Blue Licks

Along the Licking River in Kentucky, on the Robertson-Nicholas county line, the Lower Blue Licks is the site of prehistoric fossils, a battle of the Revolutionary War that was Kentucky’s worst defeat in its conflicts with Indians, and a 19th-century health resort that rivaled the best health spas in the country. There were once two salt springs active along the Licking River, called by pioneers the Upper and Lower Blue Licks. Their names were derived from the salt springs near the river whose oozing waters gave the mud a bluish tint. The Lower Blue Licks, the larger of the two health springs areas, is commonly known as Blue Licks.

The salt at Blue Licks was important over the centuries for animals and more recently for humans. The trail that opened up Central Kentucky from the Ohio River, called the Buffalo Trace (see Buffalo Traces), was determined partially by people and animals visiting Blue Licks for its salt. The highway route to Blue Licks that is in use today follows essentially the same path. The muck from the salt spring was also a trap for many animals. The remains of prehistoric animals such as mammoths, mastodons, and sloths were discovered in the 1800s, and some are on display in the museum that is part of the Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort Park.

American Indians, and later the pioneers who settled Kentucky, also used the salt spring regularly. Maj. John Finley was one of the explorers from Pennsylvania who surveyed the area in 1773 and then moved there to live; his family continued to reside in the region until the mid-19th century. In January 1778 Daniel Boone was captured by a party of more than 100 American Indians and 2 Frenchmen while he was hunting and on a salt making expedition at Blue Licks. He persuaded the other 30 Kentuckians in the salt-making party to surrender. This event led to one of Boone’s most famous adventures, living with the Shawnee Indians and, later, after escaping his captivity, being tried for treason by the settlers at Fort Boonesborough when he returned to the fort. Blue Licks soon became infamous for its role in the Revolutionary War (see Battle of Blue Licks-below).

Although the colonists and the British had negotiated peace after the Battle of Yorktown, the disposition of the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains was uncertain. Lands throughout the trans-Appalachian region were still being fought over by some of the tribes of American Indians, aided by the British, and the colonials trying to settle them. On August 19, 1782, a small party of British regulars and a band of American Indians killed more than 60 settlers at the Battle of Blue Licks.

Blue Licks again reached prominence from 1840 through 1870 because a large spa was constructed there and water from the region’s springs, purported to have healing qualities, was bottled and sold. A label from one of the Blue Licks bottles boasts:”A glass or two before breakfast for disorder of stomach, liver, kidneys, render greates [sic], satisfaction.” The water’s reputation was enhanced when the spa, known as the Arlington Hotel, experienced no outbreaks of cholera while the surrounding counties in Kentucky were all struck with the disease. Blue Licks water was sold around the country until the springs ran dry in 1896. In 1845 the hotel was often filled with 400 to 600 guests, the structure was three stories tall, and it ran 670 feet in length. It was during the same time period (in 1847) that the Western Military Institute was chartered at Blue Licks. Advertisements from 1848 heralded the institute’s merits and proclaimed that it had space for up to 300 students.

James G. Blaine, a future U.S. presidential candidate, taught there. He had, however, left his position at the school sometime before the institute
moved to Nashville, Tenn., in 1854. The large hotel at Blue Licks burned on April 7, 1862, but was rebuilt. The Robert Hemingray family (see Hemingray Glass Company) of Covington enjoyed vacationing at the site. The rebuilt hotel and spa operated until the early 1900s, by which time the spa period in the United States had faded and the waters at the Blue Licks were gone.
The community of Blue Licks, formerly the site of the grand hotel, currently consists of a few houses along the Licking River and is a part of Nicholas Co. The area is subject to flooding from the Licking River. The battlefield and burial site, located in Robertson Co., are now the Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort, which has recreational facilities, a lodge, campsites, and a museum.
Collins, Richard H. History of Kentucky. Vol. 1. Covington, Ky: Collins, 1882.
Conley, Joan Weissinger, comp, and ed. History of Nicholas County. Carlisle, Ky. Nicholas Co. Historical Society, 1976.
Kentucky Gateway Museum Center, vertical files, Maysville, Ky.
John Klee


One of Kentucky’s most important historical sites is today
maintained and preserved within the Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort Park. Located just north of the Licking River in Robertson Co., Blue Licks
was the location of a battle on August 19, 1782. Although characterized even today by some historians as “the last battle of the American Revolution,”
this event was only one of a series of frontier skirmishes that took place between the 1781 defeat of the main British army at Yorktown, N.Y., and the
1783 conclusion of the final peace agreement.

It is fortunate that the battle at Blue Licks had little impact on the war itself since it ended in a disastrous defeat for the frontier colonials. A force of about 300 Indians, mainly Wyandots, and a contingent of 60 Canadian Rangers led by the British captain William Caldwell attacked the Kentuckians at the Bryants Station stockade outside Lexington on August 15, 1781. After a couple of days, the Indians tired of the fight, and the attackers retreated northward toward the Ohio territories. Word of
the attack spread quickly, and a force of about 180 Kentucky militiamen, under the command of Col. John Todd, arrived at Bryants Station on August
18, only to discover that the enemy had left.

Instead of waiting to join with a larger force of militia being assembled by Col. Benjamin Logan, Todd led his forces northward on a trail the enemy
had made no efforts to conceal. Daniel Boone, a militia officer and one of those in pursuit, warned of a possible ambush, but Todd ignored his warning and pressed recklessly on to the Lower Blue Licks ford. Divided roughly into three divisions commanded by Todd, Boone, and Col. Stephen Trigg, the Kentuckians crossed to the north shore of the Licking River and assumed an attack formation.

As they began their advance up the hill that overlooked the river, the enemy struck. In the sharp exchanges that followed, the Kentuckians could
do no more than fight holding actions as those who survived fled southward back across the Licking River. Both Trigg and Todd were among those killed; Boone’s son Israel was also killed. The Indians, momentarily held back by covering fire from a group organized by militiaman Benjamin Netherland, pursued for a couple of miles and then gave up the chase.

While the stunned colonials limped back to Bryants Station, the Indians returned to the battlefield to strip, scalp, and mutilate bodies. More than 70 Kentuckians died, whereas the Canadians and Indians are said to have suffered only two dozen casualties—14 wounded and perhaps
10 killed.

Logan, meantime, had assembled his forces at Bryants Station and started north to join up with Todd’s forces. Within five miles they met the flee
ing survivors and turned back. On August 24, Logan finally arrived at the battle site with a command of 500 men, but all that could be done was to
bury the remains of their comrades. The bloody defeat stunned the residents of the Kentucky frontier, and a period of both fear and mourning followed. Many communities had lost leaders, and Brig. Gen. George Rogers Clark soon was receiving blame for not preparing to defend the Kentucky forts properly. Clark responded decisively: before long he mounted a successful retaliatory attack into the Indian homelands in Ohio.

In retrospect, the battle of Blue Licks was but one of many episodes that pitted an Indian raiding party against settlers in Kentucky, part of a half
century struggle over land and territories that in the end saw the Indians driven out of the state. The sounds of the fighting that took place at the Blue
Licks are gone; in their place are a beautiful state park and a metal historical marker commemorating the great battle fought there so many years ago.

“The Disastrous Battle of Blue Licks,” DC, August 19, 1882, 2.
“Historic Battleground,” KP, August 17, 1998, 1K.
“The Slaughter at Blue Licks—Boone’s Account of Battle,” KSJ, August 22, 1882, 1.
James C. Claypool


Other References

Battle of Blue Licks – Wikipedia

Slaughter of Kentuckians at the Battle of Blue Licks