Did Daniel Boone Spend a Winter in Letcher County, Kentucky?
By: Ben Luntz, Nancy Wright Bays and Patty May Brashear
Of the time before the arrival of the first white explorers and settlers little is known about the history of the region that was to become Letcher County. There had been a Native-American presence and two tribes often mentioned are the Cherokee and the Iroquois. Native American remains have been found in Letcher County along with many and varied artifacts. There were other tribes as well. One oral history tells of settlers who came into the area before the 1750s and settled among the Cherokee who already lived there. This grew to be a significant settlement as the settlers and the Cherokee began to intermarry over time. This settlement was located in the general area of Whitesburg, which is now the county seat of Letcher County. The settlers were told by the Cherokee that the Cherokee had been fighting the Iroquois for as long as they could remember, for generations. These settlers would later join the Cherokee in battles with the Iroquois. During the Indian Wars of the 1750s the Iroquois defeated the Cherokee Nation in what was to become the eastern section of Kentucky and completely drove the Cherokee, and likely these mysterious first settlers as well, out of that region into eastern Tennessee and North and South Carolina. This was a brutal and total defeat. The Iroquois apparently did not settle the region but used it mainly as a hunting ground. Bands of Cherokee did return but they were never the presence they had been before the Indian Wars. It would be as returning settlers from the South, now mixed with Whites and others, that the Cherokee would finally return to their former homeland. The old settlement that had existed in what was to become Whitesburg had a name that has long been forgotten, so that the settlements that have occupied the site of Whitesburg possibly have had at least three distinct names: the first unknown name, Summit City and Whitesburgh. There is, unfortunately, no known documentary evidence to support this oral history.
In contrast to this strange story about Whitesburg’s origins, the later expeditions by Daniel Boone and others are well documented and much has been written about them. Kentucky’s written history is centered mostly on the Bluegrass region, and Daniel Boone’s time in Southeastern Kentucky has been pretty much ignored. It is a fact, though, that he was present in Southeastern Kentucky, and there is some indication that he was present in the region that would become Letcher County. Today there is a Boone Creek in Letcher County and a community called Beefhide that lies both in Letcher and Pike County. Some sources claim that Beefhide received its name from an early engineer who, while passing through that location, saw a beef hide tacked onto a barn and later referred to the place as Beefhide. Other sources, on the other hand, say that the name has a much earlier origin, that it came from the many pieces of beef hide that Boone’s surveyors tacked onto the trees there in order to mark their locations. There are also other stories claiming to explain the name of Beefhide, and it is difficult to know which, if any of the stories is the correct one.
Among the first settlers in Letcher County there were at least three families with direct connections to Daniel Boone. These were the Webb, Bentley and Bates families. The Webb family had close kinship connections to Daniel Boone’s family and both a Bentley and a Bates accompanied Daniel Boone into Letcher County. (The information about the Bentley referred to here comes from oral history in Letcher County.) James Webb, the father of the first members of the Webb family to settle in Letcher County, was the son of John Webb, whose wife was Mary Boone, Daniel Boone’s aunt. The Bates man who accompanied Daniel Boone into the county was one of Boone’s surveyors. This was Thomas Bates who would eventually settle near Frankfort, Kentucky. (Thomas Bates, either a father or uncle to John Wallis Bates, is mentioned as being with Daniel Boone during his exploration of Kentucky in The Bates Bulletin, Volume I, Series I, page 109.) The Bates, Webb and Bentley families would later have fairly large land holdings in Letcher County that included many large valleys with choice bottom land. The land holdings of these families seems to have overlapped with the regions of the county that were claimed to have been explored and surveyed by Daniel Boone and his men. Some of these families, such as the Bates family, were fairly prominent in Virginia during the 1790s.
In an old article in one of the Letcher County newspapers during the early 1920s or 30s the writer of the article mentions that the old timers claimed that Daniel Boone had spent time in Letcher County during the late 1700s. The writer then expressed some doubt that this was actually the case and explained away the presence of Boone Creek and other Boone claims as made up. However, the large number of stories and claims from the old timers about Daniel Boone being in what was to become Letcher County indicates that there was more to all these claims than the writer of this old article realized. There are stories about Daniel Boone wintering in Letcher County in the areas of what are now known as Kona and Neon. This was supposed to have occurred in the late 1780s or early 1790s. The only evidence for these claims was Daniel Boone’s signatures on several trees in these areas. The most well-known of these signatures was at Kona and this tree was later cut down and the signature cut out of the tree. This signature may still be on display at a tourist site in Kentucky. It would be interesting to know if there has been any attempt to date this tree. Some have expressed some doubt that this was an authentic Boone signature because of the spelling used, but this in itself certainly does not disprove that this was an authentic Boone signature.
Below are two newspaper articles that indicate that there was indeed something to the stories about Daniel Boone spending time in Letcher County. These were written many years before the old article that questioned the possibility that Boone had ever spent time in Letcher County.
Excerpts from the August 9, 1914 Lexington Leader.
EASTERN KENTUCKY ON A BOOM
Fleming is the first station out from McRoberts, and within the past year, has made wonderful progress. This town was founded by the Elkhorn Mining Corporation, which also founded Hayman (Haymond), and Hemp Hill, two good mining towns just off the railway in a rich coal section.....
The oldest house in Fleming is a one room log cabin with a lean-to built by Daniel Boone, and covered with clap boards fastened at each end by wooden pins. This house is at present occupied by Arch Meade and family, consisting of his wife and four children.
End of excerpts.
This article indicates that not only did Daniel Boone spend time in Letcher County, but that he built a cabin during the time he was there. During the 1800s and the early 1900s the existence of this cabin was fairly well known locally.
Excerpt from the January 4, 1916 Mountain Echo.
WILEY WEBB, PIONEER DIES AT WHITESBURG.
Whitesburg, Ky., Dec.– Wiley Webb, last surviving member of the remarkable old Webb family, descendant of Daniel Boone, early Kentucky pioneer and veteran citizen of Eastern Kentucky, answered the last cal at his home at Mayking, about noon today. He was 90 years old.
End of excerpt.
There are other more extensive articles about the Webb family that give much more information on the Boone connection.
It would be nice if some historians finally took Daniel Boone’s time in Southeastern Kentucky seriously and did some research and archeological work to determine the extent and details of his time there. Was he ever in Letcher County? Did he spend a winter there? Did he build a cabin in the area of Fleming that was still standing as of 1914?
The material on this webpage holds a copyright © 2011 by: Benjamin Luntz, Nancy Wright Bays and Patty May Brashear.
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