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Leonard Stephens (1791-1873)

Leonard Stephens and his family

General Leonard Stephens was the youngest of nine children born to Benjamin Stephens, Sr. (1754-1839), and Dorothy Jemima Waller (1756-1836). He was born in Orange County, Virginia, 10 March 1791, three years into George Washington’s first term as President of the newly-created United States. He died at his home in Florence, Boone County, Kentucky, 8 March 1873, two days short of his eighty-second birthday and at the beginning of Ulysses S. Grant’s second term.

The years following the American Revolution were times of social ferment, especially in Virginia, where the Episcopal Church, which had enjoyed state support from the Colony’s founding two centuries before, was disestablished. Two of Leonard’s uncles, John Waller and William Edmund Waller, became leaders in the overthrow of the Established Church. The Wallers, along with many of their kinfolk and neighbors in Spotsylvania and nearby counties were ardent Baptists. The members of the famous “Traveling Church” which migrated to Kentucky in the 1780s mostly had lived within a score of miles of the Stephens family.

Though Benjamin Stephens’ antecedents are largely unknown, he ranked well up in the society of Virginia. He came to own almost a thousand acres along Riga Run near Orange Springs. His family’s connections with neighboring Piedmont families the Smiths, Robinsons, Nelsons, Herndons and Haydons, to name a few were continued in Kentucky and Missouri, where new ties were forged with the Ryles and Scotts.

Leonard was still a teenager when his parents and brothers sold their lands in the Virginia Piedmont. Three or more of the brothers headed south. One brother, Richard, remained in Dixie, but Edmund and Benjamin, Jr. joined the rest of the family in Kentucky. According to Aunt Milly, a former slave of Benjamin, Jr., young Leonard went to South Carolina to help Ben’s family make the arduous journey through the Appalachians. “They started with a lot of cattle, two horses and a wagon, their tent and cooking utensils, which were very few. They had to sell their wagon at the Cumberland Gap, and made the rest of the journey in a one-horse cart, one or the other of them riding the extra horse ”1

Stephens House, Beech Woods
After a brief sojourn in the central Bluegrass near Bryants Station, the Stephens families settled in northern Kentucky in Boone and Campbell (later Kenton) counties. The area was then sparsely settled, and the incomers quickly erected log cabins, harvesting timber and clearing land for planting crops. Within a few years, however, Leonard and his father put up a substantial brick residence, said to be the first of its kind in the area. In erecting Beech Woods, as their home was named, the Stephens modified the simple, Virginia-style, two-story block by the addition of a verandah, which was removed sometime before the structure was finally dismantled over a century later.

The family patriarch, Benjamin, was not a stranger to the western lands. As a young man he had served with Thomas Walker’s team sent to survey the Virginia boundary with North Carolina. The adventure provided material for some interesting stories, one of which made it into an early history.2

When running the Boundary Line, in 1780, between Virginia and North Carolina, under Dr. Thomas Walker and . Henderson, as the Virginia commissioners (those from North Carolina having gone home), Benjamin Stephens, of Orange county, Va. (who removed in 1807 to what is now Kenton county, Ky., 12 miles s. of Covington, and died there about 18--) was one of the company of men sent along as a guard from the Indians. He carried on his horse a very short rifled gun, with straps so he could swing it to his back. Because of its size it was supposed to be inefficient, and much sport made of it. One day, coming down a spur of Cumberland mountain, probably in what is now Whitley county, the troops called for the man with the short gun and halted for him. Dr. Walker said to him: “We do n’t think much of your short gun, but here’s a chance to test it a target for you; hit it, if you can ” Without hope of success, and only because he was told to shoot, Stephens leaned his gun against a tree, took aim at the target the head of a wild turkey, high upon a dead limb, about 100 yards distant and fired. The turkey fell, and the company shouted approbation in almost deafening tones. Dr. Walker spoke up promptly, in praise of the shot and the little gun, and said, “If his father had risen from the dead, and told him he could kill that turkey, with that thing, he would not have believed it ”

Leonard was active in politics, serving four terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives (1824-1828) and one in the State Senate (1829-1833).3 Even after he left elective office, he continued to influence public affairs as a private citizen. In December of 1855, shortly after their return from Virginia, he and his son Napoleon were chosen as delegates to the state Democratic convention, along with his neighbors, John W. Leathers and J. J. Swetnam.4 His home near Florence was renowned as a gathering place where events of the day could be discussed in convivial surroundings.5 One of the more notable visitors to Beech Woods was the Revolutionary hero, the Marquis de Lafayette, who paused for refreshments on his way from the Bluegrass to Cincinnati during his triumphal tour of America in 1825.6

Leonard remained a faithful member of the Baptist church throughout his life, though his writings display little interest in doctrine and none in the disputes that so enlivened religious life among his contemporaries, though he did take a dim view of the excessive use of hard liquor. He was a leader of the Dry Creek church and a founder of the Florence church when that congregation was established in 1855.7 Some of his brothers left (or were expelled from) the Baptists in the 1830s and joined the Campbellites or Reformers in the Christian church, but sectarian distinctions made little difference to Leonard.

Harvest scene
The Stephens brothers were farmers, as were most of their contemporaries, but they also had other financial interests. John and Leonard were active investors in the Covington and Lexington Turnpike Company, and held seats on the board.8 Leonard was also involved in banking.9 As the population of the growing country moved from the farm to the city, so did the Stephens family. Leonard’s eldest son, Napoleon, spent most of his life in Covington, where his commercial and political interests kept him occupied, as did his grandson, Julius Lucien Bristow.

Like most men of substance, he was an officer in the militia, though there is no record of his having seen combat, either in the War of 1812 or the Black Hawk War. He rose from company-grade ranks, which were in practice elective posts, to more responsible positions. Not long after he left the Senate he had attained the rank of a Brigadier General, and in 1839 he was promoted by Governor James Clark to Major General, commanding the 13th Division of the Kentucky Militia. As the senior magistrate of Campbell County, he was also made High Sheriff of the newly-created Kenton County in 1840. Throughout his long career, he collected a number of titles Senator, Judge, Sheriff but it is by the militia title he is known.10

If the reader has some difficulty in keeping all the family members straight, such confusion is not surprising. Leonard himself sometimes seemed to lose track of his multitudinous kin. At the time of the General’s death in 1873, the living descendants of his parents, Benjamin and Dorothy Waller Stephens, numbered more than 500. Even Leonard’s own descendants at that date totaled close to four dozen.11

About the Letters and Diaries

William Stephens
Leonard’s letters to his brother William, who had moved to Monroe County, Missouri after three decades’ residence in western Campbell County, are filled with family news and neighborhood gossip, together with occasional mention of business and public affairs. The 17 letters reproduced here span three decades, from 1838, when Martin Van Buren was in the White House, and Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster filled the Senate with their oratory, to 1866 and the aftermath of the Civil War. They are clustered at the at the beginning and the end of that time, with only two surviving from the period of 1843 to 1861. However, this gap is made less painful by the fact that General Stephens kept a journal of three long trips he made in 1855, 1857, and 1859, filled with observations about the people and places he visited. His travels are an epitome of the country’s rapid industrialization: The first journey was made by steamboat and buggy; the second by steamboat and railroad; and the last by railroad alone.12

The nine letters from the 1860s are of particular interest for those concerned with the Civil War. Though Northern Kentucky was on the periphery of the conflict, far from any major battles or campaigns, the letters reveal how the family, nevertheless, was caught up in the events that convulsed the nation.

As he left Covington for Virginia in the spring of 1855, Leonard purchased for 25 cents a small, pocket-sized notebook, in which he jotted notes at stops for the midday meal or after a day’s travel. Some entries are brief notes on the logistics of the trip, but many record more fully his keen interest in his surroundings. The book remains in the possession of his descendants, who loaned it to the Margaret I. King Library of the University of Kentucky for filming.13

I first encountered the letters through the transcripts by Ruth Douglas Stephens, published in Stephens Family Letters and Documents, in a copy at the Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort. The originals, written in Leonard’s careful script on sheets about twice the size of modern business pages, can be found in the Claude E. Stephens Collection at the Missouri Historical Society, Saint Louis. (Claude was great grandson of William Stephens.)

My transcript differs in some minor respects from that of Ms Stephens, mostly in the spelling of personal names and the interpretation of passages she found illegible, due in part to the General’s handwriting. (His capital H looks like an N, for example.) I have retained the General’s somewhat idiosyncratic spelling. When Leonard went to school two centuries ago near Orange Springs, Noah Webster’s famous “Blue Back Spellers” had not yet standardized American orthography. Those educated a generation or two later were much more consistent in their spelling.14 However, he was a careful writer, as befit someone who held important public office in a time before every official trailed an entourage of eager assistants. He was logical and coherent, inflicting very few fragmentary sentences on his readers. I have also retained, for the most part, his punctuation and paragraphing.

There may be other surviving examples of his writing, but I do not know of any, aside from a single letter written to a legislative constituent and a report to the governor concerning militia appointments.15

About Other Sources

All those who wish to make sense of the often convoluted relationships of the Stephens family owe an enormous debt to Herbert E. Ryle, whose decades of researches into the clan are found in his fine The Stephens/Ryle Book: Descendants of Benjamin Stephens and John Ryle of 1987, which extends his earlier Antecedents and Descendants of Benjamin Stephens of Orange County, Virginia, 1970. Much useful material on Piedmont families can be found in Ruth Trickey Sparacio and Sam Sparacio, Pamunkey Neighbors of Orange County, Virginia and the companion Supplements.16

Retracing the routes

While modern maps, such as the superb USGS series, combined with the study of contemporary maps and guides, can give some idea of the geography, nothing can substitute for actually seeing the land, and walking over it, traveling through it. I have wandered the roads connecting Florence and Union and Independence, and I have strolled the halls of the elegant Old Capitol in Frankfort and stood in the chambers where Leonard and Napoleon met with their colleagues in the legislature.

During two extended trips in the 1990s I had the immense pleasure of attempting to retrace my great-great-great grandfather’s journeys.
Kanawha River Saltworks
While the basic geography has not changed much, man’s handiwork has left an imprint on the landscape: The Ohio is no longer a free-flowing river, but thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers is now a chain of sinuous lakes. The pollution of the Beautiful River, which had begun in the General’s time with salt works and coal mines, and reached a height in the mid-twentieth century, has abated somewhat, and health authorities now assure the public that fish caught in the Ohio are fit for human consumption so long as one eats no more than one fish a month. Steamboats no longer ply the upper Ohio, having given way to diesel tugs and rafts of barges, but its banks are lined for the most part by highways that now link the towns cited by the General, so one can parallel his route.

Modern, asphalt- or concrete-paved roads, ranging from country byways to multi-lane Interstate Highways, have replaced the gravel turnpikes, but in a few places the old roads can be found, sometimes an almost invisible trace crossing and recrossing the modern road, and here and there, where development has somehow passed over, a stretch remains almost untouched, such as the one which winds its way over Dry Branch Gap, west of Staunton, Virginia. Further west, along modern US 60, I paused to climb Spy Rock and looked back along the Midland Trail, where the sturdy Tom had pulled Leonard’s buggy homewards 140 years before. And I, too, ventured to the edge of Hawk’s Nest and gazed down into the New River Gorge.

Cincinnati’s suburban sprawl engulfs much of Boone and Kenton Counties, and Northern Virginia has become notorious, a byword for uncontrolled growth, with shopping center parking lots obliterating Civil War battlefields. Far too many Appalachian mountainsides have been recontoured by behemoth machines grubbing for coal.

Our world is diffferent from General Stephens’, but his letters and diaries can open our eyes so we can see how it was when our country was in its adolescent vigor.

 

 


Obituary

Gen. Leonard Stephens.

Gen. Stephens died at his residence near Florence, Ky., on Saturday, March 8, 1873, at about 1 o’clock P. M. He was born on the 10th of March, 1791, and consequently was at his death within two days of eighty-two. He was a native of Orange county, Virginia, but came to Kentucky in 1806 with his father Benjamin Stephens, Esq., who then located temporarily near Bryant’s Station in Fayette county, but removed to what is now Kenton, but was then a part of Campbell county, and settled permanently on Banklick Creek, at the place where Leonard Stephens resided continuously until six or seven years ago, that part of the country being in 1807 an unbroken forest.

At the age of thirty-two, Gen. Stephens was elected to the lower House of the General Assembly, and was in that House by election for four successive years, and, at the age of thirty-six, he was elected to the Senate of Kentucky from the District composed of the counties of Campbell and Boone, and served a full term of four years. He was for many years a Magistrate of Campbell county, and, upon the organization of Kenton county, being the Senior Magistrate, he became, under the rule then in force, the Sheriff of Kenton county, being the first person who has filled that office in Kenton county, in which office he served by deputies but not in person, for the term of two years.

About thirty years ago, he joined the Dry Creek Baptist Church, and in 1855 assisted with the organization of the Florence Baptist Church, of which he remained a faithful and devoted member up to his death.

He was a man of marked superiority of character, prompt to the moment and to the utmost farthing in meeting all his engagements; fair and liberal in all his transactions; his word was his bond, and his integrity in every respect was entirely beyond question.

His manners were peculiarly engaging and pleasant. He was not merely courteous and polite, but there was such a heartiness and cordiality about him that even those who met him casually could not easily lose the impression he made upon them; while, to the very large circle of relatives and friends who were intimate with him, the memory of his kind, genial and happy manners will always remain vivid and precious.

His house was the seat of a generous and liberal hospitality, and nothing made him so happy as to have his relatives and friends around his hearth-stone and at his table, and the family reunions, which he insisted on keeping up at his house, were notable occasions, whereon were assembled there all his kinsfolk to the remotest degree, the time being spent in innocent and mirthful conversation, and winding up with a bountiful feast. His hospitality was not confined to his relatives, but all who came were welcome, and he never turned the stranger away empty from his gates.

He was actively engaged in farming up to within a few years past, when, at about the age of seventy-five years, he gave his children the most of his large tract of land, and relinquished active business, and spent the remainder of his days quietly in the society of his children, grand-children and friends at his residence in Boone, but within sight of his old homestead in Kenton.

We take pleasure in paying this tribute to the memory of this old pioneer, regretting only that it is so imperfect and so unworthy of such a man: for within our knowledge, no man has died in this part of the State who, by universal acclaim, lived more respected and honored, or died more lamented, than Gen. Leonard Stephens.

-- Covington Journal (15 March 1873), 2.

 

 


Notes:

1 The story by the octogenarian Milly is recounted in an 1876 newspaper article, which is copied in Herbert E. Ryle and Elbert Stephens Ryle, The Ryle Family of Maryland, North Carolina and Kentucky, j-k. A slightly different version appears in Herbert E. Ryle’s Antecedents and Descendants of Benjamin Stephens of Orange County, Virginia, 21-22. I have not seen the original article in the Rising Sun News. Milly is included in a list of the members of Dry Crrek Baptist Church, owned by Ben Stephens. (The list was transcribed by Mrs. Jean Houston. See http://baptisthistoryhomepage.com/ky.kenton.dr.crk.ownr.slv.html)

2 Lewis and Richard H. Collins, History of Kentucky (Berea, KY: Kentucke Imprints, 1978 [1874]), 759.

3 Collins, 773.

4 Covington Journal, 1 Dec 1855. Leathers, who also had served in the legislature, took his political activism to a degree that so upset the Union Army that he was arrested in 1864. See letter of 16 Aug 1864.

5 Covington Journal, 15 Mar 1873.

6 Leonard’s daughter, Statira, recalled the visit till her dying day, over 75 years later. See Covington Journal, 11 Apr 1902. Although contemporary records are silent on the details of the day in question, the story of the visit is plausible, even likely. The Stephens home, one of the first brick residences in the area, was about a mile east of the Lexington Pike (now known as the Dixie Highway, US 25) and about an hour from Covington. The numerous Stephens family, headed by the patriarch Benjamin Stephens, Sr. (1754-1839), were leading citizens. Leonard Stephens, though not yet a general, was a member of the state legislature. His wife, Catherine Sanford, was the niece of the late Thomas Sandford, Congressman from northern Kentucky. It would have been quite natural for General Lafayette to pause in his progress at Beech Woods before undertaking the last stage of his journey to the Ohio. Such a polished figure would have bestowed appropriate compliments on the assembled children, and he may even have singled out the blond curls of the infant Marion Stephens for comment, as one rendition of the tale has it. I wonder what was his reaction to being presented with three children named for the Bonapartes (Napoleon, Statira, and Lucien, aged 10, 7, and 5). In 1797 Napoleon had secured Lafayette's release from an Austrian prison. For known details of Lafayette's American visit, see Ida Earle Fowler, "Log of Lafayette's Journey," Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 27: 652 and Edgar Ewing Brandon, Pilgrimage of Liberty, 315. For one version of the visit see Robert S. Tate, “The Grass Roots of Kenton County” in the Papers of the Christopher Gist Society 5: 45. Kenton County Public Library.

7 Professor A. M. Yealey, History of Boone County, Kentucky (Covington, KY: William Fitzgerald [Holmes High School Printing Class], 1960), 20. Jim Duvall has found a Circular letter Leonard wrote in 1855 for the Northbend Baptist Association, setting forth his (and the new congregation's) statement of faith. See the transcription here.

8 Formal resolutions of mourning by the turnpike company board marked the brothers’ deaths. Covington Journal, 6 Sep 1856 and 12 Apr 1873.

9 See letter of 24 Feb 1840.

10 See letter of 24 Feb 1840.

11 These figures include the Stephens’ spouses, but not other in-laws, or those kin who had predeceased Leonard.

12 See his routes marked on contemporary maps.

13 Film M-144. Unfortunately, the image is less than first rate in places. A copy is available through the LDS Family History Library.

14 See, for example, the diary of his neighbor, Mary Beckley Bristow, written during the same decades covered by Leonard’s letters. Mary was his son-in-law Reuben’s elder sister, born in 1808.

15 The constituent letter is in the manuscript collection of the Mildred I. King Library of the University of Kentucky, Lexington. The militia letter is among the papers of Governor James Clark at the Kentucky Archives, Frankfort.

16 See the bibliography for a complete listing of sources.

 


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This page updated 5 August 2007.