Lexington, Fayette County Kentucky: Life Before 1820




A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of Transylvania College
in Candidacy for the Degree of Master of Arts
June, 1916

This thesis treats of the early life of Lexington before the year, 1820. Except in a very few instances, my information has been drawn from the files of the Kentucky Gazette. Any footnote reference designated merely by the date, refers to the Gazette issue of that date.

I do not claim that this work is exhaustive, even in respect to the various subjects of which it treats; nor do I attempt to settle any disputed questions over the location of famous places. It has been my purpose simply to reconstruct the political, economic, educational, social, and religious life of the people so far as my sources would permit.

In order to put the reader more in sympathy with the spirit of that period, generous use has been made of the phraseology of the time. Much of this has been indicated by the use of quotation marks, but a great deal of the adaptation does not lend itself easily to such patent indication.

If at times through inadvertence the spelling of proper names varies, the reader will please bear in mind that the Gazette itself is not consistent in this respect. For instance, the name, Macbean, is spelled in three ways: Macbean, MacBean, M'Bean; Postlethwait is spelled with or without a final e. This may have occasioned lack of uniformity at times in the following pages.

Preliminary Survey

Chap. 1 - The Local Government
Chap. 2 - The Law Courts and Crime
Chap. 3 - Military Organisations

Chap. 1 - Agriculture and Markets
Chap. 2 - Factories and Products
Chap. 3 - Stores
Chap. 4 - Trades and Professions
Chap. 5 - Taverns and Stage Coach Lines
Chap. 6 - Fires and Fire Fighting

Chap. 1 - Educational Institutions
Chap. 2 - Educational Societies and Lecture Courses
Chap. 3 - The Library
Chap. 4 - Publications

Chap. 1 - Social Life
Chap. 2 - National Holidays
Chap. 3 - Various Organisations
Chap. 4 - The Theater
Chap. 5 - Other Forms of Amusement
Chap. 6 - The Races

Chap. 1 - The Churches
Chap. 2 - Religious Organisations and Publications

Appendix A: Merchants
Appendix B: Tavern Keepers
Appendix C: Schools
Appendix D: Dancing Masters


The period from 1787 to 1820, - whose social, political, educational, economic, and religious life this thesis shall endeavor to portray, - is a time of unusual interest, and one which shows not only a well-established community life, but also a developing civilisation. The delver into the musty files of the Gazette is impressed with the change from a small frontier community, living constantly in fear of the dread Indian foe, to the town of 1820 with its educational facilities, business interests and social functions.

The paper of September 1, 1787 stated that its purpose was "to give quick and general information concerning the intentions and behaviors of our neighboring enemies, and put us on guard;" the last Gazette of 1820 has not the slightest hint of danger from external foes.

Not all the pictures presented of the town are attractive. However the time of the visit and the character of the visitor must always be taken into consideration. A Hiberian visitor of 1804, a man used to the culture of Europe, makes a statement that there were no good roads, that the streets in the town were frequently impassable, and that parsimony was the order of the day (July 17, 1804). A lapse of 14 years must have made a great change in the general appearance of the town, but the pleasant picture presented by Dr. Holley in 1818 revealed also a character more in sympathy with America's western civilisation. In a letter to his wife this honored ex-president of Transylvania said: "the town and the vicinity are very handsome. the streets are broad, straight, paved, clean and have rows of trees on each side. The houses are brick almost universally, many of them in the midst of fields, and have a very rural and charming appearance. The taste is for low houses, generally two, sometimes even but one story high, like English cottages." A visit to Ashland elicited this further comment: "Ashland is a very pleasant place. The grounds are beautiful, and lawns and walks extensive, the shrubbery luxuriant, and the garden well-supplied. The native forest of ash in the rear adds a charming effect to the whole." ("Genius and Character of Holley" by Caldwell, p. 151). It might be added that the charming beauty of this Kentucky home was in part due to the fact that, a year before Dr. Holley's visit, Mr. Clay had employed a landscape gardener (August 30, 1817). However even after giving due weight to the personal equation of the two visitors, these two descriptions, one at the beginning of the era and the other near its close, point to considerable civic improvement.

The numerical growth of the town during the period cannot be gathered from the files of the paper. According to the census of 1801 the entire population was 1795 (April 27, 1801. The census gave these classes: White Males: 805. White Females: 528. Free People of Color: 23. Slaves: 439). In 1811 a complaint was registered that no census as provided by law had been taken in 1810 (Jan. 8, 1811). But so far as the columns of the Gazette are concerned, the reader is left questioning whether the census was taken either then, or later in the period, since in no subsequent issue is there any notice of the city's size, except indefinite statements that the town continued to grow numerically.

At the beginning of Kentucky's career as a state, separate from Virginia, the capital was located in Lexington. In 1792 the commissioners, appointed to decide on the permanent seat of government, met at Love and Brent's Tavern (June 30, Dec. 1, 1792) The next year meetings were still being held in this, the queen city of the most productive region in the state, to prepare the drafts for the new state house (Jan. 19, 1793). The very next year the old state house was for rent (Feb. 22, 1794). In 1797 the citizens, still smarting under the loss of the state capital, send proposals to the house of representatives. They agreed to erect a state house, governor's mansion, and public jail, and to refund any money paid by the inhabitants of Franklin, county, on condition that the capital be changed. This proposition was tabled (Jan. 21, 1797). Again in 1809 a similar resolution was lost by a vote of 23 to 44 (Jan. 31, 1809). It takes no vivid imagination for the reader of these hints to picture the stormy times that must have ensued during these years of political adjustments.

Altho she lost out as the first city of the state, Lexington remained the hub city of the entire Bluegrass. In 1798 between 4,000 and 5,000 people convened here to discuss national issues (Aug. 15, 1798).

Western communities at that time had to depend upon the mails for all connection with the outside world. Hence when the postrider failed to arrive at his usual time, the delay was looked upon as a great calamity. Such failures, moreover, were not of occasional occurrence, but rather common (Nov. 26, 1796; Dec. 3, 1796; Apr. 5, 1797; Jan. 3, 1798; May 2, 1798; Mar. 5, 1805; 1806 passim; Jan. 3, 1809; Jan. 10, 1809; Mar. 16, 1813.). The townsmen held meeting to draw up grievances, but the postoffice department in Washington was either deaf or helpless (Mar. 5, 1805; July 26, 1806). In earliest times the mails were often delayed thruout the winter because of the impassable roads, and the unnavigable condition of the rivers (Jan. 3, 1798). In 1790 the Gazette published a list of uncalled-for letters, and continued to do so thruout the period under consideration (Apr. 5, 1790). In 1814 the postoffice was removed to a small frame house at the upper end of Main Street next door above the residence of Mr. David Sutton, and nearly opposite Major Gabriel Tandy's (Oct. 24, 1814).

The early Lexingtonian was proud of his town, but did not always relish all the honors thrust upon it. One citizen in 1814 made the following remark: "Lexington dictation and Lexington influence seem to be the cant phrases of every political backslider, whether in the legislature of Kentucky, or the Congress of the United States. Lexington, thou are overmuch!" (Jan. 17, 1814). Two years afterward complaint was again made that Lexington was the subject of calumny in various parts of the state, and of proscription by the legislature. This, as explained by sympathizers, was due to jealousy aroused by its wealth and growth (Feb. 26, 1816). The attacks on Lexington's character in the Louisville newspapers were also the basis for grievance and consequent protest (Sept. 14, 1820).

transcribed March 2001 by pb

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