Samuel McDowell is why Kentucky can have its 225th anniversary

Published 11:16 am Saturday, March 4, 2017


Guest columnist

Living in Boyle County is both a thrill and privilege. Knowing that this year we celebrate our 225th anniversary as the Commonwealth of Kentucky adds to the excitement.

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Boyle County history goes well beyond examination of Constitution Square and how decades later we gained our county name. Amazing facts emerge studying the settlement of Danville and a captivating pioneer spirit that helped early arrivals prevail through every imaginable hardship. That drive for life on new western lands led to remote log cabins, girdled forests turned into productive farms and survival of brutal winters — what weather researchers today know to have been “The Little Ice Age.”

Digging deeper, we find an extraordinary man whose unheralded contributions tie directly to the Revolutionary War, America’s westward expansion and the role Kentuckians played in establishing this great state and nation. That man — father of worldwide-acclaimed Ephraim — was Judge Samuel McDowell.

Another great Kentuckian of recent years was Dr. Tom Clark, our state’s historian laureate until his death at age 101 in 2005. It was through his teachings that we learned the significance of Judge McDowell:

McDowell fought as an officer under George Washington’s command in the Revolutionary War, serving as aide-de-camp to Isaac Shelby, who later became Kentucky’s first governor.

At the war’s end, McDowell received a large land grant, becoming an early surveyor in then hugely expansive Fayette County, along with our two other original counties, Lincoln and Jefferson.

Knowing the troubled condition of settlers, McDowell organized both the pioneers and “The Political Club” at his residence, Pleasant Vale — which soon after moved to Grayson’s Tavern, a structure still standing on Constitution Square.

For McDowell’s heroics, intellect and widely recognized integrity, George Washington commissioned him as the region’s first territorial federal judge.  

McDowell was among the founders who chartered the City of Danville.

A Christian held in high regard by all Boyle Countians, McDowell was instrumental in establishing Danville’s Presbyterian Church.

Most significantly, McDowell presided over nine tumultuous but ultimately successful constitutional conventions that led to Kentucky statehood in 1792.

It is this last point — Kentucky’s coming of age — that provides the most inspirational ties between Judge McDowell and our budding nation. Proof of this comes directly from Clark’s powerful words on statehood: “Had it not been for the brilliance and untiring patience of Judge Samuel McDowell, America today could well have become Europe West.”       

Ignoring settlers’ pleas, post-Revolutionary War northern colonies held little regard for the Kentucky Territory. Yankee-grown crops were processed and shipped down the Mississippi River under exclusive contract with Spain’s New Orleans agents, stifling Kentucky trade. This impediment to our sale of corn, wheat, lumber, hemp and hides proved devastating to impoverished frontier families.  

Yet another roadblock emerged during the conventions. Known historically as the Spanish Conspiracy, a counter measure to McDowell’s statehood vision was launched by a man named James Wilkinson. His cunning dealings with Spain were contrived with an eye on gaining control over the vast region known decades later as America’s Louisiana Purchase.

Leading disheartened and starving pioneers, McDowell remained undaunted. History records that “the scoundrel Wilkinson,” through his alliance with Spain, was alleged to have procured gold coins to bribe McDowell’s peers into abandoning their statehood dreams. McDowell, through his strength of character — witnessed by all around him, forged ahead. Miraculously maintaining pioneer support, McDowell finally won approval of both Virginia and Congress. Ratification of our Constitution and statehood came in 1792, thus this year, we can celebrate our 225th anniversary.     

In 1817, during his last year of life and at age 83, McDowell was elected to head his Presbyterian two-state delegation at its annual synod. That meant riding horseback to Nashville, Tennessee. After just a few days of meetings, McDowell rode home. It was his last major contribution to our fledgling state and his powerful commitment to his Christian faith; he died later that year in September.

Today’s national environment is calling desperately for men and women of character to step forward as did Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin — and later native son, Abraham Lincoln. We see in Samuel McDowell a once “backwoods” man of Christian faith, morality and remarkable endurance. Orphaned at age eight, he was left with little more than his God-given wits, ethics and labor. And, like Abraham Lincoln, he was a boy with a passion to learn — a desire that years later took him into law.

Today we can be energized and inspired, knowing that such leaders often come from remote and humble beginnings.

There is much more to McDowell’s early life, growth and contributions to America. Everyone in our commonwealth should study this exceptional man; one who Clark ranked high among his “Second Tier” of founders and American patriots.

On Sept. 21, descendants of McDowell will convene in Danville. Arriving from around the nation, they will honor this great Kentuckian on the 200th anniversary of his death. Seminars will be held that provide a window into the heart and mind of this man who helped secure our commonwealth and open the American west. Descendants will mingle among us, touching lands, crops and their home church. Before departing, they will provide enhancements to a legacy previously known by few — both here in Kentucky and across America.

Hopefully by the time of their departure, we who live here will gain, then share new knowledge of our own with others who come to recognize — as Tom Clark stated so eloquently — that today, without the work of Judge Samuel McDowell, we could indeed have ended up “Europe West.”

Tom Ellis retired as a health care administrative executive, then taught for several years in Boyle and Washington counties, with certification in both English and social studies with an emphasis in history.