Chapter Two: Samuel May in Early Prestonsburg
Taken by a photographer named Crandall, this photograph shows Prestonsburg as it was during the 1880s.
When Samuel May reached maturity, he left his father's Shelby Creek farm and moved to Prestonsburg, which in 1803 consisted of John Spurlock's cabin, Solomon DeRossett's fur-trading post, and several other dwellings. Although county records from this period no longer exist, the level of civilization attained by Floyd County in 1803 may be estimated with the help of the following receipt, published by a local merchant at the February 1807 session of the Floyd County Court:
In the period between 1800 and 1815, according to Carol Crowe-Carraco, the Frenchman Solomon DeRossett did a brisk business exporting bearskins to France, where they were manufactured into hats for Napoleon's Grenadier Guards. When the trade ceased following the emperor's defeat at Waterloo, DeRossett surrendered his French citizenship and sought other employment. He later became a Floyd County justice of the peace. In any case, hunting and trapping were important to the county's economy in the early years. Early Pikeville merchant John Dils, Jr., arriving on the Big Sandy in 1836, found the region to be a hunter's paradise. "Bear and deer were abundant," he later recalled, "and hunters were numerous and happy." Because animal pelts found a ready sale, "many a fat bear and deer's carcass, after being stripped of its hide, was left to be devoured by ravenous wolves."
When Samuel arrived in Prestonsburg in 1803, he probably lodged and dined at a local tavern during the period when he was buying his lot and building his cabin. Because tavern rates were determined by the County Court and entered in its records, we know with a fair degree of accuracy what he paid for his lodging and meals. In 1808, for example, Floyd County tavern rates were as follows:
What kind of cabin did Samuel build? If it was like other cabins built in Prestonsburg during that period, it was made of giant poplar logs hewn square and laid in a saddle notch. A newspaper clipping saved by Josephine Fields--of a Floyd County Times story written by Henry Scalf--shows that some years ago, when the William James Mayo House on Front Street was razed, Mayo's original log cabin, constructed in the manner described above, was found under the weatherboarding that had been added by a later owner. The Mayo cabin contained two rooms and a fireplace made of hand-dressed rocks.
Regarding the destruction of the Mayo House, Scalf says:
During his early years in Prestonsburg, Samuel probably supported himself by hunting and trapping. As the town grew, however, he found work as a carpenter. In 1808, for example, Floyd County contracted with him to build its first stocks, pillory, whipping post and stray pen. Stocks and pillories were heavy wooden frames, within which criminals were locked and exposed to public ridicule. Whipping posts were all that the name implies.
Court records show that on one occasion, at least, Floyd County's whipping post was used. In October, 1816, "Nathan, a black man slave," was brought before the Floyd County Court and charged with the theft of a "crock" worth fourteen cents. When the jury handed down a verdict of guilty, the judge imposed the following sentence:
By 1808 Samuel must have been making a good living, because in that year he married Catherine Evans, who, along with other members of her family, had migrated to Prestonsburg from Morgantown, Virginia. Catherine's brother, Thomas Evans, was a contractor, and in 1806 Floyd County awarded him the contract to build the county's first courthouse. Deed Book A of the Floyd County Records shows that on August 22nd, 1808, the commissioners inspected the still-unfinished building and found fault with it, noting, among other things, that the wall separating the jury room from the main court room was "being done with old plank full of nail holes." When this building was accidentally destroyed by fire several months later, Evans was awarded a new contract and his securities were released from their original contract of 1806.
Because of his close connection with the Evans family, Samuel May was probably involved in these projects. When the Floyd County Court commissioned a third courthouse in 1818, Samuel was awarded the contract to build it. The Court directed him to construct the building of "brick manufactured at or near the scene." The contract also specified that the building be thirty feet square and have two stories, with seven windows on the lower floor and four windows on the upper floor. Green Venetian shutters were to be hung outside the windows, and the roof was to be painted red. This third courthouse was completed in 1821 and served the county for almost seventy years. Here is an artist's conception of what this courthouse looked like:
Like most frontiersmen, Samuel May was a jack-of-all-trades, because frontier life required that a man be versatile. To use the modern parlance, he was required to wear many hats. Moreover, in a county filled with versatile men, Samuel was exceptionally so. Early court records show that in the period from 1811 to 1821, he engaged in a wide variety of pursuits. In 1812, while serving as one of Prestonsburg's two justices of the peace, he helped John Evans and Nathan Herrell survey a road from Abbott Shoal to Little Paint. In 1813 he was "granted permission to keep a tavern at his home in Prestonsburg."
In May, 1814, he was granted a license to keep a ferry across the Big Sandy "at his house," and to charge twelve and a half cents per man and horse. In 1816, in his capacity as joiner (expert carpenter), he took Jacob Waller as his apprentice and agreed to train him for the trade. In 1818 he helped survey a road from "Widow Crisp's old place" to "Solomon Osborne's old place." By that year, in addition to everything else, he was operating a saw and grist mill at the mouth of Abbott Creek. But wait--let's not forget that from 1818 to 1821, he was supervising the construction of the Floyd County Courthouse. And these are just his documented activities. To put it mildly, Samuel May was a real go-getter.
How did Samuel, who had grown up on the Tennessee frontier, acquire the technical knowledge to build a watermill? His lack of formal education notwithstanding, it's a mistake to assume that he was an ignorant, untutored backwoodsman. After all, John May, his father, had grown up in Martinsburg, Virginia, which means that he not only attended primary school, but that he rubbed shoulders with the kind of men for whom mill-building and road surveying were routine matters. Moreover, as Carolyn Traum has pointed out, young men coming of age on the frontier were educated by means of skill-swapping. For example, if you were a surveyor and had a son who wanted to learn the miller's trade, you found a miller who had a son who wanted to learn surveying. After the bargain was struck, the two sons were exchanged for a period of six months to a year and instructed in their respective trades. It was probably by means of this frontier institution that Samuel acquired his many skills.
Samuel probably purchased his mill hardware--the bushings, bolts, gears, saw blades, grindstones, and other equipment--from an outfitter in Catlettsburg, for by 1818 there was a substantial flatboat trade between Prestonsburg and that town. By then, according to Carol Crowe-Carraco, large shipments of beaver skins, bear skins, corn, livestock, and tobacco were moving downstream and manufactured goods were moving upstream. We don't know the exact location of Samuel's mill, but we do know that it was still standing in 1841. In that year, according to Henry Scalf, the mill was sold to Richard Deering. Moreover, the contract stipulated that "If the present mill should be destroyed by fire or accident . . . the mills are to be rebuilt in a reasonable time."
This photograph, one of many kept in Special Collections at the University of Kentucky Library in Lexington, Kentucky, shows what a typical Eastern Kentucky grist mill looked like. The inscription on the back of the photograph says that this mill was located on Shelby Creek in Pike County.
In 1808, following the death of Thomas Evans, Senior, Catherine May inherited her share of her father's estate. When John May died in 1813, Samuel inherited his part of John's estate. As Fred T. May has pointed out, the two inheritances made the young couple relatively well-to-do by Prestonsburg standards. Samuel used this money to buy land. County records show that in 1816, he purchased over 3,000 acres, for which he paid about $3,400.
From John Graham, the Laird of Graham's Bottom, he purchased 120 acres of land located along the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River north of Prestonsburg, including a large expanse of bottom land known as Abbott Shoal. When he bought it, the property was covered by a dense forest of sycamore, maple, beech, poplar, walnut, ash and oak. In order to make it suitable for cultivation, it had to be cleared, stump by stump. Although no accounts have been handed down telling how this work was accomplished, it was probably done by hired hands.
In the Summer of 1936, Tress May Francis, grand-daughter of William James May, paid a visit to the May Cemetery, located on the ridge overlooking the May House, and took this photo of the May Farm. The camera is pointed southwest toward the Big Sandy River, and the May House is visible in the middle distance under the "X".
In "Ballad For A Forty-Niner", her poem about Samuel May, Gertrude May Lutz asserts that the May Farm was cleared by slave labor. Speaking of Samuel's decision to join the California Gold Rush, she says:
However, no evidence exists showing that Samuel owned slaves who were capable of such strenuous work. To be sure, Deed Book A does contain an entry showing that he purchased three slaves from Samuel Osborn in October, 1816. The difficulty lies in the fact that they weren't field hands. On the contrary, one was a twenty-eight-year-old woman, one was a thirteen-year-old girl, and one was an eleven-year-old boy. Their names were Phillis, Betsy, and Ben, and the latter were the former's children. Surely these individuals weren't put to work felling huge poplar trees and digging out stumps. The more reasonable assumption is that Phillis became the family cook and Betsy and Ben were put to work peeling potatoes and hoeing beans.
Josephine Fields has preserved the tradition that the knoll overlooking Abbott Shoal, on which Samuel erected his house, was once the site of a Totero Indian village. According to Willard Rouse Jillson, the word "toteroy" signifies "river of sandbars." He points out that on Evans' Map of Virginia, published in 1755, the Big Sandy is labeled "Tottery or Big Sandy C." We know that the Toteros were living on the river in 1699, for in that year they were mentioned in the correspondence of Richard Coote, the Earl of Bellomont and Governor of New York Colony. According to Henry Scalf, the tribe had a village near Hager Hill, one at Cliff, and one on Johns Creek near modern-day McCombs. When pioneers settled on Johns Creek around 1800, they found some old mud lodges of the Toteros still standing at a point below the mouth of the Brushy. Scalf continues:
The bird's-eye view of Prestonsburg featured in this chapter was taken by a photographer named Crandall back in the 1880s. It comes to us courtesy of the Alice Lloyd College Library in Pippa Passes, Kentucky, repository for the largest collection of historic photographs in Eastern Kentucky. Alice Lloyd College obtained the photograph from the Filson Club in Louisville, Kentucky.
The photograph of the grist mill on Shelby Creek comes to us courtesy of the Special Collections Division of the University of Kentucky Library in Lexington, Kentucky.
© 1997 Robert L. Perry