The Louisa River

by William Elsey Connelley

Excerpt from "The Founding of Harmans Station and the Wiley Captivity"
Preface/Notes by Russell Whitlock

William Elsey Connelley, in "The Founding of Harmans Station and the Wiley Captivity," includes considerable information on the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy.  There has long been a controversy on whether the correct name of the steam is Levisa or Louisa, and Mr. Connelley has much to say on this subject.  The following paragraphs are his statements in their entirety.

The following paragraphs were written by William Elsey Connelley sometime prior to publishing of his book in 1910.  Mr. Connelley was born on Wolf Pen Branch, Johnson County, Kentucky on 15 March 1855.  He died 15 July 1930 in Topeka, Kansas, where he served as Secretary of the Kansas State Historical Society.  Mr. Connelley was well versed in the history of the Big Sandy Valley, and I feel that much credence can be placed in his views on the subject.

     The Louisa river was named by Dr. Thomas Walker on Thursday the 7th. day of June, 1750.  The entry in Dr. Walker's Journal describing this event is as follows:  "June 7th.---The Creek being fordable, we crossed it and kept down 12 miles to a river about 100 yards over, which we called Louisa River.  The creek is about 30 yards wide, and part of ye river breaks into ye creek---making an island upon which we camped."

       In the early days of the settlement of the Big Sandy valley this steam was known altogether as the Louisa River.  As late as 1825 it was generally called the Louisa River.  After that time, and to some extent before, the name began to be corrupted to that of Levisa.  The name Levisa is now used almost entirely.  That the name is a corruption of the true name, Louisa, there is no doubt.  It appears that the name Louisa once attached to the whole state of Kentucky, but the current application of this name is now not known.  There is reason to believe that as early as 1775 the name Louisa was corrupted to Levisa.  Speed, in the "Wilderness Road," says that Felix Walker, with Captain Twetty and six others, left Rutherford, North Carolina, in February 1775 (according to Felix Walkers narrative), to explore the country of Leowvisay, now Kentucky."  But the "U" was formerly written "V", and it may have been so in the world Leowvisay;  in that case it would be Leowuisay, an erroneous spell of Louisa.

        The Kentucky river was sometimes called the Louisa River by pioneers and explorers, and it was called, also the Cherokee river.  In the deed from the Cherokees to Richard Henderson and others, proprietors of the Transylvania Company, conveying the land beginning as follows:  "All that tract, territory, or parcel of land, situated, lying and being in North America, on the Ohio River one of the eastern branches of the Mississippi River, beginning on the said Ohio, at the mouth of Kentucky, Cherokee, or what by the English is called Louisa River."  This calling of the Kentucky River by the name Louisa was caused by misapprehension.  It was not certainly known what river had been called Louisa by Dr. Walker, and he traced none on the rivers, which he named, to the Ohio.  But that he did not call the Kentucky River Louisa is shown by Lewis Evans Map, 1775, on which the Louisa River is marked as flowing into the Great Kanawha, and the upper course of the "Trottery or Big Sandy C.: is marked "Fredericks River".  Fredericks river was discovered and named by Dr. Walker on the 2nd. on June, 1750, five days before he discovered and named the Louisa River, and as it is now known that the Louisa River does not flow into the Great Kanawha, it follows that the west branch of the Bib Sandy River was the stream upon which Dr. Walker bestowed the name Louisa.

        Rev. Zephaniah Meek wrote me from Catlettsburg, Kentucky, November 19, 1895, as follows:  "I called on Capt. Owen [Steamboat captain Robert Owen - RLW] yesterday, formerly of Pike county, and asked him the origin of the name Levisa as applied to the west fork of the Big Sandy.  He says that in the early settlement of this part of the state, a French trader by the name of Le Visa came to what is now Louisa, and owing to some experience of his, that fork came to be called after his name, hence, Americanized Levisa."  There may have been a French trader at the forks of the Big Sandy by the name of Le Visa, but the word of Captain Owens is all the evidence I have found of that fact.   If there was such a trader he was not prominent enough to change the name of a river or to have his name attached to it.  The "i" in French is "e" in English.  Anglicized, the Frenchman's name would have been Levesay or Levesy.  Levisa could not have possibly have come from it.  The explanation of Captain Owens is a very very improbable one.

        John P. Hale, in his Trans-Allegheny Pioneers says:  "The La Visa, or Levisa Fork is said to mean the picture, design, or representation.  It was so called by an early French explorer in that region, from Indian pictures or signs, painted on trees, near the head of the stream."

        These painted trees were to be found in early times all along the Louisa River from the mouth of Big Paint Creek, where they were most numerous, to its head.  Christopher Gist was on the Pound River in 1751.  The entry in his Journal for Wednesday, April 3, is as follows:  ". . . to a small creek on which was a large Warriors camp, that would contain 70 or 80 Warriors, their Captains Name or Title was Crane, as I knew by his Picture or Arms painted on a tree."  Darlington says:  "This was on the stream called Indian Creek, the middle fork of the Big Sandy, in Wise County.  The Crane was a totem or badge of one of the Miami tribes;  also of the Wyandots.  A common practice among the Indian tribes, with war parties at a distance from home, was to paint on trees or a rock figures of warriors, prisoners, animals, etc., as intelligible to other Indians as a printed handbill among the whites."  Darlington is in error when he says there is a totem of the Crane among the Wyandots.  But they had a chief named Tarhe, or the Crane, who was old enough in 1751 to have led a hunting party or even a war party into the wilderness.  He became head chief of the Wyandots on the death of the Half King.

        It might be possible that these many paintings suggested to some of the early explorers and hunters some such name for this stream as Device Fork, or Device River, or Devices Fork, or Devices River, and that such name of names finally assumed the form of Levisa Fork, etc.  This is only suggested as a remotely possible origin of the name Levisa.  It is far-fetched;  there is no probability at all that such is the origin of the name.  That Levisa is a corrupted of Louisa may be accepted as beyond dispute or question.

        Dr. Walker gave this river the name Louisa in honor of Louisa, the wife of the Duke of Cumberland, it is said.   Louisa is a good old English name, coming down from a more ancient people.  It is a name of much beauty, and it was in great favor with our ancestors.  It should be restored to the river to which Dr. Walker gave it.  The Levisa Fork should be called the Louisa Fork.  The Tug Fork should be called the Tug river.  The river formed by their junction should be called the Big Sandy River.

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