Truth be told, John Floyd would probably be quite surprised to learn that the meandering stream so quickly named in his honor in June of 1774 would 240 years later become centerpiece of a 20-mile, almost 4,000-acre park complete with hikers, bikers, fishermen, weddings, bluegrass music and a dog park.
It’s equally certain to assume that about 95 percent of those who use the park today have no real idea who John Floyd was or what he did even as they hike, bike and fish along his namesake stream within The Parklands of Floyds Fork.
And the dogs could care even less.
So let’s quickly catch up with John Floyd’s past and then – using the company of three local historians – extrapolate what might have happened to the thousands of acres of land along Floyds Fork had the park not been created.
The Life of Colonel John Floyd
For openers, John Floyd’s life – scripted by famous men, great events, brutal reality and a relentless sense of adventure coupled with a strong dose of capitalism – was much too short to gain historical traction.
He was in Kentucky only nine years – and killed here by Indians at age 32. Thus, a Cliff’s notes telling of his brief but fascinating life would go like this:
He was born in Virginia in 1750, worked as a surveyor for a William Preston – as in Preston Highway – and did some other surveying work for a couple of local Virginia guys named Patrick Henry and George Washington. He married at 18; his wife died a year later at the birth of their daughter, appropriately named “Mourning.”
He first came to what is now Kentucky – then part of Virginia – in 1774 to survey land given to veterans of the French and Indiana War. It was land whose ownership would be involved in great dispute among early developers for years as settlers, squatters, speculators and legitimate owners battled in court, and occasionally with firearms.
It was while on that journey – on June 13, 1774 to be precise – that his party came across a small river flowing into the Salt River near what’s now Shepherdsville and, yes, it’s KOA Campground.
The 62-mile river, which begins up in Henry County, was then and there dubbed “Floyd’s River.” It soon became Floyds Fork without an apostrophe – the lack of English teachers in that period quite apparent.
While surveying in this area Floyd bought a 2,000-acre site for himself in what’s now roughly St. Matthews, his land falling between what’s now Breckenridge and Cannon’s Lane extended to DuPont Circle – with Bowman Field thrown in for good measure. There’s a plaque in his honor in the parking lot.
Indian problems – they insisted on continually killing and scalping the white people steadily invading their neighborhood – sent Floyd hustling back to Virginia, a 16-day cross-country journey.
He returned to Kentucky in 1775 and attended a meeting with other pioneers at earliest days of Boonesborough to establish the rules and regulations for “Transylvania,” the earliest form of government west of the Alleghany Mountains.
He lived in Boonesborough in 1776 while the others he left behind on the East Coast got all wrapped up in starting a revolution. He became well-acquainted with Daniel Boone, and even helped rescue his daughter, Jemima, after she was captured by a band of Shawnee and Cherokee Indians.
That same year – his surveying job lost through a combination of local and Virginia politics, subterfuge, illegal Indian dealings and land-grabbing by other parties – he returned to Virginia.
Once there – and caught up in the Revolutionary War – he signed on as a privateer aboard the schooner “Phoenix” to capture booty for the American cause. He was captured at sea by the British, sent to prison in Portsmouth, England, then escaped to France and eventually Paris in 1777.
From there – with the help of several people including an American ambassador named Benjamin Franklin – he got back to Virginia along with, the story goes, a beautiful pair of shoe buckles and a bright, scarlet-red coat.
Return to Kentucky
Not one to stay put, Floyd, along with his new wife, their son, three brothers and two sisters, returned to Kentucky in October, 1779 to his reclaim his 2,000 acres of land in Kentucky. After chasing away a few squatters, he established Floyd’s Station along Beargrass Creek with 10 other families about six miles from what’s now downtown Louisville.
In short order he was named one of Louisville’s first trustees, fought Indians with George Rogers Clark, was appointed by Thomas Jefferson as Lieutenant of the Kentucky Militia, became Justice of the Peace and Surveyor of Jefferson County was one of the first two judges appointed in Kentucky.
All that put him in charge of surveying, representing and defending Kentucky and Louisville; something of both judge and jury. He was every bit as well-known in his day as George Rogers Clark, Daniel Boone and Thomas Jefferson, with Indian battles still so fierce he wrote a letter home saying the only reasons settlers stayed here was the Ohio River only ran one way.
He was also financially involved with – or at least had great personal interest in – Bullitt’s Lick, a huge salt lick near Shepherdsville that was one of Kentucky’s first major commercial industries.
The lick was actually a roughly 100-acre site where salty water bubbled up from the ground. It was placed in big iron kettles and boiled down to pure salt to be used for curing meat, and for human and animal diet.
The lick was one of several located on The Wilderness Road, a sprawling, branching network of buffalo-trampled-trails across much of eastern and central Kentucky that eventually led up to Louisville where the buffalo crossed the Ohio River to Indiana at the Falls of the Ohio.
In Louisville – according to a 1967 story in Louisville Magazine by Robert E. McDowell – The Wilderness Road ran south from the Ohio River across Main Street to Armory Place to roughly Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Streets to Preston Highway and through that thick, swampy ground there to a place called “Fishpools” now just south of the Gene Snyder Freeway.
On April 8, 1783, almost nine years to the day after he first entered Kentucky, Floyd, his brother Charles, Captain Alexander Breckinridge, and several others were traveling south from Louisville to Bullitt’s Lick.
The persistent story goes that Floyd, believing the Indian troubles were behind him, was wearing that bright red coat he’d gotten in France.
Along the Wilderness Road several miles or so south of Brooks, KY. – a now very commercial area along I-65 with its McDonalds, Cracker Barrel, suburban hospital, office buildings and truck stop – Floyds’ party was ambushed by Indians.
In trying to determine that exact spot of the ambush – and what has happened to the area in the intervening 240 years – three local historians and photographer John Nation joined me at Brooks on a sunny morning in late November, 2014.
The three were David Strange, long-time Bullitt County history, Mike Robison, a sixth-generation Bullitt County resident and historian with direct family ties to founding father Joseph Brooks, and Chris Lueken, director of the West Point (KY.) History Museum and author of a poetic blog of her travels.
We met in the parking lot of Jewish Medical Center not far from where Joseph Brooks first had a traveler’s tavern along the Wilderness Road more than 200 years ago; the spring that fed it now buried well beneath landscaped dirt and an office building; the pioneer cemetery also moved in a fit on construction.
We angled south toward where Floyd had been ambushed, my silly hope being that the location would be a writer’s poetic dream; still lovely, evocative and untouched, with thick woods, misty fields and a perfect little stream.
Alas, progress of sorts has ensued. The area – including E. Blue Lick Road, Huber Station Road, Coral Ridge Road (Highway 1020 and National Turnpike extended), Clear Run, Brooks Run also now includes mini-subdivisions, heavy traffic, a storage facility, a trucking company and a large surface mining company.
Adding insult to landscape injury, the very busy CSX Railroad line bisects the site, the scene of a January, 2007 derailment that spilled 13 chemical-laden tanks cars across the landscape, closing an eight-mile section of I-65 and sending fire and plumes 1,000 feet into the air.
A chemical brown field surrounded by a tall cyclone fence where some of the debris was buried is directly across the highway from the crash site and the once Wilderness Road.
Historians David Strange and Mike Robison filled in the sequential details. The salt licks created a place where the buffalo would gather. The Indians came to hunt the buffalo – and make salt. The pioneers soon learned to hunt the buffalo – and make salt.
There was just too much unfriendly competition for the same product in the same place.
“A lot of the early conflicts came around salt licks because both the Indians and the pioneers were hunting there,” said Strange.
Then, in a fairly short time, Bullitt’s Lick was transformed forever as hundreds of acres of trees were felled for wood for the iron kettle fires; some of the logs used to funnel the water.
“What’s left of Bullitt’s Lick now,” said Robison,” looks about like all the rest of the country.”
Neither of the men – nor the history books – could offer a concrete answer as to why John Floyd and party were traveling to Bullitt’s Lick that day. The same histories also site both Brooks Run and Clear Run as the scene of the ambush; separate streams only a short distance apart.
What is agreed upon is that the surprise ambush occurred about a mile south of Brooks. One shot hit Charles Floyd’s horse and another struck John Floyd, who might have been wearing his bright red coat – a bit of overconfidence at a time when Indian attacks were still a real possibility.
The two brothers made it back about five miles to “Fishpools” and the cabin of a Col. James Francis Moore, who had once fought with Floyd.
He died there two days later and was buried in the Floyd-Breckenridge Cemetery off Breckenridge Lane, now a few blocks behind the Jamestown Apartments where the old Floyd’s Station springhouse can still be seen.
Family history did not die with him. His nephew, Charles Floyd, was a member of the Lewis & Clark expedition; the only man to die along the way. His son, John Floyd, born just after his death, became governor of Virginia. His grandson, John Buchanan Floyd, became a very controversial U.S. Secretary of War in the Buchanan Administration and a Confederate General in the Civil War, and, with virtually no military experience, became best known for losing the Battle of Fort Donnellson.
Legacy Along the Fork
So John Floyd’s history moves along very slowly and pretty much in place. His legacy must now be a stream named in his honor inside a massive, urban-edge park preserved in Frederick Law Olmsted fashion from the clutter and development of the places where he was wounded and later died.
Try to think about that the next time you’re walking along Floyds Fork.
About the Author
Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system – all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill’s stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.