(part 2 of 2)
In April 1806 John Amis, who lived along the Kentucky River’s Middle Fork, went elk hunting in the area where his cattle were wintering.
He discovered some cattle from North Fork farms grazing in what he thought were grass fields reserved for him and his cohorts. Amis proceeded to stab about twenty head of the North Fork cattle and drive them into the water where they sank and died.
North Fork cattleman William Strong was outraged and immediately sought outside help against Amis’ actions.
“The Strongs sent to Prestonburg for General White of that place, it was not General White of Goose Creek,” recounted Henry Duff to missionary Dr. John J. Dickey in the late 1890’s. “I am sure the Strongs appealed to the Governor for arms and ammunition, and the Governor asked White to help or gave him authority to help them.”
And General Hugh White’s reply?
A local poet of the time, Cana Baker, quotes White in ‘Cattle Wars:’
You have got yourselves in trouble
Get out if you can,
I’ll neither come to your assistance
Nor send a single man
Upon hearing of this, the North Forkers, led by Strong and including Joel Elkins and 12 men from the Stacey, Davidson, Lewis, Bolling, Eversole, Callahan, Cornett, Lewis, and Begley klans, went to Amis’ house.
Amis wasn’t home, but his wife, Kate Bolling Amis, was there. The North Fork cattlemen shot the Amis horse and took twenty head of cattle from his farm to compensate themselves for the cattle that Amis had destroyed. Peter Stacy reportedly butted Kate in the face with his gun as the cattle were being rustled.
They took Jugie and Frogie
Burnt three fodder stacks
And broke some rifle guns
“As they started back Amis’ Negro man followed them supposed to have been sent by Amis’ wife, for the purpose of shooting at them,” relates John Lewis on July 27, 1898 to Rev. John J. Dickey, who recorded it in his diary. “At a turn of the road Peter Stacey concealed himself and as the Negro came in sight fired and struck his head. Stacey broke the gun, they brought back what cattle they could find.
“Then Amis solicitated a company of 30 men and started to the North Fork for revenge.”
John Gilbert, Amis’ brother-in-law, helped lead the group.
There was one Capt. John Gilbert
As I have heard them say
He fed his men on run down venison
Till Porter ran away
(Porter, a dog that ran over to the other side)
John Lewis continues the story: “William Callahan brought news to the North Forkers that they were coming and assembled at the mouth of Lick Branch concealing themselves in the ivy on the top of the cliff opposite the mouth of the branch, as Amis’ men came across the river. William Callahan fired at Amis and missed him. There was a general firing in which several horses were killed and Nicholson and Cox were wounded.
Nicholson hid behind a log
And hid just like a fox
And presently came shivering & shimming along
This poor half drowned Cox
“Amis spurred his horse under the cliff to protect himself from the bullets. John Gilbert rode up the bank to the company and they took him prisoner. Some of the party wanted to kill him but Strong saved his life. [other accounts claim Strong said ‘Shoot him!’]
John the Captain did miss killing
All met with homely fare
And he who came in last of all
Is apt to lose his share
“The plan was for Strong and Callahan to shoot Amis first which was to be the sign of attack. Strong was the best rifle shot in the county. Callahan shot before Strong, which prevented Strong from getting a bead on him. Callahan was accused of treachery for this act.
“The North Forkers had 18 men, William Strong, (afterwards a preacher), Peter Stacey, James Lewis, William Callahan, John Bolling, Samuel Davidson and Jesse Bowling.”
The Middle Forkers retreated to Cutshin and fortified, leaving portholes, expecting the enemy to follow them.
Eventually, they all agreed to end the fighting and settle the dispute in court. However, on the first day of trial, August 5, 1807, John Amis was shot dead by Joel Elkins as he was testifying from the witness chair.
“It appears from the Circuit Court Records that the Whites had him killed over the contract they signed with John Amis, who then owned the salt mine,” states genealogist Bonnie Miller. “This is how the Whites came to get the salt mine from John Amis.” Joel Elkins was employed at the Goose Creek Salt Works co-owned by John White and John Amis.
The inability of the militia to be able to react in a timely manner and the failure to maintain law and order during the months before the trial had pointed to the urgent need for a local constabulary, organized through a smaller county structure with a sheriff.
Thus, the Kentucky legislature established Clay County on December 2, 1806, from parts of Madison, Floyd, and Knox Counties. Having local law enforcement did not help maintain law and order, however: descendants of these combatants figured prominently in subsequent feuds that occurred in Breathitt, Perry and Clay counties, leaving a bloody heritage for future generations.
Dr. John J. Dickey Diary, Fleming County, Ky. Recorded in the 1870’s and beyond. Reprinted in Kentucky Explorer, Volume 10, No 6 -November, 1995