Mount Sterling is a small, friendly city steeped in the history of early Kentucky and proud of its heritage. Many sites and buildings in our town are found on state and national historic registers. Through over 200 years of trial and endeavor, Mount Sterling has grown from an infant born in the wilderness into the progressive, mature city its citizens know today.
In the year 1775, Daniel Boone and four of his contemporaries: William Calk, Enoch Smith, Robert Whitledge, and Issac Davis, explored the untouched wilderness at this edge of Central Kentucky. Here, according to legend, bluegrass was first noticed at a salt spring. Because of its geographical location, this area became the Gateway to the Mountains and the Bluegrass.
In those early days, hunters and surveyors traveling the Old Harper's Trace that led from Boonesbourough to this part of the country, passed by a large mound about 125 feet high and covered with great trees like those in the surrounding forests. They called it The Little Mountain. Later excavations proved the mound to be a burial site of an ancient tribe of mound builders. This mound stood at what is now the intersection of Queen and Locust Streets in Mount Sterling.
The first cabin in the area was built in June of 1779 for John Kelly and was situated just east of the mound, near a large oak tree. After this, as least one crude shelter for hunters was built, but no permanent settlement was made until about 1790. At this time Hugh Forbes, a Scotsman who held a land grant for the area adjoining the Little Mountain, laid off a strip (along what later became Locust Street) into lots to be sold to people who wanted to be near pasture land for their stock.
As the lots were sold and the settlement grew, the people met to decide on a formal name for the place, then called Little Mountain Town. Hugh Forbes, having started it, was allowed to name the town. He selected the name Mount Stirling,, for the Little Mountain near which it was established, and Stirling for a town in his native Scotland. In December, 1792, the Kentucky Assembly passed an act establishing the town
of Mount Sterling (a spelling inaccuracy which was retained) on 640 acres donated for that purpose by Hugh Forbes, John Judy, Enoch Smith and Samuel Spurgin. The central part of the town was laid off in half-acre "in" lots; farther away, the "out" lots ranged from three to twelve acres. To speed the town's growth, purchasers of lots were required to build a shop or house "16 feet square, of brick, stone, 'hugged' logs, or frame," within twelve months.
Sporadic Indian raids were a part of the area history for nearly twenty years. Ralph Morgan, a cousin of Daniel Boone, had built a fort a few miles east of Mt. Sterling. On April 1,1793, while men were working in the fields, Morgan's Station was assaulted. The Indians captured and carried away 19 women and children, killing some and selling a few as slaves. The remainder were released under General Anthony Wayne's Treaty of 1795. This was the last organized Indian rain in Kentucky.
In 1796, Montgomery became the 22nd county created by the Kentucky Legislature. It was named for General Richard Montgomery, an Irishman who was killed in the first volley of the attack on Quebec in 1775. In the beginning, Montgomery County stretched over unpopulated land all the way to the Virginia border. Within a few years, however, other counties had been formed from parts of Montgomery, and it is now one of the smallest of Kentucky's 120 counties.
A town street overseer was appointed to be assisted in repairs by male residents, with the exception of the courthouse square, which was macadamized in 1835. The streets were, for most of the 19th century, merely graded dirt with some rock covering which was a problem for several generations.
At the formation of the county, Mount Sterling became the county seat and the first courthouse was built. Mount Sterling has since had six courthouses, all of which have been located at, or near, the present site, and possibly a seventh, an early log structure.
In 1797, its first year as a county seat, the town's tax lists mention 33 town lots, four retail stores, and three taverns. By 1800, with a population of only 83, Mount Sterling ranked eighteenth in size among Kentucky towns. Ten years later, though the town itself was still small, the area equivalent to today's Montgomery County contained 7000 inhabitants, was agricultural and prosperous, and looked to Mount Sterling as its center.
The early years of Mount Sterling saw the establishment of a number of public facilities. A jail was built; a town pump was installed on Main Street just west of the present Catholic Church. Being an agricultural center, Mount Sterling profited from the establishment of a large, brick market house, where farm produce was bought and sold, adjoining the courthouse yard.
Early mail was carried "by favor" of travelers passing through the settlement. By 1802, post riders came to Mount Sterling twice a week, traveling from Lexington to Washington, Kentucky (near Maysville) via Winchester, Mt. Sterling and Flemingsburg. The post rider left Lexington at the beginning of the week and returned by the same route at the end of the week. A mail stage began earring the mail about 1828, and by 1830 a post office was in operation in a local store.
Mt. Sterling's earliest newspaper, the Kentucky Laurel, was established in 1818 and was published twice a week by John Spencer.
Churches and schools were early additions to the community. By 1793, the Baptists were meeting in a log building near the Old Mary Chiles Hospital, and in 1794 local Presbyterians were calling a minister and soon building a church (and school) on the land donated by Hugh Forbes on East High Street. The Methodists also had an early church at Grassy Lick, outside the town; this is a Methodist shrine, which was founded before 1790, and is the oldest continuous Methodist church in Kentucky.
During the Civil War, the northern and southern forces took turns occupying Mount Sterling, The courthouse was burned by Confederate troops (with the loss of many early records), in a successful effort to route out Northern troops who were using it as a fortress. On June 8th and 9th, 1864, General John Hunt Morgan's Calvary (many of whom were dismounted this late in war) attacked Union forces guarding an important supply depot here. This attack is known as the Battle of Mount Sterling, this conflict ebbed and flowed through the surrounding countryside, leaving a residue of mini balls, sabers, and other memorabilia which still turn up when fields are plowed. The battle ended with defeat of the outnumberd Confederates and this was the last of the actual fighting for Montgomery County.