Barbourville (population 3,589) was established in 1799 and is the oldest town in the mountains of southeast Kentucky. Five miles west of today's Barbourville is the Dr. Thomas Walker State Historic Site.
Dr. Walker was a physician and surveyor who led the first documented expedition through the Cumberland Gap in 1750, naming the Cumberland River and preceding the better-known Daniel Boone into what is now Kentucky by 17 years. Sent to evaluate a land grant from Virginia to the Loyal Land Company, members of his expedition built the first log house in Kentucky, a reproduction of which is now on the site.
During the 19th century, Barbourville was the largest city south of Richmond, a major stop for settlers and travelers crossing the Cumberland Gap on their way up the Wilderness Road. Kentucky's first Civil War battle was fought in Barbourville in September 1861, and the site of the battlefield is being researched to see if part of it can be preserved and interpreted.
Both tourists and locals participate in a Civil War reenactment each summer. Barbourville hosts an annual Daniel Boone Festival in October including a visit from the Cherokee Indians and a reenactment of an historic treaty signing. Barbourville has sites along the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway, a National Scenic Byway, and markets itself to visitors as part of the three-county "First Frontier Region."
Historic preservation and heritage tourism initiatives in Knox County are driven by Knox Partners, Inc., a joint effort of Barbourville's Tourism and Recreation Commission, Barbourville's Renaissance/Main Street Program, the Kentucky Communities Economic Opportunity Council, the city and county governments, Union College, the Knox County Museum, and other agencies in the region.
Designated a Preserve America Community in August 2004.