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By Margaret Warminski
Located in the largest bend of the Ohio River, a few miles downstream from Cincinnati, Boone County is the northernmost county in Kentucky. For 39 nautical miles (from mile marker 477.5 [at the mouth of Dry Creek] to mile marker 516.5 [at the mouth of Big Bone Creek]), the Ohio River bounds the county on the north and west. The land is drained by numerous small streams that flow west and north into the Ohio River from headwaters along the Great Divide, or Great Ridge. The Dry Ridge Divide runs north-south just inside the eastern boundary of the county and has served as a transportation corridor since ancient times.
As in most of northern Kentucky, the land in Boone County is gently rolling to steeply hilly. The gentle Outer Bluegrass landscape of eastern Boone enjoys more productive land, giving rise to larger farms and bigger cities served by better transportation routes. In the 20th century, these physical characteristics–relatively level land and a good transportation network–encouraged urban and commercial development. The more rugged Hills of the Bluegrass region to the west and south, with poorer-quality farmland and a less-developed land transportation network, remains more isolated.
Boone County has a significant prehistoric heritage. The last glacial activity from 10,000 to 12,000 years ago left substantial gravel and limestone deposits along today’s Ohio River. Erosion and glacial outwash formed natural wonders such as Split Rock, at the mouth of Woolper Creek, and Boone Cliffs (now a Nature Conservancy site) along Middle Creek. Ancient inland seas left behind salt deposits at Big Bone Lick, which attracted large mammals including mammoths, mastodon, and bison.
Archaeological research shows that Boone County has been populated for many thousands of years. The large game at Big Bone Lick drew small bands of nomadic Paleo Indians, who arrived about 12,000 B.C. Through the ages the salt deposits continued to attract Native Americans from a wide area. With the passing of the Archaic and Woodland periods (between 10,000 and 1,000 years ago), Fort Ancient Indians populated Boone County. By the 1700s, the Shawnee and Miami tribes were among the dominant native groups living in the area. Note that, by convention, the abbreviation B.C. (before Christ) follows the year, while the abbreviation A.D. (anno domini - “in the year of the Lord”) precedes the year.
Prehistoric Native American burial mounds, villages and hunting sites are located throughout the county along the river and creeks as well as in the uplands. Today’s town of Petersburg, for example, was a large late prehistoric village site with at least two periods of habitation dating to about A.D. 1150 and A.D. 1400.
The first European to visit what is now Boone County may have been a French explorer who sailed down the Ohio River in 1729, taking note of the trove of mammoth bones at Big Bone Lick. The Frenchman was followed a decade later by Captain Charles de Longueil, who was credited with the first investigation of the area. In 1755, Mary Draper Ingles, the first recorded Euro-American woman to visit this region, escaped from her Shawnee and French captors while they were boiling water from the lick to make salt.
France claimed the Ohio Valley until the end of the French and Indian War, when it became part of Virginia. The lands that now make up Boone County then became part of Fincastle County. In 1773 Captain Thomas Bullitt, a veteran of the war, led surveyors to the territory. In a pattern typical of northern Kentucky, official settlement did not take place until the 1780s: a decade after the first settlements in central Kentucky. In 1789, John Tanner, a Baptist preacher from North Carolina, established Tanner’s Station (later renamed Petersburg) along the Ohio River: the first formal settlement in what would shortly become Boone County. Another early settlement was Bullittsburg, located in the North Bend Bottoms area upriver from Tanner’s Station.
Following the first settlements, more pioneers arrived, seeking plentiful, fertile and inexpensive land. Many came from Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and the Carolinas. Large numbers also came from central Kentucky, from what are now Woodford and Scott counties. Some of the first to arrive came by river; others traveled overland on the Wilderness Road. The settlers established communities along the Ohio and on the steep hilltops above the river, including Francisville and Gainesville. As marginally reliable road networks developd, inland communities were founded, usually at crossroads. Among these was Union, which developed at the intersection of the Covington-Louisville Turnpike (US 42) and the Gaines Old Stand-Visalia Road (Mt. Zion Road). It was designated a United States Post Office in 1830. Farther south, a post office was established in the village of Gaines Cross Roads (now known as Walton) by 1815.
Boone County was created by the Kentucky Legislature in 1798 but was not officially established until 1799. Like its neighbor Kenton County to the east, it was formed from Campbell County. At the time of its incorporation, the new county’s population was 1,500, and fewer than 200 men owned all the land in the county. On June 17, 1799, the first county court was held at the home of William Cave, which was located on a hill above North Bend Bottoms. The court chose to locate the seat of government in the north-central part of the county, on a 74-acre site donated by Robert Johnson and John Hawkins Craig. Initially called Craig’s Camp, then Wilmington, the town was renamed Burlington in 1816 at the request of the Post Office.
During the late 19th century, national trends brought physical and demographic change to Boone County. A national agricultural depression led young and old to leave Boone County farms for work in the city, and the rural population declined. Many communities, including Bullittsville, Beaverlick or Big Bone, lost all commercial importance. Others, such as Grange Hall, Gainesville and Gunpowder, faded away altogether. Florence’s population fell 24 percent at the turn of the 20th century due to competition from the newly founded town of Erlanger and remained in decline until 1930.
In the early 20th century, railroads developed extensive passenger schedules, and Boone Countians began to ride the train to work, to shop, and even to school. During the 1920s, the advent of the automobile brought even more sweeping changes to the county. Long, tiresome journeys to the city over the river road through Constance or the Dixie Highway from Florence became shorter and more enjoyable. The car made it possible to work in the city and live in Boone County. The suburban era had begun.
The last half of the 20th century was a time of tremendous change for Boone County. The county’s population, which had been declining slowly since 1890, surged ahead in the 1940s; between 1940 and 1950 it increased by 20 percent. In 1946 a new Cincinnati airport (now the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport) was dedicated in northeastern Boone County. At over 50 years of age, the airport is old enough to be considered a historic resource under Federal guidelines.
With the construction of interstates 71, 75 and 275 in the late 1960s, Boone County became one of the fastest-growing counties in the region. The development of the Florence Mall and the creation of the Northern Kentucky Industrial Park gave impetus to rapid suburban development. Shopping centers clustered around the Mall; factories, warehouses, and office buildings located along Interstate 275, near the airport, and along the Dixie Highway. Subdivisions proliferated around Florence, Union, Richwood, Hebron and Burlington. In the process many rural historic resources, especially in the populous eastern corridor, were lost to development. The relatively isolated western river corridor, however, retained more of its rural flavor.