Isaac Shelby: Descendants of founding Centre board chair attend the College
May 6, 2010 By Leigh Ivey
of Centre's board of trustees.
He was a soldier who won Congressional Gold Medals, a negotiator of Indian lands, the first governor of Kentucky, and the first chairman of Centre College’s Board of Trustees.
He, of course, is Isaac Shelby, a man who played a significant role not only in Kentucky history but the history of the United States, as well. And two of his descendants, Barton Smith ’11 of Lexington, Ky., and Patty Cowley ’12 of Louisville are current Centre students.
Although Smith (Shelby’s great-great-great-great-great grandson) is aware of his heritage and the role Shelby played in history, it is his mother, Elizabeth Moore, who most appreciates the fact that an Isaac Shelby descendant is attending the school that Shelby helped found.
She explains that while Smith did not choose to attend Centre based solely on his family’s ties to the College, he did keep his connection to Shelby in mind while conducting his college search.
“My mother encouraged him to choose Centre,” Moore says. “Her arguments were that we knew Centre’s reputation to be an outstanding college and the fact that we were related to Governor Shelby—and Dr. Ephraim McDowell, another founding trustee of Centre College, as Dr. McDowell married Isaac Shelby's oldest daughter. She knew that both of them had some sort of connection to Centre, but we weren’t certain what that connection was.”
Moore soon discovered that this connection is strong. In 1819, when Centre College was founded, Shelby became the chair of the College’s first board of trustees. (His in-law McDowell, who 10 years earlier had made medical history by performing the first successful abdominal operation, was also on the board.)
Acknowledging that “family history and ancestry just don’t seem to be as important to most people when they’re younger as it does when they get older,” Moore says that she understood that Smith chose Centre for reasons other than his connection to Shelby.
“It seems to be a generational thing,” she says. “People my age and older are interested to learn that we’re descendants of Isaac Shelby. Those Barton’s age or younger don’t really think anything of it. And, of those who know he was Kentucky’s first governor, most aren’t even aware that he served another term as governor a few years later. Fewer people seem to know that Isaac Shelby was involved in many other aspects of Kentucky history, other than being governor. I’m just now learning how connected he was to Centre College myself.”
Like her son, Moore was only slightly interested in her family tree while she was growing up. “But when I was in high school and learning a bit more Kentucky history, I began to feel more connected to him,” she says, “I better understood his significance in Kentucky’s history as I learned of his prominence in the community and just how involved he was in business, economics, the military, and, of course, politics.”
Cowley, also related to Isaac Shelby on her mother’s side, says, “I’ve known that my seventh great grandfather is Isaac Shelby for as long as I can remember,” she says. “My mother has done an amazing job of researching and organizing our family tree, and I recently picked up that hobby.”
For a recent history project, “Uncovering Danville’s History Mysteries,” Cowley chose to delve into her ancestor’s life, hoping to discover Shelby’s connection with Danville’s McDowell House.
As she uncovered many facts about Shelby and his relationship to Danville and the McDowells, Cowley says she began feeling “more at home in Danville, knowing how long my family has been in this town.”
She adds that her impressions of Shelby have changed since she began the research. “Growing up, I just thought of Shelby as the old man we have a portrait of in our living room,” she says. “Now I’m reminded that he played both an important role in the American Revolution and in the formation of Kentucky.”
To learn more about Isaac Shelby and his connection to Centre College, click here.