Mt. Sterling – Small Town, Big History

Established in 1792, Mt. Sterling was originally known as Little Mountain Town for the Native American burial ground on which it was developed. The mound was found at the present day intersection of Queen and Locust Streets. The mound was said to be 25 feet high and 125 feet in diameter, but was leveled in 1845 to build a house. When the site was excavated, skeletal remains were found, along with “arrowheads, copper beads, copper and stone breastplate ornaments, and stone tools” (Explore Kentucky History).

Native American Burial Mounds

Native American Burial Mound / Image Credit: The Daily Independent

Many Native American tribes called Kentucky home long before it became a county in Virginia. However, the Burial Mounds found throughout Kentucky date back to a different group of Native Americans, not those that the English settlers found after crossing the Appalachian Mountains. The Mounds are believed to belong to the Adena Culture.

The Adena Culture spans from approximately 500 B.C. to 100 A.D. It is possible, however, that mound building practices may have continued as late as 1400 A.D.

Explore Kentucky History

The mounds formed when members of the tribe were buried on top of one another over several years. Ceremonial items and tools were also often buried with the deceased.

Today, Native American mounds can be found in Ashland, Lexington, and at Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site in Wickliffe, KY.

Establishing a Town with a New Name

Mt. Sterling was established on 640 acres of land belonging to Enoch Smith, Hugh Forbes, John Judy and Samuel Spurgin.

Smith, a land surveyor, had gotten to the area first.  He came out with William Calk in April 1775.  They joined Col. Richard Henderson’s party on their way to Kentucky and settled at Boonesborough


After exploring the area in the summer of 1775, Enoch Smith had come across a nice mountain and decided to “improve on it” in order to stake a 14,000 acre land claim. He and Calk built a cabin on the land and went back to Boonesborough to continue land surveying. Smith eventually moved his family to the area in 1790.

Hugh Forbes came to Kentucky in 1776 with a group of “land-jobbers”. These were men whose job was to stake off land for those who had hired them back home, most commonly in Virginia. Forbes was mostly working to file these land claims for men in Prince William County, Virginia, before the land commission meeting at St. Asaph (Stanford) in April 1780. One of those claims that Forbes filed was for himself, and for a man named Charles William Cross. Cross later sold his land, which eventual Forbes came to own.

Forbes’ land shared a border with Enoch Smith’s land at the point of Little Mountain. In 1791, Forbes began developing his “finger” of land along Hinkston Creek by building a cabin on it, and the town was born. In 1792, Forbes brought stock to this land, and starting laying out small strips. He started selling to other settlers who wished to be near their own stock. Later, Smith sold his 100 acres to John Judy, who as well started laying our strips of land and selling then in different sized lots, expanding the size of the town to 640 acres total.

The name Mt. Sterling came to be because of Forbes, who was considered to be the original founder. He was a Scotsman who named the town after Stirling, Scotland, his native homeland. He combined the old name, Little Mountain, with the new name to create Mount Stirling. The spelling error occurred later and it stuck, creating what we know today as Mt. Sterling.

Becoming the County Seat

Montgomery County was created in 1796, becoming the 22nd county created by the Kentucky Legislature. “It was named for General Richard Montgomery, an Irishman who ​was killed in the first volley of the attack on Quebec in 1775” (Montgomery County.KY.Gov). The KY Legislature then named Mt. Sterling the county seat.

The city or town where the county’s government offices are located is called the county seat. A county seat is usually the largest urban area in the county, but not always.

National geographic

Because it was the county seat, growth was inevitable. Citizens would travel from far and wide to do their necessary, and mostly required, government work such as filing land surveys and paying taxes. These travelers needed places to stay and eat after a long trip via wagon or horseback. A county courthouse was built and a town square developed.

Historic Downtown Mt. Sterling Today / Photo Credit: Personal Photo

The city center was primarily constructed from 1880-1900. Many of those buildings still stand today.

Historical Marker Database

The Story of a Courthouse

The county was created in 1796 and Mount Sterling was selected as the county seat. The first courthouse was built and burned on March 4, 1851. The second courthouse burned on December 2, 1863 during the Civil War. The third courthouse was built. The fourth courthouse was a two story structure designed by B. J. Bartlett and built by J. H. Walker in 1890. The courthouse was demolished and the fifth and present courthouse was constructed in 1960 to 1961.


Battle of Mt. Sterling and the Civil War

Like many small towns in Kentucky, Mt. Sterling found itself in the center of a battle during the Civil War. On March 22, 1863, approximately 300 Confederate cavalrymen, led by Col. R.S. Cluke, invaded the town of Mt. Sterling. They captured the city and took 438 prisoners, 222 wagon loads of military stores, 500 mules and 1000 stand of arms. The Confederates lost 8 men with 13 wounded, and the Union suffered 4 dead and 10 wounded.

While the Confederate took control of Mt. Sterling, it didn’t remain that way for long. According to the Montgomery County History Museum Director, Miles Hoskins, “Mt. Sterling was the most fought-over town during the Civil War…. we changed hands 12 occasions” (Lexington 18).

The reason for this attention, was the Mt. Sterling-Pound Gap Road. The road was Eastern Kentucky’s main highway at the time of the Civil War. Starting in Mt. Sterling, the road traveled southeast into Hazel Green, Licking Station, Prestonsburg, Laynesville and Pikeville to the Virginia State Line at Pound Gap. Horses, cattle, and hogs, along with iron-salt were transported from Eastern Kentucky to Virginia and back, along the highway, and during the war, the road was the main thoroughfare for troops traveling from Central to Eastern Kentucky.

Captain John Hunt Morgan even used the Mt. Sterling-Pound Gap Road during the war. He and three brigades of men crossed through Pound Gap, moved across Eastern Kentucky, and traveled into Mt. Sterling on June 8, 1864. His unruly men captured a Union depot, robbed banks, plundered stores, and damaged private property.

Captain John Hunt Morgan / Image Credit: Battlefields.Org

Mt. Sterling Today

The historic district of Mt. Sterling is on the path to revitalization today, just like it’s Small Town Kentucky brothers and sisters.

We came across Mt. Sterling quite by luck. As my regular readers know, I have a 16 year old daughter who is beginning to think about college. (Ugh!) I told her that this summer, when possible, we would combine college visits with our history outings. So, on this trip we headed for Morehead University in Eastern Kentucky. We explored the campus, grabbed a bite for lunch, and began looking for history. We drove around the college town and having found very little, we decided to jump back on the highway in the direction of home.

As we passed the green town signs on the side of the highway, we discussed where we wanted to stop next. When Mt. Sterling appeared on the sign, I had a strong calling to make the stop. I’m sure there was something that made me stop, whether it was a small business boutique that I follow on our craft page or something I had read about it’s history along the way, I followed the off ramp and street signs right into downtown. Boy, I am so glad I did.

We found such a warm and welcoming town with cute boutiques, friendly people, yummy coffee shops, beautiful architecture and so much more! Our first stop was the courthouse for pictures, a quick walk around the square, and back out to the main strip through town. We wandered into The Hub Coffee Shop and as soon as I stepped in, I knew it was a shop I followed on Facebook because of the beautiful mural on the wall. We all ordered our favorite drinks and they did not disappoint. We stayed for a bit as it oozed a “sit back and relax for awhile” vibe. From there we walked through several boutiques and found ourselves at home in a candle shop. (My daughter is all about her wax melts and yummy candle scents right now.) Lastly, as we were headed back to the car, we found a quaint space between two buildings with murals and the multi-colored umbrellas hanging among string lights. We had to stop for pictures of course! Right before we left town, we were wowed by the Mt. Sterling mural (painted by Murals & Window Painting by Brianne Raye), snapped a picture, and were off again to our next destination.

Mt. Sterling Mural / Personal Photo


If you love a small towns with boutiques, coffee shops, and friendly faces, you MUST stop in Mt. Sterling. Taking time to visit these shops and spend a little money helps these small towns and businesses survive and continues their efforts to revitalize as well as preserve their history.

So, get out and see Kentucky!

Happy Travels!

3 thoughts on “Mt. Sterling – Small Town, Big History

  1. Born and raised in Mt. Sterling I was glad to learn more of its history. I had KY history in the 7th grade, but I don’t remember anything about the history of my hometown. I have enjoyed learning (or relearning) about how my town was born. A lot of the names of the founders were familiar to me. I even went to school with a John Judy! His roots go deep!
    Thank you for the information and the pictures. Now I’m homesick, as I’ve lived in Tennessee for over 50 years. I do try to go back a several times a year as I still have relatives in Bath County, Georgetown, and Mt. Sterling.

    1. I am so glad you enjoyed the history of your hometown. It’s truly a beautiful place! I’m sorry to have made you homesick though. Kentucky just has a special place in our hearts, doesn’t it?? After all, there’s no place like my old Kentucky home. 💚

      1. Having lived in Mt. Sterling all my life, I am happy you enjoyed our small town. There are a couple of other things we are known for. We have the oldest festival in the state. October Court Day is a very big event here. If you have a sweet tooth you would have enjoyed a “Blue Monday” candy bar from Ruth Hunt Candy. Hopefully you can return and enjoy both.

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