|Nicholas County, the forty-second county in order of formation, is located in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. The county is bounded by Harrison, Robertson, Fleming, Bath and Bourbon counties and contains an area of 197 square miles, most of which is hill country. The county was formed in 1799 from Mason and Bourbon counties and was named for Col. George Nicholas of Fayette County, a Revolutionary War veteran and a popular lawyer in early Kentucky. Carlisle has been the county seat since 1816. Robertson County, the smallest county in the state, was formed from Nicholas County in 1867.
Large prehistoric mammals that inhabited Kentucky after the last Ice Age were drawn to the salt licks at what is now Blue Licks Battlefield State Park on the Nicholas-Robertson county line. In the early historic era, buffalo created trails through the area to the licks. These trails were used by Indians on hunting trips and by pioneers such as Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton, who came to the licks to make salt. The Buffalo Trace, later known as Smith's Wagon Road, became an important connection between the Ohio River at Limestone (now Maysville) and Lexington. The existence of the road, sixty feet wide in places, was the prime reason for the settlement of the county. The Limestone Road was the first macadamized road in the state and is now part of Highway 68.
The first settlement in Nicholas County was made at Blue Licks around 1784 by David Tanner. Blue Licks, which has been known as Salt Springs, Lower Blue Lick Springs, and Blue Lick Springs, received its name from the blue-gray deposit left by mineral water between the original spring and the Licking River. The water in the spring drained toward the river, creating a quagmire that trapped thirsty animals attracted to the salt.
In 1800, the first session of the county court was held at the home of Martin Baker, Jr., at Lower Blue Licks. In August of 1800, the court began meeting in the new courthouse at Blue Licks. Typical court matters during the early years included issuing orders for surveying roads, appointing overseers for construction crews, issuing licenses to tavernkeepers, inventorying estates of deceased persons, and granting permission for construction of gristmills and routes for the transportation of salt water from Blue Licks. A new county seat named Ellisville was established in 1805 on the James Ellis farm along the Lexington- Maysville Road. A log courthouse was built there the same year. The county seat was moved to Carlisle in 1816.
During the mid-1800s, Blue Lick Springs in Nicholas County became a spa, where wealthy travelers flocked to enjoy the rejuvenating effects of mineral water, which was bottled and shipped all over the world. Two cooper shops were kept busy making staves and assembling kegs and barrels to ship the water in bulk. At one time the Arlington Hotel at Blue Licks had three hundred rooms. There was also a military school at Blue Licks around 1848, where James G. Blaine, an 1884 presidential candidate, taught prior to becoming a politician.
The Lexington & Maysville Railroad (later a part of the Louisville & Nashville and in 1990 part of TTI Systems, a local short line) was completed to Carlisle by 1871. It brought many visitors through Carlisle to Deering Camp, a Methodist religious camp at Parks Hill with fifty-two cabins, which closed in 1912. As many as 10,000 people were said to have attended a Sunday service at Deering Camp. On August 17, 1910, Carlisle Mercury reported, "A train out of Lexington passed Carlisle going to Parks Hill with eleven coaches filled and overflowing. Both trains out of Maysville were crowded. Three thousand tickets were sold by L&N Railroad (700 here)."
Nicholas County resident Leason T. Barlow is credited by some with having invented the Barlow knife, and R.C. King of Carlisle obtained a patent for a bluegrass seed stripper around 1870. The county has produced several authors, including Barbara Kingsolver, who wrote The Bean Trees (1988); Frank Mathias, who wrote G.1. Jive (1982); and Eslie Asbury, who wrote Horse Sense and Humor in Kentucky (1981). Walter Tevis, who wrote The Hustler (1959), taught for one year at Carlisle High School.
Within the county's boundaries is the 500-acre Lake Carnico Development District, which includes a 150-acre lake. The county is also the site of the 4,000-acre Clay Wildlife Management Preserve.
The population of the rural county:
- 7,135 in 2010
- 6,813 in 2000
- 6,725 in 1990
- 7,157 in 1980
- 6,508 in 1970