(b. December 20, 1737 or 1744, Dinwiddie Co., Va.; d. February 1790, Ohio River near Portsmouth, Ohio). John May, the namesake of the city of Maysville and one of the founders of Kentucky, was the son of John May Jr. and Agnes Smith May. In 1769 he became the first clerk of Botetourt Co., Va., after apparently fighting in the French and Indian War. The clerkship allowed May to pursue other goals, and in 1770 he was made quartermaster of the militia and was working as an attorney. He was also buying land, and
he was so highly respected that in 1773, and again in 1776, he was chosen to be part of committees to examine and claims in Kentucky Co., Va.
In the midst of the Revolutionary War in 1778, May became clerk of the General Court of Virginia at the state capital, Williamsburg, Va. His
travels were frequent, and in 1779 or 1780, he was in Central Kentucky around Harrodsburg. He was the first teacher at McAfee Station, and thus one of the first of that profession in the state. In 1780 he was involved in the Battle of King’s Mountain in North Carolina, a turning point of the war.
Back in Kentucky in 1781, he became the Jefferson Co. clerk and that county’s elected representative to the Virginia legislature, one of four delegates from Kentucky. In 1780 he was named by the Virginia legislature as one of the trustees of lands donated by Virginia to form a school, which became Transylvania Seminary Fellow trustees included George Rogers Clark, David Rice, and Isaac Shelby.
While May served as a delegate in Richmond, Va., in 1782, discussions were held about Virginia Supreme Court positions in Kentucky. It was decided that May would be an assistant judge, but he became clerk of the court when it held its first session in Harrodsburg in 1783. May and Virginia attorney general Walker Daniel were given the responsibility of finding a site and having a courthouse built. The resulting log structure was placed in the town that carried the name of Walker Daniel, Danville, Ky. In the mid-1780s, May was again traveling back and forth between Virginia and Kentucky. Throughout these years, May accumulated property. As a result of his various positions as clerk, his role in settling land disputes, his various
partnerships, his explorations, his legal knowledge, and surveying by his brothers, he had claims, by himself and in partnerships, to more than 800,000 acres by 1790. It was on 100 acres of those lands, which he owned in partnership with Simon Kenton, that the Virginia legislature on December 11, 1787, established the town of Maysville on the Ohio River.
Daniel Boone was one of its original trustees. The landing and community had been called Limestone, and that name was still in use by many for several subsequent decades. Mason Co. was formed the following year, and in 1848 Maysville became the county seat, replacing the pioneer town of Washington.
May, however, never lived in the town that bore his name. In February 1790, with his secretary, Charles Johnston, May was on one of his
many journeys to Kentucky. His destination was Maysville, to conduct legal work on land claims. Reports of that voyage, May’s final, were written
by Johnston and other participants. The group purchased a boat at the mouth of the Kanawha River, and May, Johnston, and a merchant named
Jacob Skiles, with goods bound for Lexington, Ky. were the passengers. At Point Pleasant (in modern day West Virginia), they were joined by a man
identified as Flinn and sisters by the name of Fleming. A scheme often practiced by Indians was to use white renegades or captives to lure boats
close to shore and overtake them. This is what happened to the seasoned pioneer May and his companions. Two white men, at the mouth of the
Scioto River near what is modern Portsmouth, Ohio, hailed the May flatboat, pleading to be taken aboard. May was skeptical, but the other travelers were swayed by the wails of the men, who said they had escaped from their Indian captors and that the Indians were close behind. When the boat neared the shore, the Indians attacked. May was killed by a shot to the head, as was one of the women. Flinn was later burned to death, Skiles escaped despite wounds, and eventually, the other Fleming woman and Johnston were released. The two white men used as bait claimed they were captives and had agreed to the plan in the hope of being released. What happened to May’s body is unknown.
May left a young wife, Ann Langley, and two young children. The legal battles growing out of May’s estate involved such prominent lawyers as
Henry Clay and John Rowan and dozens of people across several states. The new State of Kentucky adopted laws that essentially denied that May had
ever been a legal resident, ignoring his political offices and long periods of time living in Kentucky. His heirs saw little of the estate. Today, John May is
largely remembered for the town that bears his name, his other contributions to the states of Virginia and Kentucky forgotten.
Clift, G. Glenn. History of Maysville and Mason County. Lexington, Ky. Transylvania, 1936.
Coke, Ben H. John May, Jr. of Virginia: His Descendants and Their Land. Baltimore. Gateway Press, 1975.
Collins, Richard H. History of Kentucky. Vol. 1. Covington, Ky. Collins, 1882.
Above excerpted from page 593 of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NORTHERN KENTUCKY THE UNIVERSITY PRESS OF KENTUCKY ISBN 978-0-8131-2565-7