“That’s a god-damned lie!” cried out Joel Elkins as John Amis spoke to those gathered in the Clay County court. He reached behind the door, grabbed William Strong’s gun, purposely loaded and placed there, then shot and killed Amis.
Accounts differ as to why John Amis was in that Kentucky court on August 5, 1807, and why Elkins shot him.
“Judge John Amis, born in North Carolina, was of the first generation born in America, and was a successful lawyer, was Circuit Judge in Kentucky, and was shot by an outlaw while holding the first Circuit Court ever held in Clay County,” claims the 1891 volume “Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Western Arkansas.”
“He was killed at the first session of court in Clay County in 1807 by Joel Elkins, whom he had partly reared,” recalled John Eversole, a Manchester, KY resident, in 1898.
“It is said that a peddler had been killed, and Amis and this man were accused of the crime. The man told Amis that if he swore against him he would kill him.
“Whether he testified against him or not I do not know, but the man came into the courthouse and shot Amis’ brains out, in the presence of the court.”
More likely than these two interpretations, however, is that John Amis was on trial for provoking a ‘cattle war’ the previous year, between a group of farmers living on the Kentucky River’s North Fork and farmers on the Red Bird, a branch of the South Fork.
Amis had grown up in Rogersville, TN. His father Thomas had built a house at the mouth of Big Creek River, about four miles west of Rogersville. When the father died in 1797 he deeded to John “the tract of land he now lives on adjoining the town of Rogersville and lying the east side of the main road, also the lower part of my six hundred and forty acre tract of land to be laid off by a line to run square with the upper end of the above tract he now lives on, to him and his heirs forever.”
It didn’t take long for the 24 year old John to run into trouble. By 1802 a ‘fieri facias’ (a writ ordering a levy on the belongings of a debtor to satisfy the debt) had been issued against him in “Richard Mitchell vs. John Amis (Hawkins County).”
About 1800 he had moved with his wife Kate and their baby son into Madison/Clay County Kentucky, presumably to escape that debt and get a fresh start. John sold much of his land in Tennessee to purchase a partnership in the Goose Creek Salt Works, near Manchester, where the northern section of Goose Creek joins the Red Bird River to form the South Fork of the Kentucky River.
So vital was salt to frontier life and trade that Daniel Boone had offered to re-route the Wilderness Road to pass the Goose Creek salt works. (He did not get the approval, however, and the area had no suitable roads for some time.) Clay County went on to become the leading salt producer in the state during the nineteenth century. The struggle behind the scenes to control the industry was fierce.
“On August 12, 1806 John White made good to John Amis the title of one fourth of 375 acres including the Goose Creek Salt Works’ lower works, White reserving for himself the privilege of ‘wood and water’ for one furnace,” says historian Mary Verhoeff in ‘The Kentucky River Navigation.’ “Two acres of the most eligible and advantageous land of the tract was to be reserved for mansion houses upon which neither party could dig for water without the consent of the other.
“Within one year the reservation was to be equally divided between White and Amis. The tract of land, including the salt works, had on June 22 of the same year been sold to Amis by John Crook for the sum of $2,300, one half of which was to be paid in cash and the remainder in ‘good salable salt at two dollars per bushel.’ By the deed one half of the buildings and half the garden owned by Crook were secured to John White.”
At the same time John Amis was establishing himself on the south side of the Kentucky River, William Strong and a group of Virginia farmers and cattle ranchers were setting down roots on the North Fork of the river.
“About the year 1800 or 1801, a party was organized in Scott Co., VA, to come to Kentucky,” relates Mrs. J. C. Hurst in ‘Strong Family in Kentucky .’ ”This party was composed of Edward Callahan and family ~ William Strong and family ~ Daniel Davidson and three sons Samuel, John, and Robert, with their families ~ also Roger and Robin Cornett. Some reports say that the Cornetts came a year or two previous to this time. The above-mentioned parties brought along with them their livestock ~ household goods ~ slaves and other possessions.
“William Strong, Samuel Davidson and the two Cornetts had married daughters of Edward Callahan. After arriving in Kentucky the parties settled on the North Fork of the Kentucky River at and near the mouth of Grapevine Creek in (current day) Perry County.
“William Strong acquired a tract of land on the opposite side of the river from the mouth of Grapevine. It extended from near what is now Chavies down the river so as to include Strong’s Branch. On this land he erected a log building where he made his home for some eight or ten years. He, as a deputy assessor, made the first assessment of all land and personal property on the North Fork, which was then embraced in the new county of Clay.”
Trouble was about to brew between John Amis and William Strong.
(end of part 1 of 2)
sources: “The road to poverty: the making of wealth and hardship in Appalachia,” by Dwight B. Billings, Kathleen M. Blee, Cambridge University Press, 2000
“Strong Family in Kentucky,” by Mrs. J. C. Hurst, Lexington, KY, privately published, 1960
The Kentucky River navigation By Mary Verhoeff, Filson Club Publications/John P. Morton & Co, Louisville, 1917