Renfro Valley Bugle
Volume 20 Number 6

March 1967

History of Great Saltpetre Cave

D. D. Singleton, former resident of Rockcastle County, now living in Taclton, Ohio, probably knows more of the local history and legends about Great Saltpetre Cave than anyone else now living. He grew up in the vicinity of the cave and conducted guided tours through it many years ago when it was open to the public. His story follows:

"This story was told to me by my antecedents, namely the Mullins and Singleton families, in regard to the legendary beginning of the making of black gunpowder out of the nitrate that was deposited in the silt beds of the cave over a long period of time, of which I will write in another article. The largest part of this story is mostly legendary, handed down orally from generation to generation.

I do know, historically, that white men made trips into Kentucky, which at the beginning was called Fincastle County of Virginia, long before Daniel Boone and John Stewart. One of these was John Finley, from which Kentucky derived its original name. After him came John Swift, "The Great Counterfeiter," who made Spanish milled dollars out of the conglomerate mineral found in the shale beds of southeastern Kentucky. This mineral is known now as galena. With Swift came a powdermaker by the name of Montgomery, from North East Georgia where they made powder for the Revolutionary War from the nitre found in caves and rockhouses of the cliffs of that region. The first powder made at the Saltpetre Caves of Crooked Creek was done on a small and sly scale on account of hostile Indians, mostly Shawnees, which made frequent trips on the trace close by the cave. The Cherokee Indians were familiar with the white men who traded them trinkets for their friendship, furs, pelts, and so forth.

These early powder makers carried the nitrate-bearing silt from the cave in sacks and boxes, dumping the refuse in small mounds. The writer observed several such mounds in the early nineteen hundreds, which the plow of the farmer and high tides of Crooked Creek have since obliterated.

Coming over the pioneer trails were some of the oldest families to settle around or near here. Namely, the Mullins, Griffin, Coffey, Durham, Singleton and Jarrold families. Most of these pioneers were powdermakers, although some were timber men. Readers, bear in mind that extensive operations at the Great Saltpetre Cave did not begin until about the year 1804, but the dire need of this material for defense of the home and country prompted men of the colonies to search and find a source to supplement the growing need of this product of nature which they found in great quantities in the Saltpetre caves of Eastern Rockcastle County, Kentucky. These pioneers had to carry this powder out to civilization on horseback. I was told that a lot of the powder made here was used in the War of 1812, in Jackson's campaign against the Southern Indians, in defense of the Alamo and the War With Mexico. I was told that uncle Champ Mullins, father of the late Spencer and Cam Mullins, worked with the last operations of the cave when he was sixteen years old. He was born in 1832. 1 can only place the approximate date of the extensive operations at the Great Cave from what has been told me, but the smaller scale operation was going on in 1871 when Boone and Stewart spent the winter in a hidden rockhouse at the mouth of Singleton Valley, about one half mile from the North entrance to Great Saltpetre Cave."

(Next installments will include my observations about the Great Saltpetre Cave of the Breathing Land. It will also deal with gunpowder and the process of making it).

D G. Singleton

Scanning and OCR work done by Andy Niekamp

 

Article Courtesy of Renfro Valley Entertainment Center

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