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The Remarkable Legacy of Early Western Kentuckian Henry Wildy Harding Sr.

Matt Markgraf, WKMS

Henry Wildy Harding Sr. was among the first settlers to Calloway County after Kentucky's first governor Isaac Shelby and Andrew Jackson negotiated the Jackson Purchase with the Chickasaw. Back then, this land was mostly untouched wilderness. Homes, barns and fences had to be built by felling trees. Harding settled on approximately 1,000 acres of what is now the northwestern part of Murray and Calloway County. Between two wives (his first died before moving to western Kentucky), he fathered 18 children, five of whom fought for the Confederate Army in the Civil War.

Later in his life, he oversaw the local school district, donating a portion of his land for one of the school houses and also founded First Baptist Church of Murray. David Reed of Gilbertsville is his great great grandson, semi-retired District Court Judge and co-author of a book The Ancestors and Descendants of Henry Wildy Harding Sr. with his cousin. They have a family reunion this weekend and Reed speaks with Kate Lochte on Sounds Good about Harding Sr.'s remarkable legacy.

David Reed is semi-retired from law in Paducah, where he served 10 years as district court judge. He co-authored a book about his great great grandfather Henry Wildy Harding Sr. wh ocame from Virginia to Calloway County in 1836. At the family reunion this weekend, they will place a memorial stone in the Murray Cemetery honoring the Harding family and five of his sons who fought for the Confederate Army in the Civil War.

Harding was one of the folks who came to western Kentucky when the Jackson Purchase opened up this part of the country. With his first wife Nancy Hansbrough he had three sons. She was 17 when they married and she died at 22 in 1831. He married his second wife and with her fathered 15 more children, for a family total of 21. These generations are buried in eight cemeteries across three states. With his second wife Elizabeth English, they arrived in Calloway County in 1836. Back then, there were no sawmills so homes, barns and fences were built out of logs. Sawmills arrived in the 1840s, making life much easier.

Henry's first daughter by his second wife Harriett Anne Harding, born in 1836. When she was 18, she married Albert P. Thompson. Thompson was instrumental in putting together the 3rd Kentucky Confederate Regiment and was appointed colonel in command of that unit. During the Battle of Paducah, where General Nathan Bedford Forrest made his famous raid in March of 1864, the 3rd had been assigned to provide mounts to Forrest's infantry for quick mobilization, Reed says. When Forrest got to Paducah, the Union forces knew they were outnumbered and retreated to Fort Anderson on the Ohio River. The 3rd surrounded the fort, climbed to the second stories of surrounding houses and shot into the fort. Colonel Thompson was behind one of the buildings conferring with officers when an artillery shell hit him in the saddle, killing him instantly. Thompson was buried in McCracken County but was reinterred north of Murray.

As a civilian, Harding Sr. was instrumental in organizing schools in Calloway County and was considered one of the first "superintendents" of the Calloway County School System, according to the biography of his son Enoch Harding who became a teacher in Mansfield, Texas an later elected tax assessor. When researching this, Reed says school board records didn't go back prior to 1900. Harding Sr. died in 1878. So he contacted Debbie Bell who had done a masters thesis on the one room schools in Calloway County. She found that prior to 1906, there were seven autonomous school districts in the county. In 1906, the Kentucky Legislature combined the county districts. Prior to this, within the districts there'd be several one room schools and trustees that oversaw the schools. The trustee would typically be an influential person in the community who donated their land for the school, decided who the teacher would be and see that they got paid. If Harding St. was the leader of a group of trustees he may have been considered a superintendent. The location of the Harding School was discovered on property that was a part of his holdings. He had two tracts of land totaling 1,000 acres located on either side of Highway 121 near the Country Club.

Isaac Shelby and Andrew Jackson negotiated the Jackson Purchase with the Chickasaw Nation, who were primarily located in northern Mississippi. Western Tennessee and Kentucky were their ancestral hunting ground. The Chickasaw sided with the British in the French and Indian War. As compensation, the British acknowledged their claim to western Tennessee and Kentucky. After the Revolution, when Kentucky becomes a state (and Tennessee soon after), the states claimed this land, too. However, in the Treaty of Paris, the United States agreed to respect British contractual commitments. Early settlers would stop at the Tennessee River because it was considered dangerous to trespass on Chickasaw land. To resolve this overlap in claims, Shelby and Jackson negotiate to buy out their interest for $300,000 over 15 years. This opened up the region to settlement and this is when Harding leaves Virginia to take advantage of this new territory and opportunities for his family.

The book Ancestors & Descendents of Henry Wildy Harding, Sr. on Amazon

More about Harding's family tree on

Matt Markgraf joined the WKMS team as a student in January 2007. He's served in a variety of roles over the years: as News Director March 2016-September 2019 and previously as the New Media & Promotions Coordinator beginning in 2011. Prior to that, he was a graduate and undergraduate assistant. He is currently the host of the international music show Imported on Sunday nights at 10 p.m.
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