Marker 1637: "Original Fort Harrod Site"

Historical Marker #1637 in Mercer County commemorates the first permanent Anglo-American settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Before the original Fort Harrod site was erected, diverse Indigenous groups lived and hunted in the region, including the Shawnee, Cherokee, Mingo, Osage, and Chickasaw. Each group had their own society shaped by unique cultural traditions. The Shawnee populated the Ohio River Valley hunting, gathering, and farming in permanent villages. They were divided into clans, which served as their system of government and guided them in agricultural practices, peace, and war. Many Native groups did not use a written language. They practiced oral traditions where histories were passed down through storytelling. Shawnee women used the springs around the future site of Harrodsburg to manufacture salt, which played a major role in the Native economy. When Anglo-Americans reached Kentucky, they encountered a powerful Indigenous world.

The first structure built at the site was a small settlement at a natural spring. Named Big Spring, this became the initial location for what would later become Harrodsburg. The first Anglo-American to settle the site was James Harrod along with thirty-one other colonists. A Pennsylvania native, Harrod began to survey Kentucky lands with his brother Samuel. Because of his service in the French and Indian War, Harrod was entitled to land. A survey trip to the Falls of the Ohio in 1773 captured his attention and the following year he and a group of thirty-one other men set out to claim the most desirable land. The party traveled down the Ohio in canoes, up the Kentucky River, and over many miles of land until they came upon a spring in present day Mercer County. The area was creatively named Big Spring and found to be a desirable location for a settlement due to the waters. Harrod and the colonists began laying out the town by erecting cabins and clearing roads. The distribution of cabins was based on a lottery system where each person would draw a number at random and receive a cabin with a set amount of acreage. Most cabins possessed around three acres and were spread out across the landscape in clusters several miles from each other, not in one large group. The spring served as the central location for the cabins.

Named Harrods’ Town, and later Harrodsburg, the settlement was established on June 16, 1774, and was the first white settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains. While Harrod and the colonists were building cabins and preparing to settle, the Shawnee and their allies, upset with Anglo-Americans claiming their lands, began pushing colonists out with coordinated attacks across Kentucky. Not long after arriving, many men were recalled by Virginia to serve in the resulting Lord Dunmore’s War and they abandoned the town.

Harrod and the colonists returned to Harrodsburg on March 15, 1775, this time with wives, children, and enslaved individuals, who performed difficult physical tasks, broke ground on settlements, built structures, and protected livestock. The names of most of the enslaved are unknown. A fort was built to protect the settlement and its people. Named for its founder, Fort Harrod was erected on a nearby hilltop west of Big Spring. By 1776, Fort Harrod was complete, and colonists were navigating the difficulties that came with frontier life, including starvation, disease, internal conflicts, and attacks from Native groups. As Anglo-Americans entered Kentucky, they encountered a world shaped by Native cultural traditions. Anglo-Americans saw land as owned and fenced, not open and shared. Homes were permanent and did not change seasonally. The struggle for control over land and natural resources led to conflicts between Anglo-Americans and Native groups. Shawnee warriors attacked surveyors and settlements to drive colonists out of Kentucky. When the Revolutionary War began, Native groups allied with the British to protect their ancestral lands. In 1777, the Shawnee launched a series of attacks across Kentucky, including three attacks against Harrodsburg in two months.

Despite these challenges, over the first few years, Harrodsburg’s population grew quickly—in 1775 Jane Coomes became the teacher of Kentucky’s first school. The first tavern opened under Ann McGinty, and an arsenal was established making the fort the first military center for Kentucky settlers.

Over the next decade Harrodsburg became the seat of government in Kentucky. In 1776, a committee formed at Harrodsburg to petition the Virginia General Assembly to become a recognized territory of Virginia. The request was granted with the creation of Kentucky County, Virginia. Harrodsburg was also named the county seat of Lincoln County and later Mercer County. By 1789, Harrodsburg was the District Court of Kentucky where land claims and criminal prosecutions were processed.

As Kentucky’s population grew and Native groups were violently removed from their ancestral lands, the fort emptied of inhabitants and disappeared from the landscape. A smaller reconstruction of Fort Harrod opened and was designated a state park in 1927 by the Kentucky Pioneer Memorial Association for Harrodsburg’s 150 commemoration. In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated a monument outside the fort marking the first white settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains. Today the fort serves as a stage for reenactments, presentations, living histories, and demonstrations.