1834 Journey Through The Hills Of Southeastern Kentucky

In The Land Of The Three Forks Near Future Site Of Beattyville


During the winter of 1833, and spring of 1834, Charles F. Hoffman, an editor, poet, and novelist of New York, spent several months traveling, mostly alone by horseback, through what was then the western United States. He recorded highlights of his journey through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky in letters. During his travels, he mailed the letters to the New York American magazine for publication. Because of the popularity of his letters, they were later published in two volumes entitled "A Winter In The West By A New Yorker." This is the sixth of Mr. Hoffman's letters featured in our magazine, written while he was traveling through Kentucky 166 years ago. Each letter gives an interesting look at a much younger Kentucky. In the following letter, Mr. Hoffman writes from the Clay County area, on April 16, 1834.

Only one more part remains in this series. You will find its conclusion in the April 2000 issue. In May 2000, the Kentucky Explorer begins a new series on the early settlement of Kentucky by Daniel Boone, and others.


By Charles Fenno Hoffman - 1834 (Part Six)

The lad to whom we had been indebted for a night's shelter made every possible apology the next morning, for our meager entertainment, by pleading extreme poverty; notwithstanding which, we found it very difficult to force any remuneration upon him. The day was unfavorable for travelling, but, though not in any way pressed for time, we were compelled by the want of forage to change our quarters. A romantic ride along the cliffs of the Kentucky River brought us at seven or eight o'clock to a miserable shantey, adjacent to a coal mine at the forks of the river (near the present site of Beattyville), whence the coal is floated down in flat boats to Frankfort. The shantey appeared to be tenanted solely by three or four Negroes; but upon approaching the door, a respectable looking man came to the threshold, and invited us in out of the rain. It proved to be one of the proprietors of the mines, who represented himself as having been a British soldier taken prisoner in the last war; but his language and address were altogether those of a western American. By the kind offices of this person, we were provided with a breakfast of coarse pork and bread made of Indian corn, pounded between two stones by the fireside, a meal-making operation that consumed some time. I confess that in all the various tables I have sat down to, none required more of the Spartan's seasoning than this. I was really glad to wash down the coarse and greasy mixture with a bowl of sour milk, and betake myself once more to the saddle.

We returned now a mile or two nearly on our tracks, except that our path, instead of leading along the summit of the rocky and pine-covered bluff of the river, conducted us through a narrow but rich alluvial bottom at the base of the precipice, where the weeping branches of the wych-elms drooped far over the smooth deep tide, while a profusion of vines of every description hung in festoons along its margin. It was here that, while ferrying over the Kentucky, I could not help observing the happy effect produced by the full deep river, flowing so calmly between banks that seemed to have been torn asunder to afford it a passage. Each mountain torrent from the cliffs around clamored like a noisy demagogue as it rushed from the woods into the sunlight; but the proud stream only absorbed its boisterous current in silence, and then, like a lofty mind in a public station, reposing on its own truth, alike beneath the shadow of impending cliffs or over the bed of treacherous quicksands, swept upon its noiseless but resistless way.

After gaining the right bank of the river, our path was only the bed of a rushing brook that cut its way through a defile in the hills, and we soon, from diverging into its tributary rills, became totally lost. The rain came down in torrents, and we were glad to reach, about mid-day, what in the language of the country is called "a dead settlement." It was a cleared spot of about fifty acres, upon a piece of alluvial land, scooped out of the hillside, and having a ruinous log-hut within a few yards of a brook which formed one of the boundaries of the deserted farm. Relieving our horses as quickly as possible of their furniture, one of us drove a couple of stakes in the ground, and tethered them among the long neglected grass; while the other proceeded to strike a fire and make things comfortable within doors.

The house, which consisted of but one room, had, from appearances, already served others, as we were now using it, for a temporary refuge, as about half the floor seemed to have been consumed for firewood. After stretching our clothes to dry on the cross-beams, however, we succeeded in regulating the establishment with comparative neatness; so much so, indeed, that we determined, if game abounded in the neighborhood, to stay here two or three days. Accordingly, when the sky cleared for a few minutes, we proceeded to mend the worm-fence, and in a short time completed a very tolerable enclosure for our horses. L. then took his rifle and went over the hill after a deer, while I, practicing upon the lessons in domestic economy learned at the Negro's hut in the morning, proceeded to prepare some corn with which, for the use of our horses, we had before filled our saddle bags. Several hours elapsed before I heard the cheering whoop of my friend ringing through the glen; but he came empty handed, having seen game of no description during his tramp. The pressure of hunger, with the prospect of such a slender larder, compelled us forthwith to break up housekeeping. We left our lonely mansion, however, with some regret, for the perfect seclusion it afforded made it the gem of country-houses. It lay there secreted in the forest like a beaver-trap in a cane-brake, defying the wood-demon himself to find it, unless he had set his hoof in.

It was after nightfall that, by following the water-course, we arrived with much difficulty at a number of enclosed fields, where a thriving orchard, and a large herd of cattle gathering around the first frame barn we had encountered among these wild hills, indicated a degree of comfort to which we had long been strangers.

A stripling of seventeen was engaged in letting down the bars for the cattle to pass as we rode up to the enclosure. He was a well-made young mountaineer, with a fresh complexion and clear determined eye; his open hunting-shirt revealing a chest of the finest proportions, while the long yellow curls that shaded either side of his open countenance fell upon a pair of shoulders whose square breadth would have done no discredit to the figure of the brawny Cretan, when the frame of that noted render of oaks was yet in the gristle. All these observations I had leisure to make when more at home with the primitive family to which I am about to introduce you. But the make and mien of this young fellow called forth an exclamation from my companion the moment we saw him.

"I reckon if we can't accommodate you, stranger, no one else can hereabouts," replied the young man, to our request for shelter for the night; "just hitch your nags by the door, and I'll tote your plunder into the house presently."

Approaching the dwelling, which was a one-story building in the shape of an L, we saw a fat old woman in cap and spectacles knitting in the doorway, while a tall gawky-looking female of about five-and-twenty was engaged in spinning by her side. The old lady said that the good man was out, but she supposed we might stay for the night; while the daughter ushered us into a large wainscoted apartment, the beams of which were almost covered with bunches of yarn, hanks of coarse thread, and other similar products of domestic industry suspended from them; while a quantity of bed and table linen, and homespun frocks and long stockings, enough to have fitted out half a dozen rustic wardrobes, filled the shelves and hooks in two recesses on one side of the apartment, and faced a couple of bedsteads with neat dimity curtains, which occupied the corresponding recesses on the other side. Add an oaken table or two, half a dozen rush-bottomed chairs, and a couple of long rifles with powder-horn and bullet pouch, suspended upon a buck's antlers over the large fireplace, and I believe you have the full physiognomy of the great room of the house which, with the addition of a few strings of dried peaches over the mantelpiece, a rag carpet on the floor, and the substitution of a long ducking-gun, or old tower musket, in place of the Kentucky rifle, would correspond in every feature with the sitting room of a substantial Long Island farmer.

But the owners of these hoards of homespun wealth could never have been mistaken for New Yorkers. The group displayed around the fire after the head of the household had made his appearance was such as the masters of the Medici's time loved to paint; nor would the slightest alteration of costume be required for them to figure in the pictures of Raphael or Rembrandt. The females already described were indeed decidedly of the Flemish school; but the thin and sinewy figure of the bald-headed old man, with his long silvery beard depending from a countenance which L. admitted was of as perfect a Roman mould as he had ever beheld in his travels, and flowing almost down to the girdle which kept the faded hunting shirt to his person, was such as the pencils of Italy alone have preserved upon the canvass. Yet, remarkable as was the aspect of this ancient as he first presented himself to us, with half a dozen sons around him, all like himself, in belted frocks and sandals of raw bull's hide, it struck neither of us as did the appearance of a boy of twelve, the youngest of the group. He was clad like the rest, with the exception of an old broad-brimmed drab beaver, turned up on one side and slouched over the left eye, with as jaunty an air as if the knowing fingers of swashing Wildrake had given it the true Cavalier cut. But the features beneath were of another stamp than those of the Wood stock gallant, that worthy ruffler in King Charles's cause; they were perfectly regular and of singular delicacy, with a complexion more transparent than that of any female I ever beheld. In fact, it was impossible to conceive, when you looked at his long tresses of gold floating away from eyes of the softest hazel, that a head of such amazing beauty could belong to other than a woman. The figure of the boy, though delicate, was, from its perfect proportions, which his dress so well developed, fully in keeping with his face. The little fellow, as he stood with arms folded apart from the rest, leaning against the chimney, caught the attention of my companion, as an armful of dry wood thrown upon the fire brought his person into a sudden glare of light.

"What a beautiful boy!" exclaimed L.

"Why, yes, stranger," replied the old man, following our eyes, while the lad instantly left the room, "I may say that that's as perfect a piece of man's flesh as Nature and God Almighty ever put together; but I mistrust whether Guy will ever come to good."

"Not unless there's some way of getting the devil out of him," added one of the brothers.

"And we'll never see that day," pursued another; "he'll get shot before he's eighteen. He's drawed his knife twice on me already; and unless we keep him at home, young as he is, a rope or a rifle will soon be the finishing of him."

"Now don't talk so about Guy," cried the sister; and just then the subject of our conversation entering, ran up and buried his head in her lap, while the young woman, untying a snod of yellow silk which confined the spoiled boy's curls behind, combed out the long ringlets, and held them up for us to admire with all a sister's fondness.

The hour of bedtime soon arrived, and the old man, kneeling before the Bible he was unable to read, the whole family united with him in a prayer, which was not the less fervid and impressive because he had been denied those advantages of education which in the Northern States are far more generally diffused than here.

The unwonted luxury of clean sheets and a separate bed for each kept L. and myself exchanging congratulations from opposite sides of our apartment long after we had retired; while, weary as we were, we could not help lying awake for some time, comparing our observations upon the primitive circle into which we had fallen. But at last the wooden clock, which through Yankee enterprise had found its way to this remote glen, struck the hour of ten, and the whole household being long since asleep, we suppressed the murmur of our voices, and were soon dreaming with the rest.

(Series Concludes Next Month)