A History of Clinton County

by Al Cross

From THE ALBANY-CLINTON COUNTY SESQUICENTENNIAL CELEBRATION, 1836-1986, published in the Mountain Echo and transcribed and submitted by Lisa Haug.

Perhaps as befits a county most is one of Kentucky's smallest, most isolated and least formally educated-but one of the more picturesque-much of the history of Clinton County is lost in folklore, legend and mystery.

Based on the history of county formation in Kentucky, and the regional geography, we can assume that the impetus for creating the county 150 years ago came from the upland farmers in the shadow of the Cumberland Plateau, who doubtless disliked having to ride west as much as 25 miles to the Cumberland County seat of Burkersville to transact official business. There were few natural, direct paths there from the area lying between the Cumberland River valley (site of Burkesville) and the "mountains" of the old, rugged plateau to the east.

The territory, one of rolling sinkhole plains and relatively narrow creek bottoms, was off the beaten paths of settlement, but had drawn many settlers since Thomas Stockton came to the limestone valley that was named for him in the early 1790s. This was a place apart, and the people wanted their own county.

So did Frances H. Winfrey, the state senator from Columbia who sponsored the bill creating Clinton County from the eastern third of Cumberland and a slice of western Wayne. The General Assembly passed the bill in 1835, and it was signed into law by Gov. James Morehead on February 20, 1836. The bill named the county Clinton-for most histories tell us, DeWitt Clinton, the New York governor who opened the Erie Canal in 1825 and died three years later.

The seven years that passed between Clinton's death, and the apparent lack of connections between him, his work and this remote part of the South, have led regional historians to suspect other sources for the county's name. Winfrey had a son named Clinton, and there are those who say that the county was really named for him, even if ostensibly for the New Yorker.

However, one other clue suggests that there was a New York link. According to an immigrants' directory quoted by Wayne County native Harriette Simpson Arnow in Flowering of the Cumberland, the county seat of Albany was founded by Simon Barker, a native of Albany, N.Y. Many local historians dispute this, calling Arnow's work "historical fiction" and noting that no Simon Barber appeared on Clinton County's first tax list in 1837. They note that Robert Cross, the proprietor of the town and the county's first sheriff, sold its first lots in December 1836 and that other records indicate that the town wasn't incorporated until 1838. They say the town was named for the New York capital because the county had been named for a New York governor.

Others contend that the town's name had a much more colorful birth. They note that there is no historical mention of Albany before the county was formed, unlike the nearby settlement of Paoli (now Peolia) from which the post office was moved to Albany in 1837. They favor a story which says that an election of some type was held to determine the seat of the new county, and that the winner was the site of Benny Dowell's store, about midway between Paoli and a competing site to the north (three potential sites would correspond to the General Assembly's appointment of three commissioners to select the county seat). As the legend goes, proponents of Benny's place shouted "All for Benny" in campaigning, and the slogan was shortened to "All Benny" –giving the place its name, or at least the ideal to name it after the New York capital. This legend is accepted by most residents of the county, who pronounce the name of their seat "ALL-benny", but there is no historical proof for it. A Benjamin McDowell bought four lots in Albany, but not until 1838.

A similar doubt exists about the naming of another major settlement, the northern candidate for the county seat, Seventy Six. Some say it came from an old highway designation; others cite patriotic recollections of 1776; and more say it came from the height of the number of rapids leading up to nearby 76 Falls on Indian Creek. However, that cataract was 84 feet high before the impoundment of Lake Cumberland, which "bobtailed" it to 38 feet at normal pool. No one knows whether the falls was named for the settlement or vice versa, but the falls apparently was Kentucky's highest continuously flowing waterfall until the lake was created. (When the lake reached a record level during spring floods in 1984, canoeists ran it like a 77th rapids.)

Until McCreary County was created as Kentucky's 120th county in 1912, Clinton was the only county entirely south of the Cumberland River. With the natural barriers of the plateau to the east and the southwest-flowing river to the north and west, the county was-and to a great degree still is-an economic outpost of Tennessee. Its position on the border brought it much pain during the Civil War, and a postwar legacy that probably impaired its development.

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