Essay: John Bradford, Kentucky’s pioneer journalist

This essay was originally written for the May 22 symposium, Words in a Changing World: from Bradford to Bloggers, at the Center for the Written Word at Cardome Center in Georgetown.

 

On August 11, 1787, the first newspaper to be published west of Pittsburgh hit the streets of Lexington, Kentucky.  It was a modest thing, printed on a four-page fold about the size of letter sheets. The Kentucke Gazette carried a few news items from elsewhere, an advertisement and an apology from its publisher. The 38-year-old publisher had little or no training as a printer, reporter, writer or editor. But he did understand deadlines.  “My customers will excuse my first publication,” he wrote, “as I am much hurried to get an impression by the time appointed.”  The rookie journalist then offered excuses.  Most of his type had been jumbled on its way to Lexington, he wrote.  His brother had purchased the type and a printing press in Pennsylvania and accompanied it down the Ohio River on a flatboat. The equipment made the final leg of its journey to Lexington over a rough road from what is now Maysville. If jumbled type were not bad enough, the publisher complained that his “only assistant” —his brother — had been sick for 10 days and was of no help whatsoever.

The Kentucke Gazette may have had an rough start 225 years ago, but it began a long and illustrious newspaper tradition in Kentucky. The Gazette’s publisher was Kentucky’s first journalist — and so much more.  John Bradford was a Renaissance man of the early Western frontier: a land surveyor, Indian fighter, politician, moral philosopher,  tavern owner, sheriff, civic host, community booster, postal service entrepreneur, real estate speculator, subdivision developer, mechanic and mathematician. And all of that was in addition to his primary work, which made seminal contributions to development of the written word in Kentucky.  In addition to writing and publishing the state’s first newspaper, Bradford produced Kentucky’s first books, was an organizer of the first public library and operated one of the first bookstores. He also was one of the first historians of Kentucky’s pioneer era and the chief advocate for, and longtime chairman of, Kentucky’s first institution of higher learning, Transylvania University.

So, it seems fitting that as we gather at Cardome today to reflect on the past, present and future of journalism and the written word in Kentucky, we begin by remembering John Bradford. For 45 of this state’s most formative years, he was in the middle of everything.

John Bradford was born in June 1749 near Warrenton in Northern Virginia, the second child and eldest son of Daniel Bradford and Alice Morgan. At the age of 21, he married Eliza James, the daughter of a respected Virginia planter. They had five sons and four daughters. Like his father, Bradford became a land surveyor. He practiced his trade in Virginia for eight years, except for possible brief service in the Revolutionary War in 1776. Like many Virginians, he was hungry for land and he had heard about the bounty that lay across the Appalachian mountains. So, in the fall of 1779, Bradford left his family and went to the western reaches of Virginia — then called Kentucke with an “e” at the end — where he worked as a surveyor. During this time, he also became an Indian fighter, taking part in the campaign against the Native American towns of Chillicothe and Piqua in what is now Ohio.

While in Kentucky, Bradford and his younger brother, Fielding, made claims on 6,000 acres of rich Bluegrass land along Cane Run and North Elkhorn creeks in what is now Fayette and Scott counties. That land is said to have included what is now the campus of Cardome. Bradford then returned home, and, in the spring of 1785, moved his family west. They lived in a cabin, and later a handsome brick home, near the corner of what is now Russell Cave Road and Ironworks Pike north of Lexington. But John Bradford wasn’t cut out to be a farmer. He soon sought out a new business opportunity — something he would do frequently for the rest of his life.

John Bradford portrait in the collection of the Bodley-Bullock House, Lexington Junior League. Image courtesy of University of Kentucky Special Collections.

John Bradford portrait in the collection of the Bodley-Bullock House, Lexington Junior League. Image courtesy of University of Kentucky Special Collections.

Kentuckians have always loved to complain about the government. Many prominent pioneers of the 1780s thought that Virginia’s government was ignoring their needs, especially when it came to security from Indian attacks. Meeting in convention at Danville on December 30, 1784, these settlers decided it would be in their best interests to begin the process of separating from Virginia and forming their own state.  They also decided that, to be successful, they needed public opinion in Kentucky on their side. They needed information. They needed publicity. They needed a newspaper.

A year later, the convention appointed Gen. James Wilkinson, future governor Christopher Greenup and John Cobern to form a committee to find a printer from the East willing to move to Kentucky.  The committee tried to recruit printers John Dunlap in Philadelphia and Miles Hunter in Richmond, Va., but both declined. It was at this point that John Bradford stepped forward and offered to do the job if the convention could promise him public printing work. With this assurance, the Bradford brothers went to Philadelphia to buy a printing press. On their way home, they stopped in Pittsburgh and bought some type from John Scull, who had recently established the Pittsburgh Gazette, the first newspaper west of the Allegheny Mountains. John Bradford then headed home, leaving his brother in Pittsburgh for three months to learn the basics of printing. (It may not surprise you to learn that, after a couple of years, Fielding Bradford decided he no longer wanted to work for big brother and left the business.)

Some statehood convention delegates assumed that Bradford would set up his printing shop in Danville, where they met each year. But in what we now would call an economic-development incentive, the trustees of Lexington promised to give Bradford the use of a prime piece of downtown real estate for as long as he operated his press and newspaper in their town. Bradford accepted the offer, and, as there was no building on the promised property, also accepted the town’s offer to set up his print shop in the back room of the log courthouse at the corner of Main Street and Broadway, where Victorian Square now stands.

The Kentucke Gazette began publication in August 1787 with 180 subscribers. Bradford charged 18 shilling per year for a subscription and three shillings for an advertisement of moderate length. Because hard cash was scarce on the Kentucky frontier, Bradford wrote that he also would take the following goods as payment: “corn, wheat, country-made linen, linsey, sugar, whiskey, ash flooring and cured bacon.”  The Kentucke Gazette patterned itself after the Pittsburgh newspaper, with three columns of type on its small page.  The newspaper changed the spelling of Kentucky on its masthead — ending it with a “y” instead than an “e” — in 1789 after the Virginia General Assembly officially did so.

Early on, the Gazette was the only newspaper within 500 miles of Lexington, which made it a must-read, at least for those who could read. A year before the government provided postal service in Kentucky, Bradford employed a small network of “post riders” to deliver the Gazette to Limestone (now Maysville), Harrodsburg, Danville and other Central Kentucky towns. The post riders also carried letters and small packages as their saddle bags allowed. Bradford kept a letter box at his Lexington office where correspondence carried by the post riders could be picked up by the intended recipients.

The Gazette was first published weekly, then twice and later three times a week. Paper was scarce, since it had to be imported from the East during the newspaper’s early years. But by 1793, the Gazette’s paper was made in Georgetown by another early Kentucky entrepreneur, Elijah Craig, whose other claims to fame were as a Baptist minister — and as an early distiller of bourbon whiskey.

Historians who have studied the surviving issues of Bradford’s Gazette have often remarked on the lack of what we would now call local news. There was little in the way of information about everyday life and happenings in Lexington and around the Bluegrass frontier. Perhaps, some historians have speculated, that was because the place was so small and sparsely populated at the time that everybody already knew the local news by the time the paper came out.  The Gazette’s pages were filled instead with weeks-old, and sometimes months-old, accounts of national and international happenings, as well as with stenographic accounts of local and state government activities.  Unfortunately, Bradford’s coverage of Kentucky’s quest for statehood mostly consisted of publishing the official resolutions of the separation conventions. While the Gazette’s pages occasionally included philosophic discussions about Kentucky’s political needs, historians have noted that Bradford provided little journalistic detail or insight into the process of seeking statehood or personalities who were involved in the movement.

Bradford was a Democrat in the mold of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and the Gazette reflected his political views. An Episcopalian, he also was a man of liberal religious views. He refused to allow the Gazette to be drawn into the sectarian theological disputes that raged among Protestant Christian denominations in early Kentucky. Bradford, whose nickname in later years was “Old Wisdom”, would occasionally offer bits of moral philosophy in print, a la Benjamin Franklin. Here is one example: “Narrow minds are like crooked bottles; the less they have in them, the more noise they make in pouring it out.”

Bradford had his pet issues, as every editor does, and they were given considerable coverage: He was very interested in horses. He hated the federal government’s excise tax on whiskey. He was outraged by John Jay’s proposed treaty that would have given Spain navigational control of the Mississippi River. And, most of all, he was obsessed with Indians and the threat they posed to settlement of Kentucky. This was the era of Manifest Destiny, and nobody embraced that philosophy more than John Bradford.

The Gazette also served as a valuable forum for public notices, some of which could be quite humorous, such as the one from Jan. 29, 1791, in which a Charles Bland wrote that he would not pay a note given to William Turner for three second-rate cows until Turner returned a rifle, blanket and tomahawk he had borrowed. My favorite public notice is this one from April 6, 1793: “Taken up by the subscriber, on Clear Creek Fayette County, a dunn mare two years old last spring; her mane and tail black with a black list along her back, a natural trotter, 13 hands 1 inch high, apprised at £3.10. Hawkins Kearby.”  Unlike the other notice, this one is not humorous, or of any importance except to the owner of the lost horse. But it is my favorite because Hawkins Kearby was my great-, great-, great-, great-, great-grandfather and this Kentucke Gazette notice is the only written record I have of him.

After a couple of moves, the Gazette’s offices came in July 1795 to spacious quarters in a two-story brick building on Main Street that had been Kentucky’s first statehouse. At this location, where it would remain for 40 years, Bradford published Kentucky’s first books. After a compilation of state laws, he produced many other books, including an annual Kentucky Almanac and the work of Kentucky’s first poet, Thomas Johnson. Bradford’s offices also included a bookstore, which became a popular gathering place for white men to discuss news, politics and public affairs.

The Gazette’s first newspaper competitor appeared in 1795, when Bradford’s former employee, Thomas H. Stewart, started the Kentucky Herald. (And in the first example of monopoly newspaper consolidation in Kentucky, Bradford bought out Stewart in 1802 and shut down the Herald.) As Kentucky grew in the late 1700s, four more newspapers opened in Frankfort and the town of Washington, near Maysville. By the end of 1811, some 30 newspapers had been established in Kentucky. In addition to Lexington, Frankfort and Washington, their locations included Bardstown, Shelbyville, Danville, Russellville, Louisville, Paris, Lancaster, Stanford, Richmond and Georgetown.

Bradford trained several of his five sons as printers and journalists, and the family holdings expanded. Son Daniel took over the Gazette from April 1802 until it was operated by others between late 1809 and 1814. Bradford’s eldest son, Benjamin, bought the Kentucky Journal in Frankfort in 1795. Bradford and son James operated the Guardian of Freedom in Frankfort from 1798 until 1806. Both of those Frankfort newspapers essentially republished the Gazette’s content, but may have given the Bradford family a measure of influence in the state capital.

After several changes in management and ownership at the Kentucky Gazette, Bradford returned as editor and publisher late in his life, from April 1825 until June 1827. Perhaps that was because he had one last job to do.  Between August 1826 and January 1829, Bradford published 66 essays in the Gazette that he simply called “Notes on Kentucky.”  These articles were Bradford’s journalistic memoirs, his chronicle of a pioneer era that was slipping away from Kentucky’s collective memory as others of his generation died off.

The historical value of Bradford’s “Notes” was realized immediately. George Washington Stipp got to know Bradford while living in Lexington as a medical student at Transylvania University. Stipp was so impressed with Bradford’s essays that, after returning home to Xenia, Ohio, in 1827, he published the first 23 of them in a small book he called: The Western Miscellany, or, AccouGazettents Historical, Biographical, and Amusing. The full “Notes” were edited by historian Thomas D. Clark and published in 1993 by the University Press of Kentucky in a book titled: The Voice of the Frontier: John Bradford’s Notes on Kentucky.

Bradford’s “Notes” still make interesting reading, especially his tales of early exploration and the settlers’ battles with Indians. As I mentioned, Bradford had always been obsessed with the threat Native Americans posed to the settlers who came in and took their land. In his book, Clark takes a shot at Bradford’s journalistic objectivity on this subject, noting that Indian atrocities against settlers were always portrayed as heinous, criminal acts. But when it came to the atrocities settlers committed against the Indians — of which there were many — the same value judgments never applied. “One can only speculate,” Clark wrote, “on what a literate ‘Indian Bradford’ might have written had he published a series of notes on settler-Indian relations in the last quarter of the 18th century. In reality, they had more to fear from the ‘Long Knives’ than the ‘Long Knives had to fear from the ‘Braves.’”

John Bradford packed a lot more than journalism into his long career. He spent many years as the equivalent of Lexington’s mayor. As the longtime chairman of the town trustees, Bradford was the official host to visiting dignitaries, such as in 1792, when Isaac Shelby was sworn in as Kentucky’s first governor, and in 1825, when President James Monroe and the Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution, visited Lexington.  Bradford also served as a state legislator from Lexington and as the High Sheriff of Fayette County.

Bradford had many business interests beyond publishing. He was an active land speculator — and, like many early Kentucky land speculators, was often involved in lawsuits over claims and titles. He also was an entrepreneur with broad interests. In 1801, he purchased a tavern in Frankfort that he owned for several years. He developed a subdivision off North Limestone Street in 1812. The next year, he built a steam-operated flour mill and cotton factory on Vine Street in Lexington, just west of Broadway.  One account says that Bradford, a talented mechanic and mathematician, designed and built the machinery himself.  In 1816, Bradford partnered with Robert Wickliffe to build a large public warehouse on Broadway, between Vine and Main streets, leasing the land from the town trustees.

Throughout his career, Bradford was a tireless booster of Lexington. In 1796, he was one of the founders of the Lexington Public Library. The next year, he called a meeting to organize the Lexington Society for the Promotion of Emigration. Bradford enticed John James Dufour to come to Lexington to set up the Kentucky Vineyard Society, of which he was one of the incorporators in 1799, in the hope of developing a local wine industry. Bradford also was an early advocate for the emancipation of slaves — a very unpopular idea among white men in Lexington at that time and for several decades to come. Even so, Bradford was also a slave owner.

Of all Bradford’s public roles beyond journalism, perhaps none was more influential than his longtime positions as trustee and chairman of Transylvania University.  In the book, Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852, which was published last year by the University Press of Kentucky, my daughter, Mollie, and I wrote a chapter about Transylvania — its meteoric rise under President Horace Holley and its subsequent fall after he left Kentucky. Who was the man behind the scenes of Holley’s success story? John Bradford.

After the steamboat’s invention made two-way river navigation possible, Lexington lost its economic edge to the river cities of Louisville and Cincinnati. Desperate for economic development, Bradford championed making Lexington the “Athens of the West” by investing in education and culture. The key to doing that, he believed, was turning tiny Transylvania into the great university of western America. That would require an outstanding president with vision, he believed. The man Bradford wanted was Horace Holley, a Yale graduate and up-and-coming minister in Boston. Against all odds, including a bitterly divided Transylvania Board of Trustees, Bradford convinced Holley to move to Lexington in 1818. Within a few years, Holley transformed Transylvania into one of America’s most acclaimed universities. When, late in life, Thomas Jefferson was seeking models for his new University of Virginia, he looked to Holley’s Transylvania. Despite this success, though, Holley was run out of Kentucky by religious conservatives, anti-intellectualism and a governor, Joseph Desha, who wanted to spend state money on roads rather than higher education. Bradford’s success and failure with Horace Holley would echo through Kentucky history for nearly two centuries.

Although Bradford kept his rural home “Fairfield” until the year before his death, he spent most of his years as publisher living in a handsome house on the corner of Second and Market Streets in Lexington. He bought the house from Thomas Harte, a prosperous early settler and father-in-law of Henry Clay. It was in that house that John Bradford died on March 22, 1830. His burial place is uncertain.

I mention Bradford’s downtown home, because it would play an important role in Lexington’s modern history 125 years after the publisher’s death. In 1955, Bradford’s house was demolished for a parking lot. The ensuing outrage led to the creation of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Kentucky Gazette was sold out of the Bradford family in 1840, a decade after the pioneer publisher’s death. It ceased publication in 1848 after its fortunes and influence declined under an owner from Louisville.

Unfortunately, no complete file of John Bradford’s Kentucky Gazette remains. The Lexington Public Library has perhaps the best collection of original copies, although it does not include the first one. The last known first issue was destroyed in a fire more than a century ago at the Cheapside office of H. Howard Gratz, who revived the Kentucky Gazette after the Civil War and published a newspaper by that name for nearly 50 years. Thanks to modern digital technology, you can read the surviving copies of John Bradford’s Kentucky Gazette on your computer at the Kentucky Digital Library site.

SOURCES

The Voice of the Frontier: John Bradford’s Notes on Kentucky, Thomas D. Clark (University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1993)

The Pioneer Press of Kentucky, William Henry Perrin (J.P. Morton & Co., Louisville, 1888)

John Bradford Bicentennial, C. Frank Dunn (The Filson Club History Quarterly, Louisville, 1947)

John Bradford and the Kentucky Gazette, J. Winston Coleman (The Filson Club History Quarterly, Louisville, 1960)

The History of Pioneer Lexington, 1779-1806, Charles R. Staples (University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1939, republished with a foreward by Thomas D. Clark, 1996)

Liberal Kentucky, 1780-1828, Niels Henry Sonne (Columbia University Press, New York, 1939)

Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852, edited by James C. Klotter and Daniel Rowland. Chapter 9: Horace Holley and the Struggle for Kentucky’s Mind and Soul, by Tom Eblen and Mollie Eblen. (University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2012)

Kentucky Settlement and Statehood, 1750-1800, George Morgan Chinn (Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort, 1975)

Stories of Kentucky from the Life and Works of John Wilson Townsend, Dorothy Edwards Townsend, The Keystone Printery, Lexington, 1972

The Kentucky Encyclopedia, John E. Kleber, editor (University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1992)