Col. John Dils, Jr.

Historical Marker #2489 commemorates the life of Colonel John Dils, Jr.

John Dils, Jr. was one of the most successful men in antebellum Pike County. Upon arriving in the region from northern Virginia around 1840, Dils spent some time as a schoolteacher before entering a career as a merchant. Despite the small size and meager population of Pikeville, or Piketon as it was then known, Dils thought the town held tremendous potential as a hub of economic activity linking eastern Kentucky to the broader region and nation.

As a vocal Unionist at the outset of the Civil War, in this heavily Confederate slice of Appalachia, Dils was arrested by the Confederate home guard and sent to Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederate States. When he was released after less than a year, he returned to Pikeville and raised his own regiment for service in the Union cause, the 39th Mounted Infantry. Under Dils’ leadership, the regiment fought in some sharp engagements in the area and won some victories for the Union. However, Dils was dismissed from service in 1863 amid speculation and accusations of improper financial dealings, such as selling goods captured from Confederates for personal use.

After the Civil War, Dils continued his economic success. He became a leading landowner in the region and helped agitate for improved transportation on the Big Sandy River to allow for more efficient trade, including via larger steamboats. He also became connected with Perry Cline, an impoverished orphan whose father’s land had been awarded to William “Devil Anse” Hatfield in a lawsuit soon after the Civil War. Dils acted as Cline’s guardian and benefactor, helping to place him on the path to legal success and the prominent position from which he influenced the course of the Hatfield-McCoy feud. Cline eventually played a key role in convincing the governor of Kentucky to intervene in the dormant affair by offering a reward for the arrest and extradition of “Devil Anse” and his supporters for the infamous pawpaw incident (covered by marker #2047). As a community leader interested in economic development which was thought to be dependent on shaking the image of “backwardness” associated with interpersonal violence, Dils was also instrumental in moving the feud into legal channels (covered by marker #1866). Upon his death, Col. Dils was buried in Dils Cemetery, one of the first integrated cemeteries in eastern Kentucky and site of several feudists' graves (covered by marker #1728).

The marker was dedicated September 22, 2017 as part of Pike County's Hatfield-McCoy Heritage Days festival. The ceremony featured remarks Jimmy Carter, the mayor of Pikeville, Tony Tackett and Debra Huffman of Pike County Tourism and Bill Forsyth. The dedication also honored the contribtions to commemorating local history that Nancy Forsyth made over the course of four decades in Pikeville. The evidence of her dedication to regional history can be seen in many of the historical markers in the county, including #2489 to Col. Dils. 

The marker reads:

Col. John Dils, Jr.

Born in Parkersburg, WV, in 1818, Dils came to Pikeville ca. 1840 and became a merchant. In Oct. 1861, while the area was under Confederate control, he was arrested for Union sympathies. Sent to Libby Prison in Richmond, VA, he was quickly released. In Feb. 1862, he went to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Lincoln. Over.

Upon returning to E. Ky., he raised a regiment that became the 39th Ky. Mounted Inf. (Union), which fought several large engagements in this region during Civil War. Dismissed from the service in 1863, Dils later helped bring education and industry to this area. He died in 1895 and is buried in Dils-Lower Chole Cem. an early integrated burial ground.

Presented by Pike County Tourism.