Settlement and Community Structuring: 1780-1830
James and Samuel Harrod first came to the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky in search of furs as early as 1767. They explored the headwaters of the Salt River in what is now Mercer County and returned to their homes in the Pennsylvania border country enthusiastic about the possibility of claiming land in the new territory, which was part of Virginia. The Harrods recruited 31 men to accompany them to Kentucky to establish a town. The group descended the Monongahela River to Fort Pitt and then moved down the Ohio River to the mouth of the Kentucky River. They left the Kentucky River at Harrods’s Landing to proceed inland to the Big Spring where they laid out Harrodstown on June 16, 1774. Each member of the company received one in-lot of ½ acre on the main street and one 10 acre out-lot on the outer limits of the town. They constructed temporary log and brush structures to live in while they made improvements on their land.
At first there were no violent encounters between Harrod’s company and the Indians. Soon, however, surveyors passing through Harrodstown reported an increasing number of Indian attacks along the western borders of Virginia and Pennsylvania. Dunmore, the British governor of Virginia, dispatched Daniel Boone to recall the government’s surveyors until the hostilities ended. Shortly after Boone came through Harrodstown, on July 20,1774, a party of four men was ambushed near a Mercer County spring. After this event, Dunmore called up the militia. Harrod and his men left to join the campaign to defend the western border of Virginia.
The Skirmishes between the whites and the Indians were called “Dunmore’s War” because the governor and his agents were alleged to have incited both sides. The war did not last long and ended with the Battle of Point Pleasant on October 10, 1774, when the Virginia militia kept the Indians from taking a strategic fort located on the promontory between the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers. The Virginia Militia, which included the men from the Kentucky Settlements, suffered heavy casualties. But they declared victory and dictated the peace terms.
Harrod’s men returned to Harrodstown in March of 1775. Flooding had ruined the structures built the previous summer. These were abandoned and the decision was made to construct a log fort on the hill west of the Big Spring. The fort would not only be safe from flooding, but would also offer protection to the settlers. It became an important haven to the pioneers of Kentucky because, as the American Revolution intensified, the British encouraged the Indians to raid the Kentucky settlements. Harrodstown was one of the largest forts in Kentucky and had more able-bodied defenders and ammunition than Boonesborough or St. Asaph’s, also known as Logan’s Station. The settlers were confined to the fort for most of 1777 due to the frequency and ferocity of the Indian attacks. The next year, George Rogers Clark planned an extended expedition to Ohio and the Northwest Territory to break the Indian menace. Harrod and many of the Kentucky pioneers were with him when he captured Chillicothe and Vincennes. The organized Indian attacks ended with the Battle of Blue Licks in 1782.
With resolution of the Indian problems, the pioneers’ attention was turned from defense to developing the land they had claimed. By 1784, there were six grist mills in operation as the production of corn and other grains increased. Two new towns with warehouses for the storage of tobacco and hemp were established on the Kentucky River. Harrod’s Landing became Warwick. The town of New Market was established at the juncture of the Dix and Kentucky Rivers. Water was the easiest route to the southern market since the roads were only slightly improved Indian and animal trails.
By 1808, the poplar, maple, and beech trees were cleared from the present site of Pleasant hill to build log houses for the elders who came to Kentucky from the original colony. Today, a replica of the fort is located in the center of Harrodsburg. The fort stands on an area designated as Old Fort Hill, where the original fort was built. Along with the fort, there are many historic homes and buildings throughout Harrodsburg. The Old Mud Meeting House, Morgan Row, and Clay Hill are a few highlights. The walking/driving tour brochure available at the front desk will point out these and several other important sites in Mercer County.
Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill
Member of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, or the Shakers, first arrived in Kentucky early in the nineteenth century during the period of religious fervor known as the Great Revival. They attended the camp meeting at Cane Ridge in Bourbon County in 1805. There they met Elisha Thomas and Samuel and Henry Banta from Mercer County. Thomas and the Bantas were attracted to the utopian ideas of the Shakers and they invited the Shaker missionaries to Mercer County. Elisha Thomas was converted and donated his 140-acre farm along Shawnee Run Creek as a site for a Shaker community.
In December of 1806, forty-five believers signed a covenant to follow the Shaker doctrines. The Shaker tenets included simplicity and utility in all aspects of life, separation from the world, confession of sins, celibacy, and communal living. A convert to the Shakers signed over all of his or her possessions. From the log structures, the community grew to include a meeting house, dwellings, saw mill, fulling mill, gristmill, and linseed oil mill. The members of the community were divided into semi-autonomous groups called “families.” They named the families according to their geographical relationship to the Meeting House, the spiritual center of the village. Each family had its own dwelling, shops, barns, and industries. By the 1820’s, the community at Pleasant Hill had 500 members.
The Shakers welcomed visitors and maintained a tavern. Only those members designated as trustees were allowed to conduct business with the outside world. The Shakers' belief in simplicity and utility made them masters of the agricultural and mechanical arts. They practiced scientific farming and introduced new strains of sheep, hogs, and cattle to the Bluegrass region. They are credited with the invention of many labor saving devices such as the flat broom and clothespins. They were known throughout the region for their packaged garden seed and preserves.
Shakertown at Pleasant Hill, Inc. was organized as a non-profit educational corporation to conserve and restore the Shaker buildings left from the original community. The corporation has restored 28 stone, frame, and brick buildings. The community is open to the public as an historic area.
In the decades preceding the Civil War, Mercer County land proved to be quite productive for both livestock and grain. Mercer County was one of the leading corn producers in the state. Most of the grain was used to feed livestock, especially cattle, which supplied Mercer County families with meat, butter, and leather. Hogs were also raised to be herded to the east coast markets or slaughtered and shipped south as bacon. Stock raising was a source of pride in Mercer County and fostered the organization of the Mercer County Agriculture Society in 1838, which sponsored an annual fair.
The expansion of the southern cotton states after the War of 1812 created lucrative markets for Mercer County farm products. The steamboat replaced the flat boat and strengthened the link between New Orleans and Kentucky. Warwick was the head of navigation for the Kentucky River and a collection point for agricultural goods to be shipped south.
The Kentucky Legislature supported river transportation during this period and funded channel improvements and lock construction, but left the road improvements to the private sector. Private corporations built and maintained roads by tolls charged to the traveling public. The Nicholasville, Harrodsburg, and Perryville Turnpike Company was formed in 1835 to build the Mercer County section of the road from Maysville to Nashville.
Mail coaches replaced post riders as Harrodsburg became an important stop for passengers on the routes from Louisville to Crab Orchard and from Maysville to Nashville. Establishments such as Tandy’s Tavern, the Mercer House, and Chiles Tavern on Morgan Row were built to accommodate the travelers.
The gradually improving transportation systems also brought visitors to Harrodsburg from Vicksburg, Natchez, New Orleans, and Nashville to enjoy the mineral or Epsom waters of Greenville and Harrodsburg springs. Harrodsburg gained the national reputation as the “Saratoga of the West” during the 1840’s and 1850’s. From June through September, people fled the yellow fever and cholera epidemics in the South for the dancing, music, ice cream, billiards, horse racing and other amusements to be enjoyed with the interesting company at the springs in Harrodsburg.
Post War Period: 1861-1900
Mercer County’s most immediate experience of the Civil War came during the Battle of Perryville in 1862. On October 8, 1862, 58,000 Union soldiers under the command of General Don Carlos Buell encountered 16,000 Confederate soldiers commanded by General Braxton Bragg at the Chaplin River near Perryville. Artillery fire was heard in Harrodsburg and churches and homes were prepared for use as hospitals.
Initially, the outnumbered Confederate troops held their lines, but General Bragg felt their victory was only temporary. At the end of the day, Bragg determined that he could not win and retreated north of the Kentucky River.
The citizens of Harrodsburg were left to cope with the consequences of the battle. They buried the fallen soldiers and created temporary hospitals. Though no substantial buildings were destroyed in battle, farmers were called upon to provision the soldiers of both sides with food and horses. Harrodsburg was placed under federal martial law for the remainder of the Civil War. The major effect of the war on Mercer County’s economy was the loss of the southern markets for its agricultural products. The county entered a period of economic stagnation, punctuated by a statewide financial panic in 1873. Few new buildings were built during this period, except as replacement for those destroyed by fire.
Mercer County farmers and politicians saw that the river link to the South would have to be supplemented by a more flexible means of transportation to gain access to regional markets. John A. Roebling was hired to design the 1,200 foot bridge needed to span the Kentucky River. The stone piers for the Kentucky River bridge were built, but a financial panic in 1857 halted the construction of the railroad. It was not until 1877 that High Bridge, the bridge over the Kentucky River, was completed by the Cincinnati-Southern Railroad.
Tobacco, which had been grown in Kentucky by the settlers from Virginia and the Carolinas, was growing in popularity. After the Civil War, the national taste changed to a mild flavored tobacco, primarily used for cigars, pipes, snuff, and chewing tobacco. Mercer County farmers were introduced to new strains of tobacco several years after the Civil War, but were distrustful of the promoters and chose to pursue hemp production instead. The hemp industry in Mercer County supplied fibers to shipping companies until the advent of steamships. Only at this point did the Mercer County farmers become involved in tobacco production on a large scale. The farm economy improved and ushered in an era of tenant farmers.
For more information:
Harrodsburg / Mercer County Visitor Information
James Harrod Trust Historic Preservation