Famous Kentuckians

Last revised: 15 September 2015

Mary Draper Ingles

Born ca. 1730 Pa. – Died 1813

The first white woman to set foot on Kentucky soil was born in Pennsylvania ca. 1730.  Her name was Mary Draper Ingles. She and William Ingles were married ca. 1749 in Draper’s Meadow, now Roanoke, Virginia.  By the year 1755 the young couple had two sons with another child on the way.

On an early July morning, after William Ingles and other men of Draper’s Meadow had gone to their grain fields, a number of Shawnee warriors rushed into the settlement, killing several.  The Indians arrived from the North and retreated the same way taking Mary Draper Ingles, her two sons, and her sister-in-law with them.  They left the settlement in flames.

On the long trek North, Mary gave birth to a baby girl.  Knowing she and the baby would be killed if she slowed the men down, she continued on.  Fortunately, Mary was a strong, athletic woman used to the rigors of life on the frontier.  A twenty-nine day trip brought them to a Shawnee village located in Ohio Territory on the banks of the Scioto and Ohio Rivers.  Mary and her baby girl remained in the village but her two sons and sister-in-law were sent to distant villages.

Several months into captivity, Mary, and an elderly Dutch woman were taken south of the Ohio River on a salt-making expedition.  Upon arrival they found the area covered with huge bones, skulls, and teeth of the mastodon and Arctic elephants, who had been stuck and died in the bogs surrounding the salt licks.  Thousands of wild animals gathered in this area to lick the salt.  (now Big Bone Lick in Boone Co., Ky.) Mary and the old woman, allowed to forage for nuts and wild grapes in the forest, planned their escape.  Leaving the camp, with only a blanket and a hatchet to escape suspicion, the two wandered off into the forest and started their long journey home.  Mary’s baby girl was left behind.

The women walked in a northeasterly direction along the river.  Their journey through the unchartered wilderness of rough terrain, cane brakes, marshes, small and large bodies of water, with no shelter and hunger a constant companion was an unbelievable hardship.  The Dutch woman, driven mad by hunger, became a danger to Mary.  Mary found an opportunity to cross a body of water alone and continued her journey with the river separating the two women.

By the end of November, Mary, her clothing in tatters, feet swollen, and shivering with cold, finally reached a wilderness house, about 15 miles from her home.  She had been traveling for forty days.  After notifying William of his wife’s return, a search party was sent to find the Dutch woman.  After this ordeal, Mary and William settled in a log house in Montgomery County, Virginia, and had four more children. In 1768 one of their captured sons was returned to the family.

Mary Draper Ingles, the first white woman to visit Kentucky (unwillingly), died in 1813 at the age of 83.  Big Bone Lick became a Kentucky State Park in 1960.

By: Frieda Curtis-Wheatley

William Goebel

Born 1856 Pa. – Died 1900 Kentucky

William Goebel was born January 4, 1856 in Pennsylvania to William and Augusta Greenclay Goebel. Young William moved to Covington, Kentucky along with his German-born parents after the Civil War. Before graduating from the University of Cincinnati Law School in 1877, he sold newspapers and served as an apprentice in a jewelry store. A wealthy attorney, he lived simply and never married. In 1895 Goebel killed John Sandford in a political dispute but was acquitted as reasonable doubt prevailed over who drew his pistol first.

William Goebel, a complex person, served in the Kentucky state senate from 1887 to 1900. As Governor-elect, Senator Goebel walked to the state capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky on January 30 when a shot rang out shattering his ribs and puncturing a lung. Sworn in as Governor on January 31 Goebel, a Democrat, had been the 32nd Kentucky Governor for only three days when he died in the Capitol Hotel on February 3, 1900. William Goebel was the only governor in U.S. history to die in office of wounds inflicted by an assassin. Controversy had surrounded the election and continued to surround the arrest of the 16 men indicted for his murder. Because of the politically charged atmosphere over the murder, a change of venue was obtained and the trials were moved from Franklin County to Scott County by Judge James E. Cantrill. Of the five men who went to trial, two were acquitted and three convicted in the trials held in Georgetown, Kentucky. The trials lasted a total of eight years and became one of the most famous cases in Kentucky’s legal history.

In 1948, the clothing worn by Goebel the day he was shot was found in an old metal ballot box in the clock tower storeroom of the Georgetown Courthouse. The blood-stained clothing was again stored and did not resurface until 1958. This time the clothing, stored for 58-years, was transported to the Old Capitol Museum in Frankfort by Scott County Deputy Sheriff Bobby G. Vance. Today the clothing is on display in the Thomas Clark Museum. Governor William Goebel is buried in the Frankfort, Kentucky Cemetery.

By: Frieda Curtis-Wheatley

Daniel Boone

Born 1734 Pa. – Died 1820 Missouri

Explorer, Long Hunter, military Scout and Militia Commander, leader of Kentucky Settlers, Adopted son of Shawnee Chief Blackfish, defender of Fort Boonesborough, self defender of his own court marshal case (acquitted), founder of Boone’s Station, Indian fighter and survivor of the Bluelicks battle, Legislator and Representative of the early Kentucky territory of Fincastle Co., Va., owner of many thousands disputed acres of Kentucky land, who lost it all, and finally left his Kentucky dreamplace at Spain’s invitation (primarily to recruit settlers) to become a judge and magistrate in the Missouri territory with 800 acres of his own, later to be under France and finally the United States.

At one time or the other, Boone ran a tavern, a trading store and traded skins, horses, even slaves, and land. Boone’s leadership and understanding of the Indian culture held their respect and his passion for the Kentucky flora and fauna recruited many Virginia and North Carolina families to settle in Kentucky. He was the greatest early mover responsible for opening up Kentucky to the American Colonies. John Filson made Daniel Boone famous in America and Europe. He married Rebecca Bryan.

John Cabell Breckinridge

Born 16 Jan 1821 – Died 17 May 1875

John Cabell Breckinridge was born on January 16, 1821.  He was the only son among the six children of Joseph Cabell and Mary Clay Smith Breckinridge.  When he was two years old, his father died; and his mother moved to her mother-in-law’s farm near Lexington.  His father had served as Speaker of the House in the Kentucky State Legislature and Secretary of State.

John graduated from Centre College.  He also attended the College of New Jersey.  He studied law under Governor William Owsley.  He began his law practice in Burlington, Iowa.  He returned to Kentucky and later married Mary Cyrene Burch.  He served in the House of Representatives of Kentucky, and ran successfully as a Democrat and was elected to the United States House of Representatives.

After serving for two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, the party nominated him as Vice-President to run on the James Buchanan ticket.  At the age of thirty-six, he became the youngest Vice-President in the nation’s history.  On March 4, 1861, he was elected to the U.S. Senate.  His loyalty toward the South, he joined the Confederacy.  As a Major General, he led troops at Shiloh and Chattanooga.

He fled to Florida and later to Cuba.  For four years, Breckinridge remained in exile.  He returned to Lexington to head an insurance company.  He died on May 17, 1875 and is buried in the Lexington Cemetery.

Source:  The Breckinridges of Kentucky, 1760-1981, James F. Klotter

By: Dr. Jack J. Early

Thomas D. Clark

Kentucky’s Beloved Historian
Born 14 Jul 1903 – Died 28 Jun 2005

Thomas Dionysius Clark was born on 14 July 1903 in Louisville, Mississippi, son of a cotton farmer and a school teacher.  After difficult beginnings, he attended the University of Mississippi, where he knew William Faulkner, and where he first acquired his love of history.  Attending a meeting of the American Historical Association in Indianapolis in December, 1928, decided him on the profession of historian.  With a scholarship, he attended the University of Kentucky, where he took his master’s degree in 1929, and then went on to do his doctoral work at Duke, receiving the Ph.D. in 1932.  There he was greatly influenced by William K. Boyd to respect the documents upon which sound history must be based.

Even before completing his doctorate, Clark began teaching in 1930, moving to the University of Kentucky in 1931.  At that time, UK was lacking in every resource characteristic of a major history department.  It would be Clark’s work to transform it into one of the premier centers for the study of the history of the South, of Kentucky, and of the nineteenth century American experience.  In 1942 Clark became chairman of the History Department, a position he retained until 1965, during which period he made the transformation from insignificant to major center of study, attracting first rate historians as his colleagues.  In 1968 Thomas Clark retired from UK, although he continued to teach on an adjunct basis at many other institutions, and, in a way, he never really retired.

The list of publications authored or edited by Thomas D. Clark is extensive.  Among the best known are his A History of Kentucky (1937), which is still a standard reference on the history of our Commonwealth.  Pills, Petticoats, and Plows: the Southern Country Store (1944) portrays the country store as a mirror of the South.  All told, Clark wrote two dozen works, including ten on specifically Kentucky themes.  He also edited six collections, and served as editor of the Journal of Southern History for four years.  His publications continued until the year 2002, when he was ninety-nine years old.

Perhaps even more significant than his writings was Clark’s work in preserving the documents on which Kentucky’s history must be based.  Learning that military records of the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Civil War were being used as sleeping cots and to light pipes in Frankfort, he appealed to newly elected governor A.B. “Happy” Chandler to intervene, beginning a preservation program which continues to this day.  In 1957, Clark became the first chairman of the Kentucky Archives Commission, and in 1982 he was instrumental in obtaining the establishment of the Department for Libraries and Archives.  He saw the dedication of the new Kentucky History Center in Frankfort in 1999, which was named in his honor in 2005.

Tom Clark was also a gifted teacher and speaker.  Both in the classroom and in less formal settings, he took history to the people, promoting the public an awareness of their past, and its importance for the understanding of today.  In an interview for KET, aired only a month prior to his death, Clark said, “A community without a sense of history is not a community at all.”  Thomas D. Clark died on 28 June 2005 at the age of 101.

By: William C. Schrader, III

John Filson

Kentucky’s First Historian
Born 10 Dec 1753 – Died ca. 01 Oct 1788

According to undocumented family tradition, John Filson was born on 10 December 1753 in Chester County, Pennsylvania, son of Davison Filson and his first wife, Eleanor Clarke.  He may have been the same as the John Filson, ensign, who was taken prisoner at Fort Washington on 16 November 1776 during the struggle for New York.  After working as a surveyor and school teacher in Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1783 he arrived in Kentucky, where he acquired over 13,000 acres.  He settled in Lexington, engaging in those same occupations.

After interviewing many settlers and frontiersmen, in 1784 he published The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke, along with a map of the state, at Wilmington, Delaware.  This was the first map to focus strictly on Kentucky.  The book and map could be bought separately or as a set for $1.50.  There was an appendix, “The Adventures of Colonial Daniel Boone,” which assured Boone’s place in Kentucky and American history and legend.  This work was immensely popular, with a French (1785) and German (1790) translation appearing quickly.  Lord Byron made reference to the Boone story in Don Juan.

Filson later made two trips to Vincennes, where he also acquired property, and evidently intended to write an account of the history of the Illinois country.  As was true with almost all early settlers in Kentucky, Filson became embroiled in lawsuits over his properties, leading to financial difficulties.  He surveyed a road from Lexington to the mouth of the Licking River, and acquired land opposite the mouth of that river on the north bank of the Ohio, where the present city of Cincinnati stands.  While surveying in the area near the Great Miami River, on 1 October 1788 Filson disappeared.  He is believed to have been a victim of a Shawnee Indian raid.

Col. Reuben T. Durrett published in 1884 the Life and Writings of John Filson, and in that same year was one of the founders of the Filson Club, the first historical society devoted to Kentucky’s past.  The Filson Club, located in Louisville, now called the Filson Historical Society, has an outstanding collection on the pioneer, antebellum, and Civil War periods of Kentucky History.

By: William C. Schrader, III

John Fox, Jr.

Born 16 Dec 1863 – Died 08 Jul 1919

John Fox, Jr. was born December 16, 1863 in Bourbon County, Kentucky.  He attended his father’s private boarding school before spending two years at Transylvania University in Lexington.  He graduated from Harvard in June of 1883.  After a short newspaper career he returned to Kentucky because of ill health.

In 1890, Fox joined his family when they moved to Big Stone Gap, Virginia near Cumberland Gap.  He became fascinated by the Cumberland Mountain folk-life.  Retiring and shy by nature, Fox started writing short stories of mountain life.  His first work was called “A Mountain Europa”, but his first fame came from the 1899 short story “Hell-fer-Sartain” appearing in “Harper’s Magazine”.  He became very popular in his public readings of his stories and was invited to the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt several times.

In 1903, “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come,” was published and became the first American work of fiction to sell a million copies.  The novel has been reprinted and reproduced as a successful play, and made into several motion pictures.

In 1908, John Fox, Jr. married Fritzi Scheff, an opera singer.  This same year the novel “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” a love story between a young mountain woman and an outsider, was published.  It was followed by several less successful novels.  “In John Fox, Jr.,, the mountaineers found an understanding chronicler who recorded in his novels their loves, hatreds, and philosophies,” states Thomas D. Clark in 1960.

John Fox, Jr. developed pneumonia on a fishing trip to Virginia and died July 8, 1919.  He is buried in Paris, Kentucky.

By: Frieda Curtis-Wheatley

Richard M. Johnson

Born 17 Oct 1780 or 1781 – Died 19 Nov 1850

Richard Mentor Johnson, Vice President of the United States 1837-1841, was born in 1781 to Robert and Jemina Sugett Johnson near Beargrass Creek shortly after the family’s arrival in Jefferson County, Kentucky from Virginia.  In the fall of 1781 the Johnson family moved to Bryan’s  Station in Fayette County.  By the year 1783 Robert Johnson and a small group of Bryan Station families had decided to establish the second stockade station on a 2,000 acre tract of land located about two miles west of present-day Georgetown in Scott County.  The site was near the Great Buffalo Crossings of North Elkhorn Creek.  Richard M. Johnson, along with his ten siblings, grew up in the area attending the Great Crossings Baptist Church established in 1785.

Richard attended Transylvania University in Lexington before studying law under Col. George Nicholas and Hon. James Brown.  He was admitted to the bar in 1802 and began practing law.  Col. Richard Johnson is remembered as the injured hero of the Battle of the Thames and widely credited with the slaying of the Indian leader Tecumseh.  Coming from a prominent political family Richard M. Johnson served his country as Congressman, U. S. Senator, U. S. Vice President and as a member of the Kentucky Legislature.  In 1825, while serving as a United States Senator, Johnson was contacted by Choctaw leaders asking that a school be established for sons of Indian Chiefs.  Johnson decided to place the school on his farm in Kentucky approximately two miles west of the Great Buffalo Crossings.  The Choctaw Academy operated between the years 1825 and 1843.  When the Academy closed it had served two to three hundred Indian students.

Richard M. Johnson died in November of 1850 and is buried in the Frankfort, Kentucky cemetery.

Source: Draper Manuscript, Filson Club Special Collections, Ky. Encyclopedia

By: Frieda Curtis-Wheatley

Isaac Shelby

Born 1750 Hagerstown, Md. – Died 1826 Lincoln Co., Kentucky

Soldier, farmer, political and military leader, Isaac Shelby surveyed and settled land in Kentucky in 1777. Virginia Gov. Patrick Henry appointed Shelby to provide army provisions from the western frontier during the American Revolutionary War and he was elected to the Virginia legislature in 1780. Shelby, James Williams, and Elijah Clark led the Overmountain Men of Fort Watuga to a major victory over superior British and Tory forces in the Battle of Margrove Mills, Aug., 1780, and in Sept., 1780, Cols. Isaac Shelby and John Sevier led the Overmountain Men under commander General William Campbell in defeating the British at Kings Mountain, the turning point of the Revolution.

Shelby then settled in North Carolina and was twice elected to the N.C. Legislature. He returned to Kentucky in 1783, married Susannah Hart (daughter of Nathaniel Hart of the Henderson Company fame) and then became the founder of Frankfort, Ky., and also, a trustee of Center College in Danville, Ky.

Isaac Shelby led the American Colonies in responding to the 1812 British attack as the Commanding General in the Battle of Thiems, becoming the first and only Governor to lead his State Militia in a war, and who also negotiated the peace of 1815 following British defeat in New Orleans. Kentucky suffered the most casualties of that war. Shelby was a major figure in obtaining Federal aid to defend the frontier and also obtaining free navigation of the Mississippi, a crucial trading factor for Kentucky economic growth.