Buried On The Highest Hill Overlooking Burkesville
By Joyce Stover – 2016
One should not have favorite ancestors, but I can’t help being thrilled at reading about the brother of my maternal second great-grandmother, Caroline McLain/ McLean Williams. He was the infamous “Capt. Jack McLain” who is buried atop the Alpine Hill near Burkesville, Cumberland County, Kentucky. Much has been written and told about Uncle Jack, but much of it is more fiction and imagination than truth. Nora Dixon McGee, noted historian of bygone days, wrote a romanticized story of how two orphan children, Jack and his sister, who came all the way from Virginia to Cumberland County to live with relatives.
John T. “Jack” McLain/McLean (the “McLean” spelling will be used in this narrative) and his sister Caroline, along with two other siblings, were actually born to John McLean and his wife, Susan Jane Frank McLean, in Barren County, Kentucky. Susan was the daughter of one of two brothers who were instrumental in the settlement of Glasgow.
Susan’s father, Peter Frank, and his brother, John, were among the early settlers of Glasgow, Barren County, and were ahead of their times when they established a nail factory. The business did not gain much success, because people were accustomed to using pegs to hold things together. Peter and John were entrepreneurs of the very early 1800s and bought and sold Glasgow town lots on a wholesale basis.
Peter Frank was born in Virginia, ca. 1776, to German immigrant parents. Peter was married in Fayette County, Kentucky, on August 17, 1803, to Sarah “Sally” Jones, daughter of Martin Jones of Mercer County. They moved to Barren County by 1810. Peter’s son-in-law, John McLean, was a businessman in Glasgow. Evidently he ran a grocery store and also did contract work on the sidewalks of the town. The city council’s minutes mentioned John a number of times, beginning in 1837 and continuing until January of 1847.
The Barren County Order Book No. 7, page 264, dated December 16, 1850, reads: “Appropriation to be made to Mrs. McLean and her children to be placed in the hands of James L. Crutcher, $50, to be paid out of this year’s levy.” Crutcher owned a mercantile in Glasgow.
A Barren County historian explained to me that the poor house system was not established until 1853 in Barren County, so the levies were given for the support of widows or ill/aged people. The 1850 census of Barren County lists the McLean family: Susan McLean, 36; John McLean, 12; Sarah J. McLean, 10; Caroline McLean, 7; and Joseph H. McLean, 5. All family members were born in Kentucky.
Barren County court records have guardian settlements for the four children of John and Susan Frank McLean, dated August 25, 1856, with their uncle, William Frank, being appointed guardian of all four orphans. Cary Snoddy was the surety on the guardian bonds. Barren County suffered a cholera epidemic in 1854, where half the inhabitants of Glasgow died and it was impossible to keep records of the dead, but it is not known if Susan died in that epidemic or not. What is certain is that she was deceased by 1856, as proven by the orphan guardian bonds.
I have not been able to find out what happened to the youngest son, Joseph H., after the bonds were executed. Sarah Jane, according to family history, married a man named Rainbolt and moved to the Midwest. When both sisters were old women, Caroline’s youngest son, Dick, took her to visit her sister. By all reports, the visit was not a success, for they had led such different lives that they had nothing in common.
Caroline and Jack were sent to Cumberland County to live with another uncle, Josiah P. Frank, who had moved there to follow the trade of saddlery. Josiah had married Amanda Williams of Cumberland County, and the two orphans lived with them a while. The 1860 Cumberland County census lists the orphans living two houses away from the Frank family in the household of M. M. Coyle, age 29, and his wife, M. J., age 18. J. T. is listed as being 22 as a master brick mason; his sister, Caroline, is listed as age 17. On June 5, 1861, Caroline married James Osborne Williams. Jack was not destined to marry.
When the Civil War broke out, Jack enlisted as a Union soldier. His military records show his rapid rise in rank. He became a captain and held the rank to the end of the war. The girl he had admired greatly was Sarah Jane Curd. Jack was heartbroken when he learned she had chosen to marry another man. He was an unhappy man when he was discharged at the end of the war.
After the war, Jack lived in Burkesville and plied his trade of brick/stonemason. He also worked as a peace officer in the area to keep down disorder and to round up the remaining guerrillas who had caused much trouble in the area. One day, he was nearing a residence and saw a man run around the corner of the house. Thinking it was the man he was after (a man named Pruitt), he fired, hitting him. When Jack ran to the house, he found his good friend, Richard Watson, dying in the arms of his pregnant wife. Jack never got over these two tragedies in his life. The unfortunate shooting of Watson took place on July 11, 1866. Some two months later, on September 21, 1866, after brooding over the tragedies and reportedly drinking heavily, Jack took his own life, stating that he wanted to be buried atop the “Big Hill.” His body was taken there to rest until the early 1950s when Les McComas built the Alpine Motel complex atop the same hill. The entire top of the hill was excavated and Captain Jack’s remains were exhumed. After the project was completed, Jack’s remains were interred to a place of honor. After researching the McLeans in the Barren County area and surrounding counties, I have concluded that the only people listed in the various census records who consistently had a son the right age to have been John McLean were George McLean and John McLean who were listed in Warren and Logan Counties. These two brothers once owned the land where Mammoth Cave Park is located, but sold it for a small profit the same day they bought it for the saltpeter found inside the cave.
War with Great Britain was declared in June 1812, but the two countries had been having serious misunderstandings for many months. On July 9, 1812, the deed to the Mammoth Cave was “sold” three times, probably to reflect earlier transactions and to produce a clear title. First, Valentine Simons (Simmons) and his wife were listed as selling their land (including the two caves) to John Flatt of Barren County for $116.67. On the same day, Flatt handed over title to the lands to George and John McLean for $400 cash. Finally, on the same day, the McLeans sold 156 acres of this tract to Fleming Gatewood and Charles Wilkins for $3,000 cash. The war was on and men were eagerly seeking possession of the valuable deposits of saltpeter in the caves. Saltpeter was used in ammunition so it was in big demand during the war.
Captain Jack’s resting place is a beautiful place near the newly-renovated Alpine complex and is visited by a number of tourists each year. It is accessed by traversing a scenic winding blacktop road from Burkesville to the top of the hill. His marker reads: “Captain Jack McLain, Company J, 1st Kentucky Cavalry, “Braver men never responded to ‘Boots and Saddles’ than the 1st Kentucky Cavalry.”
Jack McLain accidentally killed a good friend. In sorrow he took his own life September 21, 1866. Previously he had requested, “When I die I want to be buried on top of that highest hill overlooking Burkesville, as that is as near heaven as I will ever get.”
It is my sincere wish that Captain Jack found the peace in death that he was not able to find in life.
Joyce Stover, 387 Stover Road, Burkesville, KY 42717; firstname.lastname@example.org, shares this article and photos with our readers.
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