Happy Birthday, Breathitt County!

By Stephen D. Bowling

Governor John Breathitt (1786-1834) as painted by Ferdinand Graham Walker several years after Breathitt’s death. There are no contemporary images of Governor Breathitt known.

John Breathitt’s constant cough raised eyebrows for years before he started spitting up blood. He was frequently short-winded and often grew tired very easily. Medical experts of the day knew he had a severe case of consumption (now known as tuberculosis), but he did not let this challenge stop his political rise.

Born on September 9, 1786, in Henry County Virginia, Breathitt, and his family moved to Logan County Kentucky in 1800. He was a surveyor and taught school for several years before his land speculations brought him personal wealth.

He studied law and was admitted to the bar in Logan County. In 1811, he was elected to the Kentucky State Legislature and served for the next three terms. Breathitt, a Democrat, was elected Lieutenant Governor in 1828 on a split ticket serving under Governor Thomas Metcalfe, a powerful Whig.

Governor Breathitt’s obituary as it appeared on page 3 of The Alexandria Gazette (Virginia) on March 7, 1834.

In 1832, John Breathitt was nominated for Governor and won by defeating Richard A. Buckner, a Whig, to become Kentucky’s first Democrat Governor. The election was controversial and fraud allegations included the revelation that 162.9% of the eligible voters in Oldham County had voted. Breathitt carried Oldham by a two-to-one majority.

The tombstone of Governor John Breathitt at the Maple Grove Cemetery at Russellville in Logan County, Kentucky. (Source Find-A-Grave)

As Governor, Breathitt faced fierce opposition to his Jacksonian proposals, including the completion of the Lexington and Ohio Railroad. He was a strong supporter of the temperance movement and opposed the manufacture and sale of alcohol believing it the cause of many of the state’s troubles.

By November 1833, his cough was too much to be ignored. He was bedfast for much of January and February 1834 and his condition continued to grow worse daily. He died on February 21, 1834, in the old Governor’s mansion on High Street in Frankfort, Kentucky having outlived both of his wives.

He was buried in the Breathitt Family Cemetery in Logan County. Years later, his body was removed from the family plot and reinterred in the Maple Grove Cemetery in Russellville.

A well-liked leader, legislators immediately started to look for ways to honor his memory. Soon after the General Assembly gavelled into session in January 1839, a bill was introduced in the Kentucky House of Representatives to create a new county from parts of Clay, Perry, and Estill County. The legislation sought to name the new county in honor of John Breathitt.

The bill was assigned to the House Committee on Propositions and Grievances on January 21. It easily passed a few days later and was sent to the house floor on January 29th where it passed. The Senate considered the bill and passed it, with amendments, on February 6, 1839. The two legislative bodies reconciled their bills and final approval was given by both houses later in the evening of February 6, 1839.

The Act of the Legislature contained eight simple provisions:

Laws of Kentucky

An ACT to establish the county the of Breathitt.

Sec.1.  Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, that from and after the first day of April, in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred thirty nine all the parts of the counties of Clay, Perry,  and Estill contained in the following boundary, to wit: beginning on the north side of the Kentucky River where the Lower Twin Creek runs into the same; running thence a southwardly course, to the dividing ridge between the South and Middle fork of said river; thence up said ridge to the head of the right hand fork of Long’s Creek; thence down said creek to the Middle Fork; thence running a straight line crossing said Middle Fork, to the head of Strong’s Branch; thence with the dividing ridge between said branch and Elijah Bolin’s branch, to the North Fork of said river, at a fishtrap, below Samuel Davidson’s; thence a straight line, crossing said North Fork, to Lost Creek, to where Ten Mile Creek empties into the same; thence a straight line crossing said creek, to Troublesome Creek, at the mouth of Buckhorn; thence up the dividing ridge between Troublesome and Buckhorn Creeks, to the Floyd County line; thence with the same to the Morgan County line; thence with said line to the head of lower Devil’s Creek; thence down the same to said North Fork; thence a straight line to the beginning; shall be, and the same is hereby erected into one distinct county, to be called and known by the name of Breathitt.

Sec.2.  That the said county of Breathitt shall be entitled to eleven Justices of the Peace; who, after having been commissioned, shall, on the first Monday in April, eighteen hundred and thirty-nine, meet at the House of William Allen, at the mouth of Cane Creek; and after taking the necessary oaths of office, and qualifying their Sheriff, they shall proceed to appoint a Clerk, to whose permanent appointment a majority of all the Justices in commission shall concur; but if such majority cannot be had in favor of anyone, then the court may appoint one pro tem until a majority of said court shall concur in said appointment.

Sec.3.  That the County and Circuit Courts of Clay, Perry, and Estill, and the Justices of Peace thereof, shall have jurisdiction in law, equity, in all cases instituted before this act shall take effect; and it shall be lawful for the Sheriff’s, Constables and other collecting officers of the said counties of Clay, Perry, and Estill, to collect all moneys, and execute all process, as the Law directs, which may be in their hands at the time this act takes effect; account for and pay over the same, according to law.

Sec.4.  That the County Court of Breathitt county shall appoint commissioners of tax, for the year of eighteen hundred and tthirty-nine who shall be governed by the laws which may be in force on that subject.

Sec.5.  That the county of Breathitt be allowed six Constables, to be appointed by the County Court of said county, a majority of all the Justices of said Court being present, and concurring; who shall, at the time, lay of said county into districts, pursuant to law now in force on that subject; and the qualified voters in said county of Breathitt, shall vote at all general elections, held for Senators and Representatives in the State Legislature, and for members of Congress and other officers, in the same manner; and the polls shall be compared at the same places as though this act had not passed, until the same shall be changed by subsequent enactment.

Sec.6.  That the said county of Breathitt shall be, and the same is attached to the fifteenth Judicial District; and the Circuit Court of said county shall be holden on the third Monday’s in May, August, and November, and continue four juridical days at each term, provided the business therein shall require it;  and the County Court of said county shall sit on the third Monday’s in each month in which the Circuit Court shall not be holden.

Sec.7.  That John Speedsmith, of the county of Madison, Gabriel W. Price, of Laurel County, and Alexander Lackey, of the county of Floyd, be, and they are hereby appointed commissioners, to select a suitable place for the permanent location of the seat of justice for said county; and when said commissioners shall make report of said selection to the County Court of said county of Breathitt, the justices thereof shall make provision for the purchase of a lot or lots of ground at said place, suitable for the erection of a court house, jail, clerk’s office, stray-pen, &c., and shall proceed to cause the same to be erected and built, as they may think necessary; and until said buildings are finished, it shall be the duty of said County Court, at the expenses of the said county, to select and procure a suitable house, in which the section of the County and Circuit Courts, in and for said county, may be held.

Sec.8.  That the said commissioners shall be entitled to the sum of five dollars per day, each, during the time they mat be engaged in going to, location said seat of justice, and returning home there from, payable out of the county levy of said county.

Governor James Clark signed the bill into law and Breathitt County became the 89th county created in Kentucky on Monday, April 1, 1839. The rest is history, as they say.

Happy Birthday, Breathitt County!!

A Kentucky Highway Historical Marker was placed on the public square in Jackson in 1964 honoring Breathitt County and its namesake.

© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
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