A KINNICONICK LEGEND
“Down on His Luck”, an oil painting by Frederick McCubbin
There are many folks in the Kinniconick valley who not only remember the old stories about Larkin Liles but who are also descended from branches of his family tree that began to grow in Kentucky soil two hundred years ago. There are many, many Liles scattered in the hills and valleys of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee, going back to the earliest days of the Republic. In or about 1810, however, one William Henry Liles, Sr. trekked into Kentucky from North Carolina with his Cherokee wife and their six children. They settled on a farm along the Kinniconick and I can only assume that the spot was located on Liles Eddy, a part of middle Kinney. Their second oldest boy, Larkin, may have been in his twenties when they arrived, but no record exists as to when he married and raised a family. His father, William Henry, died in 1823.
My memories of Liles Eddy are beautiful ones and I’ve shared some stories in previous chapters, but I have a few more. I remember the rough road, back then, to Field Stafford’s farm, how it curved around the base of a hill, with big slabs of sandstone hanging close on the left. Then, emerging from the woods, the spread of the farm came into view, the road paralleling the creek before reaching the old farm house. Field had given me permission to launch my canoe from a spot on this road, where the bank was not too steep. The eddy was not big, not nearly as large as Pine Eddy, but it was broken by shallows and holes with lily pads in abundance. On one trip a friend and I experienced the best bass fishing of all my years on Kinney, and on another trip I caught a muskie at the tail end of the eddy.
Back in those days fifty years ago, the Pileated Woodpecker had just begun to make a come-back from near extinction. One glorious day a pair of them cavorted over the eddy as we drifted silently in the canoe, and for an hour I was close to those wonderful birds and their distinctive calls. There were no signs of habitation along the length of Liles Eddy then, and I never encountered another fisherman on any of my visits there.
Often I regret that I knew so little in those days about the history of the area and the people who lived there. It was not until the advent of computers and the wealth of information available about any subject in creation that I began to appreciate the unique character of the region. If only I could go back to Liles Eddy and sit with Field on his front porch and talk about the lore of Kinniconick and about one famous fellow by the name of Larkin Liles.
In 1837 or 1838, Larkin Liles rode his horse into Vanceburg, a fifteen mile trip through wilderness and mountain passes. No doubt it was a Saturday afternoon, and he had a few drinks with the boys after buying provisions and taking care of some chores. Vanceburg was the frontier and it was a rough town in those days. A fight broke out in the street and Larkin was in the middle of it. Thus the legend of this mountain man began, but rather than tell the story myself, I have an excerpt from a book written 100 years ago and it is far more eloquent. Martha Purcell wrote “Stories of Old Kentucky” in 1915, and included this chapter about Larkin Liles.
A Lesson In Honor
In the early days of Kentucky, when the shrill whistle of the locomotive had not yet reverberated among the hills, there dwelt in Lewis County a man by the name of Larkin Liles. He was the hardy son of a hardy race. He hunted and trapped and lived and loved; and while he knew not a letter of the alphabet, had never attended school a day in his life nor heard the golden rule, yet his rugged honesty and high sense of honor can never be surpassed.
On one occasion, when in Vanceburg and while under the influence of whiskey, he became involved in a rough-and-tumble fight with very serious results. For this offense he was tried, found guilty and sentenced to serve one year in the penitentiary. As he left the courtroom, Liles addressed the sheriff of the county.
"Uncle Buck", he said (everyone in the county called the sheriff Uncle Buck) "won't you let me go home and get in my winter wood and fix to gather my corn crop, so's to fatten my hogs, and to keep the young-uns on? Then I's be ready to go with ye to the penitentiary."
"How long will it take ye, Jaybird?" All of Larkin's friends called him "Jaybird".
"About two weeks," Liles replied.
So well did the sheriff know the pride with which " Jaybird" Liles kept a promise, and so confident of his return at the promised time as was Damon that Pythias would return, that Uncle Buck said, "Go ahead and do it."
The wood was cut, an arrangement was made concerning the crop, the good-bye kisses were given to his weeping wife and helpless babes, and Larkin Liles was ready to make the trip to Frankfort. But when he got to the sheriff's office, he trembled at the thought of the disgrace, of being taken by Uncle Buck by stage to the penitentiary as a prisoner. "You go by stage," he said, "but please let me take my gun and walk over the mountains to Frankfort, and I'll meet you on any spot, on the day you appoint."
The sheriff looked Larkin Liles in the eye and said, "All right, Jaybird, when you get to Frankfort go straight to the governor's office and I'll meet you there."
Then this rugged mountaineer, this unlettered, unpolished son of the hills, with honor as his watchword, walked over one hundred miles, over hills and through vales and across streams, to arrive on one early June morning in the town of Frankfort. Ten hours later, the sheriff came by stage and found Jaybird at the governor's office.
Governor Clark listened to Jaybird's story. In amazement, he asked the sheriff, "Is this man crazy? Why didn't he escape?"
"No, Jaybird is not simple. He is honest," Uncle Buck replied.
With a heart heaving with emotion and eyes dim with tears, the governor hastily affixed his name and the seal of the commonwealth to a small piece of paper, handed to Larkin Lilies and said in a husky voice, "Mr. Liles, go home to your family and kiss the little ones for me. You shall never enter the penitentiary while Clark is governor of Kentucky."
Larkin Liles died in 1849 and is buried in a small family cemetery near Camp Dix. One of his descendants was Amos Howard, the game warden for the valley back in the early 1920s when my father and his family first discovered Kinney. Amos, along with Dr. William Talley and William Dugan marked Larkin’s grave with a commemorative monument. I had the great pleasure of corresponding with Dr. Talley before his death a few years ago. He taught at McGill University in Montreal and was a noted historian and genealogist. There will never be a more brilliant scholar on the subject of Eastern Kentucky, and especially Kinniconick.
The monument to Larkin Liles remembers him as a pioneer and backwoodsman “whose word was his bond”.