Visiting Kentucky, 1807-1809

Period accounts of Kentucky (or anywhere else) can’t always be taken at face value. Often their authors had ulterior motives. John Filson’s famous The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke (1784) was, shall we say, rather optimistic in its descriptions. If Filson could get settlers to the state, he could make money from his land investments.

Fortunately, Fortescue Cuming’s Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country (1810) offers a more objective view. His very readable travel journal traces his roundabout trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, down the Ohio River, back to Pittsburgh, back down the Ohio, and on to the Mississippi.

For those interested in Kentucky life during the early nineteenth century, it makes for great reading. There’s information, too, for those interested in Kentucky antiques. Lately, I’ve been working on a research project involving the Kentucky State Penitentiary. Why? The state pen’s workshops produced chairs for many decades. The pen also produced stone slabs, some of which may have been used atop furniture.

Cuming provides a detailed description of the Kentucky pen as it existed in 1807. Along with a description of the facility, he notes the presence of “twenty-four miserable wretches” imprisoned there…and also gives a list of the work they did as “nailors, coopers, chair makers, turners, and stone cutters, the latter of whom cut and polish marble slabs of all sizes…”

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