LEXINGTON, Ky. (FOX 56) — A pioneer, soldier, and hunter born in Pennsylvania, James Harrod played an important part in shaping Kentucky’s history.
While his year of birth is disputed, he listed his age as 16 in June 1760 when he volunteered to join Capt. Gavin Cochran’s recruits. However, his listed height of 5 feet 2.5 inches was drastically different from his adult height of north of 6 feet. This lends credence to historians’ claims he lied about his age at recruitment.
Exploring the Bluegrass region
Beginning in the 1760s Harrod frequently made hunting and surveying excursions into Kentucky and in 1773 he first discovered “the Great Meadow,” which was the Indigenous people in the region for the Bluegrass.
In 1774, at the behest of Lord Dunmore, Harrod and an estimated 37 men began surveying land promised to soldiers who served in the French and Indian War by Great Britain.
Harrod and his men journey down the Monongahela and Ohio rivers to the Kentucky River before crossing the Salt River into what is now known as Mercer County. On June 16, 1774, the men established Harrodstown, credited as the first settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains.
Harrodstown would naturally grow to be called Harrodsburg.
Life in Harrodstown would be short-lived though. Daniel Boone was dispatched to call Harrod and his men back and fight in Dunmore’s War. He arrived a day too late though, as all fighting had ceased prior to his camp’s arrival. So on March 8, 1775, Harrod and his men led a group of settlers back to Harrodstown to stay.
Growth of Harrodstown and life after settling down
Within months of the men’s return, the town grew and expanded into what is now the site of Old Fort Harrod State Park.
In 1778, Harrod married Ann Coburn McDonald, who had come to Harrodstown in 1776, and the couple had a daughter named Margaret in 1785.
Harrod was a well-respected figure in the community and held several political positions.
Harrodstown became the county seat of the recently established Kentucky County, Virginia, and Harrod served as a justice in Kentucky County as well as serving in the Virginia House of Delegates in 1779.
The 1780s saw him serve as a trustee for Harrodstown and he was a member of the first set of meetings that led to Kentucky petitioning for statehood in Danville.
Harrod’s disappearance and mysterious death
As Harrodstown continued to grow, Harrod became a wealthy farmer who owned more than 20,000 acres of land but also became more prone to make prolonged, solitary adventures into the wilderness.
February 1792 saw Harrod and two other men venture into the wilderness to hunt beaver, and he would never return from the journey.
Many claim to know the nature of Harrod’s disappearance.
Explanations ranging from him being killed by Native Americans to abandoning his family and moving to another part of the country have been offered. Harrod’s sister claims he came to live with her following his Kentucky disappearance.
A man named Henry Wilson claimed Harrod had told him he believed his wife was becoming intimate with other men in town and he told Wilson, “You will not see me here again.”
A common theory is Harrod was murdered by one of his hunting mates; a man named Bridges who was facing a lawsuit with Harrod as his opponent.
Harrod’s friend and fellow explorer, Michael Stoner, claimed the men stopped on the banks of the Three Forks of the Kentucky River area, which was said to have a bounty of beaver. While making breakfast, Stoner claimed Bridges and Harrod went to check the traps when a shot was heard near their vicinity.
Harrod didn’t return but Bridges claimed there were fresh signs of Native activity in the woods and he was certain Harrod was dead.
Sometime later while searching the area Harrod was last seen, some of his friends found bones in a cave. Some of Harrod’s friends claimed the bones were wrapped in his shirt while others claimed there was no shirt at all and Bridges was nowhere to be seen.
While applying for his pension, Harrod’s wife swore he died in a hunting accident and his clothes had been found in a nearby river.
Harrod’s fate remains a mystery in the history books.
A special thanks to Kentucky Genealogy Trails and Kentucky Monthly Magazine for their accounts and contributions to this story.