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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Life of Charles Nerinckx

Camillus Maes

published by
Robert Clarke & Co.
Cincinnati, 1880

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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Chapter 6

 p64  Chapter V


Early Kentucky history. — The Shawnees. — Virginia explorers. — Catholic settlers from Maryland. — The league of sixty catholic families. — Father Whelan. — The first catholic church in Kentucky. — Father Badin. — St. Ann's church. — Other Missionaries. — Father Nerinckx.

Kentucky must have changed hands more than once during the early days, when Indians were the only claimants to fight for the possession of that beautiful country.

Most authors agree that it was a kind of neutral territory, or rather, a region, for the exclusive owner­ship of which many of the savage tribes long waged war. As such, it became, as has been the case among the more civilized nations of the European world, the theater of many a bloody conflict, which merited for this Indian battle-ground, the awe-inspiring name of the "Dark and Bloody Ground." As early, however, as 1672, the Shawnees or Showanoes, a tribe belonging originally to the Algonquin-Lenape nation, after having been driven from Eastern Pennsylvania and the southern shore of Lake Erie by the warlike Iroquois, took possession of  p65 Kentucky, where Father Marquette found them in 1673, on his journey of discovery down the Mississippi. "We arrived," he says, "at the Ouabouskigou.​1 This river comes from the lands of the East, where dwell the people called Chuouanons [Shawnees], in so great numbers, that in a quarter of a day we counted twenty-three villages, and fifteen in another, all very near to each other. They are not a warlike people: these are the tribes which the Iroquois are constantly pursuing to wage war against them and without any reason; because these poor people can not defend themselves, they allow themselves to be taken prisoners and be led away like sheep; and, however inoffensive, they can not but resent the barbarity of the Iroquois who even cruelly burn them."​2 On the map accompanying the account of this journey, Father Marquette marks the Shawnee village south of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi rivers. His report of the situation of the Shawnee tribe is corroborated by Father Gravier's narrative of his own journey down the Mississippi in 1700, written February 16, 1701, in which he states that the third river (meaning the Tennessee),  p66 swelling the waters of the Ouabachi comes from the SSW, on which are the Chaouanoua.3

The fierce Iroquois continued to make war on this innocent and gentle race, until, in the beginning of the eighteenth century, the confederacy of the Six Nations claimed the owner­ship of Kentucky, by right of conquest. It was only at the conclusion of the Franco-British war of 1755‑1763, that they practically relinquished their claim to Kentucky. The Cherokees sold their right to the soil south of the Kentucky river, in 1775, to Colonel Henderson in consideration of £10,000; and although the legislature of Virginia set this treaty aside, it assigned ample territory to the Henderson Land Company, in the north-western part of the State.

Virginians were the first white people who visited Kentucky. Conspicuous among these hardy first adventurers was the renowned Daniel Boone, who entered it in 1769, and again in 1775 as guide to a party sent out by the Henderson Land Company. Several colonies were established and made permanent by emigrants from Virginia, South Carolina and Maryland; and, in 1782, General Clark succeeded in conquering the whole territory from the British and their Indian allies, a result which General Wayne firmly consolidated, in 1794, by the famous victory on the Maumee.

We do not propose to give a full history of  p67 the settlement of the State, particulars of which are related, at some length, by Archbishop Spalding in his Sketches of Kentucky, and in all their interesting details by Marshall, Butler, and Collins. We shall content ourselves with very briefly describing the establishment of the few catholic missionary stations, previous to the arrival of Father Nerinckx in the country.4

William Coomes and family, accompanied by Doctor Hart, an exemplary Irish catholic, emigrated from St. Charles county, Maryland, in the Spring of 1775, and settled at Harrod's Station, where Mrs. Coome subsequently opened a school for the education of the children. They were among the first white people who removed to Kentucky. But Catholic Marylanders only  p68 began a systematic emigration to the State in 1785.

That year a league was formed in Maryland by sixty catholic families to emigrate to Kentucky, and settle together, for mutual protection against the Indians; and also, in order that they might have church and priest. They agreed to get a priest to accompany them, if it were possible. Basil Hayden's bond for his land is signed at Baltimore, in 1785, and it calls to bond on Philimer Lee; this bond is recorded at Bardstown. They subsequently lived adjoining neighbors on Pottinger's Creek.

These sixty families were to emigrate as circumstances permitted. They did not all start together; some emigrated in 1785, twenty-five families going to Kentucky that year, among them the Haydens and Lancasters. They reached their adopted State that same year, and they settled chiefly on Pottinger's Creek.5

More families followed in the Spring of 1786 with Captain James Rapier, settling, according to the terms of the league, in the same neighborhood. In the following year, 1787, another portion of the colony left Maryland in two parties; one with Edward Howard, the other with Philip Miles and Thomas Hill; and most of the remaining families belonging to the  p69 league, together with many others who had not joined it, reached their destination in 1788 with Robert Abell. Edward Howard, who emigrated to Kentucky in 1787, was accompanied, it was supposed, by Father Whelan, an Irish Franciscan of Maryland, the first priest who went to the new catholic colony. Howard went from Louisville to Pottinger's Creek by way of Bullitt's Lick — "Salt Lick" — where salt was first made in Kentucky: it was a few miles from the spot where now stands the town of Shepherdsville, on Salt River. He worked his path through the forest, by "blazing the trees," and his trail was followed by succeeding emigrants, their road to Pottinger's Creek passing also by way of Bardstown.

Philimer Lee, or as he was better known, Philip Lee, kept a record, which is still extant, and which he began as early as 1735, in Maryland. From the entries in that record, he may be seen to have had many neighbors of the same name, in Maryland and in Kentucky: Haydens, Thompsons, Smiths, Rapiers, Cashs, Russels, Howards, Browns,​6 Coomes, Lancasters, etc., all of whom, it would appear, belonged to the league of the sixty families.

Father Whelan attended to the spiritual wants of the catholic families of Kentucky for a little more than two years, and in consequence  p70 of the difficulties without number which beset his ministry, returned to Maryland in the Spring of 1790. In the same year a colony came out with Benedict Spalding, followed in the ensuing year by other emigrants who accompanied Leonard Hamilton. The greater portion of these located themselves on the Rolling Fork of the Salt River, in the neighborhood where is now Holy Mary's or Calvary. Leonard Mattingly and many others who settled on Hardin's Creek, came out from Maryland in 1791.

In the Summer of 1790, Father William de Rohan, an Irish priest educated in France, arrived in Kentucky with a caravan of emigrants from North Carolina and East Tennessee; and he continued some time saying Mass and administering the sacraments. That same year, 1790, he built, on Pottinger's Creek, a log chapel, which he dedicated to the Holy Cross; this temporary hut was covered with clapboard and was unprovided with glass in the windows; a slab of wood roughly hewed served for an altar. Such was the first catholic church ever built in Kentucky! Soon after its erection, Rev. de Rohan discontinued the active employments of the ministry, by direction of Bishop Carroll. He subsequently led a quiet and edifying life, and he died at an advanced age in 1833 or 1834, at St. Thomas Seminary, in Nelson county.

In 1793, Bishop Carroll of Baltimore, aware of the destitute condition of the Kentucky catholic settlements, selected for this arduous mission  p71 the Rev. Stephen Theodore Badin, whom he had ordained the 25th of May, of the same year, that gentleman being the first priest ever ordained in the United States. The Rev. Mr. Barrieres, a more aged clergyman, was constituted vicar-general of the distant missionary district, and accompanied Father Badin, arriving in Kentucky in September, 1793. But, unable to adapt himself to the rude state of society in the, then, wilderness, Father Barrieres departed for New Orleans in April, 1794, leaving the young priest alone to attend to the wants of the now numerous and widely scattered catholic immigrants, till 1797, when the Rev. Mr. Fournier was sent to his assistance.

St. Ann's, on Cartwright's Creek, which became in a short time the largest and most important congregation, was the second church built in Kentucky. The original nucleus of St. Ann's congregation consisted of two families, that of Thomas Hill and that of Henry Cambron. Cambron came, together with his father, from Montgomery county, Maryland, seven miles from Georgetown, reaching Kentucky in 1788. He settled near the site of the present St. Rose's church, in the immediate vicinity of a mill belonging to John Waller. This mill and the farm attached to it, were selected by Rev. Edward Fenwick, O. P., who visited Kentucky in 1805, as a convenient spot for a convent of his order; and were bought by him on his return from Maryland with his religious brethren, in 1806,  p72 in order to establish there a community of Dominicans, who took possession of the place in that year.​a Thomas Hill came from St. Mary's county, Maryland, five miles from Leonardstown, in the Spring of 1787, along with his brother-in‑law, Philip Miles. Their boats were attacked by the Indians, twenty miles above Louisville, then Fort Nelson; a negro man, belonging to Hill, and all their horses, were killed, and an ounce musket ball passed through both thighs of Hill. He remained at Bardstown two years, in consequence of his wounds; and as he heard numerous complaints from the large colony that came, in 1788, concerning the sterility of the land on Pottinger's Creek, he determined on selecting a more inviting locality; and accordingly, he went, in 1789, to Cartwright's Creek, near to the spot where Henry Cambron had located in the preceding year.

In the following year, 1790, they conceived the project of going upon the table-land, some two miles to the south-east, on the ridge, and buying adjoining farms, there building a church, in order to gather the catholics around them. They did as thus proposed; and, as soon as land could be cleared of the timber sufficiently to raise necessary crops, they began the erection of a church, in the year 1794. Their church was dedicated to St. Ann by Fathers Badin and Fournier, in 1798; Mass having been said for several years previous, by Father Badin, in the cabin of Thomas Hill.

 p73  As was expected, the catholics settled around St. Ann's in great numbers, speedily forming the most numerous congregation in the Territory. Among the families who collected about St. Ann's church may be named: Leonard Hamilton, Thomas Hamilton, the Fenwicks, Clarkes, Caricos, Boons, Montgomerys, Johnsons, Clarksons, Edelens, etc. Father Fournier had charge of St. Ann's, styled oftentimes "Cartwright's Creek," till his death in 1803. It was then attended by Father Badin till the arrival of Father Nerinckx in 1805, who had charge of St. Ann's till late in 1806, when it was made over to the Dominicans. St. Ann's congregation, subsequently to the practical closing of their church for service in 1808, constituted the St. Rose's congregation up to the time of the completion of the church in Lebanon. St. Rose's congregation, it was supposed, then included one-third of all the Catholic population of Kentucky.

Father Badin had taken up his residence near Holy Cross church, which was situated about at the center of the catholic settlement. He subsequently erected a temporary chapel at his other later residence, three miles from Holy Cross: this he called St. Stephen's, after his patron Saint. From that point he attended several stations, the most important, besides the two already named, being, in 1799, those at Bardstown, at Lexington, in Scott county, in Madison county, in Mercer county — where there  p74 were about ten families, on Hardin's Creek, on the Rolling Fork in Hardin county, and at Poplar Neck on the Beech Fork. These last six named, together with St. Ann's church, were subsequently attended by Father Fournier until his death, in 1803.

Father Fournier, soon after his arrival in Kentucky, in 1797, purchased one hundred acres of ground on the Rolling Fork — the site of the present Holy Mary's — and, after having erected a temporary hut, removed thither in 1798.​7 He was, however, relieved of the care of the stations at Hardin's Creek, Poplar Neck, and Mr. Gardiner's, for the short period of nine months, during which Rev. Anthony Salmon, another French priest, took care of these and of the Bardstown mission. That zealous and indefatigable priest reached Kentucky in February, 1799, and fell, a martyr to his zeal in the discharge of his duties, on the 9th of November of the same year, when, on his way to the missionary station at Mr. Gwynn's, he was thrown violently from his horse, and mortally wounded. Father Badin administered the last sacraments to his friend and fellow-laborer, who died the next day, and was buried in the grave-yard at Holy Cross. He was the first priest who died in Kentucky.

In the same year, Bishop Carroll sent out to Kentucky the Rev. Mr. Thayer, a converted Presbyterian minister, who became a priest in  p75 France, and was first stationed at Boston. He, however, remained in the western mission only four years, during two of which he was engaged in the ministry, and left Kentucky in 1803.

Father Fournier, who, speaking the English language fluently and being a man of very engaging manners, was much loved by the people, over all of whom he had a beneficial influence, died that very year. He was killed while working at the whip-saw, the log falling and crushing him beneath it. His remains were buried at Holy Cross, beside those of Father Salmon. The only monument which marks the last resting-place of these zealous pioneers, is a heap of broken stone, raised, a few years since, over their graves, by Ref. Francis Wuyts of Loretto.

The energetic father Badin was again left alone for more than seventeen months, his nearest brother clergyman being the Rev. Donatien Olivier, at Prairie du Rocher, in Illinois. There was only one other priest in the whole northwest, at that time; the Rev. Gabriel Richard, stationed at Detroit, Michigan. Rev. Father Rivet, a warm friend of Mr. Badin, and his nearest neighbor, at Post Vincennes, had also died in 1803, leaving the poor missionary forlorn and desolate after so many separations.

Father Badin continued to reside at St. Stephen's. His missionary duties had, however, greatly increased; "on his first arrival in the State, the number of catholic families did not exceed seven hundred; twelve years had elapsed,  p76 and the number had now swelled to nearly seven thousand."​8 These were scattered over the whole state, and to visit them all, even occasionally, required almost superhuman exertions in one solitary missionary.

"Divine Providence, at length, took compassion on the forlorn condition of Mr. Badin, and sent him a zealous and indefatigable auxiliary, who was to relieve him of a great portion of the heavy burden, which had been long weighing him down, and exhausting his energies. In the annals of missionary life in the west," says Archbishop Spalding, "few names are brighter than that of Rev. Charles Nerinckx. A native of Belgium, and, like most of the other early catholic missionaries in the west, a victim of the French Revolution, he arrived in Kentucky in 1805; and he labored with unremitting zeal in the missionary field, for nearly twenty years."9

The Author's Notes:

1 Later known at Oubache: La belle Rivière of the French, now called the Ohio river. The northern affluent retained the original name Americanized into the Wabash river of to‑day.

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2 Cfr. "Voyage et découverte, etc., par le P. Marquette et Sr. Joliet, a Paris, chez Estienne Michalet, rue S. Jaques, a l'Image de S. Paul, MDC LXXXI. O. Rich's reprint, 1845." Page 32, sq.

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3 See John G. Shea's "Early Voyages up and down the Mississippi," pg. 120. "Albany, Joel Munsel, 1861."

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4 In many things we are guided by the "Sketches of Kentucky," Chap. IIIsq. For the other details not heretofore published, we are indebted to Walter H. Hill, S. J., who writes: "These statements can be fully relied on as being accurate. They were collected and verified for me by Clement S. Hill, Esq., of Lebanon, Ky., on the testimony of several persons who witnessed them: as, the aged and pious Mrs. McLane, daughter of Henry Cambron; she died in 1875, aged ninety-three, possessing the perfect use of her faculties, with her memory retentive and lively till her final illness. Also, that of the venerable Alexander Hamilton, who still survives, and who witnessed the dedication of St. Ann's in 1798; his father had emigrated with his family from Maryland, in 1797. And also by the statements and traditions of the other families. Father Badin stated to me, a few years previous to his death, some of the above particulars about St. Ann's, adding that Clement Hill was regularly sent from 'Cartwright's Creek' to act as his guide through the wilderness when he went to say Mass." Father Hill is himself a grandson of Thomas Hill, who emigrated from Maryland to Kentucky, in 1787.

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5 Kentucky was first a county of Virginia; at the period here referred to, or in 1785, it had been divided into three counties, namely: Jefferson, Lincoln, and Fayette. The district settled by the first catholic emigrants was in Jefferson county, or in what is now, Nelson, Washington, and Marion counties.

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6 Joseph Brown was one of the league, and his was one of the twenty-five families that reached Kentucky in 1785; he was the maternal grandfather of Rev. J. B. Hutchins of Loretto.

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7 See "Sketches of Kentucky," above quoted. Father Nerinckx calls it ninety-four acres in his letter of May 16, 1806.

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8 Letter of Father Nerinckx, of May 16, 1806. He adds: "some claim that there are now as many as thirteen thousand catholics in Kentucky."

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9 "Sketches of Kentucky," pgg. 130‑1.

Thayer's Note:

a The first Dominican priory in the United States. The 19c buildings were torn down in 1978. Its history is covered by an article in Dominicana Journal XI:185‑190.

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