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Fort Boonesborough

Site No.:
County: Research: Access: Activities:

Address: Phone:
15Ma123
Madison
Historic (ca.1775 -1810s)
Fort Boonesborough State Park
Original site, memorial;Reconstructed fort, tours, demonstrations, museum,educational programs and special events.
4375 Boonesborough Rd., Richmond, KY 40475
(859) 527-3131

The original site of Fort Boonesborough
The original site of Fort Boonesborough in Fort Boonesborough State Park; Image, Fort Boonesborough State Park, 2009

Summary

Fort Boonesborough was one of the earliest Euro-American settlements in the lands that would become Kentucky. Established by Daniel Boone in 1775, the fort was located along the Kentucky River near the route of the Wilderness Trail from the Cumberland Gap into central Kentucky. The large rectangular fortification was a temporary home and sanctuary to many families who found protection there from British and Indian attacks during the Revolutionary War. After the war ended, settlers attempted to establish a town there but the venture failed and the site was abandoned by 1820. The original fort site, marked with a stone memorial, is preserved in Fort Boonesborough State Park.

In 1987, archaeologist Nancy O’Malley conducted an extensive survey of the lower park area to confirm the location of Fort Boonesborough. Her team excavated the remnants of a stone chimney belonging to one of the cabins, two large post molds that may have supported a gate and a fire hearth filled with the bones of wild and domestic animals. This research is providing insights into the daily lives of some of the first Euro-American men, women and children to live on America’s first western frontier.

In 1975, a replica of Fort Boonesborough was constructed near the original site on a hill above the floodplain. Open to the general public, this living history museum has demonstrations, exhibits and educational programs throughout the year.

Sketch of Fort Boonesborough
Sketch of Fort Boonesborough depicting an artist’s reconstruction of the fort enclosure and cabins from G.W. Ranck’s Boonesborough published in 1901; Image, The Filson Historical Society, Kentucky.

 

Interior of Fort Boonesborough replica
Interior of Fort Boonesborough replica; Image, Fort Boonesborough State Park, 2009.

History

Fort Boonesborough was one of the first Euro-American settlements in the lands we now call Kentucky. Judge Richard Henderson and his partners formed the Transylvania Land Company with a grand scheme—establishing a colony in the Kentucke territory. In 1775, Daniel Boone was sent to select a site for the capitol and establish a settlement there. He chose a broad flat location along the Kentucky River near the mouth of Otter Creek and adjacent to abundant fresh and mineral water springs. There a fort was built out of logs harvested nearby. Rude log cabins formed a rectangular enclosure with log stockade filling the gaps between the buildings. Blockhouses with rifle portholes and overhanging second stories anchored the corners of the enclosure. Although not as sturdily built as classic military forts such as Fort Pitt in Pennsylvania, pioneer forts could withstand most external attacks by Indians armed with guns and bows and arrows. The forts were vulnerable to cannonfire but the use of such heavy artillery was very rare and never happened at Fort Boonesborough.

Hundreds of settlers passed through Fort Boonesborough, stopping briefly to get their bearings in their newly adopted land, reprovision, meet friends or learn about land opportunities. The fort served as a place of sanctuary and a point of defense as settlers fought to maintain their claim on the Kentucky frontier against Native American and British attempts to wrest control of this contested land. The settlers who lived here led a precarious existence, punctuated by Indian raids that often resulted in loss of livestock and human lives. Food shortages that led to periodic malnutrition, disease stemming from unsanitary and crowded living conditions, and occasional social strife were all part of a settler’s life. Nineteenth century interviews with surviving pioneers tell of a diet dominated by wild game and the struggle to raise food crops in the midst of frequent and sudden Indian attack. Excursions to salt licks to procure salt were dangerous trips that, on one notable occasion, resulted in the capture of 31 saltmakers from the fort, including Daniel Boone.

Fort Boonesborough was one of many defensive residential sites on the central Kentucky frontier. Only a few of these sites were large public forts like those at Boonesborough, Lexington, Harrodsburgh and Louisville. Far more were small private “stations” that sheltered a few families. These sites, large and small, were connected by a complex system of trails and paths that flung a network of communication routes over the central Kentucky area. Settlers entered Kentucky by two routes: flatboat travel down the Ohio River to Limestone Landing (now Maysville) then inland travel along the Limestone Trace to Lexington or following the “Wilderness Road”, a trail that entered Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap with branches to Fort Boonesborough and Harrodsburg, the latter eventually reaching the Falls of the Ohio where Louisville was later established. A settler’s choice of routes depended partly on where they started, how prosperous they were (the river route being more expensive than the overland route) and other factors. But one critical factor affected all settlers coming into Kentucky—safety in numbers. Settlers tended to make the long trek in large companies, often composed of family and friends from the same neighborhood. 

During the Revolutionary War, British and Indian forces in Ohio conducted a series of raids in an attempt to drive out American settlers south of the Ohio River. In September of 1778, Shawnee war chief Black Fish led a force of about four hundred Indian warriors and British militia against settlements in central Kentucky (then an extension of Virginia). Known as “The Siege of Fort Boonesborough,” about 40 riflemen including Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton fought off the war party. After a period of ten days, the siege ended when Indian and British force broke into smaller raiding parties to attack other settlements and American reinforcements arrived from Virginia. By the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783, there were only sporadic Indian raids in the territory that would become Kentucky. Large fortifications such as Fort Boonesborough were soon abandoned as settlers established individual farmsteads throughout the fertile valleys and hills of the Inner Bluegrass region.

Sketch of Daniel Boone
Sketch of Daniel Boone from “The History of Kentucky,” published in 1850s, via “First American West,” American Memory project, Library of Congress, courtesy, The Filson Historical Society, Kentucky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Siege of Fort Boonesborough,”
The Siege of Fort Boonesborough,” watercolor mural by Gayle Porter Hoskins, 1950s; Courtesy, Fort Boonesborough museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Research and Findings

Fieldwork

Archaeological investigations are key to confirming the exact location, site plan and layout and material culture of sites like Fort Boonesborough. Built of logs that decompose, the physical remains of pioneer forts are often difficult to identify without painstaking excavation. Using archival clues is also an important prerequisite to locating the site. Early land surveys that used the fort site as a landmark helped to pinpoint the site location, which was later confirmed by archaeological fieldwork.

Uncertainty about the exact location of Fort Boonesborough fueled the survey and excavations that took place in 1987. Funded by the Kentucky Heritage Council, the Fort Boonesborough State Park Association, the Madison County Historical Society and the Kentucky Department of Parks, the project entailed an intensive archaeological survey of the Kentucky River bottomland that included not only the park property but extended to the current mouth of Otter Creek. Extensive archival research provided many important clues concerning the location of the fort and other historic resources associated with the town of Boonesborough. Pedestrian survey utilizing screened shovel probes placed at regular intervals along transects identified not only the fort site but also houses, a tobacco warehouse, an improved (enclosed) spring and ferry-related resources associated with the short-lived small town that was established here after the Revolutionary War ended.


Excavations at the fort site were limited in extent but revealed the remnants of a stone chimney base of one of the fort cabins. A small patch of compacted soil was identified as a dirt floor in front of the hearth inside the cabin. Artifacts dating to the late eighteenth century were found resting on top of this floor remnant, still lying where they were discarded over 200 years ago. Fragments of English-made refined ceramic tablewares and red clay earthenware crockery, hand wrought nails, buttons, lead ammunition and gunflints, and tobacco pipestems all offer hints about what the pioneers owned and used during their stay at the fort. For example, the gunflints and lead bullets underscore the importance of firearms for defense and for hunting on the frontier. Tobacco pipestems indicate that some settlers were smokers and undoubtedly planted tobacco to sustain the habit. Archival research identified the existence of two large public tobacco warehouses that were later built near the fort site.

Block Excavation


Fieldwork at the original site of Ft. Boonesborough in 1987
Fieldwork at the original site of Ft. Boonesborough in 1987; Image, The W.S. Webb Museum of Anthropology.

 

 

Archaeologists uncovered a cabin hearth filled with faunal remains
Archaeologists uncovered a cabin hearth filled with faunal remains that is providing insights into the pioneer diet; Image courtesy, The W.S. Webb Museum of Anthropology.

Lab Analysis

Although pioneer life was hard and deprivations of all sorts were common, the small sherds of English ceramics are mute testimony to the settlers’ (most likely the women) including a treasured teapot, or other decorated ceramic vessels among their necessarily limited baggage to remind of them of home and look forward to a more civilized life. Such expectations must have sustained them as they endured food shortages and the necessity of living off the land while they worked to establish a stable agricultural base.  A hearth found outside the cabin area contained a large quantity of wild and domestic animal bone. Laboratory analysis of the animal bone revealed that wild animal species dominated with evidence of black bear, white-tailed deer, buffalo, elk, wild turkey and catfish. Cow and pig were also identified in the feature. 

Identifying women, children and minorities through archaeological research is a challenge. Nevertheless, household items such as ceramic and glass containers and tablewares and some personal items such as sewing equipment and clothing parts offer potential avenues for illuminating the lives of women, children and slaves. Archival sources such as the informative interviews of Rev. John Dabney Shane in the 1840s give voice to people who were as much a vital part of the settlement process as white men who shaped the written record. Slaves offer the greatest challenge since their experiences rarely entered the archival record and artifacts associated with them generally are not distinguishable from artifacts associated with whites. But people of African descent were a part of the frontier movement from the very beginning.


 

Faunal remains from the cabin hearth at Fort Boonesborough
Faunal remains and glazed redware rim sherd with green stripe from the cabin hearth at Fort Boonesborough; Image, KAS, 2008.

 

Redware rim sherd with green stripe
Closeup of redware rim sherd with green stripe; Image; KAS 2010.

 

Lead shot and gun flint
Lead shot and gunflint; Image; KAS 2010.

 

Education

Fort Boonesborough State Park preserves the original site of the “Old Fort.”  The park also has the Kentucky Rive Museum and a full-scale replica of Fort Boonesborough where interpreters provide demonstrations and educational programs about pioneer lifeways during the late 1700s. Visit the park’s website for more information about tours, field trips, museum exhibits and educational resources.

Richard Farmer demonstrates traditional metal crafts at a working blacksmith shop on the grounds of Fort Boonesborough
Bill Farmer, Director of Interpretation for the reconstructed Fort Boonesborugh, demonstrates traditional metal crafts at a working blacksmith shop on the grounds of Fort Boonesborough; Image, KAS, 2008.

 

Educational Resources
 

Websites

Fort Boonesborough Foundation

Media

- Segment in Historic Archaeology: Beneath Kentucky's Fields and Streams

Curriculum materials

- KA Vol III Cirriculum

Professional Resources

Cultural Reconstruction of Boonesborough and its History.  In Searching For Boonesborough, by Nancy O'Malley, pp 9-36.  Archaeological Report 193.  Program for Cultural Resource Assessment, University of Kentucky. (pdf, 2193 kb)

 

 


Last Updated 5/7/2013
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