John Filson was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1747. Filson attended the West Nottingham Academy in Colora, Maryland, and studied with the Reverend Samuel Finley, afterwards president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton). Heitman's Historical Register of Colonial Officers reports a John Filson served as an Ensign in Montgomery's Pennsylvania Battalion of the Flying Camp and was taken prisoner at Fort Washington during Battle of New York in 1776.
Filson worked as a schoolteacher and surveyor in Pennsylvania until 1782 or 1783, when he acquired over 13,000 acres of western lands and moved to Kentucky. He settled in Lexington, taught school, surveyed land claims, and travelled the region interviewing the settlers and leading citizens. He wrote The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke (1784) during this period, and travelled to Wilmington, Delaware, to have it published in the summer of 1784. He also had his Map of Kentucke engraved and printed in Philadelphia. The edition, including both book and map, consisted of 1,500 copies and was priced at $1.50. The map was reprinted several times before 1793. Filson's plan for a second edition, to be endorsed by George Washington, was unsuccessful.
The book was almost immediately translated into French and re-published in Paris (1785) and somewhat later a German edition appeared (Leipzig, 1790). The appendix relating the adventures of Daniel Boone was extremely popular, and was referenced by (among others) Lord Byron in Don Juan.
Filson also wrote an unpublished manuscript entitled A Diary of a Journey from Philadelphia to Vincennes, Indiana, in 1785; An Account of a Trip by Land from Vincennes, hid., to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1785; A Journal of Two Voyages by Water from Vincennes to Louisville, and an account of an attempted voyage in 1786.
After spending several years in Kentucky teaching school, surveying, trying (unsuccessfully) to start a seminary, and becoming embroiled in numerous lawsuits and financial difficulties, he purchased from Mathias Denman a one third interest in an 800 acre tract at the junction of the Ohio and Licking rivers, the future site of Cincinnati, which he called Losantiville. Filson's survey and plan of the town survives in the layout of modern downtown Cincinnati. General Arthur St. Clair, Governor of the Northwest Territory, later changed the name of Losantiville to Cincinnati in honor of the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of Revolutionary War officers founded by George Washington.
While on a surveying expedition near the Great Miami River, he disappeared, October 1, 1788, when his party was attacked by Shawnees.