|Barbourville is conveniently located in the historic Cumberland Gap area of southeastern Kentucky 18 miles from Interstate 75 (I-75) on Highway 25E - Only 25 miles from Cumberland Gap. Barbourville is located 102 miles southeast of Lexington, Kentucky; 103 miles north of Knoxville, Tennessee; and 174 miles southeast of Louisville, Kentucky.|
Barbourville is the site of many historic locations important to the
history of Kentucky. Just a few miles out of town, the first house
built in the state by European explorers was erected in 1750 by the
Dr. Thomas Walker party. The first Civil War battle in Kentucky was
fought in Barbourville in September 1861, when the Confederacy
destroyed a Federal recruiting station at the present site of Union
College, the oldest college in the mountains (founded 1879).
Barbourville, the county seat of Knox in southeastern Kentucky, is
located in the center of the county on the banks of the Cumberland
River and bordered by Richland Creek. Positioned 33 miles north of
Cumberland Gap and 15 miles southeast of Corbin, Kentucky, the city
is the point where US 25E and KY 11 intersect. Known by early
travelers as the town on the big bend of the Cumberland River,
Barbourville is surrounded by hills on all sides, a natural fortress
protecting the area from most severe storms. After years of
suffering from disastrous floods, the city is now protected by a
massive floodwall, which shields it from annual tides.
In 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker selected a site about six miles southeast of the present location of Barbourville to build the first European settler's house in Kentucky, a requirement by the state of Virginia for staking a claim to the territory. Because Dr. Walker's journal is the first written eye-witness description of the state, it might be argued that documented Kentucky history begins in Knox and her neighboring counties.
Barbourville was created as the county seat of Knox in 1800. The town's basic street design follows rather closely the initial layout planned in 1801. Due to an unusual continuity of generations of families who have lived in the region, Barbourville has always enjoyed the advantage of having in its midst elders willing and eager to tell the story of their frontier history and the area's heroic beginnings. This wide appreciation of pioneer Kentucky manifests itself annually in autumn as Barbourville's Daniel Boone Festival.
During the nineteenth century, Barbourville was the largest and most progressive city south of Richmond, Kentucky, and it was a major stop for settlers and travelers who crossed the Cumberland Gap on an expedition up the Wilderness Road. In the late 1830s and throughout the 1840s the town exercised considerable influence on early state government. The Barbourville Debating Society prepared the political careers of a governor of Missouri, a Supreme Court justice and a founder of the state of Texas. One of the nicknames for Barbourville is "Home of Governors," because of the numerous Knox Countians who served as other states' commanders in chief, in addition to two governors of Kentucky, James D. Black and Flem D. Sampson.
In the opening months of the Civil War, Barbourville was the site of the first armed skirmish between Rebel and Union forces in the state of Kentucky and recorded the state's first deaths in battle on either side. At different points in the war, the town was occupied by both military forces, becoming temporary headquarters for Confederate General Kirby Smith in 1862 and hosting Union General U.S. Grant when he was evaluating the Wilderness Road as an invasion route in 1864.
Written by Charles Reed Mitchell
-Knox Historical Museum
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