Floyd County 1800-1848
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Continue with a series of essays on the children of John and Sarah May

The first records of families settling in the Big Sandy Valley of Eastern Kentucky date from about 1789. However, very little growth occurred during the following decade. In the autumn of 1800, John and Sarah May moved from the Watauga Valley in Tennessee - their home for the previous eleven years - to remote and sparsely settled Shelby Creek in the upper region of the Big Sandy Valley.

The trail the Mays traveled to Kentucky went north from the Watauga - returning along the same route they had traveled in 1789, from Abingdon, Virginia - and then turned west towards Pound Gap in the Cumberland Mountains. After crossing the gap into Floyd County, they continued north into the upper reaches of the Kentucky River Valley. Within a few more miles, they entered the rugged valley of Elkhorn Creek and proceeded towards Shelby Gap, the pass into the headwaters of Shelby Creek. The final segment of the long journey went down the creek to within about two miles of its confluence with the Big Sandy River. The following map shows the approximate route the Mays took through Abingdon, Virginia from their farm on the Watauga to their new homestead on Shelby Creek, a total distance of approximately 150 miles.

May farm on the Watauga River

Route of the Mays to Shelby Creek.
[The location of their homestead is placed on an 1804 map]

Perhaps after their crops were in the barns, John and some of his Watauga friends had made a journey to Kentucky the previous winter to see what prospects were available in the Big Sandy. They may have even built some temporary cabins to house their families when they arrived. Exactly when or how John obtained possession of his first land in Floyd County isn't known. The county was formed only a few months prior to his arrival, and he probably delayed filing a deed until after the new seat of justice was officially established at Prestonsburg. Unfortunately, the early land records of Floyd County for the years dating from 1800 were destroyed when the courthouse burned in 1808. Earlier land records of the Big Sandy - at least to the extent any were ever filed - were recorded at Washington, the county seat of Mason County, over two hundred miles from John's property on Shelby.

Shelby Creek was significantly different from the previous places where the May family had lived. For example, the "Great Waggon Road," serving thousands of travelers bound for the southwest, ran through the region of Virginia near the Potomac River where the Mays lived until 1789. In the 1790s on the Watauga, John and Sarah had enjoyed modest conveniences such as regular mail service, flour and corn mills, iron foundries and powder mills. Throughout the preceding twenty years of their marriage, the Mays had the luxury of wheat bread on Sundays and special occasions, John could barter for iron farm tools to cultivate his fields and he had a dependable source of powder for his longrifle. Such conveniences wouldn't exist in Floyd County.

The remote location of the land on Shelby Creek was about a hundred miles northwest of Abingdon, Virginia, and over a hundred miles up the Big Sandy from the limited commercial river traffic developing on the Ohio. The only routes into the valley were over ancient trails, worn for centuries by the hooves of deer, elk and buffaloes and followed by Indians traveling between villages on the Ohio and those located deep in the southern Appalachians. Comtemporary maps use the region's Indian names to show trails up "Totteroy Creek" to its two main forks, with the west fork trail crossing over the "Ouasioto Mountains" at Pound Gap.

Despite the many hardships they knew they would face, John and Sarah May were drawn to this new Kentucky frontier by the prospect of unsettled land - affordable acreage for those willing to clear the dense hardwood forests for "new-ground" to grow their crops and pasture their livestock. Only a few families preceded the Mays into the Valley. The May name was destined to become one of the best known in the region, and to this day many descendants of John and Sarah continue to call Eastern Kentucky their home.

Settling the Big Sandy Valley
Eastern Kentucky historian, Henry P. Scalf, tells us that "In 1795, about 75 families came to Big Sandy, strung out in a thin line of cabins hastily erected from northern Pike County to the mouth of Johns Creek."[1] Two related events, General Anthony Wayne's victory at Fallen Timbers in August 1794 and the signing of the Treaty of Greeneville in August 1795, freed the region from the threat of Indian raids, and encouraged settlers to move into the valley. The flood of immigrants during the previous twenty years to Central Kentucky had bypassed Eastern Kentucky, but with the safety of families finally assured, the valley's population slowly began to grow.

In 1796, a small Methodist congregation was organized by Cornelius McGuire in the Big Sandy, its members first met at the home of Henry (Harry) Stratton. McQuire, a zealous lay preacher from Tazewell County, Virginia, built his cabin near the two-story log house of Stratton, his brother-in-law, just south of the mouth of Tom's Creek. Scalf notes: "In this Big Sandy group were the Auxiers, Laynes, Mayos, Owens, Strattons, Honakers, McGuires and others."

Floyd County map
Map by Charles C. Wells in his book
Annals of Floyd County, Kentucky 1800-1826

The original boundary of Floyd County encompassed the easternmost region of Kentucky.

Floyd County - an area of over 3,600 square miles of wilderness that occupied most of present-day Eastern Kentucky - was named in honor of Colonel John Floyd, a famous surveyor, legislator, Indian fighter, and distinguished Kentucky pioneer who died in an Indian ambush in 1783. When it was formed in 1800, Scalf estimates the population of the county at about 478 persons. However, the number of settlers in this region wasn't officially recorded until the U.S. census of 1810, showing an official count of 3,485 inhabitants.

In 1800, Lexington, Kentucky, "the rising town of the West," had a population of 2,400 people and boasted the first regular institution of learning west of the Appalachians, Transylvania Seminary. At the time, there was practically no commerce between Eastern and Central Kentucky. No wagon roads yet connected these two regions of the state. Decades after the first settlements were established in the Big Sandy Valley the remote farmers received manufactured goods by packtrains of horses and mules over the mountains from Virginia or by boats from settlements along the Ohio River.

Living on Shelby Creek
On October 12, 1800, Sarah gave birth to her seventh child, Reuben. The family moved to Shelby Creek late in her pregnancy and she had no grown daughters old enough to help care for her three youngest children. The three teenage boys, John, Samuel and Thomas, probably were too busy helping their father establish the farm to attend to work around the cabin. Elizabeth (age ten) and Daniel (age nine) probably were kept busy helping their mother with daily chores and caring for Mary and their baby brother.

The two older May sons, choosing to pursue their own dreams, soon left their home on Shelby. On February 10, 1802, John May (Jr.) married Mary Catherine (Caty) Hanson in Carter County, Tennessee. We don't know if John, Sr. returned with his son for the wedding, but he did sign the wedding bond. Samuel May, John's second oldest son, settled in Prestonsburg about 1803. On May 8, 1808, twenty-four year-old Samuel married Catherine Evans, and two years later he was listed as the head of a household in the 1810 U. S. Census of Floyd County. In 1845, Samuel wrote, "It has been 41 or 42 years since I was in the company of my father any worth notice and it has been 32 years since his death." Apparently, Samuel only saw his parents on their infrequent visits down the Big Sandy to transact business or appear in County Court in Prestonsburg.

The departure of John May's two oldest sons from the farm within three years of their arrival in Kentucky left Thomas as the oldest son to help his father establish a permanent home for the remaining family members. In February of 1803, Thomas celebrated his sixteenth birthday and Daniel, the next youngest son, was about twelve that year. John and Sarah's eighth and last child, Phillip Pollard, was born on Shelby Creek on July 26, 1805. Family tradition says Pollard was the family name of Sarah's mother. Other records say that he he was named Tlepolard and sometimes used the name Tilpollard.



Phillip Pollard (Tilpollard)
12 Oct 1800
26 July 1805
Floyd Co., KY
Floyd Co., KY

 John and Sarah's children born on Shelby Creek.

We only have a few records to document the activities of John and Sarah during the period between their arrival on Shelby Creek in 1800 and John's death in 1813. John wrote a brief explanation of the naming of his youngest child, Tlepolard, who was born in 1805. A written receipt, dated October 11, 1811, from J. Mayo for John's 1810 "Revenue tax" still exists. Another record mentions a lawsuit - the complaint was not identified - that was filed by Richard Damron against John May and was appealed in the 1809 August session of the Floyd County Court. In the November 1809 session, a Justice of the Peace, Robert Haws, ruled, "Motion to dismiss overruled ... Plaintiff to recover costs."

Sarah, who evidently wasn't the silent type, disputed the ruling, and a campaign of words against Justice Haws ensued. He responded with a suit of his own against John and Sarah, saying, "Sarah, or Sally May, had wickedly uttered malicious gossip and scandalous words about his rendering a false judgment." In July of 1810, Sarah was found innocent of Haws' charges, and he was ordered to "pay the costs above their defense herein expended."

John May and his family lived in a section of the county with thousands of acres of unoccupied tracts of cheap land. The price to be paid, however, was a lot of hard labor. With the help of his young family he cleared the hardwood forest, raised crops of corn and grain, cared for the livestock, and expanded his herds of free-roaming hogs. John also built a mill near the mouth of Shelby Creek which served the needs of his neighbors who brought their sacks of corn for a "turn" of cornmeal. The mill was located above the "second ford on Shelby Creek." From various deeds of the May family, we can determine that neighboring farms were owned by the Branham, Ford, Damron, Little, and Adkins families.

On January 25, 1813, only a few days after his 53rd birthday, John died. The cause of his death is not recorded. Two other early settlers of the county, John Lain (Layne) and William Justice died about the same time. His estate was settled over the next few years, with his fourth son, Daniel, acting as the administrator. In June 1813, his estate was inventoried for the Floyd County Court, but no copy has survived. A notation in the court records says that the inventory was returned to the family. Other records following his death, however, identify the eight children of John and Sarah as heirs of his estate.

For thirty-five years after John died, Sarah May never remarried and apparently lived in the home of her son Thomas. Only a few surviving court records mention her. Soon after John's death, in March, 1813, the will of William Justice, deceased, was, "proven by the oaths of Sarah May and Elijah Adkins." On May 24, 1813, Sarah won an appeal judgment against Corban Thomson in court, but the issues of the case are unknown. It most likely was a dispute over land.

Within eighteen months of John's death, three of his children married: Elizabeth married James Little on June 10, 1813; Thomas married Dorcas Patton on August 19, 1813; and Mary married Simeon Justice on July 10, 1814. The bond for Thomas May's marriage to Dorcas Patton has been lost, but we know that Simeon Justice performed the ceremony. Copies of the marriage bonds for both daughters still exist. Along with a marriage bond filed by James Little and David Branham "for a marriage shortly to be had between James Little and Elizabeth May" is Sarah's approval; "This is to certify that Sary May, wife to John May deceased, has give her daughter Elizabeth May in wedlock to James Little."

On September 15, 1845, Sarah, at the age of 86, filed her declaration for a Revolutionary War pension at the Pike County courthouse. Since she was probably living was living with Thomas at his home on Robinson Creek in Shelby Valley, Pikeville was the appropriate place for her to file. No record of Sarah's death is extant, but May genealogists have assumed that she died about 1846. A closer study of the record indicates that she was still living in 1848. A brief letter, written by Richard French of the U. S. House of Representatives on January 19, 1848, refers to a request he had received from Sarah May "to ask the Congress of the United States to grant her a pension." Sarah isn't listed in the 1850 Census as a member of the households of either Thomas or Samuel, her only children still living in the valley. It is reasonable to assume that she died sometime between January of 1848 and the date the census was taken on Shelby in 1850.

Final Resting Place
Sarah Jane Phillips May is buried on a wooded hillside on Shelby Creek in Pike County, Kentucky. She rests next to her husband in an old graveyard that is accessible by a short climb from a public road - now called Route 122 or Collins Highway. Native stones are still aligned about the perimeter of the May graves, which have two small sandstone markers. It used to be traditional in the mountains to build wooden enclosures over graves. Perhaps the stones once served as the foundation for such an enclosure. There appear to be over thirty graves in the old cemetery, but only about ten headstones are legible. They commemorate members of the Keathley family who died between 1884 and 1912. A newer cemetery, enclosed by a fence, is located on the point in front of the old May grave site.

I have visited the location of the original May homestead three times. My uncle, Waits May (1905-1993), first took me to the site in 1985. I happened to meet and speak with the widow of Willie Riddle, who told us how to find the graves on the hill above her home. In 1990 I returned to the quite resting place of John and Sarah with my daughter, Teresa. During another visit in 1995 with my wife, Darlene, I met Bill Riddle, the present owner of the property. Mr. Riddle has lived on the farm since his father, Willie, purchased it from William Keathley in 1945. He told me that the Chesapeake and Ohio (C & O) Railroad laid tracks across the farm in 1911 to access the rich coal mines in the Shelby Valley. The railroad tracks now cross the highway - at the foot of the hill below the cemeteries - about 2.2 miles up the highway from the bridge across the river at Shelbiana. In 1942, the hardwood timber on the property was cut, yielding many thousands of board feet of high quality lumber.

A few hundred yards down the road from the railroad crossing Mr. Riddle showed me the location - according to local tradition - of the site of the original May cabin. At the foot of the hill on the left side of the road, just below the first curve, he pointed out the location of an old rock-lined water well that is believed to be the one used by the Mays. He remembers the well, which is about eleven feet deep, as once being a year-round source of good drinking water. The remains of an old shed are now scattered among the weeds next to the well. There once was an orchard in the cove behind the cabin site, with fruit trees extending up the hillside. In days past, the graves of John and Sarah could have been accessed by walking through the orchard and crossing over the point where a single old June apple tree still survives.

A May family tradition says that a grandson cut and placed the stones on the graves - probably one of the sons of Thomas. Thomas' children never knew their grandfather, but they all grew up under the watchful eye of "grandma Sary," which we can suppose they called her. Both of the stones are the same size, maybe sixteen inches high, but only one remains faintly legible:

John May born . . .

John                                                                 Sarah

Graves of John and Sarah May

 Scalf, Henry P.  Kentucky's Last Frontier, Pikeville College Press, Pikeville, Ky., 1972.
     (An excellent book on Floyd County history, but out of print)
2.  Wells, Charles C. Annals of Floyd County, Kentucky, 1800-1826, Gateway Press, Inc., Baltimore,       Maryland, 1983. (An excellent book of early Floyd County Court records that is still available for purchase.)

Continue with a series of essays on the children of John and Sarah May.

References to family records and facsimile copies of regional maps are printed in the book on the May/Meÿ family, The Shoemaker's Children.

              © 2000 Fred T. May                Return to Index of John May essays