Clay County: The Beginnings

“Money had value if there was a place to spend it. Salt was life.” — Charles House in Blame it on Salt.

Start your story where the action takes place. That’s how I tell stories, and so as I’ve told stories about Clay County throughout the years, they have oftentimes been about the infamous feud. Everyone, after all, enjoys a good feud story.

But stories never begin in the middle of the action. They begin somewhere else, in quiet spaces where nobody quiet expects action to take place. And so it was with the story of Clay County Kentucky, which begins on April 13, 1807 with two Bakers at the center.

The gathering for this event took place in the home of Robert Baker, then one of the landowners meant to lay official claim to this area, and the proceedings were taken by another Baker, Abner.

Looking back upon these events through the lens of history, it’s surprising that the Baker boys were held in such high regard. After all, they are sometimes the villains of The Clay County War and always feudists even when they are in the right. Working backwards through time, they would not be the people you might expect to be at the very beginning.

On this day and in this time, though, the Bakers – like the other families – were prominent members of the local elite, men of letters and access who were trying to bring some order to an otherwise order-less place.

While the County was officially recognized in 1807, entrepreneurs of both dubious and upstanding status had been streaming into the area for the past few years, scooping up not the more prosperous farm land but instead the salt-rich areas in the mountainous region..

In years future, those decisions would turn disastrous as the mountain land had little farming value. Salt was, at the time, the gold of the region, attracting those who hoped to strike it rich, and what happened tomorrow was of little consequence today.

The land rush, and all the goings-on that happened when ownership isn’t backed by the rule of law, forced the settlers to organize and petition to have the area legally recognized so that disputes might be settled without violence.

To ensure that disputes could be settled in an orderly fashion, some 332 citizens of the County moved to incorporate the area.

All these years later, our politics are split over how to best manage the role of government and business, but in 1807 the answer to that question was clear. The families wanted local governmental control over the affairs of business. It was fairly common then for disputes to end up in county courthouses, where judges would rule based upon a mix of legal precedent, local wisdom, and family allegiance.

So when the the two most prominent salt mining families, the Whites and the Gerrards, launched a price war, that pitched battle stretched into every aspect of the social and political life of Clay County. The two families sought to use  influence to have its sympathizers elected into law enforcement, Congress, and the judiciary so that disputes — all of which were settled by the County courts — would be decidedly in a favorable fashion.

In just a few short years, those disputes would turn bloody and upend the region. But those days were years in the future. On April 13, 1807, all of the Clay County families gathered together to celebrate the joyous occasion of a founders day.

And the beginning of the story.

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