Historical Marker #1700 in Letcher County notes where one of the region’s first pioneers, Archelous Craft, initially settled.
Although the southeastern part of Kentucky saw the earliest exploration in the years before and immediately after statehood, most early Kentucky pioneers moved into the rich Bluegrass Region of the state to find better farm lands. Large sections of the Bluegrass Region were less timbered than that of the eastern mountains, which saved early settlers time and money in getting their first crops in the ground. Another advantage of the Bluegrass Region was that the area was settled faster and thus offered more defensive options against potential Native American attacks.
As the Bluegrass Region began to be populated, new settlers looked to other profitable lands, which were usually located in the eastern mountain valleys. Valley lands were often more fertile than hilltop land due to mountain topsoil erosion and annual flooding of mountain rivers and creeks that deposited a beneficial silt in these farmable hollows. Therefore, these eastern Kentucky valleys soon became populated.
Pound Gap, in what would become Letcher County, proved to be an active avenue for settlers coming into the state from Virginia. While most early pioneers moved on to better lands, some made the mountain region their permanent home. In 1795, one of the earliest settlers was Peter Whitaker, who built a cabin on Whitaker’s Branch. By the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century most of the best “bottom” land in the area had been claimed. New arrivals had to settle for less fruitful hill and ridge top land where planting, cultivating, and harvesting crops was much more difficult.
Between 1810 and 1860, small towns began to emerge in many of these mountain valleys. New settlers looking to make money opened businesses (like general stores) or offered manual services (including blacksmithing) or professional services (medical or legal). In Letcher County, towns like Mayking and Whitesburg offered goods and services to area citizens that could not be found elsewhere.
Decades later, the coal industry transformed lives in the mountains. Coal companies brought industrial jobs to those who had previously only known hardscrabble farming. But, with industrial work came potentially hazardous working conditions, uncertainly, and fluctuations caused by market influences. Southeastern Kentucky counties like Letcher still rely heavily on the coal industry.