June 27, 2013

Traces of Laurel: The Wilderness Road

By Jan Sparkman

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — After reading the column on the founding of London, former Laurel Countian Wayne Onkst, now head of the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives in Frankfort, sent me a copy of a page from the Executive Journal of Kentucky governor Joseph Desha which throws some light on who appointed the first nine justices of the peace and other officers at the time Laurel County was established.  Desha was governor of Kentucky 1824-1828.

I’ve omitted references to other parts of the state and copied here only the portion that pertains to Laurel County.  The governor wasn’t big on punctuation so, just as it is written, it reads:  “Executive Journal December 1825. Dec. 16 ... The governor commissioned by and with the advice and consent of the Senate the following officers vis  . . . . Samuel McHargue Wm. Freeman Jarvis Jackson David Weaver William Smith James McNeale John Pearl Jacob Boyer James Ward to be justices of the peace in and for the county of Laurel newly formed . . . also Thos. Buford to be sheriff of Laurel County and Samuel Griffin coroner of Laurel County . . .”

Thanks to Mr. Onkst for sharing this information with us.  If you haven’t been to the Frankfort archives, you should go.

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For a period in my childhood, I lived just off the Laurel County portion of Route 229 (Barbourville Road), commonly called the Old State Road back then.  I didn’t know (and wouldn’t have cared if I had) that I actually lived on one of the most historic roads of all time. It wasn’t until I became interested in knowing more about the roots of my community that I realized I had touched history as I made my way to school over that old trail.

When Daniel Boone blazed his famous Trace across the Cumberland Gap and into the Bluegrass in 1775, Kentucky was still part of Virginia and almost two decades away from statehood.  As the years passed, hundreds of pioneers used the Trace – which was nothing more than a horse path – to get to and from the eastern settlements.  Because of the wide use of Boone’s Trace in the early days, many people have assumed that the Wilderness Road was simply a broadening of the original trail but that is not true.  In what was to become Laurel County, for instance, the road crossed the Trace at only three points.  Not that the road and the Trace were extremely divergent in direction; the road merely became a more refined and straighter route for travelers.  

One place where the two are one is along London’s present Main Street. The Wilderness Road opened Kentucky to a vast tide of settlers, some of whom got as far as London and decided to stay.  

There is more information on the history of The Wilderness Road in the Laurel County Historical Society’s library.   

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The Laurel County Historical Society is located at 310 W. 3rd St., London, (formerly the Laurel County Health Department).  The library is open on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. until 12 noon.  For further information, contact 606-864-0607 during library hours, or 606-224-3767 at other times.  Visit the historical society’s website:  Email the society at or Jan Sparkman at