MY KENTUCKY: The Travelling Church escapes to Kentucky

By SAM TERRY
Managing Editor
Jobe Publishing Inc.

Contemporary Americans occasionally speak of religious persecution in our country today; their examples are greatly different than what Colonial Virginia residents knew and endured. Still ruled by Great Britain, the Church of England was the state church and the government mandated adherence to its structure. Baptists and Presbyterians were considered heretical sects in opposition to the stated church.

Roughly half of Virginia’s Baptist preachers were thrown in jail at various times for refusing to stop preaching and preaching without a government-issued license. Their incarceration could be as much as five months. Baptists who refused to pay government sanctioned taxes to the state church and refused to baptize their infant children could find themselves jailed, beaten, whipped, stoned, or dunked in water to near-drowning. The parents of children without the benefit of baptism were frequently accused of child abuse.

Among the preachers targeted by the Colony of Virginia were three sons of Toliver Craig who was born Taliaferro Craig, the illegitimate son of Italian sea captain Ricardo Taliaferro and Jane Craig. Lewis, Joseph, and Elijah Craig each played a role in the migration of around 600 people to the wilds of Kentucky in the autumn of 1781. They became known as the “Travelling Church” not unlike the biblical account of the exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. Lewis Craig was characterized as a Moses-like figure while Capt. William Ellis was the Joshua-like military leader. The 200 church members and 400 others made up the largest group of pioneers to enter Kentucky.

Rev. Elijah Craig stayed in Virginia to work with James Madison on state guarantees for religious freedom. In time, he joined his family in Kentucky where he was a successful preacher, educator, businessman, and distiller whom many have claimed was the first to use charred oak barrels to age his whiskey. He was among the first distillers to make corn-based whiskey known as bourbon rather than rye-based whiskey that was being similarly made in the east.

Leaving their meeting house near Fredericksburg, Virginia, the group consisted of church members and their children, Negro slaves, and a variety of other individuals who chose to travel with the group as a means of protection. The treacherous route demanded that they choose which of their few possessions they would take with them and which items they would leave behind. Any material object had to be something that could be carried on a pack horse or by a person. The aged and infirm were the only persons to ride while children were sometimes placed in baskets attached to the sides of the horses.

By late September, the entourage learned of the British surrender at Yorktown, news that was tempered by the presence of Native American savages apt to attack them. The group camped at Abingdon until November until the Native Americans were settled in their winter quarters before continuing their journey. As the winter of 1781-1782 unfolded, the travelers had to brave harsh weather on a trail that required them to walk single-file over treacherous terrain. Along the way, they discovered their bread and flour had molded, reducing their food options to wild meat and hoe cakes. Passing into the Kentucky territory, the presence of Native Americans continued to threaten their safety as they made their way along a buffalo path to Boonesborough, then on Skaggs’s Trace to present-day Mount Vernon and “The Crab Orchard.” Their first permanent settlement was on a tributary of the Dix River known as Gilbert’s Creek, some 2.5 miles from present-day Lancaster, where they built Craig’s Station.

Today, a stone monument atop a hillside marks the location of the initial settlement. Their first church came to be known as Gilbert’s Creek Baptist Church and was pastored by Rev. Lewis Craig. In time, the settlers migrated to various locations in central Kentucky, establishing the Forks of Dix River Church (1782), South Elkhorn Christian Church (1783), Clear Creek Baptist Church (1785), First African Baptist Church (ca. 1790), Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church (1791, 1801), Bracken Baptist Church (1793), Providence Church in Madison County and others.

Settlers comprising the Travelling Church included the families of Allen, Asher, Barrow, Rev. Joseph Bledsoe, Bowman, Buckner, Burbridge, Carr, Rev. William Cave, Toliver Craig Sr. & wife, Rev. Lewis Craig, Rev. Joseph Craig, Capt. Jeremiah Craig, Benjamin Craig, Creath, Curd, Darnably, Dedman, Dudley, Dupuy, Peter Durett, Eastin, William Ellis & family of 5, Elly, Garrard, Goodloe, Hart, Hunt, Hickerson, Hickman, Rev. William Marshall, Martin, Mitchum, Moore, Morris, Morton, Noel, James Parrish, Timothy Parrish, Payne, Pittman, Preston, Price, Ramsey, Robinson, Rucker, Sanders, Shackelford, Shipp, Shotwell, Manoah Singleton & family, Smith, Stuart, Thompson, Waller, Walton, Ware, Watkins, Woolfolk, Woolridge, and Young.

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