The Life of Captain Samuel Pottenger
by Ron W. Pottinger (4th great grandson)
October 10, 2015 - Today I would like to tell you just a little bit about a great man. Much of the
information presented in the following pages was preserved and recorded by Samuel Forest
Pottinger, 1st great grandson of Capt. Samuel Pottenger. “Forest” was one of the great family
historians. He was a member and contributor to the Filson Historical Society of Louisville, KY.
His best-known research is referenced as "The Pottingers Papers 1631-1942". Formally titled
"John Pottenger, Gentleman of the Province of Maryland, and some of his Descendants", it was
a massive undertaking involving many years of research during the 1930's up to its final assembly
in 1942. In the words of Forest, “Written records of Capt. Samuel Pottenger portray only in part
what he gained by hard work, hazardous military duty and an exemplary life for the up-building
of his community”.
Capt. Samuel Pottenger was a fourth Generation Pottenger. The Pottenger family was originally
from England. His great grandfather John Pottenger migrated to America from England in 1684.
Sam was born in Prince Georges County, Maryland in April 1754 (present day Washington DC
area). He was born at “Parrott’s Manor,” his father’s estate (Robert), inherited from his
grandfather (Samuel), created by his great grandfather John. (Family Note: The spelling of the
Pottenger/Pottinger name has been represented both ways the last few hundred years with most
of the “Kentucky Pottingers” with an “i” spelling.)
Sam Pottenger was the eldest son of a large family of ten children; 5 girls and 5 boys. He was
the true pioneer; woodsman, expert marksman, and master hunter. As a teenager, he hunted in all
various areas of the Virginia territory (included the present day WV). He fell in love with the
new Berkley County area (present day 90 miles northwest of DC, panhandle of WV) where he
had been visiting relatives and former neighbors that had moved there. In the fall of 1773, he
came back home and convinced his Mom and Dad to sell everything and move to “this great
discovered fertile land”. The entire family moved, leased some land, and created a large apple
orchard for making cider. This was the beginning of the “Pottenger Apple” discussed a little later.
At the “ripe old age of 20”, Sam first explored the wilderness of what was going to be “Kentucky”
in another 18 years or so. In his travels and exploring, he met fellow pioneers like James and
William Harrod, Daniel Boone, George Rodgers Clark, and Isaac Cox.
In the mid 1770’s, the Indian tribes, who resented the broken treaties and settlers in their adjacent
hunting grounds, created many battles. One of these was the Battle of Point Pleasant in Virginia
of the 1774 Dunmore’s War (Virginia Militia against Indians, not too far from the Ohio River in
present day WV). A large amount of forts had sprung up for defense against the Indians, and the
news of the new “Kentucky” and its great hunting, encouraged the men to “talk up” this region,
and the “land grabs”.
Sam got to thinking and ask himself, “Could these guys be right?... land and hunting better than
where I am at now?” Sam was already known throughout the region for his great skills, so when
his friend and associate James Harrod asked him to go along to re-occupy Fort Harrod that had
been abandoned, he was in! Sam wanted to see more of this “New Kentucky”. On March 8,
1775, with 40 young men, they made the trip from Fort Redstone (over the mountains from where
his parents lived) down the Ohio River, down the Kentucky River, to Fort Harrod. Fort Harrod
would be one of the first American settlements in what was to become the State of Kentucky.
Sam spent the winter of 1776 there and learned that a new organization called the Transylvania
Colony opened up all the land (signed earlier in March of 1775) in the region; about 17 million
acres between the KY and Cumberland Rivers. Sam had made up his mind that it was time to
settle in this “New Kentucky”. In May 1776, Sam, James Harrod, and 50 other men signed under
Daniel Boone, over at Fort Boonesborough, to explore and peruse land opportunities. “Kentucky”
may have been calling out to Sam but…he had head back home first.
By the spring of ‘77, a small thing got in his way, The American Revolution was in full force….it
was time for to fight for the independence from British Rule. On April 27, 1777, at age 23, Sam
enlisted as a private for a tour of 6 months. He went as an infantryman, the best service he was
qualified for being the marksman, woodsman and hunter he was. He served in several battles
He returned home in November only to find out that his mom had died that summer in childbirth
with a daughter. And at the time, he did not know his Dad was sick. His father was taking care of
a newborn and eight other children. With Sam being the oldest, and having the most responsibility
to take care of the family, he knew he could make some money on land deals. He also wanted to
find some good land that was “well-watered” to call his own. His exploring nature was calling
out as well as his curiosity about better lands.
In the spring of 1778, Sam and James Harrod took to the Ohio River in flat boats to explore the
Kentucky grounds again. They explored the Falls of Ohio area and the soon to be named “Corn
Island”. Just few months later, George Rodgers Clark would name “Corn Island” in May of 1778
and set up camp there (Which was soon to be the city of Louisville). Sam did not like the Falls
area because it said it was “swampy and full of malaria.” Capt. Sam and James Harrod went
south and explored the waters of a creek that fed into the Rolling Fork. This area was crisscrossed
by a variety of buffalo trails or traces. It had several large “licks” for salt of which the game
animals had worn. The bottoms were lush with wild cane, “as high as a man’s head” and
“unbroken forests and woods as far as the eye could see”. There were over seven limestone
springs for whiskey manufacturing, fertile soil for corn and flax, all kinds of wild animals;
buffalo, bear, elk, and even wolves. James Harrod, dubbed the sparkling stream in his
companion’s honor, Pottenger’s Creek. Sam fell in love with land for a second time and made
his first claim in the region.
He returned home that summer to find that his dad had died and now his brothers and sisters were
orphans living with their oldest sister and her new husband. He had to keep the family together
and he had a plan! In the winter of 1778 he went back to the now, what was referred to,
“Pottenger’s Creek settlement” to build a cabin and to establish his claim. It was a small cabin
roughly 6 foot by 12 foot of cut logs to get him through the winter. (That was about 4 miles east
from present day New Haven and 158 feet from present day Highway 52)
He wanted to “put down some roots” all the while “thinking about family back home”. That
cabin and homestead was to be the beginning of his grand plan. He was awarded certificates for
400 acres plus 1000 acres in February 1780 for his claim in Kentucky County by Patrick Henry,
Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. He also took up lands on Breshear’s Creek,
Simpson’s Creek, Floyd’s Fork and a large body of land near Green River. His expertise was
sought out that year to do contract land surveying for others coming to that area. Sam was
contracted to locate at least 12,000 acres, all the time avoiding poisonous snakes, wild animals,
Indians, and traveling through a tangled wood land region.
Yet, another small thing got in his way of his plans; Indians that are still pretty mad about these
settlers in their hunting grounds. James Harrods’s brother William enlisted Sam’s help and he
joined the pioneer soldiers of Kentucky in 1780 as a private. The company was comprised of 96
men that served and protected the forts near the Falls of the Ohio from Indian Attacks. These men
provided their own guns, horses, and wore their own clothes. He was promoted to Captain in
late 1780 or early 81. Some family folklore even claims that Samuel Pottenger returned to
Maryland as the Revolution came to the Tidewater Region in Virginia. (I have not been able to
find any written evidence of this.)
Capt. Sam could not wait to get back to his cabin on “Pottenger land”. He knew “what he had to
do” and “he must do it fast”. By the spring of 1781, “Pottenger’s Station” fort was erected with
his cabin as one of the corners of the fort, with several settlers already staying there. Indians were
very active, but Capt. Sam felt like it was finally ready for the safe keeping of his family.
By the spring of 1782 it was time to go get his orphaned brothers and sisters, as well as, some
aunts and uncles and their children in Berkley County. This plan had been 2½ years in the making.
The month long journey back to Pottenger’s Station, would be over 750 miles. They traveled over
the Allegheny Mountains by horseback to Fort Redstone. His 2 baby sisters were placed in large
hickory baskets and strapped together and balanced over the back of a gentle old mare. They went
down the Monongahela River (which runs South to North) by flatboat to Pittsburgh, then 500
river miles downstream to the falls of the Ohio (Louisville). At any time, they were subject to
Indian attacks from the shores. The last 55 miles were by horseback; 35 miles to Cox’s Station
Fort and then another 20 miles on to Pottengers Station. Many of the women and children stayed
for a while at Cox’s Station because of the Indian activity in the area, and it also gave the men
more opportunity to build more housing. The Fort’s many early inhabitants included Captain
Sam’s nine brothers and sisters; several uncles with many children; the Griffith, Willett family;
and various members of the Graft, Gilkey, Withrow families (from N.C.) …Masterson, Miller
and Kincaid families (from PA) and many unmarried of the various clans.
Besides the fort, another major contribution of Capt. Sam was known as “Pottenger’s Meat
Cabin”, “the Big Meat Cabin”, or “Pottengers Repository”. It was a supply depot for the fort. This
was located four miles to the west of the fort at the mouth of Pottenger’s Creek (around the site
of present day New Haven). Animals were brought in after which the game was dressed, cured
and stored until needed. The men had to guard it every night and day, and also guard the corn
patches that ran from the meat cabin to the fort. There was always constant activity in the region
and Indians were still very active then.
John Gilkey was the first person in the fort to be murdered and scalped by the Indians in February,
1782 while out hunting, he left a widow and five children. In the summer, about five months later,
“Love” was in the air again for Capt. Sam. He married the twice widowed, Jane Gray Withrow
Gilkey. Her five children, by two marriages, ranged from 3 to 16 years old. This was the first
marriage at the fort. Capt. Sam and Jane would have 3 more children together; Elizabeth (known
as Betsy), Sam Jr., and John.
Capt. Sam always had a company of men that were always ready to assemble and engage in
expeditions to ward off Indians resulting in several battles. One battle called the “Campaign of
1782” occurred in August of that year. This would be one of the last Major Expeditions of the
American Revolutionary War. Capt. Sam, his men, and a body of 1000 soldiers under Colonel
George Rogers Clark’s Kentucky Militia went to Southwest Ohio to fight the Shawnee Indians.
They crossed the river at where present day Cincinnati is located and headed up to present day
Springfield, Ohio to destroy Indian camps. Winter had “kicked in” when Capt. Sam and his
Militia Company returned from this successful Expedition against the Indians. At one of their
stops, they found the inmates of Cartwright’s Station (situated midway between present day
Springfield and Lebanon, Kentucky) were at starvation point. Capt. Sam took 39 of them back
to Pottenger’s Station to feed and clothe them.
Nelson County, Virginia was formed from Jefferson County, Virginia in 1784. The Indian attacks
were becoming less often. By 1785, Bardstown had mushroomed into one of the leading towns
on the western frontier (35 to 50 houses) and one of the last acts for Capt. Sam and his men was
30 days service over at Fort Boonesborough. The major migration of Catholics from Maryland
in 1785, had caused Pottengers Station to swell and “Sam’s cabin” had been getting pretty
crowded. In 1787, Capt. Sam had been studying on another “grand plan idea”. He would build
the very first mansion constructed west of the Allegheny Mountains like the fine homes from
Maryland that he remembered so well. Due east from his Fort, about one-half mile, he selected a
hill overlooking the wide Pottenger Creek valley. It had water from springs and streams, and the
area was covered with massive black walnut trees. There was red clay, limestone rock, sand, all
the building materials were there… 100,000 bricks were “fired” on the site. All of the wood
construction both inside and out, was made with Black Walnut. He called it “Walnut Hill”, it was
his pride and joy! Most of the major construction took place during the year 1788, and Sam’s
family and housekeepers occupied the house before the end of that year.
Besides the first brick home, he also had the first brick meat/smoke house. Some 227 years later,
it still stands today. The foundation of limestone blocks down below the house still remain from
the massive 3 story “log cabin style” barn that he built. An apple orchard was located east and
northeast of house to the graveyard. “The Pottenger Apple” was well-known to all the locals.
After the Walnut Hill plantation and all its components were in place, Capt. Sam built one of the
first distilleries and grist mills below the house with some facilities located in the massive barn.
By 1792, Kentucky became a state and now Capt. Sam focused his attention less on land and
more on products; grain flour, meat, whiskey, tobacco and lard to be shipped south to the new
developing lands. When Flatboats began shipping products down river network to New Orleans,
Capt. Sam was among the leaders as he was a very experienced river man. A wharf was built
from “Pottenger’s Repository” for loading activities. Before you knew it, everybody was calling
it “Pottenger’s Landing.” Every spring and fall when water levels rose, they would take a flatboat,
full of products, down the Rolling Fork to the Salt River, down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers
to New Orleans. It was a trip of over 1500 river miles!
At age 41, Capt. Sam had the “tiger by the tail”, but great sorrow fell on him in 1795 when Jane
his wife died, she being just a few years older than he was. She was laid to rest in the north end
of Pottenger’s Cemetery, and was one of the first persons buried here. Broken hearted, Capt. Sam
stayed busy to hide his sorrow. That year Henry Miles and Capt. Sam were appointed Nelson
County Land Commissioners to establish titles and boundaries. It was a tremendous job,
everybody fighting about who owns what and when. Capt. Sam had to even get physical with a
few land owners and soon he got the reputation of being a fair, but firm man, and was linked to
the quote, “Don’t get the idea into your head that a Pottenger won’t fight.”
After a short courtship at age 45, love did come back into Capt. Sam’s life as he married the
widow Jenny Caldwell Logan from Washington County, KY in 1799. Her deceased husband was
the son of General Benjamin Logan and of the same Militia that Capt. Sam was in. She brought
to the union four children by her former marriage. Capt. Sam and Jenny had 3 more children
together: Robert, Jane Grey, and Anna. For the next few years, Walnut Hill had over a dozen and
a half family members living in it from grandchildren to children to Capt. Sam and Jenny.
It was 1800 and the turn of the century, for the next 20 years…. life was grand; Capt. Sam’s
family had many lavish affairs and were known far and wide for their great southern hospitality.
By 1819, his son, Sam Jr. had taken over most of his father’s business affairs, including the
flatboat business. Capt. Sam had made his last trip to New Orleans. Sam Jr. changed the name
of Pottengers Landing to “New Haven” from his extensive travels up north. Sam Jr. laid out the
township of New Haven and built his first house on lot number one.
However, Capt. Sam’s Life turned to sorrow again; his second oldest son John died in 1820 at
age 19, from pneumonia. Six years later in 1827, Jenny his wife died. (Also, buried in north end
of the cemetery) and a year later in 1828, their second youngest daughter Jane Grey died. With
all this death, at age 74, Capt. Sam reflected on his great life and many achievements and was
ready to give up, as he called it, the “responsibility of housekeeping.” He created a lengthy
agreement with his children whereby he could have a home among his children for the rest of his
He would sell his entire estate at a public auction and divide the proceeds among his heirs. It was
decided that his oldest daughter Betsy and her husband James Phillips would provide for his care,
oversee his caretakers/their housing, and be compensated for it. In February, 1828, exactly 40
years from its construction date, Walnut Hill with 613 acres was purchased by Sam Jr. at a public
auction. All other property was split up and sold to others.
Just three months later in May, Capt. Sam had a stroke. He was still at Walnut Hill and the kids
felt a move now would endanger his health. For the next 1½ years he stayed there and by the fall
of 1830, his children reported that he had become feeble and sometimes “inclined to be childish”.
Capt. Sam had been cooped up in the house all winter long, and in January of the next year, he
had a very bad case of “cabin fever”. Sam Jr. in an attempt to humor his Dad, agreed to take him
over to see Betsy at Cox’ Creek. Capt. Sam was not strong enough to ride horseback for the 20
mile trip, so one mild morning, Sam Jr. prepared him for the trip. He bundled Capt. Sam in warm
wraps, with hot rocks at his feet, in a big plantation sled, with his 3 caretakers on horseback. It
took most of the day to get there and unfortunately he got a cold from the trip…which turned into
pneumonia, being his health was so unstable.
Several doctors from Bardstown attended to his needs but on the 12th of January 1831, and at age
77, he quietly took his last breath. The weather turned for the worst, the roads had become
impassable, and it was decided to bury Capt. Sam at the nearby Cox’s Creek Baptist Church.
Capt. Sam let it be known to several kinfolk and relatives during his lifetime that he had a desire
for a final resting place. He wanted, “To be laid to rest …in the space that was reserved between
his two devoted wives”… at Walnut Hill in “Pottengers Cemetery”.
On October 10, 2015, the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution and the
National Society of Sons of the American Revolution acknowledged the life of this great man
with an official “marking”. Captain Samuel Pottenger should have great comfort that we have
honored his wishes with this marking, located between his two wives graves, so that his spirit
will have a final resting place.