Owsley County, Kentucky

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Owsley County, Kentucky
Owsley County Kentucky Courthouse.jpg
Owsley County courthouse in Booneville, Kentucky
Map of Kentucky highlighting Owsley County
Location in the state of Kentucky
Map of the United States highlighting Kentucky
Kentucky's location in the U.S.
Largest cityBooneville
 • Total198.09 sq mi (513 km2)
 • Land198.09 sq mi (513 km2)
 • Water0.00 sq mi (0 km2)
 • (2010)4,755
 • Density24/sq mi (9/km²)
Congressional district5th
Time zoneEastern: UTC-5/-4
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Owsley County, Kentucky
Owsley County Kentucky Courthouse.jpg
Owsley County courthouse in Booneville, Kentucky
Map of Kentucky highlighting Owsley County
Location in the state of Kentucky
Map of the United States highlighting Kentucky
Kentucky's location in the U.S.
Largest cityBooneville
 • Total198.09 sq mi (513 km2)
 • Land198.09 sq mi (513 km2)
 • Water0.00 sq mi (0 km2)
 • (2010)4,755
 • Density24/sq mi (9/km²)
Congressional district5th
Time zoneEastern: UTC-5/-4

Owsley County is a county located in the Eastern Coalfield region of Kentucky. As of the 2010 census, the population was 4,755.[1] The county seat is Booneville[2]. The county was organized on January 23, 1843 from Clay, Estill, and Breathitt counties and named for William Owsley (1782–1862), the judge of the Kentucky Court of Appeals and Governor of Kentucky (1844–48).[3]

According to the 2010 Census reports, Owsley County is the "poorest county in the United States.".[4] It also has the second highest level of child poverty of any county in the U.S.[5]


Owsley County was formed in 1843 from portions of Clay, Breathitt, and Estill Counties and was named for Governor William Owsley.[6] Owsley County was Kentucky's 96th county. Parts of Owsley County were used to form Jackson County in 1858 and Lee County in 1870.

The first settlers in Owsley County were John Renty Baker and John Abner. They first settled in 1780 near the present Clay County line at Courtland. The exact year of their settlement is unknown, however, a gravestone found in a cemetery on Upper Buffalo Creek reads, "Milly, wife of John Abner, died March 1846."

John Renty Baker along with his sons, who were all gunsmiths, also invented and developed hand-operated machines to cut the rifle barrels. John Renty's father, Robert Baker, according to some (as the origins of the rifle are unclear) developed the rifle that became known as the "Kentucky Rifle".

John Renty Baker was known as one of the "Longhunters", spending more than a year at a time in the forests of Tennessee and Kentucky trapping and hunting. In "The Conquest of the Old Southwest", it is stated that in 1766 John Baker hunted with Daniel Boone's brother-in-law, John Stewart. He lived on the Green River (Kentucky) among the Cherokees in what is now Kentucky and made trips down the Cumberland River to Spanish Natchez (Natchez, Mississippi) to sell their furs.

After the death of his wife, John Renty Baker became a recluse and lived in a rockhouse (rockshelter) near the mouth of Buffalo Creek and died there in 1820. He fathered at least 21 children that are documented.

The Bakers are the source of many colorful stories. They were involved in one of the longest and bloodiest family feuds in U.S. history, which began in 1843 when Dr. Thomas Baker (a grandson of Julius Bob) shot John Bales. Dr. Baker and John Bales were both married to daughters of John White and the two young couples became more intimate than is usual in this mountain country. Dr. Baker became insanely jealous of his wife and Bales. Finally in a fit of rage, he deserted her and began suit for divorce but suddenly withdrew it. He went to the salt works, where Bates worked in Manchester, called him to the door and shot him with an old-fashioned "pepper box" pistol. Bates died, but while he was dying he cursed Baker and authorized $10,000 from his estate to be used toward his capture and conviction. The feud lasted for 59 years and cost more than 100 lives.

The first settler in the City of Booneville was James Moore, Sr. The site of their home is located just outside of Booneville in front of Booneville Homes apartments. James Moore, Jr., son of James Moore, Sr., built a two room cabin on the opposite side of the river from his parents. This home still stands, although it has been remodeled through the years, and is owned by Mayor Charles Long and his wife.

The Moore's land included all of Booneville, east across the South Fork River and toward Lerose. The community was known as Moore's Station and was later named Booneville after Daniel Boone. James Moore, Jr. was the first postmaster. Elias Moore donated land for a seat for the new county in 1843 and the town was incorporated Booneville in 1846. The Owsley Court House Post Office opened in 1844 and was renamed Booneville in 1846. In 1858, Owsley County lost some of its territory to Jackson County and in 1860 to Wolfe County. In 1870, when Lee County was formed, again Owsley County lost some of its territory.

The Moores, Bowmans, Bakers, Gabbards, and Reynolds were the first permanent settlers.

Most land patents came from Virginia. The three types included military service, grants from settlement or preemption, or warrants from the treasury. There are still families here who have their original land grants.

In January 1929, and again on January 5, 1967, there were courthouse fires. All records were lost in the 1929 fire.

Civil War[edit]

Even though Owsley County was formed only 19 years before the Civil War (see Kentucky in the American Civil War), it led all counties in the U.S. in the percentage of white population who enrolled in the Union Army. During the war between the states 13.64 per cent of the voters in the 1860 election volunteered for service. Only the state of Kansas furnished a larger percentage of volunteers according to population.

In the measurements of men who served both the Union and Confederate Armies it was shown that soldiers from Kentucky and Tennessee were the largest and tallest men in the U.S. and in the world. In size they came up to the standard of the picked regiments of the armies of Europe and they could shoot straight.

Except for a handful who sided with the rebels, all who enlisted from Owsley County sympathized with the Union cause as did most of the citizens.

The census showed a drop in slaves from 136 in 1850 to 112 in 1860. This reduction may have been caused because Luther Brawner, largest slave owner and wealthiest man in the county, left for Texas before the war began.

Though the county majority were Union sympathizers Owsley Countians, in general, had little regard for the life of a blacks. The story is told of an Owsley County man who later became Judge Brandenburg who was heard to remark "I'm going out and shoot me a nigger!" and did.

When Bill Abner was high sheriff of Owsley County during the mid 19th century he put the rope around the neck of a black man, hung supposedly for assault on a white woman, wife of a Dr. Hundley. There were rumors circulating that a white man had committed the crime; but it was attributed to the black man who was hung. The man is said to be buried on the promontory behind the Glass Seale residence just North of Booneville on the Beattyville-Booneville Road.

A. B. Gilbert, state representative from Owsley County cast the deciding vote in the general assembly as to whether or not Kentucky would remain with the Union. A known Democrat, his friends had expected him to go with the South, but his vote in favor of freedom was a blow to their cause. Southern sym­pathizers tried repeatedly to waylay him during the war years, but in the words of Bill Eversole, "He always outsharped them!"

The Cawood family which was also Democratic and pro-slavery, had a family member murdered by Union sympathizers in revenge for a man who had been killed by the Confederates.

Men were conscripted (forced to join). On one occasion when rebel soldiers were spotted by John Gilbert and his brother, Jim, they ran into the woods. Jim eventually gave up and fell into a fence corner.

When the men in gray saw he was a cripple they told him they had no use for the likes of him. John suc­ceded in eluding the group by shooting at them, killing a soldier by the name of Robin Raney. The next day Gilbert paid a man $10.00 to bury the man he had killed.

Two families were divided. Elihu Reynolds, a son of Richard Reynolds, Jr., and Lt. Hiram Hogg of Co. A., 13th Ky. Mounted Infantry joined the Confederacy and fought against their kin.

Reynolds fought in every battle of his regiment. On one occasion, he alerted his companions in time to keep them from being captured. It was also re­corded that Reynolds fought at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain and in the Battle of Jonesborough where he carried a wounded com­rade to safety although he was wounded himself.

Others from Owsley County listed in the Orphan Brigade were Sgt Cornelius Frost, Co. K, 10th Mtd lnf.; William Pennington, Co. B, 5th lnf., who volun­teered March 20, 1863; Joseph 0. Williams and Wil­liam Zion, with the latter being killed in a skirmish at Dallas. Another soldier who had enlisted from the county was killed and two settled in the South. Reynolds and Lt. Hogg were the only two known to return to their homes.

Here are some quotes from the 1898 historical account of Reynolds in a book named "The History of the Orphan Brigade" written by Ed Porter Miller:

In August 1861, Elisha B. Treadway organized Co. A, 7th Inf. Reg. at Congleton Springs at the foot of Smallwood Hill. His father, William W., progenitor of the Treadway family, had come from Clark County in 1820 and married a daughter of Jacob and Eleanor Evans Bowman. The couple reared their family in a house built at Vincent (circa 1825). They are buried in a cemetery close by the house. Treadway became captain of the 7th Infantry with his unit joining Col. T. Garrard's command. He advanced in rank and as major organized and commanded the Three Forks battalion of state troops "The Last Chance" from the fall of 1864 to July 17, 1865. Col. Garrard later became famous as Union Brigadier General Theophilus Toulmin Garrard.

"A" Company of the 7th was composed of men living on the edge of what is now Lee County. "B" Company was mostly Clay County men and those along the river toward Manchester, KY. "C" Company in­cluded volunteers from the southern part of Jackson with McKee men serving as officers. "D" Company was represented by Sturgeon and Green Hall men and those from northern Jackson County.

In addition to Capt. Treadway, Booneville officers with the unit were Maj. I. N. Cardwelt; 1st Lt. Geo. N. Daniel; 1st Lt. Henderson Eversole and 2nd Lt. Thomas J. Greer.

Others from the county serving as officers were 1st Lt. John Amis; Capt. Thomas Amis, 2nd Lt. Wiley Amis; 1st Li. James Eversole; Capt. William B. Eversole; Lt. Ccl. Andrew Herd; Capt. Sylvester lsaacs; 2nd Lt. Nimrod Mcintosh; lst Lt. William A. Smith and 2nd Lt. Robert A. Thomas; ail of the 14th Cavalry; Ass't Surgeon William H. Glass; Lt. Col. Alfred C. Wilson; and Capt. John C. Wilson of the 47th Ky. Infantry; and Capt. Landon C. Minter and 2nd Lt. Thomas Murrell of the 8th Infantry.

Capt. Minter died February 15, 1863, before Com­panies "G" and H" were consolidated. It is believed Capt. Minter's sword is in the Robert Clark Masonic Lodge in Clay County.

Records show that Jesse H. Cole of Co. A. purch­ased a dress coat for $7.21; pare pants $3.55; drawers .95:2 shirts $2.92; 2 pr socks .64; 1 pr boots $2.87; 1 pr pants $2.90; 2 pr drawers $2.00; I pr socks .32; 2 pr socks .64. Evidently he did a lot of walking because he seemed to need more socks than any other item of clothing.

One of the largest contingents ever to come through Booneville was the 1,000 men under the command of Confederate Col. Shelby Gibson. Of these, 500 camped near Booneville on the former Arch Wilson farm, with the remainder proceeding to the river bottom eight miles upriver at Wolfe Creek near the mouth of Deaton Branch.

That night one of the local folks counted 144 fires made to prepare food for the hungry men. Every dry scrap of wood they could find, including fence rails, was burned to keep the numerous fires going.

Although they camped only one night, the home of a Union sympathizer was set afire by the troops at Wolfe Creek. The incident almost caused a battle between the two encampments simply because the lady of the house happened to be a sister of the Colonel's. Gibson said there would have been a battle there and then, had he been present. He was so upset that he threatened to have the men under his direct command fire on the 500 at the upriver camp.

This may have been the same contingent of Confederate soldiers who reportedly spiked a cannon and rolled it into the river near the Sag during a hasty retreat. Union men were gaining on them and the wagon hauling the cannon broke down. The team hitched to it had also tired and was unable to pull the piece of heavy equipment any further. Because the men were afraid the gun might be turned on them if it were captured, they spiked it and rolled it into the river.

Union men also passed through the county. The Union Army's retreat as inscribed on a historical marker outside the county courthouse describes an event when General George W. Morgan's (USA) passed through the county seat, Booneville, on the way to the Ohio River in Greenup County. The Union unit was retreating from Cumberland Gap due to a disruption in supplies. The Union element made it to their intended destination in 16 days despite harassment from CSA Morgan's Raiders.

Booneville was the site of several small-scale Confederate raids/invasions. Bands of lawless men (many times claiming to be Union or Confederate—whichever served their goals) rode into the county, and in reprisal, Owsley men led similar raids into Breathitt and Wolfe Counties.

Alcohol prohibition[edit]

Although 97% of communities within the U.S. allow the legal sale of alcohol, Owsley County has not. This includes the City of Booneville, the county seat. The county had repeatedly denied, through democratic elections, the repeal of alcohol prohibition laws enacted in 1920. This changed on March 6, 2013 when the county held a wet/dry election by which a majority of county voters voted to designate the county "wet". The vote was 632 "wet", 518 "dry". This will permit the sale of alcohol when the fiscal court sets ordinances to regulate the distribution of alcoholic products. [2] Consumption is legal and has been since 1933 when the Twenty-first Amendment was implemented.

Drunk driving has, during its time designated as a dry county, remained more prevalent than in wet counties as a result of the increased drive necessary to obtain cheaper, legally-sold alcohol. A study in Kentucky suggested that residents of dry counties have to drive farther from their homes to consume alcohol, thus increasing impaired driving exposure.[8]

Since the recent construction of a golf course located on Kentucky Route 11, this portion of Kentucky law may be relevant: According to Kentucky Revised Statutes (KRS) 242.123, an individual precinct within any dry territory—which can be a dry county, or a dry portion of an otherwise wet county—that contains a USGA-regulation golf course may vote to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages, by the drink on that specific course. As of the last officially published update on Kentucky wet and dry counties by the Kentucky Office of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) in October 2011, 24 golf courses in 15 different counties were approved for such sales at the local level, with two awaiting state approval.


Adjacent counties[edit]


According to the 2000 census, the county has a total area of 198.09 square miles (513.1 km2), all land.[9] The South Fork of the Kentucky River passes through the county. Most of the precipitation that falls on the county ends up in this tributary of the Kentucky River. Some, however, on the northwest side of the county is in the Kentucky River watershed. Flood plains along the banks of the South of the Kentucky River and several streams provide the level land necessary for development/farming.

National Protected Area[edit]


The county is located in the Eastern Mountain Coal Fields which is a part of the Appalachian Plateau (more precisely, the Cumberland Plateau). The elevation of the highest summit in the county appears to be between 1730' +/- 10' due to the 20' closed contour interval according to this map:[3]. It is located on the county's extreme southern boundary with Clay County. The lowest elevation (650' +/- 10') appears to be at the point where the South Fork crosses the Owsley/Lee border on the north side of the county. [4]


Historical population
Est. 20124,722−0.7%
U.S. Decennial Census[10]
2012 Estimate[11]

As of the census[12] of 2000, there were 4,858 people, 1,894 households, and 1,388 families residing in the county. The population density was 24 per square mile (9.3 /km2). There were 2,247 housing units at an average density of 11 per square mile (4.2 /km2). The racial makeup of the county was 99.22% White, 0.10% Black or African American, 0.06% Native American, 0.04% Asian, 0.02% Pacific Islander, 0.02% from other races, and 0.54% from two or more races. 0.72% of the population were Hispanics or Latinos of any race.

There were 1,894 households out of which 32.6% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 54.8% were married couples living together, 12.7% had a female householder with no husband present, and 26.7% were non-families. 24.5% of all households were made up of individuals and 10.7% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.51 and the average family size was 2.98.

The age distribution was 24.6% under the age of 18, 8.9% from 18 to 24, 27.0% from 25 to 44, 24.5% from 45 to 64, and 15.0% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 38 years. For every 100 females there were 101.8 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 96.7 males.

General Income Information[edit]

The median income for a household in the county was $15,805, which is the third lowest in the nation and the lowest among counties with a non-Hispanic white majority population, and the median income for a family was $18,034. Males had a median income of $25,100 versus $18,203 for females. The per capita income for the county was $10,742. About 41.7% of families and 45.4% of the population were below the poverty line, including 56.3% of those under age 18 and 34.5% of those age 65 or over.

Sources of Governmental Income[edit]

In 2009, government benefits accounted for 53.07% of personal income.[13]

Sources of Non-Governmental Income[edit]

Natural resources[edit]

Though deep mines in thin coal seams once provided jobs and income for local residents, this is not the case in present-day Owsley County. There are some surface coal mining sites in the county—one notable strip mine is visible from the road and presently operating 3 miles north of Booneville on Kentucky Route 11.

Gas and oil wells are particularly dense on the north side of the county, though few are in operation.

Timber is an integral part of the local economy. There is a sawmill located in the Lerose community on Kentucky Route 30 East. Several log-yards are visible where timber is staged for further processing.


Tobacco farming was a popular trend until the government "buy-out" reduced the number of tobacco farms in the early 2000s. Subsistence farming has for a considerable time, been an integral part of local culture. Larger scale commercial farms are few and far between. Marijuana is a substantial cash crop. This has become increasingly more appealing for local residents since income from tobacco has greatly been reduced in recent years.

Notable People Associated with Owsley County[edit]

Earle Combs[edit]

Combs in a photograph taken while he was playing for the Louisville Colonels

Earle Bryan Combs, born May 13, 1899 at Pebworth in Owsley County, played baseball for the New York Yankees from 1924 to 1935 and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1970. He was an ideal leadoff hitter for the legendary teams of the 1920s and 1930s. During this time, he played with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He averaged nearly 200 hits and 70 walks a season helping him compile a .325 career batting mark. He is featured in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A plaque to honor his birthplace stands on Highway 11 in Pebworth.[14]

Combs left Owsley County to pursue an education in 1917 at the age of 18. After he left the county, he never returned for any considerable amount of time. Eventually in 1954, he settled in Richmond, KY after his extensive professional baseball career.

Daniel Boone[edit]

Daniel Boone

According to Joyce Wilson's book, A Romantic History of Owsley County, Daniel Boone made his way to Owsley County on a two-year hunt from 1769-1771. In 1784 he returned and surveyed some 50,000 acres for James Moore and Col. John Donelson. Boone used a huge rock at the mouth of Sexton's Creek, on which he carved his initials, as his starting point in these surveys. This rock, known as "Boone Rock" or "Goose Rock" is still there, located approximately nine miles south of Booneville on Highway 11 South. However, due to changes in the course of the stream throughout time, the initials are under water and cannot be seen, even during dry seasons.

Boone was impressed with this area and called it "a place where peace crowns the sylvan shade." He owned his own land of which a portion remained in the family until 1819, when Daniel Boone, Jr. transferred the last 1,000 acre tract on Meadow Creek to William Strong.

Daniel Boone's favorite camping spot, known as the "old encampment", is located a half a mile south of Booneville between the highway and the river just below the area known as the "Sag". In later life, Daniel Boone learned that many claims he had to land were invalid because someone else had made official claims before he did.

Daniel Boone's granddaughter, Leah Schull Newman, and other Boone descendants, are buried in the Newman Cemetery located in the Pebworth area on Highway 11 North.

Dolly Bowling[edit]

Dolly Bowling made her first quilt at age nine. The "Dollie Star" is an original pattern she created and patented. Another exceptional quilt which Dollie collaborated on, "The Cherry Tree," is now part of the National Archives in Washington D. C. The quilt was selected as part of a featured exhibition which toured the U.S. in 1997.

James Klotter, Ph.D.[edit]

James Klotter currently serves as the Kentucky State Historian and professor of History at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky. He was an associate editor of the Kentucky Encyclopedia and served as the executive director of the Kentucky Historical Society for many years until his retirement.

Dr. Klotter received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Kentucky. He has honorary degrees from Eastern Kentucky University and Union College. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of a dozen books including: A New History of Kentucky; Kentucky: Decades of Discord, 1865–1900; Kentucky: Portrait in Paradox, 1900–1950; William Goebel: The Politics of Wrath; The Breckinridges of Kentucky; Our Kentucky: A Study of the Bluegrass State; and History Mysteries.

Tourist Attractions[edit]

Abraham Lincoln Relief Sculpture[edit]

The Abraham Lincoln Relief Sculpture, locally known as 'Abe Lincoln Rock' or 'Abraham Lincoln Rock', is located just off Highway 846 in the Conkling community of Owsley County. The sculpture is listed in the inventory of folk art in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The sculpture was carved by a traveling pack peddler, Granville Johnson, in the 1930s. Local Legend has it that Johnson had come to Owsley County ill and in need of assistance. The John Williams family cared for him on their farm located south of Booneville. As he began to recover his strength, Mr. Johnson would take a hammer and chisel and climb the hill behind the Williams' home each day. Once recovered well enough to travel again he revealed the sculpture, which he had created as a gift of appreciation to the family.[citation needed]

The Owsley County Fiscal Court purchased the sculpture and surrounding land in 2008 from Clyde and Dianna Combs. There are no signs informing would-be visitors of its actual location; therefore, it's almost an impossibility to find for any potential tourists who wish to visit the site.




Currently Operating[edit]


Owsley County has one Christian Private school currently operating. Sugar Camp Baptist Church maintains a primary educational facility off of Hwy. 30 East.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "State & County QuickFacts". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved March 6, 2014. 
  2. ^ "Find a County". National Association of Counties. Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  3. ^ http://www.kyenc.org/entry/o/OWSLE02.html
  4. ^ Discovery.com: Inside America's Poorest County: Photos of Owsley County
  5. ^ "Table 1: 2011 Poverty and Median Income Estimates - Counties". Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates. U.S. Census Bureau. 2011. 
  6. ^ The Register of the Kentucky State Historical Society, Volume 1. Kentucky State Historical Society. 1903. p. 36. 
  7. ^ a b Ed Porter Thompson (1898), History of the Orphan Brigade, retrieved 2012-02-19 
  8. ^ Gary, S.L.S., et al.Consideration of driver home county prohibition and alcohol-related vehicle crashes. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 2003, 35(5), 641–648.
  9. ^ "Census 2000 U.S. Gazetteer Files: Counties". United States Census. Retrieved 2011-02-13. 
  10. ^ "U.S. Decennial Census". Census.gov. Retrieved August 6, 2013. 
  11. ^ "Annual Estimates of the Resident Population: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2012". Census.gov. Retrieved August 6, 2013. 
  12. ^ "American FactFinder". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved 2008-01-31. 
  13. ^ [1], The New York Times. Where Americans Most Depend on Government Benefits. Published: February 11, 2012. See the share of Americans' income that comes from government benefit programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, veterans' benefits and food stamps.
  14. ^ Earle Combs Statistics - Baseball-Reference.com

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 37°25′N 83°41′W / 37.41°N 83.69°W / 37.41; -83.69