Historic Henderson

Today’s city grew from a dream of establishing a 14th American colony

Henderson is the result of a dream. It’s just not exactly what the dreamers had in mind.

What a North Carolina judge and land speculator known as Col. Richard Henderson and his investors envisioned in 1774 was buying a vast tract of forested frontier covering much of what is now Kentucky and a portion of Tennessee from Cherokee tribes, then having it declared the 14th American colony, to be called Transylvania (Latin for “across the forest”).

The goal: Become rich selling land in the new colony to settlers.

The Transylvania Company hired a frontiersman to guide settlers through a pass in the Appalachian Mountains called Cumberland Gap, then blaze a trail into Central Kentucky that became known as the Wilderness Road and build a fort. Such deeds helped make an American folk hero of that frontiersman, Daniel Boone.

Alas, the Transylvanians’ hopes were short-lived. The Commonwealth of Virginia declared western lands across the mountains to be its own Kentucky County. Virginia urged the Continental Congress to decline the declaration of a 14th colony and went on to nullify the purchase from the Cherokees.

Photo of Richard Henderson from Wikimedia Commons

But the Virginia General Assembly in 1778 made a key concession. In its “special grant of land” approved in October 1778, it acknowledged that “Richard Henderson, and company, have been at very great expense in making a purchase of the Cherokee Indians,” and though declaring that purchase void, it said Virginia “is likely to receive great advantage there from, by increasing its inhabitants, and establishing a barrier against the Indians.”

So, it granted Richard Henderson and Company 200,000 acres where the Green River met the Ohio River – a splendid location because of its access to river transportation, though still hundreds of miles into the wilderness from the “civilized” East.

Because of that remoteness and the presence of hostile Indians and river pirates, it would be nearly two decades before a town – Henderson – would be laid out.

But when Revolutionary War Col. Samuel Hopkins was sent to do so in 1797, he chose the highest ground around, at a site known as Red Banks.

It would prove a fortuitous choice. While all the major cities along the Ohio River were submerged beneath cold, muddy waters during the Flood of 1937, Henderson remained dry, leading to a phrase: “Henderson, on the Ohio, but never in it.”

That became a marketing tool that helped lead to the recruitment of new industries and the development of a modern economy for Henderson and Henderson County, helping establish Henderson as one of the most prosperous communities in the state.

Did You Know?

>> Richard Henderson never set foot in the city or county that bears his name. He never traveled farther west than Central Kentucky and died 12 years before the town of Henderson was laid out.

>> The city of Henderson had a railroad bridge across the Ohio River (the Louisville & Nashville Railroad’s original bridge completed in 1885) nearly a half-century before it had a highway bridge across the river (the com Audubon Memorial Bridge opened in 1932 and is now the northbound U.S. 41 Twin Bridge). That first railroad bridge (later replaced) was designed by George Washington Ferris, who would go on to invent the Ferris Wheel.

>> Two Congressional Medal of Honor recipients – the late World World II U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Private First Class Luther Skaggs Jr. and retired Vietnam veteran U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Gary Littrell – hailed from Henderson.


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Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti joined Tucker Publishing Group in September 2022 as a staff writer. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2020 with a bachelors degree in English. A Connecticut native, Maggie has ridden horses for 15 years and has hunt seat competition experience on the East Coast.

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