek crossing, the path dived into the Wetwoods, an area of deep swamp and dark forests, to emerge at the Flat Lick.
At the Flat Lick, only a short distance north of Fern Valley Road, used to be a sulphur well and a log tavern. This tavern had a notorious reputation as a hangout for outlaws, who preyed on travelers going through the Wetwoods. As late as the Civil War, local inhabitants who had to use the Preston Street Road were afraid to pass the Old Sulphur Well after dark.
From the Flat Lick, the buffalo trace continued along the route of the Preston Street Road to the Poplar Level in the neighborhood of Mulberry Hill, the home of George Rogers Clark's parents.
The residential section of Audubon Park probably was the site of the Poplar Level, itself, although this is not certain.
From there on to the Falls, urbanization makes it difficult to pick out the path of the old Wilderness Road. Moreover, as the original buffalo trail had neared the Ohio River, it had fanned out into feeding grounds. Much fainter through downtown Louisville, it seemed to have veered toward present-day Third Street and along it to the bank of the river, avoiding the ponds in its route. The road became plain again only as it neared the ford across the Ohio where the Kentucky & Indiana Terminal Railroad Bridge is located.
These buffalo roads were there when the first long hunters entered Kentucky. Woodsman after woodsman deposed that the buffalo had made no new roads within his experience. Apparently these game trails had endured for centuries, perhaps for thousands of years. Col. Lucien Beckner of the Louisville Free Public Library Museum is of the opinion that they were first beaten out by mastodons and mammoths during the last great Ice Age.
Whatever creatures originally made them, the buffalo used them by the thousands and the tens of thousands in their annual migrations.
Even in daytime, the trees and wild grapevines formed a roof overhead so that the road was in perpetual shadow. Where it led through cane, it was a narrow track like a cow path, and the mosquitoes swarmed in clouds about the traveler's face.
Gradually, the Bullitts Lick Saltworks declined in importance and a new shorter route was cut out between Louisville, Bardstown, and Harrodsburg. The old trace was abandoned entirely in places and lost its identity in others.
Today we no longer can call up the ghosts of those hard old men to point out the way the road ran. We have only a handful of sketchy plats, faded and yellowed with age, and an occasional landmark, scarcely recognizable for what it is after all these years.
About the Author
Robert Emmett McDowell Sr., author and historian, wrote several books about Kentucky's history -- particularly about the Civil War era. In 1962 he published City of Conflict, a chronicle of Louisville during the Civil War. Another book, Rediscovering Kentucky: A Guide for the Modern Day Explorer, was published in 1991.
McDowell's play, "Home is the Hunter," opened in 1963 at Harrodsburg, Ky. It told the story of the establishment of the first permanent settlement in Kentucky -- Ft. Harrod. Courier-Journal critic William Mootz praised the play for telling the story "unvarished by sentiment."
He was also the author of a novel, Tidewater Sprig, that was largely set in present day Bullitt County.
McDowell edited periodicals and books for the Filson Club in Louisville and he also wrote articles for the club's quarterly journal. He was a board member of the national Audubon Society, the Civil War Roundtable and the Society for Environmental Control. He died in 1995.
Originally published in The Courier-Journal Magazine, March 6, 1962. Reprinted here by permission from Robert E. McDowell, Jr. The content is copyright 2006 by Robert E. McDowell, Jr., Louisville KY. All rights are reserved. No part of the content of this page may be included in any format in any place without the written permission of the copyright holder.
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