top of page

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