A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky by Heart: Some interesting facts you may not know about our first (and fifth) governor

Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared at KyForward September, 6, 2016

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

“Who was the first Kentucky governor?” is the question I’ve asked fourth graders for years as part of my impromptu state history trivia moments as both a regular and a sub teacher.

Most will respond that the answer is Isaac Shelby. You can bet the kids were and are ready for the follow-up question: “Who was the fifth Kentucky governor?” That would also be Isaac Shelby, and some will remember that a Kentucky county was named after him.

Recently I spent some time informally researching the man and discovered him to be much more significant than the answer to a school teacher’s trivia question. In fact, I found him to be downright fascinating. He was a brave, intelligent man who was a natural leader and served his adopted state of Kentucky with passion and competence, and he also made a good name in other places, too.

Traveler's Rest, south of Danville, in 1939 (University of Kentucky)

Traveler’s Rest, south of Danville, in 1939 (University of Kentucky)

Here are some items of particular interest I found about this historical person with the colorful name. The list is by no means exhaustive:

(1) As mentioned, Shelby was both the first and fifth Kentucky governor, serving the second time after a 16-year interlude. His first term was 1792 to 1796; his second was 1812 to 1816. Most of the years between were spent tending to his farm in Lincoln County.

(2) While settling at Ft. Boonesborough, he married Susannah Hart and she bore eleven children. Oldest daughter Sarah married famous pioneer surgeon Ephraim McDowell, who was first to successfully remove an ovarian tumor from a woman. The physician today has his name on the Danville hospital, the Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center.

(3) He is appreciated around the nation, too. Nine counties in the United States are named after Isaac Shelby. The states include Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, and as far away from Kentucky as Texas and Alabama. There are also eleven cities or towns around America which bear his namesake, along with three military installations.

(4) Born near Hagerstown, Maryland, in 1750, he worked on his father’s plantation and was, at age eighteen, appointed deputy sheriff of Frederick County.

(5) As well as his involvement in Kentucky politics, where he was a member of the state constitution convention, he served political terms in the legislatures of Virginia and North Carolina.

(6) He was second in command to his father in The Battle of Point Pleasant, the major skirmish of Dunmore’s War, in 1774.

(7) The future two-time Kentucky governor played a big part in leading the American Patriot militia to victory in 1780 over the British Loyalist militia, led by Major Patrick Ferguson, who was killed. The Battle of Kings Mountain was fought in South Carolina near the North Carolina border, and it proved pivotal in turning the Revolutionary War in the direction of the Colonists.

(8) Shelby surveyed for the iconic Transylvania Company, an integral part of American land expansion that, according to a Wikipedia post, “purchased much of present-day Kentucky from the Cherokees in a deal later invalidated by the government of Virginia.”

(9) During the War of 1812, while Kentucky’s governor, he led a band of Kentucky militia into the Battle of the Thames, at Chatham, Ontario. For this, Shelby was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, considered on par with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

(10) While running against Gabriel Slaughter in the 1812 Kentucky governor’s race, Shelby was mocked by Slaughter supporters as being too old at near age 62, calling him “Old Daddy Shelby.”

(11) Centre College in Danville began awarding the Isaac Shelby Medallion in 1972, which, according to Wikipedia, is called “the college’s most prestigious honor.” Danville is not far from Shelby’s “Traveler’s Rest” farm.

(12) In 1816, he was offered the position of Secretary of War by President James Monroe. He turned it down, reportedly because of his age. During that year, he became vice-president of the New American Bible Society.

(13) Shelby was with Andrew Jackson in 1818 when he negotiated the Jackson Purchase with the Chickasaw. Also in that year, he became the first president of the Kentucky Agricultural Society. In 1819, he became the first chairman of the board of trustees of Centre College.

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood day trips (and sometimes overnight ones) orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points being in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state now. After teaching 28 years, Steve spends much of his time today writing and reading about the state, and still enjoys doing those one dayers (and sometimes overnighters). “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes, and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

Additionally, I learned through my friend, Dr. Duane Bolin, history professor at Murray State University, of a neat story connected to Isaac Shelby and a pig during the War of 1812.

According to a book of journals edited by Anderson Chenault Quisenberry called “Kentucky in the War of 1812,” members of the Kentucky militia from Harrodsburg, who would join the force that would participate in the Battle of Thames under Shelby’s (and others) leadership, saw two pigs fighting each other as they began their long expedition from the small town to eventually, Chatham, Ontario, where the battle would be fought.

It seems that the winning pig took a liking to the Harrodsburg soldiers and traveled behind them. At one of the first stops, at the Ohio River at Newport, Kentucky, the tenacity of the pig was demonstrated, according to the book.

“There the men crossed over to Cincinnati in a boat,” it states, “and supposed that the pig’s march was at an end; but they were mistaken in their pig, for he plunged into the river and swam across and joined them on the other side.”

The pig, to the delight of the Kentucky force of warriors, followed them northward to Lake Erie, where the animal was left behind as the militia completed their journey to Ontario to do battle with the British and Chief Tecumseh’s native-American tribe confederacy. On the return from Canada, so the story is told, the pig rejoined his beloved militia members, and after returning home, the creature was given as a gift to Governor Shelby and lived out its years on his farm.

Is the story true?

Well…here is what the book says: “This curious story has been for by men whom we can not doubt; and it is published in General Robert B. McAfee’s ‘History of the Late War’ as an incident that came under his personal observation.”

The swine narrative is up for debate, I’m sure, but the influence of Isaac Shelby in shaping important events in the life of Kentucky in its early statehood, along with events outside the state, is a fact of history.

(Sources: Wikipedia; The Kentucky Encyclopedia; Kentucky in the War of 1812 (book); Dr. Duane Bolin)

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •


Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

Related Posts

Leave a Comment