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Document Number: AJ-125
Author: Filson, John, ca. 1747-1788
Title: The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucky
Source: Imlay, Gilbert. A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America: Containing a Succinct Account of Its Soil, Climate, Natural History, Population, Agriculture, Manners, and Customs. With an Ample Description of the Several Divisions into Which That Country is Partitioned; To Which Are Added, the Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucky. And an Essay Towards the Topography and Natural History of That Important Country. By John Filson. To Which Is Added, I. The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon, One of the First Settlers, Comprehending Every Important Occurrence in the Political History of That Province. II. The Minutes of the Piankashaw Council, Held at Post St. Vincent's, April 15, 1784. III. An Account of the Indian Nations Inhabiting within the Limits of the Thirteen United States; Their Manners and Customs; and Reflections on Their Origin. (London: Printed for J. Debrett, Opposite Burlington House, 1793). Pages 269-415.
Pages/Illustrations: 149 / 4 (3 of tables)
Citable URL:

Author Note

John Filson (c. 1747-1788) was born in Pennsylvania about 1747 and sent as a teenager to Maryland for a classical education. During and after the Revolution he tried his hand at farming, teaching, and land surveying. In 1783 the infant U.S. government began to reward veterans of the Revolution with free land. Qualified individuals were given receipts, called warrants, that could be exchanged for acreage in the West. Most veterans never intended to go west, however, and they sold these land warrants to real estate speculators. In this way Filson soon acquired the right to 13,500 acres in Kentucky. He settled in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1784, where he returned to teaching and surveying, and met Daniel Boone and other early white settlers. In 1784, hoping to induce more eastern pioneers to come to the region (and buy his land), Filson wrote the book given here.

Because at the time there were no printers in Kentucky, he traveled back to Maryland to have it set in type. It was published later that year with a ghost-written autobiography of Daniel Boone and a map appended. The book successfully extolled the virtues of the west, the appendix established Boone in the popular mind as the quintessential frontiersman, and the map led thousands of settlers through Cumberland Gap into the trans-Appalachian region over the next two decades.

Filson’s book did more for Boone than for its author. He returned to Kentucky in 1785 only to find a web of legal and financial problems entangling him. To extricate himself, he went north in search of new lands to acquire and sell. While traveling in southern Illinois in 1786 he was attacked by its Indian owners and barely escaped with his life; see AJ-157 for his hand-written account of this event. He returned to Kentucky the next year and in 1788 surveyed a road north from Lexington to the Ohio River and laid out the town of Cincinnati, Ohio, on the far shore. On a surveying trip further into Ohio later that year his party was attacked again by the Shawnee. Filson fled into the woods and was never heard from again.

Document Note

Early in 1784, 1,500 copies of Filson’s Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucky were printed in Wilmington, Delaware, by James Adams. It sold for $1.50 including the map, which was also sold separately. It was soon reprinted in Connecticut, New York, Paris, Leipzig, and London. In England in 1793 it was appended to a travel book by Gilbert Imlay (the partner of feminist author Mary Wollestonecraft) and that London edition is given here. The Wilmington edition is online in the Kentuckiana Digital Library at

Other Internet and Reference Sources

For more documents on early Kentucky, see AJ-150, AJ-151, AJ-155, AJ-157, AJ-158 and AJ-159.

A rich online source with more digitized images is the “Kentuckiana Digital Library” at This site contains hundreds of publications, including the first American edition of the document given here.

Another useful Web resource is the Library of Congress’ “First American West: the Ohio River Valley 1750-1820” at This contains15,000 pages of original historical materials documenting the land, people, exploration and transformation of the trans-Appalachian West, selected from the collections of the University of Chicago Library and the Filson Historical Society of Louisville, Kentucky.

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