1801 | John Wesley Hunt pioneers the manufacture of cotton bagging made of hemp fiber

Updated: Jan 18, 2019

John Wesley Hunt settled in Lexington during the early 19th century and pioneered the manufacture of cotton bagging made of hemp. After years involved in the hemp manufacturing business, he turned his attention to a career as a commission merchant. He used his established connections and reputation, as well as his thorough knowledge of the market system, to ship hemp and other products belonging to neighboring merchants and manufacturers to Philadelphia and New Orleans.

After his death, John Wesley Hunt's estate was valued at $886,989.28, and with allowances for the practice of appraising below the real value of property, he was deemed "first millionaire in Kentucky, and west of the Allegheny Mountains."

John Wesley Hunt

John Welsey Hunt was born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1773. He grew up in the mercantile trade with his father, and after turning eighteen, he moved to Virginia to carry on in the business. The company failed, and Hunt tried getting involved with the commercial shipping industry in Norfolk, again finding no success. In 1795, his cousin, Abijah Hunt (who was a merchant in Cincinnati), proposed a business partnership in which they would establish a general store in the developing city of Lexington. Hunt accepted, and by the end of the year, he had relocated in Kentucky (Wright, 1982).

John Wesley Hunt
John Wesley Hunt

Hunt set up the general store, which proved successful over the next few years. At the turn of the century, he was looking for new opportunities to invest his capital, and the emerging Kentucky hemp industry caught his attention. He wrote to his cousin Abijah, in 1801, inquiring about the scale of cotton bagging, cordage, and twine in Natchez. He responded to John:

“The manufacture of cotton bagging would become more productive than any other business yet established in your country as there is, and ever will be, a very great Consumption of that article in this lower Country, and it will always command money.”

Abijah asked John to send him 6,000 yards of cotton bagging and said if it proved strong enough, he would contract 15,000 to 20,000 yards per year. By April 28, 1803, John’s manufacture of cotton bagging had begun, and he was marketing hemp bagging and heavy hemp cord for cotton binding.

Hunt is credited for being one of the first, if not the first, to manufacture cotton bagging made of hemp. A few years after he began operations, a commission merchant in Natchez told Hunt that his product was “superior to any I have ever seen from Europe, in point of strength. There appears indeed to be but one failt, that is the selvedge is a little rough & uneven, this you can easily remedy.”

Hunt chose John Brand, an experienced hemp manufacturer, for his foreman and business partner. Brand had manufactured sailcloth in Scotland before emigrating to the U.S. He managed production, while Hunt took charge of marketing and purchasing. They bought hemp fiber from farmers around Lexington, and other large hemp-producing counties in the bluegrass such as Danville and Paris.

Hunt and Brand remained in partnership until 1810. Brand continued on in the hemp manufacturing business and became very successful. He eventually purchased the entire block between Forth, Fifth, Limestone and Upper streets in Lexington. On the lower half, he set up a ropewalk and on the northwest corner of Fifth and Limestone, he built his estate "Rose Hill" which still stands there today.

Following the dissolution of partnership with John Brand, Hunt also continued in the hemp business. He partnered with Abraham S. Barton and John Hart. John Hart was the son of Col. Thomas Hart, who came to Lexington at the age of 63 and purchased the block bound by Mill, Second, Broadway, and Church streets. There he set up a ropewalk, one of the first in the city. He built a two-story home at the corner of Mill and Second street (193 N. Mill), directly across from Hopemont at Gratz Park, where his youngest daughter, Lucretia Hart, married Henry Clay.

After Col. Hart's death in 1808, his sons, Thomas P. Hart, Jr., Nathaniel G. S. Hart, and John Hart continued in the hemp business in Lexington. The original Hart hemp factory burnt down in 1806, and instead of re-building, Thomas Hart Jr. bought the lot located where the present-day Sayre School stands. He installed a ropewalk at the end of the property, near 194 N. Limestone, but passed away the following year. John Hart took over the factory, and went into partnership with Hunt and Barton.

Like the Hart hemp factory, the Hunt hemp factory caught fire twice over the course of ten years. Fires were common in hemp factories and warehouses because the dry fiber from the plant was extremely flammable. The first fire was in November 1807, with the establishment either badly damaged or destroyed. A slave boy belonging to Green Clay, a cousin of Henry Clay’s father, was convicted of setting the fire and later sentenced to be hanged.

The factory was rebuilt and continued operation, but in 1812, it burned for a second time. It was not checked until it had destroyed the spinning house and "seventy to eighty tons of hemp" according to the local newspaper. Again, the factory was re-built and continued in operation.

Arson was often suspected as a means of servile protest from those enslaved. The Southern industry in general made intensive use of slave labor, and to the profitable operation of hemp factories it was thought essential. The Hunt’s were heavily involved with slave trade, and claimed ownership of slaves themselves. The hemp they grew was harvested by the enslaved, was twisted into rope by the enslaved, was used to create bags for picking cotton further down south by the enslaved, and helped them to gain the capital to build Hopemont with the use of the enslaved as laborers in 1814. The table below, from page 61 of John Wesley Hunt: Pioneer Merchant, Manufacturer and Financier by Ramage shows how John Welsey Hunt’s slave-holdings increased during the years in which he was a hemp manufacturer.

In 1802, before he entered the business, he owned twelve slaves for use as household servants and farm laborers. During 1803, his number of slaves increased to thirty-six, and between 1808 and 1809 it more than doubled. This possibly indicates that he expanded his operation considerably at the time. In 1814, after selling out, he owned only eight slaves. The town directory for 1806 stated that his factory employed between forty and fifty workers, and at this time, he owned forty-one slaves, several of whom were employed in domestic work. Therefore, it appears that Hunt hired an additional ten to twenty slaves for factory labor.

John Wesley Hunt continued in the hemp manufacturing business until 1813, when he sold the factory to Luke Usher & Company, who continued to manufacture cotton bagging (Ramage, 2015). When Hunt sold the business, he advertised sixty slaves for sale - men, boys, women - all of whom had worked in the hemp factory making cotton bagging. He states, "purchasers will now have the opportunity of being benefited by my experience."

After ten years of manufacturing, Hunt redirected his capital and energy into a new career - that of a commission merchant. He used his established connections and reputation, as well as his thorough knowledge of the market system, to ship hemp and other products belonging to neighboring merchants and manufacturers to Philadelphia and New Orleans. He usually served several clients, making transportation arrangements and paying storage, wharfage, and carting fees. In addition, he continued buying and selling on his own account.

One of the most important functions of the commission merchant was to provide credit, and Hunt made Philadelphia credit available, simulating the economy of central Kentucky. In December 1810, he opened an exchange account with Benjamin B. Howell. By an agreement that may have lasted until March 1816, Howell was to make advances to Hunt for use in the purchase of hempen yarns and saltpeter in Kentucky. When the goods were sold in Philadelphia, the amount of sale was credited to Hunt’s balance in the exchange account.

Hunt used part of the money advanced by Howell to purchase Kentucky produce and products for shipment on his own account. The remainder he advanced, in turn, to certain manufacturers who agreed to pay him a 5 percent commission for shipping their products. During the four-year period between 1811 and 1815, Hunt’s arrangement with Howell stimulated and helped expedite the exportation of Kentucky hemp fiber and other products such as saltpeter and tobacco.

While Hunt and Howell made some minor investments in tobacco and cotton during the War of 1812, they concentrated the major of the business toward the dealing hempen goods. Even though prices remained at a low level, there was, as we have seen, a large volume of business. Hunt also attempted to make contracts with the navy. Apparently his only success was when Henry Clay, as an agent for Hart & Company (Thomas Hart, Jr.) of Lexington, included a quantity of Hunt’s yarn in a navy contract in 1813. Lexington: Heart of the Bluegrass

As a commission merchant after 1810, Hunt stimulated the western economy by transforming hemp fiber and products, saltpeter and tobacco to outside markets. He secured large amounts of Philadelphia credit to stimulate manufacturing and commercial agriculture in Kentucky. As an innovator, he had made a significant contribution to he economic development of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys and the nation. By 1816, Hunt had acquired considerable capital and had become Kentucky’s leading entrepreneur. Increasingly involved in community affairs, John Wesley Hunt came to be one of central Kentucky’s most prominent citizens.

At the age of forty, Hunt purchased the lot located at the northwest corner of Mill and Second streets from Thomas January for $3,000. In 1814, he built the house he called “Hopemont,” known today as the Hunt-Morgan House in Lexington. A significant amount of his fortune had been derived from hemp production.

In the 1820s and 1830s, Hunt entered into several temporary mercantile and hemp manufacturing ventures, however, these enterprises were small in comparison to his later interests in banking, stock and land. At the time of his death in 1849, his estate was valued at $886,989.28. Historians suggest that the practicing of appraising below the real value of property was common, thus John Welsey Hunt has been deemed the “first millionaire in Kentucky, and West of the Alleghenies.”


Hunt's Descendants

Thomas Hart Hunt | Son

John Wesley Hunt and his wife, Catherine Grosh, had twelve children. Thomas Hart Hunt, the ninth youngest child and fourth eldest son, continued in the hemp business like his father. Presumably named after his neighbor and fellow Lexington hemp manufacturer - Col. Thomas Hart - Thomas began working with his father in the business when he became of age.

An advertisement for hemp seed ran in the Kentucky Gazette from late 1835 until 1837 from John W. Hunt and Son., and in a 1838-1839 Lexington Directory Thomas Hunt is listed as a "rope and bagging manufacturer."

In 1848, Thomas Hunt moved to Louisville and continued in the hemp business as both a manufacturer and commission merchant until the Civil War. During this time, he assisted his nephews in Lexington with financial advice and connections, becoming key to their success in the hemp business.

Calvin "Cal" Cogswell Morgan | Son-in-law

Calvin "Cal" Cogswell Morgan was born in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1801, and later moved to Alabama where he went into the hemp business with his father and twin brother. He often visited Lexington to purchase hemp products, where he met John Wesley Hunt and his oldest daughter, Henrietta Hunt.

In 1823, Morgan married Henrietta and together they settled in Huntsville. Cal struggled in various business ventures and in 1831, he lost their home for a failure to pay property taxes (Axelrod, 2011).

As a result, he packed up the family and returned to Lexington where he went to work for his father-in-law as an overseer on one of his large plantations on Tate’s Creek Road, popularly known as "Shadeland"), now opposite Mount Tabor Road (Calvin Cogswell Morgan, Sr., 2015). There, Morgan was responsible for supervising Hunt's slaves in raising hemp, grain, hay, and livestock.

Cal and Henrietta Morgan had twelve children, including John Hunt Morgan, Calvin C. Morgan Jr., and Richard C. Morgan, all of whom became involved with the hemp business at one time or another. Calvin Morgan taught his children to “venerate the Morgan family tradition and exhibit traits of the Morgan lineage, whose patriarchs he brought parading forth after dinner in the parlor of their farm home near Lexington, and on carriage rides in the sunshine alongside green hemp fields.”

John Hunt Morgan | Grandson

John Hunt Morgan was the eldest son of Calvin Cogswell Morgan, Sr. and Henrietta Hunt Morgan. He was six years old when his family relocated from Huntsville to Lexington to live at his grandfather's plantation on Tate's Creek Road.

John Hunt Morgan grew up visiting his grandfathers house, Hopemont, regularly. It was directly

across from the home once belonging to Col. Thomas Hart (later known as the Hart-Bradford House located at 193 N. Mill), which was now owned and occupied by the Bruce family. John Bruce was in the hemp manufacturing business with Col. James Morrison and Benjamin Gratz in Lexington. Both homes are located in present-day Gratz Park named after Benjamin Gratz.

Morgan served in the U.S. Mexican War from 1846-1847. After he returned to Lexington, he used some of his grandfathers money to purchase a hemp factory and woolen mill. The year before, he had married Rebecca Gratz Bruce, the eighteen year-old daughter of John Bruce, and sister of his first business partner, Sanders Dewees Bruce.

The partnership between John Morgan and Sanders Bruce was short-lived as Sanders became involved with horse-racing and eventually purchased the Phoenix Hotel. In 1853, John went into partnership with his younger brother, Calvin Cogswell Morgan Jr., to continue the manufacture of hemp. The Morgan brothers succeeded in the hemp business when others failed, partly because they were attentive to business. However, the true key was their uncle Thomas H. Hunt, hemp manufacturer and commission merchant in Louisville.

As their agent, Tom Hunt continually consoled on market conditions, financial problems, and potential investments. He also sold Morgan hemp and forwarding shipments to Mobile and New Orleans. By 1860, John and Cal and expanded into the hemp and wool trade.

Their younger brother, Richard C. Morgan, became the company’s newest partner. As their enterprises expanded, each brother’s name was attached to at least one company. The hemp business was J.H. & C.C. Morgan & Co.; the commission firm for purchasing raw wool was Calvin C. Morgan & Co. When the brothers entered woolen manufacturing themselves, the factory was under the name of Richard C. Morgan & Co. and it produced woolen jeans, and linseys — a course material made of hemp fiber and used to make bags and clothing.

The Morgan hemp business was successful until the Civil War, when the brothers became active in the Confederacy. The brothers’ pro-slavery view could have been much influenced by their belief in the necessity of slave labor for factory operations, and their involvement in the slave trade.

Like other Lexington manufacturers, the Morgans used slave labor at their factory on West Main Street near the Lexington Cemetery. They owned thirty slaves, and hired additional slaves, along with free blacks. In addition to owning factory slaves, the brothers traded in slaves for profit. There had been little doubt about where John Morgan’s sympathies lay — a Confederate flag fluttered defiantly each day above his hemp mill.