Only known lithograph of James Harrod
Kentucky Historical Society
Most people are familiar with the frontiersman Daniel Boone, but most do
not recognize the name James Harrod. While Boone is famous for settling land in
Kentucky during the mid to late 1700s and founding Fort Boonesborough, Harrod
was the founder of Harrodsburg, the oldest, permanent English settlement west
of the Alleghany Mountains. Establishing Harrodsburg was a symbolic act that
declared the Kentucky frontier open for settlement. These lands were no longer
the exclusive hunting ground of the Native Americans, nor the unexplored
wilderness of early pioneers.
It is hard to
talk of early pioneer life without mentioning Boone, but Harrod was the founder
of Harrodsburg, the first permanent settlement west of the Alleghany Mountains,
known then as Harrod’s Town. Harrod opened Kentucky for many new settlers and
While Boone is famous for opening the Kentucky
frontier and having numerous narratives published of his early experiences,
Harrod, with little fanfare, was just as important in the early settlement
process. Harrod was essential in early land surveys, the emerging court system,
and leading Kentucky on to statehood.
We know that
Boone was born in 1734, but historians still debate the actual birth year of
Harrod. The closest guess we have is Harrod being born between 1742 and 1746,
with the latter being the date used by most historians. This means there was
approximately twelve years difference between Boone and Harrod.
James Harrod was born in Bedford County, Pennsylvania, but his actual year
of birth is disputed. One source states James was twelve years old when his
father died in 1754, but other historians states he was not quite ten years old.
Kentucky historian James Klotter has recorded that Harrod was only about
fourteen years old when he fought in several battles of the French and Indian
War before it ended in 1763. Klotter also noted when Harrod volunteered as one
of Captain Gavin Cochran's Recruits in June 1760, he listed his age at sixteen
and his height at five feet, two and a half inches. This discrepancy from his
adult height of over six feet may show he lied on his recruitment records.
Daniel Boone - photo from public domain
was known for extensive hunting excursions during the 1760s and 1770s. At one
time he went for nearly two years without seeing any civilized person except
for his brother. During the winter of 1769-1770 he spent time in a small cave
in Kentucky, about three miles from where the Harrod’s Town settlement would
the late 1760s, James Harrod made short hunting or surveying excursions into
Kentucky. It was on a surveying expedition in 1773 that Harrod first discovered
the “Great Meadow”, the Native American’s name for the Bluegrass region. Harrod
returned to Kentucky in 1774 and established Harrod’s Town. This first stay was
brief, thanks in part to the Battle of Point Pleasant and numerous Native
American attacks. Harrod finally returned to Kentucky to stay in 1775.
American nation emerged at the same time as Kentucky. The country wanted a hero
who represented the “common man,” and Boone became that symbol, standing for
all those people who had risked their lives to come and settle in Kentucky. In
that way, his fame extended to all of them.
told Boone’s story in the first book written about Kentucky – The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State
of Kentucke (1784). It made Boone famous all over the world, while leaders
such as Harrod, Simon Kenton and Benjamin Logan received little attention.
Later, people would use Filson’s book to write their own accounts of Boone’s
life, and much later, motion pictures and a television series added to his
Filson, Boone was born into a Quaker family in Pennsylvania. Although the
Quakers believed that people should live in peace, Boone would end up playing a
big part in a very violent time in history. He never went to school, but his
son said that Boone could “read, spell, and write a little.” He was well versed
in the lessons of the woods.
When Boone was
twenty-one, he married seventeen-year-old Rebecca Bryan. No pictures of her
exist, but people described her as tall and buxom, with jet-black hair and dark
eyes. She had four children by the age of twenty and ten children overall.
Later, she also raised six other children whose mother had died.
When Boone left
on his long hunting trips, Rebecca tended the crops and kept the family going;
she probably never learned to read or write. Her efforts allowed Boone to
travel to Kentucky to hunt and procure furs. He wore his long hair in Indian-style
braids and dressed much like the Native Americans did. Once in the 1760s he
spent months alone in Kentucky, perhaps the only European in the whole area.
When a friend asked him if he had ever gotten lost, Boone answered that he had
not but admitted that he had once been “pretty confused” for several days.
Another time, some so-called Long Hunters in search of furs heard a strange
sound and, when they investigated, found Boone lying on his back in the middle
of a field, singing loudly. Boone loved nature and the openness of Kentucky.
Historic postcard of Old Fort Harrod
By 1754, James,
already a skilled woodsman, was particularly
adept at hunting, trapping, and fishing. His skill with a rifle was
particularly noteworthy. James began his long
military career by serving as a ranger
and guard, and then as a commissioned officer. James was an excellent
marksman. Harrod had a love for
hunting and wild-woods life and a reputation as a great backwoodsman and
Harrod both started forts in Kentucky in 1774 and 1775. Both originally chose
building sites that were inadequate, and they had to choose different sites for
their forts. Harrod’s original fort in 1774 was built within yards of the Big
Spring and when his company returned in 1775 after Dunmore’s War, the cabins
and land had been flooded. Harrod chose a new site up on what would become
known as Old Fort Hill.
fort in 1774 was only three log cabins built below the Big Spring and enclosed
with large “hoop poles” or sapling trees. They were sharpened at the top and
the base was firmly set in a trench which was opened around the cabins. The
poles were then securely fastened together with hickory bark, woven in and out
between the poles making a stockade seven to eight feet high. This frail
protection afforded the men some little security against prowling bears and
Native Americans. When Harrod’s company returned in 1775, they built three more
cabins about 285 feet from the Big Spring (East Street). They lived here while
the fort was built on the high hill above Town Creek.
Fort Harrod illustration by Henry Cleveland Wood
Boone and his
men reached the banks of the Kentucky on the first of April 1775 and lost no
time in clearing the land in anticipation of erecting a fort; it would be only
twenty-two miles from Harrod’s Town, as the crow flies. Boone built his cabin
on the west bank of a little stream that flows into the Kentucky about one-half
mile below Otter Creek. However, Boone’s partner, Richard Henderson, found it
impracticable to build cabins for his men at the same place and after
reflection they decided to build a fort on the east, some three hundred yards
away. By the twenty-second of April, the fort was under way and lots had been
laid off for the men.
to build the town in the narrow valley that lay along the banks of the Kentucky
River. On the north side ran the narrow current of the stream, on whose
northern banks were high cliff palisades. Settlers soon realized from these
summits a rifleman could control any point in the valley across the river. Both
banks of the river were thickly screened by the trees and these were never cut
even though they provided an easy approach to the fort. On the south side,
lofty hills ascended close the fort and commanded a security risk for the fort.
On all sides the fort lay exposed to any enemy of determination and skill.
Illustration of Boone's Fort (Boonesborough) from Wisconsin Historical Society
is the more well-known historical figure compared to Harrod, he never had a
town named after him; only the Fort Boonesborough settlement area. Harrod had a
town named for him in addition to the fort and station settlement: Fort Harrod,
Harrod’s Town, and Harrod Station.
Both Boone and
Harrod spent time among the Indians, but there was a big difference. Boone was
held prisoner by the Indians several different times and although he grew to
know his captors and become accepted as a friend, he was still a captive.
Harrod, on the other hand showed kindness and was helpful to the Indians. He freely
spent time with them, learning their customs and becoming their friend.
wounded sometime after 1776 defending Boonesborough. Harrod never had a serious
wound from a Native American attack, but he suffered two broken legs,
attributed to the fact he liked to hunt on horseback.
One of the
saddest comparisons between James Harrod and Daniel Boone is their children.
While Boone had many children, Harrod only had one daughter and a stepson whom he
would come to love as his own. Daniel Boone lost a son, Jamie Boone, to a
Native American attack; the boy was in his late teens. James Harrod lost a stepson,
James McDaniel, Jr., to an Indian attack; the by was only twelve years old.
In 1792, Harrod
mysteriously disappeared while on a hunting trip. He was declared dead after a
year and his will probated in favor of his widow and daughter. Although there
are several different theories on the reason Harrod never returned, but we will
never know with one hundred percent certainty. The most common theory is Harrod
was killed by his hunting mate, a man named Bridges, who was facing a lawsuit
with Harrod as his opponent.
Not long after
Harrod’s disappear, Boone left Kentucky for the frontier of Missouri. He
continued to be an American frontiersman for almost thirty years after Harrod’s
disappearance. He was a legend in his own
lifetime. After his death, Boone was frequently the subject of heroic folklore
and works of fiction. His adventures, both real and legendary, were influential
in creating the archetypal frontier hero of American mythology. In popular
culture, he is remembered as one of the foremost early frontiersmen.
Comparing the available historical data on both James
Harrod and Daniel Boone, it is easy to see all their accomplishments. The
problem is there is so much more written about Boone and little emphasis on
Darren R. Reid, Daniel Boone and Others
on the Kentucky Frontier: Autobiographies and Narratives,
1769-1795, (McFarland, 2009), 46; Martin F. Schmidt, Kentucky Illustrated: The First Hundred
Years, (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015), p. 5; Lowell Hayes Harrison, A New
History of Kentucky (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997), p. 25.
John E. Kleber, Thomas D. Clark, Lowell H. Harrison, and
James C. Klotter, The Kentucky
Encyclopedia (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 413;
James C. Klotter, History Mysteries,
(Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989), p. 11; Mason, James Harrod
of Kentucky, 10; Leckey, The
Tenmile Country and Its Pioneer Families, p. 247.
Wood, Kentucky’s Birthplace, ebook
Klotter, A Concise History of Kentucky,
Harrodsburg Herald, January 12, 1995
Cotterill, The History of Pioneer
Kentucky, Kindle location 1448-1460.
Cotterill, The History of Pioneer
Kentucky, Kindle location 1436-1443.