Stories of the migration of a group of Vermont Yankees to the western Kentucky frontier, led by Matthew Lyon, enterprising Irish emigrant and rabble-rousing Congressman from Vermont, are found in a variety of places. Unfortunately, most versions contain significant inconsistencies and misstatements. This account uses some recently discovered original documents to present a hopefully more accurate rendering of those events.
Perhaps the best known and least accurate account was written by Lyon's youngest daughter Elizabeth Ann. In 1855 she wrote that he and some of his children set out from Vermont in early spring 1799, traveled by wagon to Pittsburgh, down the Ohio River, and up the Cumberland to the site of Eddyville. There he decided to stop, she tells us, commenced clearing the cane growing there, and constructed log cabins for the three families in the company and a saw-mill. After preparing materials for his own home and purchasing a large track of land, she says, he returned home in the fall, to set out again shortly with a larger party, arriving in July 1800.1 Many of her details are wrong, as described below, but we should probably forgive her misstatements since she was not born until some five years after these events took place, and wrote her book 50 years after that.
Later accounts added the story, largely confirmed, that Lyon was anxious to move west and, attracted by the glowing accounts of Andrew Jackson, visited him in Tennessee in the summer of 1799. But the details that followed, that on Jackson’s advice, Lyon went down the Cumberland River to Eddyville, where he bought many town lots and a large tract of land, seem to be largely contradicted by current evidence. The story that he then returned to Vermont where he collected his son James, his two married daughters and their husbands, his younger daughter Lorraine, and a few artisans, and took them to Eddyville is only partly true, as we shall see. The account that he returned to Washington for the 1799-1800 session of Congress, then went back to Vermont to sell off his holdings there is essentially correct, except that this session of Congress was actually the last one held in Philadelphia. Several accounts correctly tell us that after the 1800-1801 Congressional session he set off with a larger group, including his second wife and their young children, for Eddyville, arriving in mid-summer of 1801.2
Preparing to Move West
Matthew Lyon had evidently decided to organize the move to Kentucky before his celebrated trip to visit Jackson in 1799, and on a much grander scale than eventually ensued. In March 1799 the Governor of Kentucky received a letter from Lyon stating his intent to move to that state with 1,000 families.3 Lyon set off for his exploratory journey shortly after the fifth Congress adjourned its second session on Sunday, 3 Mar 1799.4 He reached Knoxville on 29 Apr 1799, and stated his plan to proceed on to Nashville, thence "to pass through Kentucky, the northwestern territory, Pennsylvania and York" before arriving home to Fair Haven, Vermont, by the end of June.5 Whether or not he actually visited Eddyville on that trip is unclear. But clearly he did not purchase any land there on this trip because his directions to the party setting off that fall left them consideable lattitude to settle anywhere on the Cumberland, even as far up as Tennessee.
Lyon seems to have arrived back in Fair Haven by midsummer, as planned. He set about selling off his property and assembling a small party for the initial move to Kentucky.6 He sold a substantial block of property on 3 Aug 1799, and a total of at least 13 parcels between then and 7 Oct 1799. These sales involved about 460 acres of land, mostly in small plots, but included his home place and his interests in his sawmill, grist mill, and paper mill.7 In an illustration of the curious mix of currencies then in use, he received a nearly of $5,500 for fourteen of the sales, and £147 2s for the other four. For details, see my extracts of Fair Haven Deeds.
The First Party Moves West
The party must have departed immediately after the 7 Oct deed was signed.8 They traveled by wagon to New Geneva, in western Pennsylvania on the Monongahela River, some 60 miles south of Pittsburgh. It would appear that he chose New Geneva rather than Pittsburgh as an embarkation point because his fellow Congressman, Albert Gallatin, had his home there. There they were to transfer to flat boats for a river journey to western Kentucky.
The distance between Fair Haven and New Geneva is about 550 miles by modern roads; probably over 600 miles by the roads available then. Various sources suggest wagon trains of the type the party used could accomplish around 10 miles per day. At that rate the wagon trip would have taken about two months. They carried with them saddles, bridles, shoe uppers, boots, tin ware, two stills, printing materials, blacksmith tools, and farming tools, in all worth nearly $4,000. Lyon said some of this material was to be left on the Monongahela until later.9
The group with its five teams arrived at New Geneva in mid-Nov 1799, where Lyon sold his teams and purchased iron, millstones, and grindstones. With the river level too low to proceed, he left the party "fixing their boats & makeing preparations."9 He returned to Congress in time for the opening of the 26th Congress on 2 Dec 1799.10
courtesy "Steamboat Times"
No evidence has been found about exactly when the group began its river trip, or exactly when it reached western Kentucky. Clearly Lyon expected them to set off before he returned from Congress, but without a specific destination. Lyon said he ordered them to "go down the Ohio - to the Mouth of Cumberland & the up that river until they are suited with regard to the Situation of the Country, & the price of Land & there set down. I have rather given a preference to Kentucky because land I believe may be had Cheaper there than in Tennessee, however I have given them Latitude to go up as far as they chuse."9 If Lyon was allowing the party to choose the settlement site, clearly he had not previously purchased land on which to settle. No evidence has been found about who was responsible for selecting the actual site when they arrived in western Kentucky.
The distance from New Geneva to the Cumberland River is roughly 1,100 miles.11 According to one source, a good day's journey was 50 to 100 miles.12 Assuming an average of 75 miles, which may be optimistic, the river journey would have taken at least two weeks. It would seem they could have arrived by early spring.
Members of the First Party
Lyon wrote that the party included one of his daughters and her husband, an unmarried daughter, a niece and her husband, and several adventurers.9 His reference to only one of his married daughters conflicts with other accounts, including Elizabeth Ann's, which indicate that two married daughters, Pamelia and her husband George Cadwell, and Ann and her husband Messenger, were in the initial group. The unmarried daughter was Lorraine, his youngest daughter by his first wife. We do know that the niece and her husband were Gideon Dyer Cobb and his wife Modena Clark, who was actually the niece of Lyon's second wife. Some accounts include Lyon's son James in the initial party,13 but neither Lyon's letter nor Elizabeth Ann's account mention him.
No record of the identities of the other "adventurers" has been found. However, since the second party did not have arrive until 15 Jun 1801,14 some candidates can be identified from various records. Among names recognized as part of the Vermont contingent, John Troop and Lyon's son-in-law George Cadwell are recorded as making purchases from an estate sale on 3 Mar 1801.15 Elijah Galusha, son of Lyon's second wife by her first marriage, obtained a grant of 400 acres on 5 May 1801.16 Samuel C. Clark, who seems to have been a relative of Gideon Cobb's wife Modena, obtained a grant for 400 acres 7 Jul 1801.17 They must have been part of the first party, unless some of them moved west when Lyon traveled to the area in the summer of 1800 to purchase land, as described in following section.
Preparing for the Main Move
While Lyon did not buy property in western Kentucky on his earlier trip, he did travel to the area where the first party had settled after the 1799-1800 session of Congress, and made a number of purchases. He evidently made his first purchase on 1 Jul 1800, a warrant for 200 acres, which he had surveyed on 17 Jul.18 On 18 Aug he purchased and had surveyed five more parcels, and purchased another 200 acres on 29 Aug.19 These warrants, which had been issued to settlers south of the Green River, represented the right to purchase 200 (later 400) acres of land. A survey was then made to establish the actual boundries of the parcel. The rights were commonly sold, often several times, until the required payment was made, and the state issued a patent for the parcel. After making these purchases, Lyon returned to Fair Haven to prepare for the departure of the second party.
While still in Philadelphia, on 15 Mar 1800, he had sold his slitting mill with 300 acres of land to Edward Douse, of Dedham, Massachusetts, for $4,500.20 Once back in Fair Haven, he sold the remainder of his property to Josiah Norton, in a single transaction dated 12 Nov 1800, for $1,590. That sale included 220 acres of land made up of a number of smaller parcels, and his saw mill "above the main road" (he had previously sold another one). In addition, apparently in an effort to dispose of any remaining interests, the sale included all the town lots that he may have still owned in Westhaven, and all that "may remain" after the so-called fourth division in New Haven and Westhaven.21 This last reference would have been to Lyon's claim, as one of the original grantees of the town (which originally included what had become Westhaven) to any lands not specifically assigned in the four "distributions" to the individual proprietors. The next day he signed another deed to settle disputes arising from his sale of the grist mill the previous year.22
Lyon did not arrive in Washington for the second session of the Sixth Congress until 10 Dec 1800, three weeks after the session opened (many others missed the first few days, but he was later than most).23 It seems unlikely that the second party could have traveled all the way to New Geneva in less than a month, the time between Lyon's last established presence in Vermont and his appearance in Washington. Perhaps he accompanied them only part way, or perhaps, considering how late in the year it was, they had gone on without him, if indeed they left that fall.
Making the Second Trip
There is no reliable information known about when the second party's trip began. Elizabeth Ann reports they spent the winter in Pittsburgh, and arrived in Eddyville in early July 1800.24 But Lyon reported that he and his family arrived 15 Jun 1801, so we can be confident that she had at least the year wrong, or had it confused with the first party.14
Lyon was present at the close of the second session of the Sixth Congress on 3 Mar 1801.25 He was still in Washington on 4 Apr, delayed by some unidentified business, and stated his intention to depart for New Geneva within a few days. He expected to be delayed there a week or two by business before proceeding west.26 Either the others made the wagon trip in the spring without him, or they repeated the pattern of the first party, departing Vermont in the fall and overwintering in western Pennsylvania, as Elizabeth Ann described.
Every account I have found states that the party traveled to Pittsburgh. But Lyon said that he was going to retrieve his property that had been "left a while on the Monongahela," presumably at New Geneva,9 and he made it clear that he was heading there from Washington.26 It is not clear whether he then joined the main party in Pittsburgh, or whether they embarked from New Geneva like the first party.
There seems to be agreement that the second party was quite large, over 70 people by some accounts.27 The party included Beulah Chittenden, Lyon's second wife, and their young children.28,29 But nothing resembling a complete listing of those involved has been found. Other than her parents, Elizabeth Ann's account mentions only Mrs. Troop,30 presumably the wife of John Troop who made purchases from the estate sale in Mar 1801.
Lyon and the Founding of Eddyville
There is a popular notion that Matthew Lyon was the founder of the town of Eddyville. While the story was found in history books by at least 1888,31 it clearly had its origins much earlier. As cited above, Elizabeth Ann wrote that he, as part of the first party from Vermont, decided to stop at the site that became Eddyville. But as we have seen, apparently he did not in fact select the location nor even arrive with that party.
It is well known that the town of Eddyville was laid out by David Walker on land he received in two grants of 1,000 acres each for his service in the Revolutionary War. About 1798 he surveyed and laid out the town lots. But apparently he did not remain long in the town and left Charles Stewart to take care of land sales.32,33 If Lyon didn't literally found the town, he soon became it's largest land owner. On 22 Jul 1801 and 23 Aug 1802 he purchased at least 28 town lots from Walker, and likely all the 48 of the total of 120 lots in the town which he is known to have owned (see map).34,35 On the same dates he purchased from Walker two parcels adjoining the town of about 200 acres each.36 Lyon continued to acquire land in the surrounding area, until by 1811 he owned a nearly 6000 acres. 37
Lyon seems to have not taken a direct part in local politics. When the town was legally established on 25 Oct 1800 Lyon had no apparent part in the proceedings. But Gideon Dyer Cobb, husband of his wife's niece, was appointed as one of the initial town trustees.38 By the time the 1800 census was taken, supposedly as of 4 Aug 1800, Eddyville already had a population of 69 persons, including 12 slaves.39,40 Young Gideon fulfilled a variety of other civic positions over the years, including appraising estates, siting the ware house, and marking off roads.41 The county order books show Lyon filling none of these roles. He was apparently more interested in state and national politics, being elected to the state legislature, and then in 1802 to Congress again.42
Lyon is known to have been engaged in river shipping and owned a boat yard, store, distilleries, card manufactory, and pottery and stoneware manufactory among other interests.43 He is also commonly said to have established iron works, in some accounts in partnership with Gideon Cobb. However an extensive review of Livingston and Caldwell Co. deed records finds no evidence of involvement of either of them in the iron business. Lyon's letters describe the equipment he was bringing to Kentucky in some detail, but include no mention of iron-working tools beyond blacksmithing. The deed in which he transferred all his property to his son Chittenden similarly describes in detail his businesses, and does not mention iron works. However, Gideon's sons Caleb and Gideon Jr. among others, were extensively involved in that industry a few years later.
While Lyon clearly was not literally the founder of Eddyville, and apparently did not even select it himself as the site for the Vermont company's resettlement, he clearly endorsed the choice after it was made. Even before his family had arrived he petitioned the Kentucky legislature to grant 20,000 acres to himself and certain emigrants from Vermont. It declined that request, but did offer land grants to all settlers.44 At the same time he was publicly urging others to join the migration. On 25 Jan 1801, during his final term in Congress representing Vermont, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Vermont Gazette which was widely reprinted in other papers:
Eddyville is in the centre of Livingston county well situated to enjoy a country trade of forty or fifty miles extent, and to command its share of the river business; the river being navigable for light boats for 300 miles above Eddyville, and for heavy flat boats down to New-Orleans, at all seasons of the year, and at high water for any vessel whatever. The country is new, having been among the hunting ground of the Indians at the time of Wayne's treaty. The Indians have all retired some hundred miles south and west of Cumberland, and there are now a great many good farmers settled in Livingston, Christiana, and Logan counties, which too last are adjacent to and older settlements than Livingston county, and whole trade will be considerable advantage to Eddyville, if settlement prospers.
Money is not yet plenty here nor yet so scarce as in Vermont when equally new. The present and ensuing years sale of tobacco, cotton, hemp, wheat, beef and pork, will help us greatly in this respect, as our imports are small and salt is made in great quantities among us. Cast iron is made in Kentucky, and in the neighborhood of Nashville, in Tennessee.
There is in Kentucky, particularly in the counties of Livingston, Henderson, Christiana and Logan, large quantities of vacant land, a considerable share of which is good for cultivation. For 2 years past I have petitioned the legislature to set apart a share of that land for such republicans from Vermont as may emigrate hither. The legislature have not thought best to comply in all points with my petition; but they have done more, they have offered their vacant land to any body that will settle it, in 400 acre lots, or less, except that those settlers who have had 200 acres already, shall have but 200 acres more. Now is the time for the Vermonters to think of starting, if they mean to take advantage of this generous offer. The situation is desirable; the soil luxuriant, the climate temperate, and provisions easily obtained. It is for my republican friends I have endured this trouble and expence; I have petitioned for them myself; they are welcome to it; they will hold a place in my heart while it retains its affections.45
No evidence has been found to indicate how successful his appeal may have been.
- [S1007] Roe, Aunt Leanna, pp 15-17.
- [S1952] Walker, Profiles of the Past, pp 26-9, provides a typical account.
- [S3149] "Frankfort, March 14," Gazette of the United States, and Philadelphia Daily Advertiser, 12 Apr 1799.
- [S2211] Journal of the House of Representatives, 5th Congress, 2nd session, pg 519, shows Lyon present for a vote 2 Mar.
- [S3150] "Extract of a letter from Col. Matthew Lyon," The Vermont Gazette, 30 May1799.
- [S3052] Letter, Lyon to Messinger, 17 Aug 1799, states he had sold some property, and was anxiously awaiting his son-in-law's decision as to whether he will join the party.
- [S3193] Fair Haven Deeds, 2:124, Mathew Lyon to Elid Gilbert, 5 Aug 1799; 2:125, same to same, same date; 2:152, same to Josiah Norton, 26 Sep 1799; 2:152-3, same to same, same date; 2:153, same to same, same date; 2:181, same to Nathaniel Dickinson, 3 Apr 1800; 2:181, same to same, 9 Apr 1800; 2:195, same to Simon McWithy, 23 Jun 1800; 2:179, same to Beriah Rogers, 7 Dec 1799; 2:179, same to same, same date; 2:180, same to Jered Rogers, 10 Dec 1799; 2:180, same to Stephen Rogers, 10 Dec 1799; and 2:193, same to Cornelius D. & David B. Board, 18 Apr 1801.
- [S3193] Fair Haven Deeds, 2:193, Mathew Lyon to Cornelius D. & David B. Board, 18 Apr 1801, dated 7 Oct 1799 was not acknowledged by Lyon before a justice of the peace until 15 Nov 1800; all the others acknowledged the day of signing or the following day.
- [S2388] Letter, Lyon to Jackson, 28 Feb 1800.
- [S2211] Journal of the House of Representatives, 6th Congress, 1st session, pp 522-3.
- [S3053] Harrison and Klotter, A New History of Kentucky, pg 51, shows 922 miles from Pittsburgh to the Green River and 1,183 to the Mississippi, "according to an early and somewhat inaccurate source;" from New Geneva to Pittsburgh was perhaps 100 miles more.
- [S3053] Harrison and Klotter, A New History of Kentucky, pg 51.
- [S1952] Walker, Profiles of the Past, pg 29, for example.
- [S2385] Letter, Lyon to Jefferson, 12 Aug 1801.
- [S1970] Livingston Co. Order Book, A:76-9.
- [S1970] Livingston Co. Order Book, A:86.
- [S1970] Livingston Co. Order Book, A:97.
- [S2382] Waldrep, "Opportunity on the Frontier", pg 163, citing Lyon's survey 3512 at the Kentucky Historical Society, warrant originally issued to Daniel Hazleton.
- [S2382] Waldrep, "Opportunity on the Frontier", pg 163, citing surveys 2943, 2944, 2946, 2250, and one assigned to Chittenden Lyon, not found.
- [S3193] Fair Haven Deeds, 2:140, Mathew Lyon to Edward Douse, 31 Mar 1800.
- [S3193] Fair Haven Deeds, 2:184, Mathew Lyon to Josiah Norton, 13 Nov 1800.
- [S3193] Fair Haven Deeds, 2:439, M. Lyon to Nathaniel Dickenson, 4 Nov 1813.
- [S2211] Journal of the House of Representatives, 6th Congress, 2nd session, pg 738.
- [S1007] Roe, Aunt Leanna, pp 18, 23.
- [S2211] Journal of the House of Representatives, 6th Congress, 2nd session, pp 847, 849.
- [S2384] Letter, Lyon to Jefferson, 4 Apr 1801.
- [S1952] Walker, Profiles of the Past, pg 29.
- [S2388] Letter, Lyon to Jackson, 28 Feb 1800, wrote he didn't expect to move his wife and young family under a year.
- [S2385] Letter, Lyon to Jefferson, 12 Aug 1801, wrote that being on the water in the hottest weather made all his family more or less sick.
- [S1007] Roe, Aunt Leanna, pg 19.
- [S3049] Perrin, Battle and Kniffin, Kentucky - A History of the State (1888), pg 613.
- [S1952] Walker, Profiles of the Past, pp 19-20.
- [S1970] Livingston Co. Order Book, A:27-28, power of attorney from David Walker to Charles Stewart, 27 Nov 1799.
- [S1975] Caldwell Co. Deeds, A:463-71, Matthew Lyon to Chittenden Lyon, includes 28 lots purchased from David Walker and wife Polly 22 Jul 1801 and 23 Aug 1802, 3 Sep 1812; A:44-5, same to same, 6 lots, 17 Oct 1809; A:59-60, same to Dan'l Rider, 2 lots, 17 Dec 1809; A:60-1, same to Mary Rose, 2/3 lot, 17 Dec 1809; and A:397-9, same to Reuben Roland, 2 lots, 18 Apr 1812.
- [S2077] Livingston Co. Deeds, A:58-9, Matthew Lyon to Hanson Catlett, 11 lots.
- [S1975] Caldwell Co. Deeds, A:463-71, Matthew Lyon to Chittenden Lyon, includes two parcel of about 200 ac. purchased from David Walker and wife Polly 22 Jul 1801 and 23 Aug 1802, 3 Sep 1812.
- [S4057] Caldwell County tax lists, 1811, pg 26.
- [S1970] Livingston Co. Order Book, A:58.
- [S3051] Return of the Second Census, pg 66, shows population as 34 free white males, 23 free white females, and 12 slaves.
- [S3050] Ancestry.com, online, "About 1800 United States Federal Census," shows enumeration date.
- [S1970] Livingston Co. Order Book, A:89, 150.
- [S686] Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, online, record for Lyon, Matthew, (1749 - 1822).
- [S1975] Caldwell Co. Deeds, A:463-71, Matthew Lyon to Chittenden Lyon, 3 Sep 1812.
- [S3146] Untitled, Columbian Courier, shows the legislature declined his request.
- [S3147] "Extract of a letter from Col Lyon," Constitutional Telegraphe, 14 Mar 1801.