Historical Marker #133, located in Bullitt County, KY (Shepherdsville), marks the site of an 18th-century saltworks, which was the first industrial effort in Kentucky.
Salt, although a commonplace ingredient today, was highly valued by early American settlers, as it was often essential to their survival. Before the invention of canning or refrigeration, salt curing served as one of the only ways to preserve hunted or raised meat, both of which often comprised a substantial part of the frontier diet.
Settlers exploring the wilds of Kentucky quickly discovered its potential for salt production, as they tracked buffalo and other game to salt-rich clay beds, which the animals would “lick.” Some of these clay beds would lie on riverbanks, whose waters would flow richly with salt. The inland saltwater came as a fortunate discovery, because settlers could more easily boil saltwater to produce salt than they could mine for it, which was usually a necessary operation in regions far from saltwater coasts.
However, most of these saline rivers could not accommodate industrial salt production, instead supporting only the basic needs of small settler communities. No one had found a spot suitable for such an endeavor until Captain Thomas Bullitt arrived at a bend in the aptly-named Salt River, a branch of the Ohio, in 1773. He was surveying land for Colonel William Christian, who had been granted the property via military warrant after commanding a regiment of Virginia’s militia during the French and Indian War and the Revolution.
Christian, recognizing his opportunity, began to assemble a saltworks on the property, which began production in 1779. The resident workers built a fort in 1780, following a raid by Native Americans, and the small town of “Saltburg” rapidly arose thereafter. Christian moved to the area in 1785 with his wife, Ann (the sister of Patrick Henry) and their six young children. He would die less than a year later, shot during a skirmish with Native Americans of the Wabash tribe in Indiana, leaving his wife to run the operation herself.
The Bullitt Lick’s saltworks was the earliest saltworks in Kentucky, and would stand as the most productive site by far west of the Alleghanies, even after saltworks were later founded at Big Bone Lick, Drennon’s Lick, and the Blue Licks. A visitor, Colonel William Fleming of Virginia, would write in 1779 that “a trough holds very near 2000 gals. [of brine] which they empty thrice in the 24 hours.” The salt works then had twenty-five twenty-two-gallon kettles, but would double that number in the next ten years.
To boil saltwater on such a scale required intense human labor, which was performed by itinerant workers, enslaved Black individuals, and at times even children, all for barely sufficient wages which were paid in a portion of the salt each worker produced.
They maintained each of the kettles at a boil day and night, every day, which made for a smoke-clogged working environment that. The constant fires brought about the rapid deforestation of the surrounding area for fuel, causing the saltworks to move down the river on one occasion because the forest had receded to such a distance.
The industry continued to operate until the 1830s, when steamboats facilitated cheap shipping of salt from other states, eroding the need for localized salt production. But although its salt production has ceased, Bullitt’s Lick still serves as a fascinating example of economic and societal development during Kentucky’s pioneer era.