Many Kentucky counties lost their early court records due to fires, floods, theft, and other causes. However, we are fortunate that the Clark County Courthouse has a remarkably complete set of records beginning in 1793. These include marriage books, deed books, order books (recording actions involving roads, appropriations, taxation, elections, guardians, ferries, taverns, etc.), probate records (wills and estate settlements), judicial records (county court and circuit court), and many more. These basic courthouse resources are essential to any study of the county’s history.
I’ve spent many hours combing through these old records at the courthouse. A surprising bonus of this pastime has been frequent encounters with famous persons who turn up in events that occurred in Clark County. The list of names would be long indeed, but I thought perhaps a small sampling might be of interest to readers.
Chief Justice John Marshall
John Marshall (1755−1835) was born in the Blue Ridge Mountain region of Virginia. He was one of 13 children of Col. Thomas Marshall, who removed to Kentucky and became a large landholder. Son John acquired several tracts of land in Clark County. One of these, 1,794 acres, was located near Strode’s Station, a little west of present-day Winchester. He sold this tract to John McCreery in 1796 (a portion of the deed is shown below). At that time, Marshall was living in Richmond, VA, and serving in the Virginia legislature. In 1801 President John Adams nominated Marshall to be the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. During his 34-year tenure on the court, he participated in more than 1,000 decisions and is credited as the principal founder of the U.S. system of constitutional law.
The Honorable Henry Clay
Henry Clay (1777−1852) came to Kentucky in the winter of 1797 and settled in Lexington. He was admitted to the bar in Clark County on February 27, 1798, with a brief entry, “Henry Clay, Gentleman, Qualified an attorney” (see below). This occurred before Clay was admitted to practice in Fayette County on March 20, 1798.
The court order books give results of Clay’s numerous cases as an attorney in Clark County. His overall record in the cases I could find was 22 wins and 13 losses. Most of the losses came when representing the defendant in a case. Plaintiffs won a large majority of the time in early Kentucky courts.
Clay was appointed deputy state attorney for Clark in April 1801 (see below) and served for one year. The position was the equivalent of today’s county attorney. His record in that job was two wins, one loss and seven dismissals. All the cases were heard in the county’s second courthouse, a two-story brick edifice.
According to Richard H. Collins’ History of Kentucky, “By a remarkable coincidence Henry Clay made his first speech in a law case in the courthouse at Winchester, and also his last in a case tried there just before he went to Washington city for the last time.”
This is supported by James Flanagan, a local judge and early historian of Clark County. According to Judge Flanagan, Clay made his last speech at court in 1847 in the celebrated contest to break the will of Joel Quisenberry. After a long and bitter legal dispute, the case was settled out of court.
While the “signatures” that appear in the record books were copied by the court clerks, original signatures have been found among the loose papers stored in the courthouse attic. The example below is a receipt from Clay: “Received of Fielding L. Combs, Executor of Cuthbert Combs, Ten dollars for my opinion on the Case of the deed of gift of Cuthbert Bullitt &c respecting Slaves. 25 April 1822. H. Clay.”
Simon Kenton (1755−1836) was the famous pioneer who, at age sixteen — after a fight in which he feared he had killed his rival — ran away to Kentucky and assumed the name “Simon Butler.” Kenton fought Indians on the frontier for many years and is credited with saving Daniel Boone’s life during an attack at Fort Boonesborough. He managed financial matters poorly, was jailed for debt in Kentucky, and later moved to Ohio.
Kenton established a station in Mason County in 1784, about 3 miles south of Limestone (now Maysville), a frequent stopping point of early Kentucky settlers coming down the Ohio River. In 1796 Kenton and his wife Martha sold John Baker 100 acres of land he owned at the head of Somerset Creek (a portion of the deed is shown below). The land was near the Clark-Montgomery border between US 60 and Ecton Road. John Baker is recognized as the “founder” of Winchester by virtue of donating the land for the courthouse and other county facilities.
General George Rogers Clark
George Rogers Clark (1752−1818) was a surveyor, soldier, and militia officer from Virginia who became the highest-ranking military officer on the northwestern frontier during the Revolutionary War. He served as leader of the Kentucky militia throughout much of the war. Clark is best known for his capture of Kaskaskia (1778) and Vincennes (1779) during the Illinois Campaign, which established America’s claim to the Northwest Territory. Clark County is named in his honor.
Clark was an early visitor to Fort Boonesborough (1775). That summer, he went out with a company of locators to make land claims in present-day Clark, Montgomery, and Bath counties. In 1797 he gave a deposition (a portion is shown below) in Clark County concerning his claim to a survey of 15,360 acres of land. Clark’s survey began on Somerset Creek in eastern Clark County, which adjoined a 10,000-acre claim of William Davis.
We cannot close this article without including one of the county’s most famous personages, the legendary Daniel Boone (1734−1820). Boone was one of the earliest explorers of Clark County and subsequently owned land and surveyed land for others here. After Clark County was established, he was appointed a deputy surveyor (see below): “Daniel Boone qualified a Deputy surveyor by the approbation of William Sudduth, Esquire, surveyor of this County.”
Boone’s name frequently appears in our land records and court records, and he gave several sworn legal depositions. One of the more interesting ones was given in 1796 (a portion is shown below). It involves the naming of Plumb Lick in now Powell County, named in 1770 when Boone was there hunting with his brother-in-law, John Stewart. Boone was asked, “Why was this lick we now are at Distinguished by the [name] Plumb lick, as there is [sic] no plumb Trees about it?” He replied, “Because we Brought Plumbs neare [sic] a mile in our hats and eat them while we watched this lick.”