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Our Rich History; John Filson; first Kentucky historian, forgotten Cincinnati founder

By Steve Preston
Special to the NKyTribune

In his book Daniel Boone, John Mack Faragher describes John Filson as the living embodiment of Ichabod Crane.  With the image of a skinny, clumsy, colonial nerd in your mind, it might be hard to believe the accomplishments achieved by him in the rugged and dangerous landscape of pre-statehood Kentucky and frontier Ohio.

John Filson

John Filson helped bring waves of settlers to Kentucky, created the frontier legend of Daniel Boone, and surveyed and platted Losantiville, later renamed Cincinnati.

Born around 1747 in Chester County, Pennsylvania, Filson was a second son and educated at the West Nottingham Academy in Maryland.  As an adult, he began working as a schoolteacher.  Filson appears to have taught school throughout the duration of the American Revolution.  No conclusive record of military service by him has been found.  Apparently not a veteran of the war, it didn’t stop him from trying to reap the benefits of the recent conflict.

At the close of the American Revolution, land west of the Appalachians became part of the nascent United States of America.  This new land was what the cash-strapped fledgling government would use to pay soldiers for their service. The federal government issued land warrants to veterans based on their service and rank. However, many war veterans preferred to sell their warrants rather than move west of the mountains.  As a result, land speculation was rampant.  Filson appears to have seen an opportunity in this.  He decided to convert the inheritance he received from his father into cash and began purchasing land warrants from veterans for lands in Kentucky.  After accruing warrants for over 12,000 acres, Filson headed to Kentucky.

John Filson arrived in Kentucky in 1783.  He was completely incapable of working his own land and hoped to interview settlers to garner interest in the land so that he might sell it at a profit.  He settled in and began teaching, surveying and interviewing the inhabitants.

John Cleves Symmes. Source: Charles Greve, Centennial History of Cincinnati

One of those settlers he interviewed happened to be a man named Daniel Boone.  While he needs no introduction now, Boone was only well known locally in Kentucky in 1783.  Filson sensed something in the stories told him by Boone.   Along with accounts by other Kentuckians, Filson devoted a whole section of his writing to the exploits of Daniel Boone.  When he was finished, Filson, extraordinarily, had drawn the first accurate map of Kentucky, written extensively on the natural history of Kentucky and its native people, and also an account of the life of Daniel Boone.

With one manuscript, Filson had managed to become the first historian of Kentucky and the first biographer of Daniel Boone.  With print shops lacking in Kentucky, Filson removed himself back to Wilmington, Delaware to have his book printed.  The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke underwent only one pressing in America at the time.  Overseas, Filson’s book became a minor success.  It was reprinted in Europe in several languages, including French.  This helped spread the legend of Daniel Boone to another continent.

It wasn’t until 1785 that Filson returned west to Kentucky.  He didn’t stay in one place for long.  He soon left Louisville to go even further west to the Illinois country.  It appears he was gathering information there to write another book, this time on Illinois country lands.  While there, he narrowly escaped an Indian attack on his canoe on the White River, just out of the view of Post Vincennes.  For the next two years, Filson bounced back between his home on Brandywine Creek in Pennsylvania and Louisville or Lexington, Kentucky.  In August of 1788, Filson embarked on what would be his last adventure.

Cincinnati in 1800. Source: https://heritagevillagemuseum.wordpress.com/tag/cincinnati/

John Filson agreed to purchase a one-third interest in a land venture with Matthias Denman and Filson’s dear friend, Robert Patterson.  This venture involved land on the northern side of the Ohio River.  Denman had purchased approximately 800 acres of land opposite the mouth of the Licking River from New Jersey Judge, John Cleves Symmes.  Filson was tasked with platting or laying out the proposed town site.  He even named the proposed town, Losantiville—a combination of languages put together to mean “opposite the mouth of the Licking River.” This doomed name would prove to survive only slightly longer than Filson.

On September 18, 1788, Filson, Denman, Patterson and a large group set out from Lexington.  They marked a road on their way to the mouth of the Licking River to meet John Cleves Symmes, who was visiting the land purchase that bears his name.  When Filson arrived on the land across from the Licking River, he allegedly had a paper in which he had the plans for laying out the town.  Evidence is split over whether he laid a chain out in surveying the land.  He quickly joined an expedition led by Symmes to explore the reaches of his purchase up the Great Miami River.

As they explored, the group came upon a small Native American encampment.  Most of the group was made up of Kentuckians fed up with Indian depredations and wanted to attack the small group immediately.  Trying to make sure that peace prevailed on his newly purchased land, Symmes rejected this plan to attack.  An argument ensued and many of the Kentuckians left in disgust.  Caught in the middle, Filson eventually left the group out of fear or frustration.  Alone, miles from civilization, he was never heard from again. Early historians place the site of his disappearance somewhere in the northeast corner of Colerain Township.

With the disappearance of Filson, the first plans for the new settlement also disappeared.  His share in the land venture was bought out by Israel Ludlow.  Afterwards, surveying took place and a new layout created, including new names for streets.  John Filson faded into the back pages of history.

Filson’s 1784 Map of “Kentucke.”

Even his name for the new settlement did not survive.  Territorial Governor, Arthur St. Clair, arrived in 1791 to create Hamilton County.  He immediately changed the name of Losantiville to Cincinnati to honor the society that many Revolutionary War officers belonged to.  The only prominent vestige of Filson’s contribution to history that remains is The Filson Historical Society of Louisville, founded in 1884.

If one looks closer, it is hard not to see Filson’s fingerprints on the history of Kentucky and Cincinnati.  He created the first map of the state of Kentucky.  Through his research and interviews to draw settlers, he inadvertently became the first historian of the great state of Kentucky and garnered Daniel Boone international fame.  Because of his abilities, he was sought to lay out the town that would become Cincinnati.  So many accomplishments for a timid schoolteacher from the East!

Steve Preston is the Education Director and a Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum. He received his MA in Public History from Northern Kentucky University.

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