John Gilbert settled on Red Bird in 1783
Though he certainly was not the first to visit and hunt in what would become Clay County, “long hunter” John Gilbert is probably the first to settle down and make it his home. In 1783, when Virginia opened up more of Kentucky for settlement following the end of the Revolutionary War that year, Gilbert took advantage of the situation and carved out a wilderness paradise for himself on the Red Bird River, near the mouth of, well, Gilbert’s Creek, where his well-preserved grave stone and that of his wife, Mollie, sit peacefully beside the river today.
Gilbert met young Mollie Bowling when she came to the Red Bird wilderness with her parents and Felix Gilbert, a half brother to John. John had offered them, and a few others, land if they would come and join him in what could only have been an extraordinary, but incredibly lonely setting.
It wasn’t long before more settlers started showing up in the headwaters of the Kentucky River (of which Red Bird is one), people who by appearances seem to have been as independent as one would expect them to have been. This influx of people (a century later it was no more than one family per mile) must have seemed to those of a certain type overcrowding and before long led to quarreling. When the quarreling over cows led to something called the “Cattle War”-in which John Gilbert was a leading warrior-the Kentucky Legislature stepped in and, in December 1806, created a new county to keep things under control. When this new county called Clay took effect in April 1807, John Gilbert was appointed a justice of the court as was his nemesis in the Cattle War, a prospect not designed to assure peace.
The story of Clay County’s restless 19th Century is well known, but John Gilbert was not a participant in any further “wars”. He was, rather, a well-documented force for good. He went on to serve in several capacities in the Clay County government, as a State representative and senator representing Clay and surrounding counties, and, most famously, established several Primitive Baptist Churches in the area, where he was said to have preached spiritedly with a glass of spirits always handy in the pulpit.
John Gilbert was the titular head of the Gilbert clan of Clay and Leslie counties, as well as one of the founding fathers of Clay County. He came to Clay County nearly 230 years ago yet his personality was so rich he is still referred to in genealogy and history circles with something akin to familiarity to this day.