Marker #1449, "the Big Spring"

Historical marker #1449 marks the Big Spring, a vital source of water, and site of the settlement of Harrodsburg.

The first European settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains is largely connected to the Big Spring in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. This spring provided a vital source of fresh water, a necessity for early settlement of the area.

In 1774, Captain James Harrod arrived with a company of approximately thirty men to establish a permanent settlement at the site of the spring. This spot had been previously surveyed when Harrod first visited in 1773 as a part of Captain Thomas Bullitt’s company. Harrod and his returning company initially set up their camp in 1774 about 100 yards from the Big Spring beneath a large elm tree. Following their temporary abandonment of the site approximately a month after they first arrived, a larger company returned with Harrod in 1775 to continue building the settlement. Upon their return, permanent structures, including Fort Harrod, were erected.

Locations like the Big Spring played a pivotal role in both the exploration and the settlement of the area. A supply of fresh water would have been used by frontiersmen and settlers for survival purposes, such as hydration and agriculture. Karst topography occurs as water dissolves the surrounding limestone and dolomite rock formation, creating cavernous passageways for the water to flow through. Throughout the Bluegrass region there are a significant number of karst springs due to the presence of limestone and dolomite. The Big Spring feeds the town’s branch through an underground karst spring. This spring supplies the large pool of water where the underground spring surfaces. The flow then continues into the town branch of Harrodsburg, which is known today as “Town Creek.”

Harrod first explored parts of what would later become Kentucky at different periods beginning in the late 1760s and continuing into the early 1770s. In 1772, Harrod met with a group of frontiersmen, including Daniel Boone, in Pennsylvania. During their meeting, the frontiersmen discussed the possibility of establishing a permanent settlement in Kentucky. In 1773, Harrod joined Captain Bullitt’s company to survey the land and establish claims. The frontiersmen reached the Bluegrass region for the first time during this expedition. The company surveyed land using the metes and bounds method, which used geological features like the Big Spring to separate parcels of land for settlement. Bullitt’s company surveyed the site surrounding the Big Spring on their 1773 expedition, seeing it fit for future settlement.

In the spring of 1774, Harrod’s company traveled down the Monongahela River into the tributaries of the Ohio River, eventually making it to a point along the Kentucky River later deemed “Harrod’s Landing.” Upon arriving at the site of the Big Spring, Harrod’s company began building temporary log structures. In June of 1774, Daniel Boone assisted Harrod’s company with creating the future layout of the site. The company abandoned the settlement in July of this same year. It is believed this occurred due to the threat of conflict with Native Americans in the surrounding area. This timing also aligns with Lord Dunmore’s War, to which Harrod and his men were recalled as combatants. As English settlers continually pushed past the set boundary of the Allegheny Mountains for European settlement, Native American resistance amplified. Anglo-American men such as Harrod sought to gain control over the land west of the Great Kanawha River and south of the Ohio River at the expense of Native populations already living there. This region included the geographical location of the Big Spring.

Harrod returned to the area with a larger company to settle at this same site in March 1775. The first homes in the settlement were built on Old Fort Hill. The company named the initial settlement built around the Big Spring “Harrodstown,” also referred to as “Oldtown,” This settlement served as the county seat for Kentucky County in 1776 and Mercer County, Virginia, in 1785.

The first Christian religious sermon held in Kentucky occurred beneath the same elm Tree where Harrod’s company initially set up their camp in 1774. Reverend Thomas Tinsley, a Baptist minister, and William Hickman preached under this elm tree during what is considered the first religious revival in Kentucky, which began in the spring of 1776. The name of Harrodstown changed to Harrodsburg in 1784 as the settlement’s population continued to grow.

In the decades that followed, finding supplemental water supplies would have been a continual challenge for the growing population. In addition to problems with the volume of water available, there would also have been issues surrounding sanitation in proximity to the spring. Harrod and others who surveyed the site sought additional springs in the surrounding area, making estimates as to how many people each spring could supply with water. Gore’s Spring, located on the same tract of land 265 feet west of the Big Spring, would eventually become the primary water supply for Harrodstown.

In 2017, the local community restored the site of the Big Spring by cleaning up the area and adding a park and a walking trail. A map available at the site shows where the original structures of Harrodstown stood in reference to the Big Spring and the town branch.



Junction of East Factory Street and Pioneer Way in Harrodsburg, Ky.