Established as Kentucky's 115th county, Lee County was named in honor of General Robert E. Lee on March 1, 1870 from parts of Breathitt, Estill, Owsley, and Wolfe Counties.
The town of Proctor, named for the Reverend Joseph Proctor, was the first county seat. Its post office operated from 1843 until 1918. The first court was held on April 25, 1870 in the Old Howerton House. Early Proctor enterprises included hotels, groceries, carpentry, basket making, boat building, salt gathering, coal mining, timber operations and flour milling.
The town of Beattyville was first known as Taylor's Landing. In 1850 it was renamed to Beatty, after early settler and landowner Samuel Beatty. In 1872 Beattyville was incorporated and became the new county seat. Beattyville is located on the Kentucky River, near where the North Fork and South Fork merge. Much of the western part of the county in now part of the Daniel Boone National Forest.
Beattyville and Lee County have a rich commercial history. From the earliest times American Natives harvested the resources of the area. The earliest inhabitants were cave dwellers in the Big and Little Sinking Creek area; they hunted and farmed. In latter times, the Shawnee to the north, and the Cherokee to the south, exploited the plentiful game, and often clashed in this Dark and Bloody Ground - this no-man's land. A major route for these Indian nations was the Athawominee, or the "Path of the Armed Ones." It ran from the Cherokee nation in the Carolinas, through the Cumberland Gap, north to Lake Erie. A branch of this trail ran along the South Fork of the Kentucky River, through the Beattyville - Proctor area.
In 1750, Thomas Walker explored the Three Forks area, and specifically Walker Creek. Later, in the 1760s, other explorers and long hunters, like Daniel Boone, the Skaggs brothers and James Knox explored the Kentucky highlands.