There are a lot of stories about Kentucky’s first distillers. It is said they were lured into the state with free land from the ‘Corn Writs”. They are also said to be fleeing the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania when they came to Kentucky. The fact is neither of these stories are true. To understand why they are not true you have to understand Kentucky history.
Kentucky is the first American west. It was the western frontier, land claimed by the state of Virginia. The first Colonial people to enter the future state of Kentucky were hunters who competed with the Native Americans for the game to be found in the state. In the 1770s the first wave of settlers came into the region from two different sources.
Settlements were founded in Harrodsburg and Boonesboro. The people who came settled in Harrodsburg purchased their lands from a company that had negotiated a treaty with the Iroquois for the land. The people associated with Boonesboro purchased their land from a company that had negotiated for the land with the Cherokee. The problem is that the Virginia Colonial Government did not recognize the treaty with the Cherokee so that land was purchased illegally as far as the State of Virginia was concerned.
This is where the corn writs come in. The State of Virginia did not want to simply force people to leave the homes they had built in Kentucky. Virginia wanted the land settled. The solution to the problem was to write a bill that said that if you had built a cabin and raised a crop of 40 acres of corn, then you were entitled to 400 acres of land. You could also then purchase another 400 acres at $1 per acre. You may have claim to thousands of acres, but all you would get to keep is the 400 acres with the option to purchase an additional 400 acres. This is one of the things that drove Daniel Boone out of Kentucky to start over in Missouri. He lost the title to the lands that were promised him by the Transylvania Company.
With the American Revolution Kentucky land then was given away by the State of Virginia to soldiers who fought in the war as part of the Virginia Militia. There was no free land in Kentucky to give away. Virginia also did a poor job in the land grants to the veterans. They were given a general idea as to where the land was located but then told to go survey the land themselves and send back the information. Needless to say this led to a lot of boundary disputes. So much so that the joke became that you did not purchase land in Kentucky, you purchased a lawsuit. As late as the 1820s, Richard Taylor, E.H. Taylor’s grandfather, was surveying land in the Jackson Purchase region of western Kentucky for these grants.
The Whiskey Rebellion in Kentucky was just as bad locally as it was in western Pennsylvania. There were tax collectors attacked and tarred and feathered. People refused to pay the tax in Kentucky which also means there were already plenty of distillers in the region before the rebellion. More importantly, if you were wanted by the Federal Marshals for your role in the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania, then you did not want to flee to Kentucky where those Marshals still had jurisdiction to arrest you, you fled to Spanish territory in Louisiana. Why would you pack up your distillery and move it several hundred miles into Kentucky if you could still be arrested? If you were not going to be arrested, then why bother to move into an area that still had the whiskey tax? Yes, Kentucky was handled differently than western Pennsylvania. A sympathetic judge was sent to deal with the cases here in Kentucky, but he would not have jurisdiction on people fleeing from the tax in Western Pennsylvania.
Early Kentucky distillers came to the state for many reasons. Some of them came in that first wave of Colonial expansion. Others came because they were given land grants for their service in the Virginia Militia in the Revolutionary War. Others like Daniel Weller traded Maryland militia service awards for Virginia land grants earned by a Virginian veteran. Others purchased the land grants for cash. They came from Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland and other states. They brought their stills with them. Kentucky’s distilling heritage came from not one source, but many. They were not all Scottish or Irish or Scotch-Irish. There were Germans, Welsh, English. And French. There were both men and women who would build the reputation that Kentucky earned for making the best whiskey, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl