Sunday, January 17, 2010

Smithland, Kentucky in 1835

Copyright by Brenda Joyce Jerome, CG
May not be copied without written consent

Genealogy is more than collecting names and dates. To understand what kind of life our ancestors lived, we need to put them in context of events occurring not only in the local area, but also nationally. As I am working on a project on Smithland, Kentucky, I decided to see what life was like for residents in 1835.

A variety of sources was checked with much of it found online. Using Google, I did a search on the weather in 1835 and learned about the cold wave in January. That's also the way I learned about politics, Halley's Comet, and the cholera epidemic. While Google might not have anything specific on your ancestor, you are almost sure to find data on events that impacted his life.

Other sources were used too. Livingston County court minutes revealed to whom and when tavern and ferry licenses were granted. Previous research in circuit court records revealed the details of the death of Dr. Louis Sanders.

By 1835, Smithland, Kentucky was a thriving river town. Steamboats were a common sight as they rolled along the Cumberland and Ohio Rivers, stopping to disembark passengers and to load and unload freight. Although Smithland was located far from a metropolis, news of the world came from visitors and newspapers delivered to local residents.

Businesses, including taverns, lined Front or Water Street. The Bell Tavern, operated by Stanley P. Gower, offered spirits as well as lodging for travelers. Gower purchased Bell Tavern the next year, it became known as the Gower House and it still stands today.

Gower House in 2009

Just down the street was the tavern of Thomas McCormick, a native of Ireland. David W. Patterson also kept a tavern at his dwelling house at the corner of Water and Court Streets.

Taverns weren't the only businesses in Smithland. Henry Wells and Benjamin Barner were commission merchants and did a brisk business storing and shipping goods. Other businesses were the Olive, Martin and Company Warehouse and the Smithland Dock Company, William Gordon, President.

As Smithland is located at the junction of two rivers, ferries were often busy transporting people and stock to the Illinois side of the rivers. Laws regulated the operation of these ferries with each ferry keeper posting an annual bond to promise he would keep a good, safe boat and would charge the fees set by the court.

Dr. Gustavus A. Brown, a native of Virginia, had been owner of a ferry in Smithland for some time. In January of 1835 he renewed his bond to keep a ferry across the Cumberland River from Smithland to the Point and and also across the Ohio River from the Point to Cumberland Island. Shortly thereafter, Brown was charged with not keeping his ferry according to the law and the county court decided the ferry should be discontinued. Three months later, the town trustees were allowed to establish a ferry from Smithland across the Cumberland River to the opposite shore. Robert Harrison Jr. also kept a ferry across the Cumberland River.

An epidemic of cholera, while not as severe as the one in 1833, hit nearby Russellville in Logan County in 1835 and surely would have been of concern to residents of Smithland. Most likely they had not forgotten that over 500 people had died during a two month period in the summer of 1833 in Lexington, Kentucky. With no water sanitation or filtering system, contaminated water was the perfect venue to spread cholera throughout the area.

February 1835 brought a cold wave to the southern part of the United States. It must have been miserable for local residents as Smithland sits high on a bluff and the slightest wintertime breeze can bring a chill to even the most hearty soul. The temperature that winter dipped down to 20 degrees below zero in some parts of Kentucky.

One sure way to get heated up, though, was to become embroiled in a discussion on the latest political events. In late January of 1835, President Andrew Jackson became the first president to escape an assassination attempt when an unemployed house painter twice attempted to shoot Jackson, but the guns misfired both times. No matter, though, as the president used his walking cane to club the would-be assassin. Convinced his political opponents were behind the attack, Jackson was thereafter paranoid about his safety. This event must have been of interest to Sterling M. Barner of Nashville, who was a friend of Jackson and who would later move to Smithland to go into business with his brother, Benjamin Barner.

Another event likely of interest to Smithland residents in 1835 was Halley's Comet, which is only visible every 75-76 years. Can't you see people standing on the river front and watching as the comet passed overhead? Wouldn't it be interesting to know what they were thinking?

The year 1835 ended with the shooting death of Dr. Louis Sanders by Townsend Ashton following Christmas festivities at the home of Thomas McCormick. This event was covered in this blog of 7 June 2008.

The events mentioned here are just a portion of what was going on in the world during one year. Knowing what events occurred helps me to better understand my ancestors.


Pimp said...

you mention cumberland island in your you have any information about the island?

Brenda Joyce Jerome said...

rayefox@2000, contact me at and I will give you the link to Walter Harmon.