Born in Maryland Province on December 11, 1750, Isaac Shelby was the third child of Welsh immigrants Evan Shelby and Letitia Cox. Church of England members upon their arrival, the family became Presbyterians after settling in the province of Maryland.
While receiving his education in the local schools, Isaac worked on his father’s plantation and when a bit older, would on occasion find work as a surveyor. By the age of 18, he was appointed a deputy sheriff of Frederick County.
On May 7, 1763, Pontiac’s Rebellion began. During the siege, what had been a lucrative fur trading business for Evan was disrupted. Two years later, a house fire destroyed his business records. Thus, in 1770, Evan packed up his family and moved to Bristol, Tennessee. Here, Evan and Isaac built a fort and trading post where they herded cattle for the next three years.
Isaac’s military life began in 1774 during the border conflict known as Lord Dunmore’s War. Commissioned by Colonel William Preston as a lieutenant in Virginia’s militia, Shelby was second-in-command over Evan’s Fincastle County Company. He participated in the Battle of Point Pleasant on October 10, 1774, during which his skill and gallantry in this battle won him commendation. Fort Blair was soon erected on the battle site, but later destroyed in July 1775 by order of Lord Dunmore who feared colonial rebels would make good use of it during the American Revolution.
After leaving the military, Shelby began work as a surveyor for the Transylvania Company. The land company owned much of the acreage which is now the state of Kentucky. He returned to his family in Virginia for a time, then settled on a portion of land he previously purchased in Kentucky. Shelby became ill in July 1776 and returned once more to Virginia to recover.
In addition to returning home, Shelby also returned to the military. With the American Revolution now underway, the Virginia Committee of Safety commissioned Shelby as captain of a company of Minutemen. Governor Patrick Henry also appointed him in charge of securing provision for troops stationed on the frontier. During 1778-79, he served in this same position for the Continental Army.
Following the American Revolution, Shelby was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1779. That same year, Governor Thomas Jefferson commissioned him as a major and put him in charge of a group whose responsibility it was to establish a boundary line on the frontier between Virginia and North Carolina. The governor of North Carolina also looked favorably upon him with a promotion to the rank of colonel shortly after his arrival and named him magistrate of Sullivan County.
Back in Kentucky during 1780 as a surveyor, word reached Shelby regarding the defeat suffered by the colonists at Charleston. He immediately returned to North Carolina where he received orders from General Charles McDowell to defend North Carolina’s borders from the British. Shelby soon assembled a company of 300 militiamen and joined with McDowell in South Carolina at Cherokee Ford. Surrounding the British stronghold at Thickety Fort with 600 men, Shelby demanded their surrender, but the British refused, for a time. In all likelihood, Thickety Fort would have withstood Shelby’s onslaught; however, the British commander later surrendered. Shelby’s company captured 94 prisoners without firing a shot.
Shelby’s next military encounter, the Battle of Cedar Springs, occurred on August 8, 1780. Having joined a group of partisans commanded by Lt. Elijah Clarke, Shelby’s unit set out in pursuit of British Major Patrick Ferguson. While picking peaches on the morning of August 8th, the men were surprised by a group of Ferguson’s men on a reconnaissance mission.
In short order, Shelby’s troops drove back the British patrol, but it did not last long. Quickly British reinforcements arrived and now the colonists were the ones to fall back. The situation continued with the back-and-forth movement as additional reinforcements arrived for each side. Eventually Ferguson’s main force of 1,000 troops arrived and the colonists were now outmanned. Forced to flee, the colonists found refuge on a nearby hill. Now safely out of range of British musket fire, the colonists began to taunt the British until finally Ferguson’s forces withdrew to fight another day.
“Another day” for Ferguson and Shelby arrived on October 7, 1780 at the Battle of King’s Mountain. Prior to the battle, an emboldened Ferguson sent a paroled colonial prisoner across the mountains with a message for the colonist that if they did not cease their opposition, Ferguson intended to lay waste to the entire countryside. Ferguson’s threat enraged Shelby and others. Before long, new plans were drawn up for another raid on the British. Isaac Shelby helped to lead a group of 1,040 buckskin-clad American sharpshooters who were mustered from North Carolina and Virginia and met at Sycamore Shoals on September 25th. From there, they crossed over challenging terrain through the Blue Ridge Mountains, on their way to the estate of Charles McDowell near Morganton, North Carolina. Here they were joined by an additional 350 troops, led by Colonel Benjamin Cleveland and Major Joseph Winston.
While the colonists gathered their forces, Ferguson and his troops fortified their holding of King’s Mountain where he declared “God Almighty and all the rebels out of hell” would not move him from it. In the end, God Almighty used the colonial rebel force to remove him through what Ferguson referred to as “Indian play” as the troops moved from tree to tree and fired from behind each one, similar to the way he had seen the Indians do in times past. Though Shelby’s troops were forced back on three different occasions, in the end they won. Ferguson attempted a retreat on horseback, but to no avail. Seeing him flee, the colonists shot simultaneous rounds at him, breaking both of Ferguson’s arms, fatally piercing his skull and knocking him off his horse. When the remaining British troops saw their leader dead on the ground, white flags of surrender soon waved. This was the pinnacle of Shelby’s military career. From that point further, he was referred to by the troops as “Old King’s Mountain.” Driving the British from King’s Mountain paved the way for the defeat of the British troops under Lord Cornwallis.
On their march from King’s Mountain, the colonists with their prisoners in tow, learned nine of their comrades had been hung by the British at Fort Ninety-Six. Numerous hangings of colonial POWs had occurred before and the colonists under Shelby’s command were determined to put an end to it. With two North Carolina magistrates among their number, the colonists charged a selection of prisoners with various crimes and by evening, 36 were convicted and sentenced to hang. Following the execution of the first nine, Shelby called a halt to the hangings. He gave no reason for doing so, but his orders were obeyed and the reprieved 27 prisoners rejoined their fellow countrymen who had not been charged.
In November 1781 while on the battlefield, Shelby was elected to serve in the North Carolina General Assembly. He received a leave of absence to attend the legislative session during December. He was re-elected the following year and attended the session in April.
In April 1783, Shelby returned to Kentucky and settled in Boonesborough. On April 19, wedding bells rang for Shelby and his childhood sweetheart, Susannah Hart. Shelby was noted by a historian on that day as “a heavy rugged fellow, with a ruddy face, firm lips and a resolute eye.” On November 1, the couple settled on the land near Knob Lick which had been awarded to Shelby for his military service. Here the couple would raise eleven children.
As early as 1784, Shelby began the necessary work to secure separation of Kentucky from Virginia. He was then appointed as a delegate to the conventions of 1787, 1788 and 1789 to work on Kentucky’s constitution. He was elected the High Sheriff of Lincoln County and a delegate to the final convention in 1792 when Kentucky’s constitution was framed.
Following the ratification of the Kentucky Constitution, electors chosen by the state’s voters selected the state’s first governor and members of the Kentucky Senate. Though it is unknown whether Shelby actively pursued the office, he was elected unanimously to the office of governor on May 17, 1791 and took the oath of office on June 4, 1792 when Kentucky became the 15th state in the United States of America.
High on the list of Shelby’s concerns as governor was acquiring federal funds to defend the state’s frontier area. Indian wars north of the Ohio River were of concern and with only meager funds available to him from the fledgling state, Shelby succeeded in protecting only the most vulnerable areas. A large number of Kentuckians were fully convinced the Indians were being supplied and stirred up by the British.
Shelby called upon President Washington for help, who sent General “Mad” Anthony Wayne with orders to push the Indians from the Northwest Territory. When he arrived at Fort Washington (present day Cincinnati, Ohio), federal commissioners prevented him from taking action due to the fact negotiations were in process with the Indians to secure a treaty. In the meantime, Shelby called for 1,000 volunteers, but few responded to the request. Shelby then issued conscription notices, but by the time the soldiers arrived, winter had set in. Shelby sent them home with orders to return in the spring.
In addition to protecting Kentucky’s frontier, Shelby also concerned himself with obtaining free navigation on the Mississippi River to boost the state’s economic interests. The river was presently inaccessible to American traffic due to closure of the Port of New Orleans by the Spanish. Overland transportation was far too expensive to make the state’s crops profitable, and this also made it difficult for the state’s speculators to entice newcomers to Kentucky.
Though carrying a bitter taste in their mouths towards the Spanish and British, Kentucky residents were tolerant of the French, remembering what they had done to help the colonists during the American Revolution. In April 1793, French Ambassador Edmond-Charles Genêt arrived in the United States as George Rogers Clark was envisioning a plan to capture Spanish lands in the west. André Michaux, Genêt's agent, was sent to Kentucky to encourage that state’s residents to aide Clark in his efforts. Michaux gained an audience with Governor Shelby, carrying with him letters of introduction from both Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Kentucky Senator John Brown.
In addition to the letter from Jefferson he received from Michaux, Shelby received a separate letter from the Secretary of State warning him not to become a party to the schemes of the French and informed him negotiations were now underway with the Spanish to permit trade on the Mississippi River. Though Jefferson’s hope was to have his letter reach Shelby prior to Michaux’s arrival, it did not happen. Shelby’s meeting with Michaux occurred on September 13, 1793. Jefferson’s letter did not reach the governor until October. Thankfully the response Jefferson received from Governor Shelby stated, “Kentuckians possess too just a sense of the obligation they owe the General Government, to embark in any enterprise that would be so injurious to the United States.” The matter, however, was not over.
In November, one of Genêt's agents, Charles Delpeau, wrote to Shelby. In his correspondence, Depleau stated he had been given the responsibility of acquiring needed supplies for an expedition being planned to go against the Spanish holdings. Delpeau’s reason for contacting him was to learn whether Shelby had been instructed to arrest anyone involved in such a scheme. Shelby indicated he had received such a letter from Jefferson.
Though there was really nothing to base their concerns on, both Jefferson and Secretary of War Henry Knox felt the need to restate their concerns to Shelby a second time regarding Genêt's scheme and encouraged the arrest of any French agents found in Kentucky. Knox sweetened the deal by stating Kentucky would be reimbursed for any costs associated with these arrests. In addition, General Anthony Wayne notified Shelby his cavalry was at the governor’s disposal. Arthur St. Clair, governor of the Northwest Territory admonished Shelby to thwart any desires he might have towards cooperating with Genêt.
Shelby responded to Jefferson by saying, “I shall, at all times, hold it my duty to perform whatever may be constitutionally required of me, as Governor of Kentucky, by the President of the United States." In March 1794, Genêt was recalled to France and two months later, his agents ceased their operations in Kentucky, thus averting a potential crisis. The following year, an agreement with Spain was negotiated by President Washington and American trade quickly began on the Mississippi River.
Shelby’s first term as governor ended with Kentucky on a fiscally sound footing and Isaac returning to his estate because the state’s constitution forbade a governor from serving consecutive terms. For the next 15 years, Shelby was a farm boy, tending his acreage and enjoying the country life as he prospered from the sale of mules and horses to southern planters.
In 1812, the winds of war with England and France again began to blow, and Gabriel Slaughter was the candidate of choice for governor of Kentucky. Due to the looming crisis, Isaac Shelby’s name began to be spoken in various political circles for a possible second term as governor. Having heard these comments himself, Slaughter, Shelby’s neighbor, inquired as to whether the former governor was considering a return to the political realm. Shelby replied he had no intentions to do so, thus Slaughter sent his campaign into full gear.
On June 18, 1812, what some refer to as the second American Revolution began as the United States declared war on Great Britain, beginning the War of 1812. The outbreak of war intensified the cries throughout Kentucky for Shelby to return to the post of leadership. The level of passion within the requests led Shelby to reconsider his prior decision and on July 18, 1812, less than a month prior to the election, Shelby acquiesced to the call and announced his candidacy.
When Shelby entered the race, Slaughter’s supporters became irate and endeavored to throw every bad light on him possible. Calling him “Old Daddy Shelby,” they mocked his advanced age (62) and one of Kentucky’s newspapers accused him of running from the Battle of King’s Mountain. Few people believed the accusation, including Shelby’s enemies. Published remarks from one Shelby supporter stated, “It is reported that Colonel Shelby ‘run [sic] at King’s Mountain.’ True, he did. He first run [sic] up to the enemy . . . then after an action of about forty-seven minutes, he run [sic] again with 900 prisoners.”
Approaching the election, Shelby’s confidence in another win had him preparing to return to the state house. Shelby felt his victory would be somewhere around 10,000 votes; however, the final tally showed it to be 17,000 instead. On inauguration day, Shelby became the first Kentucky governor to serve two non-consecutive terms.
The War of 1812 held the headlines throughout Shelby’s second term. Two days prior to his inauguration, governor-elect Shelby appointed William Henry Harrison the commander over Kentucky’s militia. In doing so, his actions went counter to the state’s constitution, which stated the post must be held by a native Kentuckian. Shelby also put pressure on President James Madison to name Harrison the commander of all the military forces in the Northwest. Madison followed through on Shelby’s request.
Back home, Shelby revised the state’s militia laws to say every male between the ages of 18 and 45 was eligible for military service. The decree, however, excluded ministers. The revision saw 7,000 volunteers enlist and many others turned away. Shelby also put the state’s women to work by encouraging them to knit and sew needed items for the troops.
The confidence Shelby felt for the federal government’s war planning was shattered during the Battle of Frenchtown (Remember the Raisin). The disastrous conflict claimed the lives of a large number of Kentucky’s soldiers. In March 1813, Harrison asked Shelby for an additional 1,200 troops from Kentucky to report to him at Fort Meigs. Among the 1,200 who were led by General Green Clay was Shelby’s oldest son, James. When they arrived, the troops found the fort under siege by British and Indian forces. Though General Clay’s forces brought the siege to an end, their ranks were severely decimated. At first, it was thought James was among the fatalities; however, it was later learned he had been taken prisoner and was afterward released in an exchange.
When the third request came from Harrison, this group was led by Major General Shelby himself. Joining with Harrison, the campaign resulted in a victory for the Americans at the Battle of the Thames. When Harrison reported back to Secretary of War John Armstrong Jr., his comment about Shelby read, “I am at a loss to how to mention [the service] of Governor Shelby, being convinced that no eulogism of mine can reach his merit.” Congress filled in Harrison’s gap by awarding General Shelby the Congressional Gold Medal for his service in a time of war.
Shelby’s final act of public service occurred in 1818. At that time, he joined with Andrew Jackson to compose a treaty with the Chickasaw Indians known as the Jackson Purchase, involving 4,600 square miles of land from western Kentucky and Tennessee. Comments were soon made about the former governor considering the idea of running for Vice President, but Shelby emphatically stated he was headed back to his old Kentucky home.
When Shelby returned home, the office of vice-president did finally capture his attention – vice-president of the New American Bible Society. A founding member of the Kentucky Bible Society, he was also a faithful member of the Danville Presbyterian Church, so the office suited him well.
In 1820, Shelby’s health took a downhill turn when he was stricken with paralysis in both his right leg and arm. A stroke claimed his life on July 18, 1826. After burial on his estate, Kentucky erected a monument on his grave in 1827. At the time of his death, Shelby was the only settler still living on his original land claim from Virginia in Kentucky. 125 years later, Shelby’s family turned over to the state of Kentucky the portion of the estate where the family cemetery was located, which was named the Isaac Shelby Cemetery State Historic Site.
Throughout his life, Isaac Shelby had a fondness for “The Liberty Song”. The composition was written in 1768 by John Dickinson and contains the lyrics, “They join in hand, brave Americans all. By uniting we stand, by dividing, we fall.” His love for this song and Shelby’s high level of patriotism is believed to have inspired Kentucky’s state motto, “United we stand, divided we fall.”