My mother inspired an interest in genealogy by leaving handwritten notes about our ancestors. One note said my great-grandfather Ira Whitcomb (1855-1928) was born “near Cov. Ky. In the Old Stonewall House (once a tavern).”
So, why was Ira born there and where was it located? Over two decades after finding the note, I would find out.
Search for Answers Begins in a Cemetery
One of Ira’s ancestors was his great-great grandmother and my fifth great-grandmother, Dinah Davis Piersol Kennedy (1735-1821). Her grave lays in Historic Linden Grove Cemetery and Arboretum in Covington, Kentucky. In the fall of 2020, I went to see it.
A 2012 photo from Find-A-Grave showed Dinah’s upright headstone1 and served as a guide. It took thirty minutes of searching to find it. But now, it was no longer upright. Her headstone laid horizontal on the ground with grass growing up around it. Weather and time had eroded the script, making it barely legible. A few more years and her name on this memorial would fade away. I snapped a photo and left. The gray sky matched my melancholy mood as I drove home.
Over the next year, I researched Dinah’s life. Her American roots were in Pennsylvania. English Quaker William Penn founded Pennsylvania in 1682 as a refuge for Quakers and other persecuted people. Pennsylvania’s reputation for tolerance and cheap, plentiful land attracted waves of emigrants. They came from Wales, Ireland, and many other countries.
Dinah’s paternal grandfather was Jenkin Davies (1675-1748). He emigrated to Pennsylvania’s Welsh Tract in the early 1700s from the County of Cardigan, Wales. Jenkin acquired land in Radnor Township and later one thousand acres in Earl Township. When he died, he willed four hundred acres in Earl Township to his son Zaccheus Davis (1710-1788). Zaccheus and daughter Dinah were first- and second-generation Americans.
Around 1753, eighteen-year-old Dinah married John Piersol (1720-1765). He is my fifth great-grandfather and fourth-generation American. John’s great-great-grandfather, Thomas Pearsall (Bef.1593-1642) was English. He managed the family tobacco business in England, Holland, and Virginia from the early to mid-1600s, settling in Virginia later than 1630. After twelve years of marriage, John died in 1765, leaving Dinah a widow with three young children.
Dinah Has a Suitor
Accounts describe thirty-three-year-old widow Dinah as comely. She caught the attention of twenty-seven-year-old Thomas Kennedy, Jr. (1741-1821). He proposed marriage, but there was an obstacle to overcome-Thomas Kennedy, Sr. (1703-1789). Thomas Sr. emigrated to America from Northern Ireland before 1730. Between 1700 and 1775 over 200,000 Presbyterians, including Thomas, Sr., fled Northern Ireland. They came to America to escape religious discrimination and collapsing economic conditions.2
Thomas, Sr., settled on a farm by the Brandywine River in Chester County, Pennsylvania. He became wealthy by extending interest-bearing loans in gold. An outgoing man, he enjoyed singing songs and telling jokes and stories.
With first wife Margaret (17xx-xxxx), Thomas, Sr. had at least two children–Thomas, Jr. and Margaret. After his wife’s death and in his mid-sixties, Thomas, Sr., married Ann Kilbreath (17xx-xxxx). According to Ann, Thomas, Sr. cantered down the road on his gray mare to court her, leaping the mare over each gate on the way.
The lively Thomas Sr. was a devout Presbyterian who planned for his son to be a minister. He objected to Thomas marrying Dinah, this widow with three children and six years older than his son. To stop the marriage, Thomas Sr. arranged to send Thomas to Ireland. But Thomas and Dinah foiled his plan by eloping to nearby Philadelphia. They married on October 28, 1767, and by 1773 had three children.
The Revolutionary War Changes Lives
When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, it disrupted Thomas and Dinah’s life. Thomas and other family members were patriots. Thomas served as a Private in the First Pennsylvania Continental Line.3 Records show that Dinah’s father, brother, son, and son-in-law served too. It must have been stressful for Dinah-worrying about the men’s safety, caring for her three young children, and taking on Thomas’s responsibilities while he served.
A major battle took place in Chester County, where Thomas and Dinah lived. On September 11, 1777, at The Battle of Brandywine, 11,000 Continentals faced 18,000 British troops. In the morning fog, British Generals Howe and Cornwallis used the poor visibility to outmaneuver the Patriots. They split their men into two sections and moved to surround General Washington’s soldiers. Caught by surprise, Washington understood the British troops outnumbered his men and nearly surrounded them. He ordered a retreat. Although it was a patriot defeat, the British gained little.4
The war ended in 1783 with America’s independence from England. Many people found their fortunes reduced. They began rebuilding their lives or moving west to start anew. Post-war, Thomas Sr.’s creditors began repaying him with Continental script, and he objected.
Thomas Sr. believed they should repay him in gold, and often hid instead of accepting their continentals. He said that would be “taking bad money for good money.” He was right-the continentals became worthless.
In 1789 Thomas Sr. died. Thomas’s father left him the principal from bonds and creditors’ notes. That year, Thomas bought two hundred acres in Kentucky for 150 pounds. The previous year, when Dinah’s father died, he willed her sixty pounds. Perhaps the couples’ inherited money made the buy possible.
How Thomas Bought “The Point”
The land Thomas bought in Kentucky, known as The Point, lay where the Licking River joins the Ohio. There are several accounts of how Thomas gained the land. One colorful version claims Virginian George Muse, a war veteran, received the two-hundred-acre land grant for his service. Muse swapped the grant for a keg of whiskey. The new owner turned around and traded it for a quarter of a buffalo. Apparently, the prospect of a keg of whisky or a quarter of buffalo appealed to them more than locating and settling two hundred acres.
Next, the grant became the property of Stephen Trigg, who surveyed and patented the land. Trigg then sold it to James Welch. For reasons unknown, Welch wound up in jail in Pennsylvania. After hearing about the land, Thomas visited Welch in jail and made an offer. At the same time, John Bartle was trying to locate Welch to buy the land, willing to pay four times what Thomas offered. But Bartle was too late. Thomas had closed the deal, owned the land, and immediately made plans to settle there.
West To Kentucky
In 1790, as Thomas and Dinah prepared to move west to Kentucky, he was 49, and she was 55. All their children would join them except Dinah’s son Zaccheus Piersol, thirty-six, (1754-1804). Going west were Thomas and Dinah’s children Joseph Kennedy, twenty-two (1768-1825), Samuel Kennedy, twenty (1770-1831), Hannah Kennedy, seventeen (1773-1816), Dinah’s daughter, Sarah Sallie Piersol, thirty-five (1755-1838) and her husband Robert Kyle, thirty-nine (1751-1825), and Dinah’s daughter, Mary Piersol, thirty-three (1757-xxxx). Sallie and Robert would bring their five children, all under ten. And Sallie was pregnant.
We have no records telling of their preparation and journey, but we can imagine both. The trip before them required crossing the rugged landscape of the Allegheny Mountains to the Ohio River, and then traveling down river to The Point in Kentucky. Likely Thomas felt reassured having three young men along.
A group their size required outfitting two or three Conestoga wagons. These wagons originated in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County in the mid-1700s. The designers made them to haul up to six tons of goods over rough roads. The Conestoga wagon’s floor curved up at each end to prevent contents from falling out, canvas covers arched over wooden hoops, and a gate at the end held in place by a chain could drop for loading and unloading. Four to six horses pulled each wagon.5
As they loaded their wagons, they took only what was necessary-provisions for themselves and their horses, implements for farming and cooking, minimal clothing, guns, and ammunition.
Crossing the Alleghenies
Earlier settlers followed trails made over centuries by Native Americans. Thomas’s family traveled via the Forbes Road. The British constructed this road during the French and Indian War to move troops and supplies over the Alleghenies to Fort Pitt (current day Pittsburgh).6
On the road, the family faced daily challenges. Thomas, Dinah, and the rest walked alongside the wagon, rode a horse behind the wagon, or sat on a lazy board-a ledge of wood pulled out from under the bed of the wagon and placed in front of the rear wheels.7 Maybe the older children ran back and forth while the adults found the daily trek difficult. The women surely shared caring for the children and kept an eye on their safety.
Most likely they dealt with potentially disastrous difficulties–harsh weather, illness, getting stuck in mud, wagon wheels breaking, or attacks by other travelers.
Down the Ohio River by Flatboat
It took the family up to six weeks to reach the Upper Ohio Valley. Once there, they secured a flatboat. Many enterprising people built and sold flatboats to the thousands of settlers migrating west.8
Their rectangular, flat-bottomed boat measured as much as fifty-five feet long by sixteen feet wide. They navigated downstream using long sweeps on the sides, a steering oar, and a short front sweep. A shed in the rear housed livestock, and a cabin forward provided shelter for the family.9
Even if their river journey was less strenuous than crossing the mountains, it wasn’t easy. Supervising five children on a flatboat demanded constant vigilance. Encountering rocks, debris, rapids, or sandbars could be catastrophic. The threat of attack by river pirates and Native Americans was real. Their flatboat resembled a floating fort. It had one heavily barred door and small windows with sliding shutters. In case of an attack, they could fire guns through loopholes pierced in the walls.10
Life In Kentucky
Within a week, they arrived at their downstream destination, The Point. Thomas, Dinah, and their family became the first permanent settlers. The men took the flatboat apart for lumber and began building cabins and clearing the land.
The Point was straight across from Losantiville (now Cincinnati) on the Ohio side. Francis Kennedy (1746-1794), wife Rebekah (1755-1816), and seven children landed there the previous year. (Accounts refer to Francis as Thomas Kennedy’s brother, but it is unproven.) Francis operated the first ferry business from the Ohio side, and Thomas soon started his ferry business on the Kentucky side. He and Francis operated ferries across the Ohio and Licking Rivers carrying livestock, people, and wagons.
Running the Ferry
There are strong currents in the Ohio and Licking Rivers. Oars alone could not guide ferries back and forth between the riverbanks. The ferrymen propelled the ferries using their physical strength and either poles or a rope system strung between landings. When a ferry arrived at the opposite shore, it ground to a stop. Drop down ramps on each end allowed loading and unloading.11
The militia traveled between Ohio and Kentucky on the ferries. Fort Washington, on the Ohio side, protected the settlers from Native American attacks. In 1794, Francis Kennedy drowned while ferrying cattle across the river for the army.
Operating the Kennedy Inn and Tavern
That year, Thomas continued operating his ferry. He became a justice for the Campbell County Court and got a license to sell liquor. Thomas and Dinah opened Kennedy Inn and Tavern in their log cabin. (As early as 1787, the county set prices—whiskey, twelve shillings; warm dinner, one shilling, sixpence; breakfast or supper, one shilling; night’s lodging with a good feather bed and clean sheets, one shilling.)
The population was sparse. Even ten years later, the census shows only seventy-six residents in the area where the Kennedy’s lived (now Kenton County). People knew Thomas as a congenial host, welcoming travelers and newcomers. People arrived via raft or flatboat on the river and by oxen and cart over buffalo trails. They stopped, needing to resupply, or wanting to hear opinions about where to settle.
When Newport adopted its first charter on December 14, 1795, Thomas became one of Newport’s first trustees.
Building the Old Stone House
By 1801, Thomas and Dinah replaced the cabin with The Old Stone House. The large home, including Kennedy Inn, overlooked the Licking River. It was all stone, with three-foot-thick exterior walls, a broad staircase, and beautiful woodwork. The stone outbuildings included a barn, springhouse, henhouse, and smokehouse.
In 1806, as traffic increased on the river, Thomas added a second ferry. Rates, likely set by the general assembly, were 1 ½ cents for small livestock, 6 ¼ cents for cattle and people, 12 ½ cents for a man on a horse, and fifty cents for a team and wagon. During the War of 1812, his ferry transported soldiers and supplies.
Thomas and Dinah enjoyed a prosperous life owning land, an inn and tavern, and two ferries. In November 1812, Thomas advertised 150 acres for sale. His original plat extended from the Ohio River to Sixth Street and from the Licking River to the west side of Johnson Street Licking River to the west side of Johnson Street.
Establishing Covington, Kentucky
The 150-acre tract sold in 1814 to John S. Gano, Richard M. Gano and Thomas Carneal of the Covington Company for $50,000. On February 2, 1815, they chartered the town, naming it Covington after General Leonard Covington of Maryland. Covington was a hero of the War of 1812, who died of wounds received in the Battle of Chrysler’s Field.
Thomas and Dinah’s Final Years
Thomas still owned The Old Stone House and ferry landing. He and Dinah moved to Newport briefly. By 1816, they lived in a house Thomas built at the corner of Sixth and Greenup, later known as the Cooper House. Thomas was seventy-five and Dinah, eighty-one. Thomas’s oldest son Joseph ran the farm and ferry.
Dinah died on May 21, 1821. July 14, Thomas wrote his will and died on August 1. He left his living descendants bequeaths of roughly one thousand dollars each. His stepchildren received fifty dollars each. Thomas divided his property among his children; son Samuel’s share included The Old Stone House and the ferry.
The family buried Thomas and Dinah in the Craig Street Cemetery.12 When it fell into disrepair mid-century, the family re-interred Thomas and Dinah near other family members in Linden Grove Cemetery.
Fate of the Old Stone House
Samuel Kennedy died in 1831. He left The Old Stone House to his daughter, Nancy Kennedy (1811-1904). She lived there until 1847, when she built a larger, more up-to-date house right behind it. Nancy never married and maintained both homes throughout her life. She was known for her hospitality and generosity, even raising and educating her niece’s six orphaned children.13 The ferry stayed in the family too and continued operating until the Roebling Suspension bridge opened in 1867. Then, in 1909, they tore down The Old Stone House.
The Search Comes Full Circle
Finally, I knew my great-grandfather Ira Whitcomb’s connection to the Old Stonewall house.
It was the fall of 2021. The past year of research revealed Dinah’s story. I wanted her life to be remembered and contacted Linden Grove’s Superintendent Rick Ludlum to ask about restoring Dinah’s headstone. He located it and then found Thomas Kennedy, Jr.’s headstone laying prone near hers.
It turns out Dinah and Thomas have historical significance for Linden Grove. A plaque at the cemetery entrance acknowledges Thomas as the original landowner of Covington, and Dinah and Thomas’s death dates are the oldest in the cemetery.
Linden Grove’s board approved the restorations. Superintendent Rick Ludlum restored both headstones, built bases, and poured concrete footers at the burial sites. Last, Rick attached the bronze plaques my sister and I bought for each headstone.
Today George Rogers Clark Park sits at the corner of Garrard and Riverside Drive-the site of The Old Stone House. A monument and plaque commemorate the house and Thomas Kennedy’s history.
A short walk along Riverside Drive to the west, the Roebling Suspension Bridge spans the Ohio River.
A flood wall on the Covington side displays the Roebling Murals-eighteen scenes depicting the history of the area from 8000 B.C. to the current time. It includes a mural of the Kennedy Ferry crossing the Ohio River.
1Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/43800665/dinah-kennedy: accessed 22 November 2021), memorial page for Dinah Davis Kennedy (12 Oct 1735-21 May 1821), Find a Grave Memorial ID 43800665, citing Linden Grove Cemetery, Covington, Kenton County, Kentucky, USA; Maintained by T. Morgan (contributor 47082858).
2Shannon, Dr. Catherine B., Irish Immigration to American, 1630 to 1921. (on line) www.nantucketatheneum.org/wp-content/uploads/Irish-Immigration-to-America.pdf., accessed 16 Feb, 2022.
3 Lineage Book of the Charter Members of the DAR Vol 047, p.198, 46438; Ancestry.com. North America, Family Histories, 1500-2000 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.
4“The Battle of Brandywine begins,” History, A&E Publishing Networks, Nov 13, 2009, last update Sept 9, 2020, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-battle-of-brandywine-begins, accessed 4 May 2022.
5“Conestoga Wagon,” History, A&E Television Network, April 5, 2010, last updated August 21, 2018,https://www.history.com/topics/westward-expansion/conestoga-wagon , accessed April 17, 2022.
6ExplorePAhistory.com, Stories from PA History, Crossing the Alleghenies, online https://explorepahistory.com/story.php?storyId=1-9-A&chapter=0; accessed 7 Feb 2022.
8Did You Know Boats, “Flatboats,” online https://didyouknowboats.com/flatboats/ ; accessed May 5, 2022.
11 “Ferryboats of Colonial America,” Harry Schenawolf, online https://www.revolutionarywarjournal.com/ferry-boats-of-colonial-america/, December 11, 2019, accesses May 5, 2022.
12In the 1870s, the city of Covington bought a lot at the new Highland Cemetery in Fort Mitchell, dedicated to the Pioneers of Covington. They moved most of the bodies from the Craig Street Cemetery and some to Linden Grove.
13Historical records describe Nancy Kennedy moving in a literary circle. Harriet Beecher Stowe was a guest. Accounts say she wrote the introduction to Uncle Tom’s Cabin while staying with Nancy. The English author, Anthony Trollope, was another visitor. Just as interesting, when Nancy’s niece and husband died during a cholera outbreak, Nancy stepped in to raise and educate their six orphaned children. One child, Louise Southgate, had a distinguished career as the first female doctor in the area and promoted women’s suffrage.
Ancestry.com. Biographical annals of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania [database on-line]. Provo, UT: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005. Original data: Biographical annals of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, containing biographical and genealogical sketches of prominent and representative citizens and of many of the early settlers.. Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co., 1903.
Ancestry.com. History and genealogy of the Pearsall family in England and America [database on-line]. Provo, UT: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005.
Original data: Pearsall, Clarence E.,. History and genealogy of the Pearsall family in England and America. San Francisco: H.S. Crocker, 1928.
Kennedy, Thomas Howell, Family History of the Thomas Kennedy Family, Joseph Kennedy Branch: Thomas Kennedy Senior, ca. 1910 (transcribed from a typewritten copy); Ancestry.com entry (on-line), 19 Nov, 2011 by portola81, accessed 19 Feb 2022.
Bricking, Chuck, Covington Heritage, 1980, Northern Kentucky Views (on-line),
R. Dorsey, A Gist Historical Society Paper, Thomas Kennedy, Founder of Covington, Kentucky, August 24, 1954, online www.nkyviews .
Johnson, E., History of Kentucky and Kentuckians: The Leaders and Representative Men in Commerce, Industry and Modern Activities, Thomas Kennedy, pp. 908-909, Lewis Publishing Company; Original from the New York Public Library; Digitized Feb 11, 2008.
Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, Chapter K, Thomas Kennedy.
Hello, I am a direct descendent of the Thomas Kennedy from Ireland that settled in West Nantmeal, Chester County, Pa. I was happy to see that you don’t buy the story that Francis Kennedy was any relation to this family. I thought you’d be interested to know that none of my family bibles or other documents mention Francis (and I have Thomas Kennedy’s original Bible from Ireland). I came across a document in the genky database of the Kenton County Public Library written by Nelson Nye (mackoy002009005) that stated this: “Francis Kennedy, associated with Thomas in the early ferry enterprises, bore no relation to Thomas save in the capacity as a hired man! He was living in this vicinity when Thomas first came here, and was later drowned in taking a lead of cattle across the Ohio River. It is alleged that Kennedy Heights is named in his memory. If you are on Ancestry, you can find me under the name portola81. Best wishes, Elaine
Well, I am the last Thomas Kennedy and would like to thank you for this documentary. I made plans last year to visit Covington and see the park, plaque, and the old house / park site near Gerrard Street where my great aunts Charlotte and Grace used to live, but a hurricane kept me at home in Florida. Maybe this year.
I found the picture of the Kennedy House that you displayed on the article a few years ago and had an oil painting made of it and I have it hanging in my office. The odd thing is, I designed and built a house very, very similar in outline to it in Dayton, Ohio back in 1976. The walls were not 3 foot thick however. I remember, as a kid, visiting my Great Aunts in Covington on Gerard Street and they pointed out street bricks in front of their house that (they said) were from the old Kennedy House.
Thank you very much for posting this history of our family. It is such a shame that the old house was torn down.
Thomas E. Kennedy
(The last one)