SIDNEY — Isaac Shelby was born in Frederick County (now Washington County) Maryland on Dec. 11, 1750. He was the second son and third child of Evan and Letitia Cox Shelby. Evan Shelby had immigrated to America in 1734 from Cardingshire, Wales along with his parents, Evan and Catherine (Morgan) Shelby. Although they had been members of the Church of England prior to immigrating, they practiced the Presbyterian faith in America.
Early in his life, Isaac became proficient in the use of arms, received a decent education, and adapted easily to the rigorous life of a frontiersman. He worked on his father’s Maryland plantation, learned the craft of the surveyor, and at age eighteen, was appointed a deputy sheriff for Frederick County.
In 1773, the extended Shelby family moved to Fincastle County, Virginia (now part of Tennessee) in the region along the Holston River. There Isaac spent most of his days caring for herds of cattle grazing the extensive ranges of the region.
Isaac’s first experience in a military engagement took place on Oct. 10, 1774, when he served as a lieutenant in the Fincastle Company led by his father. The engagement, the only major battle of Lord Dunmore’s War, is known both as the Battle of Point Pleasant and the Battle of Kanawha.
The battle was fought at what is now Point Pleasant, West Virginia, near the mouth of the Kanawha River. It resulted in victory for the Virginia frontiersmen and the defeat of the combined tribes of Native Americans primarily from the Mingo and Shawnee tribes. The Indians had hoped that by combining forces, they could halt the westward movement of settlers.
The struggle was fierce, with no clear winner until the Indian tribes withdrew. The end of the battle saw Evan Shelby in command of all Virginian troops, as all higher-ranking officers had been killed.
The Indians were pursued into the Ohio Valley, and Shawnee Chief Cornstalk was forced to sign the Treaty of Camp Charlotte, in which he ceded to Virginia all the Shawnee lands south of the Ohio River (the present states of West Virginia and Kentucky). Cornstalk also agreed to return all white captives being held by the Shawnee and to cease attacking traffic on the Ohio River.
Fort Blair was constructed at the mouth of the Kanawha River. Isaac was second in command of the fort’s garrison. He remained there until Lord Dunmore ordered the fortification destroyed in July 1775, fearful that it would fall into the hands of American rebel forces.
Once he completed his duties at Fort Blair, Isaac went to Virginia’s Kentucky County, where he surveyed lands for the Transylvania Company. He returned home for the winter months, returning the following year to survey lands for himself and to improve upon the previous surveys of lands claimed by his father.
While he was away in 1776, the Virginia Committee of Public Safety appointed him captain of a company of Minutemen. As winter approached and he returned to Fincastle County, he undertook his duties. He spent the better part of the next two years – well into 1779 – securing supplies for Virginia’s troops as well as the Continental Army, sometimes paying for those supplies out of his own pocket.
In the spring of 1779, Isaac Shelby was elected to represent Virginia in the Virginia Assembly. Later that year, Shelby was commissioned a major and assigned to command the escort guard for the surveyors whose task it was to survey the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina.
As a result of the survey, Shelby and his neighbors found that their properties, which they had always believed were in Virginia, were actually a part of North Carolina. Many of Shelby’s neighbors refused to believe that they were not Virginians, and began to refer to the area in which they lived as the Squabble State. Shelby, by then himself an accomplished surveyor, fully understood the impact of the survey.
As a result of his change of residence, Shelby was commissioned colonel of militia in the newly established Sullivan County, carved out of what had previously been a part of Virginia’s Fincastle County. Most of the militia in his unit were men he had previously commanded as Virginia militiamen.
In the summer of 1780, Shelby returned to Kentucky County to further secure his claims to the property (1400 acres) he had previously surveyed. He had no sooner arrived and began improving the property than he received news in June that the British had captured Charleston (May 12, 1780).
Shelby packed his equipment and returned to his home in Sullivan County. He arrived in July to find a message from General Charles McDowell requesting that his militia unit join in helping slow the advance of British forces, who had already captured Georgia and South Carolina, and were advancing on North Carolina.
Shelby led his 300 militiamen to McDowell’s encampment near Cherokee Ford in South Carolina. Over the course of the next three weeks, Shelby’s unit was in no small part responsible for three important rebel victories over the combined forces of regular British troops and Tory sympathizers. Those victories included Thicketty Fort (July 26, 1780), Wofford’s Iron Works (August 8, 1780), and Musgrove’s Mill (August 18, 1780).
Their forward movement was soon halted by news of the British victory at Camden (August 16, 1780). However, Shelby proposed to his men that they join other rebel units in attacking a force led by
British Major Patrick Ferguson
Ferguson led a group of Provincials and Tories that had been operating in the South Carolina uplands and was moving to join the British force led by General Lord Charles Cornwallis. Attacking early in the morning of October 7, 1880, the battle led to a decisive rebel victory in which Ferguson met his death.
Shelby was also instrumental in developing the plans for the attack of rebel forces under Brigadier General Daniel Morgan at Cowpens (January 17, 1781). It was there that colonial forces scored a decisive victory against British forces led by Lieutenant Colonel Sir Banastre Tarleton.
In response to a request for aid from General Nathanael Greene, Shelby raised a force of four hundred riflemen later in 1781. His force joined a force of two hundred riflemen led by Colonel John Sevier, marching into the South Carolina low country to join Greene’s army. Greene’s plan to block General Cornwallis’s march back to the safety of Charleston was shuttled aside when Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown (October 18, 1781).
Shelby then marched his troops to join the forces of General Francis Marion along the Pee Dee River. Collaborating with troops led by Colonel Hezekiah Maham, Shelby captured the British post at Fair Lawn (November 27, 1781) near Monck’s Corner, South Carolina.
Learning that he had been elected to serve in the North Carolina House of Commons, Shelby obtained a leave of absence and attended the legislative sessions in December 1781. He was reelected in 1782, and again attended the sessions in Hillsborough in 1782.
In 1783, Shelby was one of three commissioners appointed to supervise the surveying of lands south of the Cumberland River in Middle Tennessee. Unable to afford to pay the soldiers who served in the Continental Army, “western lands” had been set aside as payment to the officers and men who had served in the war. Shelby and his fellow commissioners completed their work, which also settled the preemption claims on the Cumberland River, and by the following April, had returned to Kentucky.
Shelby settled on 1,400 acres of land he had previously claimed near Boonesboro, land now ceded to him by the United States in the Revolutionary War. Shelby named his new plantation ‘Traveler’s Rest’, and he spent much of his time over the course of the next half dozen years improving the property, cultivating the soil, and raising livestock. He became a leading breeder of fine beef cattle.
He married Susannah Hart, the daughter of Sarah (Simpson) Hart and Captain Nathaniel Hart, one of the first settlers in Kentucky and one of the owners of the Transylvania Company, on April 19, 1783.
Together they began building their home, perhaps the first stone house in Kentucky. The main section of the home was two stories high, with single story wings on either side. One side contained the kitchen, the other the master bedroom.
Isaac and Susannah’s union resulted in eleven children: James (1784-1848); Sarah Hart (1785-1846); Evan (1787-1875); Thomas Hart (1789-1869); Susannah Hart (1791-1868); Nancy (1792-1815); Isaac, Jr. (1795-1886); John (1797-1868); Letitia (1797-1868); Catherine (1801-1801); and, Alfred Evan (1804-1832).
In addition to his agrarian pursuits, Shelby was appointed a trustee of Transylvania Seminary (later Transylvania University) in 1783. He was also chair of the convention of military officers that met at Danville November 7 and 8, 1783, to give consideration to conducting a punitive expedition against the Indians as well as to discuss the potential separation from Virginia and the establishment of a new state.
Shelby founded the Kentucky Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge which was organized at Danville December 1, 1787. In January 1791, Shelby was appointed a member of the Board of War for the District of Kentucky (a political subdivision created by Congress and authorized to provide for the defense of Kentucky’s frontier settlements and to conduct punitive raids against the Indians.)
For several years Shelby served as the sheriff of Lincoln County (Lincoln County, named for Revolutionary War General Benjamin Lincoln, was one of three counties created by the Virginia General Assembly in June 1780 from the original Kentucky County; the other two were Fayette and Jefferson).
Shelby also served in every convention that met at Danville for the purpose of securing independent statehood for Kentucky. He was also present for the convention that met April 2–19, 1792, that drafted the first Kentucky constitution.
In May 1792 Shelby was chosen the first governor for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Shelby was chosen for the four-year term by the electors to whom the constitutional convention had designated the selection of the state’s first leader.
Shelby was inaugurated at Lexington on June 4, 1792, and shortly after, moved to Frankfort, which had been designated the state capital. As the first governor of Kentucky, Shelby deftly handled the many problems encountered in establishing the state’s infant government.
He provided strong support for the actions of the Army under the leadership of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne against the Native Americans, who proved to be the chief threat to the country’s newest state. There was also great concern that Spain would close the port of New Orleans to American commerce.
There were any number of intrigues involving current and former government officials that would have taken Kentucky out of the Union and established a separate country. Perhaps chief among those involved were former United States Vice President Aaron Burr, who was eventually arrested in 1807 and charged with treason (he was eventually found not guilty, but left the country, having lost most of his friends as well as a great deal of money as a result of his schemes) and US Army Brigadier General James Wilkerson, who deftly conspired against Wayne’s leadership of the Army and was a paid agent of the Spanish Empire.
Although Shelby’s policies received criticism then and later, he was able to frustrate the various mechanizations of those whose goals would have taken the Commonwealth in an entirely different direction. In the end, he was able to keep Kentucky firmly in the Union.
At the conclusion of his term in 1796, he returned to Lincoln County. He spent his days making improvements to Traveler’s Rest and active farming.
Never able to completely divorce himself from public life, Shelby served as a presidential elector representing Kentucky in the Electoral College in 1797, 1801, and 1805.
The War of 1812 brought to his door any number of friends, acquaintances, and even those he did not know who raised a chorus both insisting and demanding that he return to office. The outbreak of hostilities had brought renewed threats from various Native American tribes, nearly all of whom sided with the British against the Americans. Shelby, acquiesced, and was overwhelmingly elected Kentucky’s fifth governor in August 1812.
As governor, Shelby understood the peril the young country faced. He also understood that the country’s defeat would mark the end of his life’s efforts, including his desire to spend his retirement years in Kentucky. As a result, he cooperated wholeheartedly with the national government in the prosecution of the war.
In 1813 he personally raised, organized, and led four thousand Kentucky volunteers. They joined the Army of the Northwest, commanded by Brigadier General William Henry Harrison, in the invasion of Canada. The invasion resulted in the defeat of the British and their Indian allies in the Battle of the Thames. The decisiveness of the October 5, 1813, battle made it the major victory of the war (the Battle of New Orleans actually occurred after the treaty ending the war had been signed.)
As he returned home, people in Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky lined the route he traveled to gain a glimpse of the battle’s hero. In appreciation for his heroic service, Congress presented him with a gold medal on April 4, 1818.
At the conclusion of his gubernatorial term in 1816, Shelby again retired from office. Citing his age, he declined President James Monroe’s 1817 invitation that he serve as Secretary of War.
In 1818, he did agree to assist General Andrew Jackson in arranging a treaty with the Chickasaw Indians. The treaty ceded to the United States their lands west of the Tennessee River, excepting a four-square mile reservation. Even that reservation they were required to lease to settlers.
Also in 1818, he agreed to serve as the first president of the Kentucky Agricultural Society. Under his leadership, the society distributed materials on the most innovative farming techniques, and supported agricultural education.
Shelby also agreed to serve as the chair of the first board of trustees of Centre College, so-named because of its location near the center of the Commonwealth. Established by the Kentucky General Assembly on January 21, 1819, the four-year college was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church and located in Danville.
During his life, Shelby reluctantly served in three wars and two governorships. All he had desired in his life was to be a good farmer and to raise good cattle. The positions and battles which brought him fame and prestige were but interruptions in his life. In each case when his mission was accomplished, he lost little time in galloping back to Traveler’s Rest, to resume his life as a husband, father and farmer.
By the end of his life, Shelby’s land holdings included 4800 acres. He annually sold 40-50 head of beef cattle and 25-40 hogs. In addition, he raised horses, mules, and sheep. He grew corn, tobacco, hemp, fruit and vegetables, often selling that which he did not need for his family’s needs to others in the surrounding area.
Shelby also had a successful distillery, known throughout the region for producing fine whiskey. He sold approximately 2000 gallons each year. In addition, he also produced cider and apple brandy, also products that he sold.
In 1820, Shelby suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right side. He remained clear of mind until his death July 18, 1826. He was buried in the family cemetery at Traveler’s Rest. The following year, the Commonwealth of Kentucky erected a monument at his gravesite. In 1952, the stone-walled family cemetery, which along with his grave, contains 22 graves including his wife and their relatives, became Kentucky’s smallest state park.
Author’s Note: At the time of his death, Isaac Shelby was one of the most well-known and respected figures in America. As a sign of the high esteem in which he was held, nine states named one of their counties in his honor. Putting that in perspective, only eight states have a county named in honor of Edmund Randolph, the first Attorney General, only eight states have a county named for the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone, and only eight states have a county named for William Henry Harrison, the country’s ninth President.