Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer and the frontier has passed by.
C Frederick Jackson Turner
The story of the 101 Ranch began in Kentucky in the early 1840s with the birth of George Washington Miller. Destined to be patriarch of the Miller family, he would rival the flamboyant William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody as the originator of the world's very first Wild West show and rodeo.
It is altogether fitting that the genesis of the 101 empire was Kentucky. Only the fifteenth state to enter the Union, in 1792, it was the first state beyond the Alleghenies and a pioneer land that yielded early frontier legends such as Daniel Boone and Kit Carson. Many Indians and the English and Scotch-Irish settlers who hailed from Virginia and the Carolinas referred to the Kentucky country as the "hunting ground" because of the abundance of game. Later, in the era of fierce battles between Indians and white intruders, the region became known as the "dark and bloody ground."
"So rich was the soil, so plentiful were the fish and game and various the beauties of Kentucky, that its original inhabitants, including Shawnee and Cherokee, fought continuously over tribal boundaries and called it `the dark and bloody ground,'" wrote Darcy O'Brien in his book A Dark and Bloody Ground. "The phrase, from which the nameKentucky derives, gained currency during the period of white settlement, when Daniel Boone and others wrote of the new land as a Garden of Eden well worth bloodshed."
Despite its raw natural beauty, Kentucky was not a land for the citified or the weak. This became clear to the whites and Indians alike when their cultures collided and the region channeled more and more settlers into the Mississippi Valley and the lands beyond. White frontiersmenrugged trailblazers and hunterswho ventured into Kentucky in the 1700s became known as "long hunters" because they made extended trips over the mountains in search of game. Together, they helped to shape the most persistent myths of frontier America, recounting vivid tales that fueled the imagination of future generations of pioneers born in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Born on February 22, 1842, to George and Almira Fish Miller, George Washington Miller was a true son of the South. Although some records give his birth year as 1841, Miller's birthdate of February 22 was never in dispute, and it provided his parents with an obvious choice for his name. The baby arrived at his father's ancestral home in Lincoln County, near the town of Crab Orchard, in central Kentucky. The Miller residence was near Hanging Fork Creek. According to local legend, the tributary was named in early settlement days when two desperadoes who had escaped from Virginia authorities were captured and summarily hanged from a tall tree at the fork of a stream.
For reasons unknown, George Washington Miller's paternal grandfather, Armstead Milner, had changed the family surname from Milner to Miller. A farmer, he is listed in early Lincoln County records as both Milner and Miller in the late 1700s and early 1800s. A 1795 tax roll lists him as "a white male over 21 with 2 horses, 3 cattle."
Well into his eighties when he died, Armstead Miller was laid to rest in a small family burial ground near the old homesite. Over the years, the graveyard fell into ruin and was left unattended, protected only by a crumbling stone wall. Some graves were unmarked, and the few headstones, including that of Armstead Miller, eventually were worn smooth by the elements and no longer could be read. One discernible stone was at the grave of James Feland. Born in 1793, he was wounded severely as a soldier at the Battle of the Thames in the War of 1812, before marrying Armstead Miller's daughter Sallie. Feland died in 1828. Just a year later, another Miller daughter, Eliza Rout, died at age twenty-four, in her third year of marriage. She was buried in the family cemetery, with a marker bearing the somber epitaph, "Remember friends as you pass by, As you are now Wounce [sic] was I. As I am now so you must be. Prepare for death and eternity."
Little is known of Armstead Miller's son George or what became of him other than that he married Almira Fish in Lincoln County on June 8, 1831, fathered at least two sons, and drank to excess. His drunkenness and resulting foul behavior finally convinced Almira to end her stormy marriage not long after the birth of their son George Washington. Even before his parents' divorce became final, the youngster and his mother went to live with her parents, John and Mary Fish, born in 1788 and 1792, respectively.
There was ample room for Almira and her children at the Fish residence on a flourishing plantation a few miles east of Crab Orchard in central Kentucky, near the mouth of Copper Creek. This was the same comfortable home where Almira had been born on November 14, 1816, and she considered it a sanctuary. Soon after returning to her parents' home, Almira received the sad but inevitable news that alcohol finally had taken its toll; her former husband, George Miller, was dead.
George Washington Miller grew up not really knowing much about his father and the Milner/Miller family. His grandfather John Fish primarily raised him. George and his brother Walter, born in 1837, spent their formative years at the Fish homestead where, according to family records, "everything was done in a grand manner." Early on, his surroundings in Lincoln County influenced George greatly. Formed in 1780 as one of Kentucky's oldest and largest counties, it was named for Massachusetts native Benjamin Lincoln, a distinguished general in the American Revolution in charge of the Continental forces waging war against the British in the South. George Miller was taught that his home county claimed many firsts in Kentucky history, including the first brick house, first mill, first circular race track, first white child's birth, and first Kentucky governor.
From his grandfather and other old-timers, the boy heard tales of the scalpings and skirmishes on the "dark and bloody ground." He learned that much of the murder and mayhem took place along the pioneer trail known as "the Road to Caintuck," "the Great Western Road," or "the Kentucky Path," but most often called "the Wilderness Road." The well-worn path ran right through Lincoln County and Crab Orchard.
Young George Miller also heard of the acts of God that had left their marks, such as the great hailstorm of 1781 that showered stones nine inches in circumference over the land, destroying entire crops and leaving hundreds of wild and domestic animals dead in its wake. He heard in the distance the peculiar call of a conch shell that had been turned up from a field beside a nearby creek sixty years before his birth and still was used to summon field hands to meals. He learned to hunt and fish in the dense forests and along the never-dry streams and tributaries of the Kentucky, Cumberland, and Green Riversstreams such as Hawkins Branch, Boone, Knob Lick, and others, named mostly for pioneers who had staked their claims long before. He was spoon-fed endless accounts of his ancestors and others who endured uncertainties and faced "hostile savages" to carve a living out of the rich Kentucky soil.
They were the types of stories passed on by Lewis Collins in his 1877 book History of Kentucky:
In the year 1781 or 2, near the Crab Orchard, in Lincoln County, a very singular adventure occurred at the house of a Mr. Woods. One morning he left his family, consisting of a wife, a daughter not yet grown, and a lame negro [sic] man, and rode off to the station near by, not expecting to return till night. Mrs. Woods being a short distance from her cabin, was alarmed by discovering several Indians advancing towards it. She instantly screamed loudly in order to give the alarm, and ran with her utmost speed, in hope of reaching the house before them. In this she succeeded, but before she could close the door, the foremost Indian had forced his way into the house. He was instantly seized by the lame negro man, and after a short scuffle, they both fell with violence, the negro underneath. Mrs. Woods was too busily engaged in keeping the door closed against the party without, to attend to the combatants; but the lame negro, holding the Indian tightly in his arms, called to the young girl to take the axe from under the bed and dispatch him with a blow on the head. She immediately attempted it; but the first attempt was a failure. She repeated the blow and killed him. The other Indians were at the door, endeavoring to force it open with their tomahawks. The negro rose and proposed to Mrs. Woods to let in another, and they would soon dispose of the whole of them in the same way. The cabin was but a short distance from the station, the occupants of which having discovered the perilous situation of the family, fired on the Indians and killed another, when the remainder made their escape.
Stories of such conflicts instilled a deep sense of pioneer pride in George Washington Miller, whose early years in Kentucky established in him firm principles of courage, honor, and perseverance. These pioneer tales set the stage for a drama that George Washington Miller's three sons replayed until the final curtain fell more than ninety years after their father's birth.
America's First "Cowboy"
Perhaps there was no greater influence on young George W. Miller than the stories of Daniel Boone. Like his fellow Kentuckians, Miller grew up hearing tales about the legendary frontiersman. So revered was Boone that some folks considered him a latter-day Moses who had led his peoplewaves of white settlersinto the so-called promised land of "Kentucke."
But Boonea diminutive man whose exploits elevated him to near-mythic stature in his lifetimewas a "cowboy" long before he made a name for himself as a frontiersman. Born in 1734 into a Pennsylvania Quaker family, Boone later recalled that his fondest childhood memory was his time spent tending cattle and listening to his mother as she churned and sang before a roaring fire. His "love for the wilderness and hunter's life," said Boone, started with his "being a herdsman and thus being so much in the woods."
Within a few years, young Boone, who hated plowing fields as much as he loved tending cows, took up a rifle and began to build his reputation as a trailblazer, scout, and one of the "long hunters" who traversed the backwoods of the Appalachians in the 1760s.
Exaggerated accounts of Boone's exploits, especially at Cumberland Gap and on the new Wilderness Road that ran north through the fertile bluegrass countryside, inspired three future American heroesDavy Crockett, Kit Carson (perhaps a distant relative of Boone and of Mary Anne Carson, G. W. Miller's wife, according to incomplete Carson family records), and William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody. Destined to become the standard for a multitude of other western legends, Boone served as the model for the hunter-heroes in James Fenimore Cooper's adventure novels. Even English poet Lord Byron paid tribute to Boone in the romantic epic Don Juan:
"Of the great names which in our faces stare,
The General Boon, back-woodsman of Kentucky,
Was happiest amongst mortals anywhere...."
Contrary to popular myths, Boone never wore a coonskin cap but opted instead for the wide-brimmed beaver hat favored by his fellow Quakers. Although tales abound of his skills as an "Injun fighter," Booneunlike some of his contemporariesfound no pleasure in violence and preferred solitude over the folklore and legend that overshadowed him. "I never killed but three," Boone often told visitors who found their way to his home in Missouri, anxious to learn how many Indians he had dispatched during his long life. "I am very sorry to say that I ever killed any for they have always been kinder to me than the whites."
At about the turn of the nineteenth century, Boone moved to Missouri, where the Spanish had given him a land grant. As a magistrate, he held court beneath a towering elm known as the Judgment Tree. He always remained restless, however, and as an old man, he continued to roam, perhaps as far west as the Platte River and into the Yellowstone country. In 1820, just a few weeks short of his eighty-sixth birthday, the old hunter died at his son's limestone home near Defiance, Missouri. Having felt hemmed in by the growing number of settlers moving farther west, he had been planning yet another move on the eve of his death. Laid out in the custom-designed cherry-wood coffin he had kept for years under his feather bed, Boone was buried near his beloved wife, Rebecca, on a knoll overlooking the Missouri River.
George Miller was a three-year-old boy in 1845 when Kentucky officials supposedly dug up the bones of Boone and his wife and brought them back to a site above the state capitol, in Frankfort. But there are those in Missouri who claim the wrong body was sent. They believe the remains of a slave, and not of Boone, rest in Kentucky. Even in death, the Boone legends have persisted, and have helped to shape the national myths of the frontier.
The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home;
'Tis summer, the darkeys are gay,
The corn-top's ripe and the meadow's in the bloom,
While the birds make music all the day.
Stephen C. Foster
"My Old Kentucky Home"
The terrible collapse of his parents' marriage permanently affected young George Washington Miller, and he immersed himself in the rich history, culture, and folklore of mid-nineteenth-century Kentucky in his new life in his grandfather's home. In time, he readily came to accept the life of the ruling class and his place among the landed gentry on a busy Kentucky that depended on slave labor. Although Kentucky was a border state and did not maintain vast plantations such as those in the Deep South, slavery remained a venerated institution. As late as 1860, Kentucky had 38,645 slaveowners, surpassed only by Georgia and Virginia.
Like the Millers and others of high social standing in the bluegrass region of antebellum Kentucky, the Fish family owned numerous slaves. They used them not only for domestic chores but also to toil on the hundreds of acres devoted to grain and grazing pasture for livestock, as well as to the important cash crops of burley tobacco and hemp.
George Washington Miller, or G.W., as he came to be called, was essentially raised by Fish family slaves who catered to his every whim. Older women servants, usually known as "Aunty" or "Mammy," served as affectionate second mothers to "Massa" Fish's grandson. Old "Uncles," the southern nickname for elderly black men, helped watch over the lad. In the vast fields, a gang of pitiful "wenches" and "buck niggers," in the pejorative slang of that time and place, prayed to Jesus for the chance to leave their backbreaking labor for a more comfortable position in the big house. Few made the transition.
Kentucky served as a sort of regional slavery clearinghouse, and caravans of blacks in ankle irons became common sights in Lexington and other human marketplaces. Undoubtedly, G.W. attended public slave sales or auctionscruel transactions of human flesh at which whole families were sold as chattel like mules or horses. Often, husbands and wives were separated from their children, and babies simply were sold by the pound.
As he grew up, G.W. learned about the busy farm that was his home by working closely with overseers hired by his grandfather to manage daily operationsplanting, tilling, harvesting, and slave discipline. Long after the abolition of slavery, the Miller and Fish families were remembered as slave owners who had worked "their slaves and hired hands to their limits" and "whose tempers were never to be dealt with in a joking manner." Still, although most Kentuckians generally considered themselves to be the most compassionate of slaveholders, there is little evidence that the Miller and Fish families treated their slaves any worse or any better than did others in Kentucky.
As John Fish indoctrinated his grandson in the use of slaves to work the crops and do his bidding, he also taught the boy to be proud and self- reliant. He instilled in him a devotion to family and land, andin a region where gentlemen considered their honor sacred and often settled their differences with dueling pistolsa respect for the pledged word. The old man also steeped the boy in the manly pursuits of their social class, such as hunting in the forests of oak, hickory, and tulip trees, and riding at breakneck speed after hounds across lush meadows.
Like his grandfather, young George became a lover of livestock, and particularly of horsefleshKentucky thoroughbreds descended from fine horses brought from Virginia, noted for speed, strength, and stamina. Besides teaching him to appreciate sleek horses, Fish also shared with his grandson his knowledge of mules.
By the time he reached his teenage years, George Miller had become a competent mule trader, at ease in the company of much older men and seasoned dealers who came to the Fish barns to appraise young mules. While developing the ability to work with mules, he discovered that a mule trader had to be a shrewd judge of men as well as of beasts.
The young Kentucky gentleman learned how to look for mules with clear, expressive eyes. He ran his hands down the mule's straight legs, feeling the bones and looking for swollen joints or sores. He pulled back their lips to check for missing teeth. He looked for a wide stance, black hooves, shiny coats, muscular chests, round rumps. He spoke to the animals, ever mindful that like humans, even mules craved attention.
After watching mules work day after day beneath the blazing sun, G.W. concluded that mules probably were smarter than horses. He noticed that if a horse and mule were paired, the mule always would invent a way to put most of the work on the horse. And at the feed trough, mules invariably walked away when they had had their fill, while horses ate until they foundered. Perhaps George Miller respected mules because he realized that like them, he too was rebellious and stubborn. He further reasoned that mules, like slaves, carried grudges. If they were handled cruelly, they never forgot who had "done them wrong." That rage burned within them until they died or got even. George Miller had enough formal schooling to get along at barbecues and parties and to speak with assured knowledge of politics and the tobacco market. But he picked up his real education by haggling in the mule barn and by observing his grandfather hold forth over a tumbler of sour-mash bourbon and a plate of smoked country ham.
On June 13, 1857four months after George Miller's fifteenth birthdaylife changed at the Fish plantation. His mother, Almira, almost forty-one and fully prepared to give matrimony a second chance, wed Judge John Evans Carson, a prominent Kentucky jurist ten years her senior. In later years, family legend would have it that Judge Carson was a distant kinsman of Kentucky native Christopher "Kit" Carson, the illiterate trapper, Indian fighter, and guide who evolved into one of the most legendary figures in the American West. Although no confirmation of that relationship has surfaced, ample documentation of Judge Carson's ancestry exists. His Irish forebears came from County Down, Ireland, to Pennsylvania in the early 1700s. Succeeding generations of Carsons settled in Virginia. Some fought under Colonel George Washington in the French and Indian War and in the American Revolution.
Born to Joseph and Mary Evans Carson in Rockcastle County, Kentucky, in 1806, Judge Carson was no stranger to the Fish family. His first wife had been Almira's first cousin Marinda Fish, born in 1813 to James and Sarah Fish. Judge Carson had married Marinda in 1839. She bore him eight children before her death in 1853Sarah Elizabeth, James Fish, Joseph, Zack T., Thomas, Mary Anne, George W., and John Evans Jr.
After his mother's marriage to Judge Carson, George Miller stayed on at the Fish plantation and continued to work alongside his grandfather. However, he managed to spend some time with the Carson brood, which soon grew larger. In 1860, Almira gave birth to Hiatt Fish Carson, followed by her last child, a son she and her husband named David Carson. Tragedy struck when Hiatt became ill and died at only eleven months. He was buried in the Fish family cemetery.
Unlike many fractious stepchildren relationships, George Miller and the Carson children got along. Indeed, several of the stepbrothers became close pals. One of the younger boys, George W. Carsonwho family records assert was given the middle name William after one of Kit Carson's grandfatherseventually moved west with Miller and served as one of his first cowboys on the Texas cattle trails.
Still, there was little doubt about which of the Carsons drew most of George Miller's attention. When she was just a young girl chasing about the porches and rooms of the Fish plantation, his attractive stepsister and second cousin Mary Anne Carson caught George Miller's eye. Born on August 26, 1846, at her father's plantation in Rockcastle County, Mary Anne, who was called Polly, Molly, or Mollie by friends and family, was two weeks shy of her seventh birthday when her mother, Marinda, died. The girl was almost eleven years old when her father married Almira, George Miller's mother. A gracious and loving woman, Almira filled an immense void in the lives of Mary Anne and the other Carson siblings.
The combined Carson-Miller family enjoyed periodic excursions to distant Louisville and more frequent visits to the villages of Stanford and nearby Crab Orchard Springs. The seat of Lincoln County and a pioneer station on the old Wilderness Road, Crab Orchard Springs was named for a large grove of crab-apple trees that grew thereor, in another version, in honor of Isaac Crabtree, one of the storied "long hunters" of Kentucky.
Known for its soothing mineral springs and comfortable hotel, Crab Orchard, the "Saratoga of the South," attracted guests from all over the country as early as 1827. They came to "take the waters," play cards, and watch fleet horses run. The watering season stretched through the summer months. By the 1850s, the Crab Orchard Springs Hotel was in its heyday, hosting society's upper echelon from Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Numerous northern gentlemen and their ladieswealthy sugarcane and cotton planters accompanied by families and servants, anxious to escape the dreaded yellow feveralso journeyed to the spa to rub shoulders with the elite from the Deep South.
Music and dancing at masquerade and fancy-dress balls, hunting and horseback riding, and relaxing on spacious verandas made for idyllic days and nights for Kentuckians such as George Miller and his extended family.
Ironically, within a decade, many of the men who had danced with their wives at Crab Orchard would be fighting one another in the bloodiest combat that has occurred on American soil. Indeed, just as Miller reached his twenties, those halcyon times came to an abrupt halt for the entire South. Danger permeated the air, as thick as the cloying aroma of honeysuckle. War clouds loomed up and down the Mason-Dixon Line. There would be parties and horse races and good times againbut not for a very long time.