Yesterday's News

Dead Man's Island

How parcel of land in Ohio River acquired its name remains a mystery

By FRANK BOYETT, The Gleaner
September 4, 2005

Two versions of how Dead Man's Island got its name were published in The Gleaner 50 years ago.

Hugh Edward Sandefur added them as color to a news story he wrote in 1955 about the filing of a lawsuit to divide ownership of the island.

"There are a number of different stories about the origin of the island's colorful name, with two versions most often repeated," Sandefur wrote.

"One is that two men were farming the land together and got in an argument over the division of the crop. It was settled when one chopped the other with an ax, the island getting its name from the loser.

"The other version is not so conclusive, but quite as interesting. The stories are much the same to the point of settling the dispute. This time, however, a knife was used in the regions of the abdomen. The wounded man used Ohio River water as an antiseptic, washed out the wound, sewed it up, and went on farming.

"Karl Hosbach, circuit clerk, said either of the versions was good enough to chill a canoe-load of youngsters on a summer evening when they were paddling in the vicinity of the island."

This is not the first time I've written about Dead Man's Island. On June 6 of last year I told how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned to dredge the island into oblivion in 1929, although that never came to pass. But in The Gleaner's 1929 story is yet another version of the name's origin:

"According to old citizens, the island was given its name when a body of a man was found on the island thought to have been murdered."

I have my own theory of how the island got its name. You need to remember the island is a fairly recent addition. It didn't exist until the Corps of Engineers altered the river, constructing the agency's first dam in 1825 to channel the river current to cut through a troublesome gravel bar at the foot of Henderson Island.

That wing dam was extended in 1872, and eight years later Strachan and Thomas T. Barret filed for a state land patent on the island, which apparently was the first official notice taken of its existence.

The wing dam caused a large portion of the Kentucky shore to be washed away, including an old graveyard, with the dirt and rock deposited to create a new island. That leads me to conclude Dead Man's Island probably got its name because the land was stolen from dead men by the river. But perhaps that's just my overactive imagination.

Strachan and Thomas T. Barret, who were brothers, came into the 1955 Gleaner story, also. The family had jointly held the island for 75 years when the majority owner, John R. Barret and his wife, Ruth, filed a lawsuit against 20 other owners, asking that ownership of the 97-acre island be divided.

Sara Barret Neel and George Barret Becker wrote a letter to the editor late in September 1955, saying the lawsuit "came as a complete surprise and shock" to the other owners and that they were "unanimous in their opposition to selling the island....

"It seems rather unjust that one owner could be upheld in a sale when the large majority of owners wish to hold onto Dead Man's Island."

A sale isn't exactly what happened. Instead, the island was divided. At the end of November 1956, commissioners Frank Street and James D. Givens looked over the island, and determined that John R. Barret should get 30 acres and the rest of the heirs the remaining 66.8 acres.

"It was found that all of the accessible landings were in the eastern half of the island," the commissioners' report in the court file says. "So in order that both ... have accessible landing areas, the dividing line between the larger portion and the smaller portion had to fall on the eastern end of the island, thus eliminating the question of right of way through the other's land."

That's exactly what happened, which is why ownership of the island to this day is in two parcels.

140 years ago

Preparations were under way in 1865 to repair the courthouse, which had been badly used by military authorities during the Civil War, according to a story in the Henderson Reporter.

The newspaper said the federal government should share in the repair costs. "The whole establishment presents the aspect of a wreck of former prosperity. Five thousand dollars, we feel assured, will not pay the expenses of reconstruction. The (federal) government should pay at least one-half the amount requisite to put them in as good condition as when first occupied by the military."

75 years ago

In 1930 a state contract was let to construct the first concrete road in Henderson County, according to a story in The Gleaner.

The contract was for that portion of U.S. 60 between Henderson and the Union County line, a distance of 11.5 miles.

25 years ago

Local historians were feuding in 1980, with Maralea Arnett calling a press conference to threaten to sue the Henderson County Historical and Genealogical Society, according to coverage in The Gleaner.

Arnett, the author of "Annals and Scandals" maintained the historical society had lifted at least 20 pages from her 1976 book in preparing its 1888-1978 "History of Henderson County, Kentucky," which had been recently published in 1980.

Arnett set a deadline for the society to meet her four demands, but the showdown was anticlimactic. No lawsuit for copyright infringement was ever filed.



Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005 HCH&GS