Kentucky Tourism

William Whitley History

Established February 25, 1938

Click here to download the park's printable history. Adobe PDF Document

Due the efforts of the Whitley Park Association of Stanford, Lincoln County, the William Whitley House, the oldest brick house west of the Alleghenies, became a Kentucky’s state park on February 25, 1938. On January 6, 1936, W.N. Craig, president of the Whitley Park Association, made arrangements for the house and grounds to be purchased for $2,500 from owner Nellie May Engle of Lexington with the stipulation the property would become a state historic site. In addition to the Association, the civic clubs and the women’s clubs of Lincoln County all participated in the establishment of the Whitley home as a state shrine.

The William Whitley house is a magnificent example of early Kentucky architecture. The Georgian style mansion was built between 1787 and 1794. The residence with brick walls two feet thick laid in Flemish Bond was designed to protect its occupants from Indian attack. Whitley had the windows placed high above the ground so attackers could not shoot straight through at those within. He also ordered that no porch at the front or ell at the rear of the house be built. This would leave no hiding places for those who attacked his home. Prideful of his home and his accomplishments, Whitley had lighter bricks designed for his initials, WW, and placed above the front door. To the rear of the house he had the brick initials EW placed in honor of his wife Esther.

Although a virtual fortress, the Whitley House was also a home. Behind the thick hand-carved wooden doors that are reinforced with iron, there is a stately and comfortable home. Whitley named his home Sportsman Hill, although many referred to the house as the “Guardian of Wilderness Road.” An avid horse racer, he laid out a racetrack in 1788 that forever influenced American horse racing. Since he did not approve of customs associated with the British, he ordered that his racetrack be laid out opposite to theirs. Instead of running clockwise, his was a counter-clockwise track. He also insisted that the track be made of clay instead of turf as preferred by the British.

Whitley’s sense of aesthetics did not get in the way of his practicality. He knew that Indian attacks could still occur and he provided places for guns and gunpowder to be stored for quick use if need be. One room is windowless so women and children would have a safe place to retreat in case of attack. There is also a secret staircase to the second floor. The full basement of the house had windows that had heavy wooden bars so no one could get in or for that matter out, if prisoners were taken. A third floor could be used for balls or for spinning and weaving.

The main floor of the house has three rooms and a large hall, with two rooms and a hall on the second floor, and a large attic. The main staircase is decorated with carved eagles holding olive branches. The paneling is walnut and pine. The attention to detail in the woodwork is evidence that Whitley wanted nothing but the best for his home.

William Whitley (1749-1813), the builder of Sportsman Hill, had one of the most colorful and exciting careers of any Kentucky frontiersman. Born in Augusta County, Va. of Irish immigrants, he quickly adapted to life on the frontier. In 1775 he and his brother-in-law George Clack traveled to the Kentucky frontier and laid out a claim for a settlement on the Cedar Creek branch of the Dix River. They returned to Virginia to bring their families to Kentucky.

A renowned frontiersman, Whitley became the scourge of hostile Indians. In 1794 he led a troop of 200 men against a Chickamauga Indian village in Tennessee. He defeated them and ended their raids into Kentucky. Elected to the Kentucky General Assembly in 1797, he served only one term. When the War of 1812 broke out, Whitley, at age 64 insisted on volunteering his services as a private in the Kentucky mounted infantry commanded by Col. Richard M. Johnson of Scott County.

On the evening before the Battle of the Thames, Whitley supposedly told a friend that if he died in battle, make sure that his scalp would be taken home to his wife Esther at Sportsman’s Hill. The old warrior had often remarked that he wanted to die defending his country. He had his wish. On October 5, 1813, Whitley saw an Indian across the Thames River. He shot and killed the Indian and rode across the river to claim his victim’s scalp. Within a few hours of this incident, Whitley volunteered along with a group of fellow Kentuckians led by Colonel Johnson to draw the enemies’ fire. Most of these men were doomed to death by their heroic action.

As Johnson and his men rode toward the enemy lines the Indians fired a devastating hail of bullets on the advancing Kentuckians. Johnson suffered a severe wound and his horse was shot out from under him. Whitley and eighteen other men fell killed or wounded. Not until the great Indian chief Tecumseh himself died in the battle did the intense fighting cease. The Kentuckians buried Whitley near the battle site at Chatham, Ontario, Canada.

The memory of Whitley’s exploits lived on. In 1818 the Kentucky legislature named a county in his honor. His home became a symbol of his life and times. The desire to preserve and maintain Whitley’s home became a reality when the Kentucky parks system began operating the house and grounds a state park. Between 1948 and 1955, the house underwent extensive renovations. The rooms of the Whitley home are furnished with period antiques. Since 1952, a curator has been on duty to conduct tours of the house.