William R. Leslie Established Early
Settlement On The Big Sandy In 1790s
Snively Chapel Recognized As A Historic Site
The main portion of Big Sandy River is some 27 miles in length and is fomred by the junction of the Levia and Tug forks at Louisa in Lawrence County, Kentucky. It flows northward and empties into the Ohio River at Catlettsburg.
By J. Verne - 2003
The small creek was crystal clear, tinkling lazily into a larger creek near a huge, hollow sycamore tree. Standing on a slightly elevated point of land, William Robert Leslie gazed across the cane-choked creek, swinging his eyes to encompass a vast, long stretch of lush, level bottomland. Wooded slopes of virgin timber stretched from the backside of the bottomland toward a pure sky. The quiet was primeval, broken only by the musical sound of the flowing water.
"Here I will live on this land of plenty, this Canaan in the wilderness," surely must have been his thoughts on that day. The year was about 1790.
William Robert Leslie was first shown this lush bottomland of present-day Johns Creek by Daniel Boone. This is borne out by family traditions to the effect that Daniel and Robert swapped rifles and powder horns, the latter yet in possession of the Leslie descendants. The rifle, a fine one in appearance, is not now owned by the Leslie family. The powder horn, said to have belonged to Boone, is now the property of a direct descendant of William Robert.
The Leslie Settlement was the first permanent settlement on the upper Big Sandy. This area was at one time Floyd County. Pike County was separated from Floyd County in 1821. The records of land transactions in the Pike County Courthouse begin with this year. Naturally that also indicates the Leslie Settlement was the first settlement in what is now Pike County, Kentucky.
After Isaac Shelby became the first governor of Kentucky, two men, John May (Maysville was named in his honor) and David Ross, procured a land grant for several housand acres in this area. John May was killed by Indians shortly afterward, while traveling down the Ohio River in a canoe. He never lived to realize the value of this valuable acreage. The countryside gradually filled up with land hungry settlers in the years to come.
The Indians were not a problem on this part of Johns Creek. This excellent farmland was located far off the beaten war trails. The Indians who had lived here peacefully hundreds of years before were now gone forever. Near where William Robert would later build his home, Indians once lived in contentment amid rich gamelands.
For a short while in 1790 William Robert had lived in a crude cabin downstream at the mouth of Brushy Creek. He soon moved back upstream and lived in the base of a giant hollow sycamore tree. William Robert immediately began work on a cabin located on the opposite side of Johns Creek. The location was an elevated portion of the hillside of a long stretch of bottomland. The cabin faced the westward sun, with a crystal clear stream running by on the lower side. From the elevated front yard of the cabin the view was breathtaking with the meandering Johns Creek, and slightly to the right was a long stretch of bottomland. The location was high, away from the danger of rising flood waters. The stream, which probably seeped out during the driest summer, made frequent trips to the creek unnecessary.
While building his cabin, William Robert walked the high ridges, down the hollows, and along Johns Creek, marking with his broadax the boundary trees, which would lay his claim to several thousand acres of prime land. He then returned to Virginia for his family.
Today a small jumble of stones, perhaps used by William Robert in constructing his cabin, lies beside the small stream. An apple tree stands nearby to the right. Far along the long stretch of bottomland, the red roofed, stately, white home of the current resident, at this time, rests in the afternoon sunlight. Across Johns Creek at the mouth of Sycamore Creek is the Gulnare Post Office.
Robert, son of William Robert Leslie, arrived on Johns Creek in 1802, with the intention of staying. He had previously looked over the land a year earlier. He possibly settled and built his home alongside a small creek upstream from the site of William Robert's cabin. Here the land is flat and fertile. There seems to be no certain knowledge of the location of his home, but surely his large family would have required a new, large cabin. Stones found in a recent garden location could have possibly been the remnants of his homestead, although this is open to conjecture.
In 1802 the same year Robert came to Johns Creek, William Robert choked to death on a piece of dry, roasted venison, while his wife was doing chores outside. He had suffered from a throat wound reputed to have been inflicted by Indians during a battle on the Tug River. This was thought to have contributed to his choking, as he had found swallowing difficult since he was wounded.
William Robert was placed to rest on a small flat of land located on the hillside above his cabin. Here he had previously carved his name on a large beech. The date of his death was inscribed there and was, at that time, the only record. According to family descendants his exact age wasn't known, as his birth date wasn't recorded. He would have likely been in his late 50s.
The lone gravesite was marked with a small stone. The stone was destroyed by a log rolling down the steep hillside from above, and a concrete marker was poured in 1922. The name and date of his death were inscribed in the fresh concrete with a nail. This massive concrete marker was erected by a Leslie descendant and a resident of the farm at that time. It stands today, strong and durable, with the inscription easily legible.
William Robert was of Scotch descent. He married a woman named Elizabeth. Robert, son of William Robert, also married a woman named Elizabeth. From this union 15 children were born. The oldest was born in 1789 and the youngest in 1809. Five years after William Robert had been laid to rest in a halved and hollowed, yellow poplar log, which was fastened together with wooden pegs, his grandson, Martin Leslie, was born. Forty-six years later he would give Pike County the site of its oldest house of worship.
Martin Leslie and his wife, Sarah Leslie, deeded a tract of land to the Methodist Church on April 11, 1853. This conveyance was entered into between Martin Leslie and his wife of Pike County, Kentucky, of the first part; and Martin Lesley, Thomas May, James Maynard, Samuel Marrs, and Allen Lesley, trustees in trust, for the consideration of one dollar. The purpose of the conveyance being to construct a house of worship known as Snively Chapel.
Snively Chapel was built and used until approximately 1895. The old logs of the original church were purchased by a local farmer for the sum of $10. He used them in the construction of a corn crib.
The present Snively Chapel, complete with a bell tower, was built by Minister Tom Leslie, who lived nearby at the time. He was paid $100 for his labor. The new building was constructed primarily of poplar.
The Leslie name was also spelled "Lesley" or "Lasly." The deed for the Snively Chapel tract made use of the "Lesley" form. The name apparently changed to its modern form about 1886.
The recent dwelling, standing near the site of William Robert's original cabin, was built by a member of the Hurt family in 1916. It was standing in excellent condition in the 1970s and later. It was weatherboarded white and two-story. It was covered with the original roof, which was said to have never leaked. The house was built on a solid, black walnut foundation with window sills of the same wood. In the dining room was a large, handmade table. It had five massive, solid oak legs supporting it. The Hurt descendant living in it at that time speaks with pride of the hospitality enjoyed by many people at this handsome, patiently crafted heirloom. I also enjoyed the hospitality and lunch with Mr. Hurt.
Mr. Hurt traces his ancestry to the Leslie family. His great-grandmother was Elizabeth Leslie.
Calhoun Mayo (Robert C. Mayo), famed for making a fortune from mineral transactions, was born across Johns Creek from the Hurt (William Robert Leslie) farm. He moved to Johnson County when he was very young. His mother was a Leslie.
A few miles upstream from the Hurt farm is the home of a direct descendant of William Robert Leslie. He prefers the modern spelling of "Leslie," as there were three different forms used in this family. During his school days if a teacher pronounced the family name Lasley during the roll call he would decline to answer. He and his brother have many of the old documents, deeds, and papers that belonged to the pioneering family long ago. Written with the fine, delicate, flowery scrawl of quill pens, they are legible even today. He has surgical instruments that belonged to Robert. He surmises he may have been a frontier doctor.
Today the Snively Chapel stands lonely and unused. Few people are concerned about its future. Thanks to the efforts of a few interested local people, it has now been officially recognized as a historic site.
Without protection this historic landmark will not survive a great number of years. It is endangered by possible fire or vandalism. The people of Kentucky, and especially the Methodist Church, should endeavor to ensure its preservation. Later may be never. People, time, and places blur into the irrecoverable past.
Snively Chapel is located a short distance above the mouth of Sycamore Creek. The church is white with a red roof of metal. The windows are covered with protective metal screening. The weatherboarding was no doubt planed locally. The church is supported on sandstone pillars. It has a bell tower, with the bell rope protruding through a hole in the ceiling. The wooden benches are painted brown, as is the other woodwork. The pulpit stands behind a low, wooden partition. Behind the pulpit, recessed in the wall, is a bench, probably reserved for the deacons of the church. On the wall behind the pulpit, on either side of the bench, are mounted two kerosene lamps.
The church stands quietly in a shady glen of young hardwoods. Beside it, gnarled and beaten by passing years, a gray beech tree spreads its ancient arms in a protective gesture of cool shade. Carved on the trunk, blurred by the years, are the initials of those who have lingered in its comfortable coolness.
The legend above the entrance reminds us the church has been in existence since 1853. It was last used by the Salem Methodist Church, when its house of worship was destroyed by fire. Snively Chapel deserves to continue to be preserved as a part of our heritage. People should be made aware of this historic place. A historical site marker has now been erected and dedicated at Snively Chapel, proclaiming it to be the oldest church in the Big Sandy Valley. Hopefully someday a marker will be placed giving credit to the early pioneer responsible for the first permanent settlement on the Big Sandy. To linger is to lose. History, like marks in the sand, fades rapidly.
J. Verne, 201 Orchard Drive, Apt. 11, Nicholasville, KY 40356, shares this article with our readers.