Kentucky History

Kentucky (state, United States)

Kentucky (kəntŭk´ē, kĬn–), state of the SE central United States. It is bordered by West Virginia and Virginia (E); Tennessee (S); the Mississippi River, across which lies Missouri (SW); and Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, all across the Ohio River (W, N).

Facts and Figures

Area, 40,395 sq mi (104,623 sq km). Pop. (2010) 4,339,367, a 7.4% increase since the 2000 census. Capital, Frankfort. Largest city, Louisville. Statehood, June 1, 1792 (15th state). Highest pt., Black Mt., 4,145 ft (1,264 m); lowest pt., Mississippi River, 257 ft (78 m). Nickname, Bluegrass State. Motto, United We Stand, Divided We Fall. State bird, cardinal. State flower, goldenrod. State tree, Kentucky coffee tree. Abbr., Ky.; KY


From elevations of about 2,000 ft (610 m) on the Cumberland Plateau in the southeast, where Black Mt. (4,145 ft/1,263 m) marks the state's highest point, Kentucky slopes to elevations of less than 800 ft (244 m) along the western rim. The narrow valleys and sharp ridges of the mountain region are noted for forests of giant hardwoods and scented pine and for springtime blooms of laurel, magnolia, rhododendron, and dogwood. Unfortunately, these forests have suffered from the effects of acid rain. To the west, the plateau breaks in a series of escarpments, bordering a narrow plains region interrupted by many single conical peaks called knobs. Surrounded by the knobs region on the south, west, and east and extending as far west as Louisville is the bluegrass country, the heart and trademark of the state.

To the south and west lie the rolling plains and rocky hillsides of the Pennyroyal, a region that takes its name from a species of mint that grows abundantly in the area. There, underground streams have washed through limestone to form miles of subterranean passages, some of the notable ones being in Mammoth Cave National Park.

Northwest Kentucky is generally rough, rolling terrain, with scattered but important coal deposits. The isolated far-western region, bounded by the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee rivers, is referred to as the Purchase, or Jackson Purchase (for Andrew Jackson, who was a prominent member of the commission that bought it from the Chickasaw in 1818). Consisting of floodplains and rolling uplands, it is among the largest migratory bird flyways in the United States.

Rivers are an important feature of Kentucky geography. The Ohio River forms the entire northern boundary of the state, flowing generally SW below Covington, until it joins the Mississippi River W of Paducah. At the southwest tip of the state about 5 sq mi (13 sq km) of Kentucky territory, created by a double hairpin turn in the Mississippi River, protrudes N from Tennessee into Missouri and is entirely separate from the rest of the state. In the east, the Big Sandy River and its tributary, the Tug Fork, form the boundary with West Virginia. Many rapid creeks in the Cumberland Mountains feed the Kentucky, the Cumberland, and the Licking rivers, which, together with the Tennessee and the Ohio, are the chief rivers of the state. The Kentucky Dam on the Tennessee River near Paducah, is a major part of the Tennessee Valley Authority system.

Kentucky's climate is generally mild, with few extremes of heat and cold. Frankfort is the capital, Louisville and Lexington the largest cities. Little remains of Kentucky's great forests that once spread over three quarters of the state and were renowned for their size and density. Tourist attractions include the famous Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville and the celebrated horse farms surrounding Lexington in the heart of the bluegrass region. The Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site and Cumberland Gap National Historic Park are historic landmarks. At Fort Knox is the U.S. Depository.


Kentucky is noted for the distilling of Bourbon whiskey and for the breeding of thoroughbred racehorses. Tobacco, in which Kentucky is second only to North Carolina among U.S. producers, has long been the state's chief cash crop. Other important agricultural products are horses and mules, cattle, and corn. Dairy goods, hay (to which the largest share of the state's acreage is devoted), and soybeans are also economically important.

Kentucky derives the greatest share of its income, however, from industry. Even Lexington, one of the world's largest loose-leaf tobacco markets, is industrialized. The state's chief manufactures include electrical equipment, food products, automobiles, nonelectrical machinery, chemicals, and apparel. Printing and publishing as well as tourism have become important industries. Kentucky is also one of the major U.S. producers of coal, the state's most valuable mineral; stone, petroleum, and natural gas are also extracted.

Government and Higher Education

Kentucky's state constitution was adopted in 1891. The governor is elected for a term of four years. The general assembly, or legislature, is bicameral, with a senate of 38 members and a house of representatives of 100 members. Kentucky is represented in the U.S. Congress by six representatives and two senators and has eight electoral votes. Paul Patton, a Democrat, was elected governor in 1995 and reelected in 1999, but Republican Ernie Fletcher won the governorship in 2003. In 2007 Fletcher lost his bid for reelection to Democrat Steve Beshear; Beshear was reelected in 2011. Matt Bevin, a Republican, was elected to the office in 2015.

Institutions of higher learning include the Univ. of Kentucky and Transylvania Univ., at Lexington; the Univ. of Louisville, at Louisville; Eastern Kentucky Univ., at Richmond; Murray State Univ., at Murray; Western Kentucky Univ., at Bowling Green; Kentucky Wesleyan College, at Owensboro; Union College, at Barbourville, Kentucky State Univ., at Frankfort; and Berea College, at Berea.


Early Exploration and Settlement

When the Eastern seaboard of North America was being colonized in the 1600s, Kentucky was part of the inaccessible country beyond the mountains. After Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, claimed all regions drained by the Mississippi and its tributaries for France, British interest in the area quickened. The first major expedition to the Tennessee region was led by Dr. Thomas Walker, who explored the eastern mountain region in 1750 for the Loyal Land Company. Walker was soon followed by hunters and scouts including Christopher Gist. Further exploration was interrupted by the last conflict (1754–63) of the French and Indian Wars between the French and British for control of North America, and Pontiac's Rebellion, a Native American uprising (1763–66).

With the British victorious in both, settlers soon began to enter Kentucky. They came in defiance of a royal proclamation of 1763, which forbade settlement west of the Appalachians. Daniel Boone, the famous American frontiersman, first came to Kentucky in 1767; he returned in 1769 and spent two years in the area. A surveying party under James Harrod established the first permanent settlement at Harrodsburg in 1774, and the next year Boone, as agent for Richard Henderson and the Transylvania Company, a colonizing group of which Henderson was a member, blazed the Wilderness Road from Tennessee into the Kentucky region and founded Boonesboro. Title to this land was challenged by Virginia, whose legislature voided (1778) the Transylvania Company's claims, although individual settlers were confirmed in their grants.

Native American Resistance and Statehood

Kentucky was made (1776) a county of Virginia, and new settlers came through the Cumberland Gap and over the Wilderness Road or down the Ohio River. These early pioneers of Kentucky and Tennessee were constantly in conflict with the Native Americans. The growing population of Kentuckians, feeling that Virginia had failed to give them adequate protection, worked for statehood in a series of conventions held at Danville (1784–91). Others, observing the weaknesses of the U.S. government, considered forming an independent nation. Since trade down the Mississippi and out of Spanish-held New Orleans was indispensable to Kentucky's economic development, an alliance with Spain was contemplated, and U.S. General James Wilkinson, who lived in Kentucky at the time, worked toward that end.

However, in 1792 a constitution was finally framed and accepted, and in the same year the Commonwealth of Kentucky (its official designation) was admitted to the Union, the first state W of the Appalachians. Isaac Shelby was elected the first governor, and Frankfort was chosen capital. U.S. General Anthony Wayne's victory at the battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 effectively ended Native American resistance in Kentucky.

River Rights and Banking Problems

In 1795, Pinckney's Treaty between the United States and Spain granted Americans the right to navigate the Mississippi, a right soon completely assured by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Enactment by the federal government of the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) promptly provoked a sharp protest in Kentucky (see Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions). The state grew fast as trade and shipping centers developed and river traffic down the Ohio and Mississippi increased.

The War of 1812 spurred economic prosperity in Kentucky, but financial difficulties after the war threatened many with ruin. The state responded to the situation by chartering in 1818 a number of new banks that were allowed to issue their own currency. These banks soon collapsed, and the state legislature passed measures for the relief of the banks' creditors. However, the relief measures were subsequently declared unconstitutional by a state court. The legislature then repealed legislation that had established the offending court and set up a new one. The state became divided between prorelief and antirelief factions, and the issue also figured in the division of the state politically between followers of the Tennessean Andrew Jackson, then rising to national political prominence, and supporters of the Whig Party of Henry Clay, who was a leader in Kentucky politics for almost half a century.

The Slavery Issue and Civil War

In the first half of the 19th cent., Kentucky was primarily a state of small farms rather than large plantations and was not adaptable to extensive use of slave labor. Slavery thus declined after 1830, and for 17 years, beginning in 1833, the importation of slaves into the state was forbidden. In 1850, however, the legislature repealed this restriction, and Kentucky, where slave trading had begun to develop quietly in the 1840s, was converted into a huge slave market for the lower South.

Antislavery agitation had begun in the state in the late 18th cent. within the churches, and abolitionists such as James G. Birney and Cassius M. Clay labored vigorously in Kentucky for emancipation before the Civil War. Soon Kentucky, like other border states, was torn by conflict over the slavery issue. In addition to the radical antislavery element and the aggressive proslavery faction, there was also in the state a conciliatory group.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Kentucky attempted to remain neutral. Gov. Beriah Magoffin refused to sanction President Lincoln's call for volunteers, but his warnings to both the Union and the Confederacy not to invade were ignored. Confederate forces invaded and occupied part of S Kentucky, including Columbus and Bowling Green. The state legislature voted (Sept., 1861) to oust the Confederates and Ulysses S. Grant crossed the Ohio and took Paducah, thus securing the state was secured for the Union. After battles in Mill Springs, Richmond, and Perryville in 1862, there was no major fighting in the state, although the Confederate cavalryman John Hunt Morgan occasionally led raids into Kentucky, and guerrilla warfare was constant.

For Kentucky it was truly a civil war as neighbors, friends, and even families became bitterly divided in their loyalties. Over 30,000 Kentuckians fought for the Confederacy, while about 64,000 served in the Union ranks. After the war many in the state opposed federal Reconstruction policies, and Kentucky refused to ratify the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Postwar Adjustment

As in the South, an overwhelming majority of Kentuckians supported the Democratic party in the period of readjustment after the war, which in many ways was as bitter as the war itself. After the Civil War industrial and commercial recovery was aided by increased railroad construction, but farmers were plagued by the liabilities of the one-crop (tobacco) system. After the turn of the century, the depressed price of tobacco gave rise to a feud between buyers and growers, resulting in the Black Patch War. Night riders terrorized buyers and growers in an effort to stage an effective boycott against monopolistic practices of buyers. For more than a year general lawlessness prevailed until the state militia forced a truce in 1908.

The Twentieth Century

Coal mining, which began on a large scale in the 1870s, was well established in mountainous E Kentucky by the early 20th cent. The mines boomed during World War I, but after the war, when demand for coal lessened and production fell off, intense labor troubles developed. The attempt of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) to organize the coal industry in Harlan co. in the 1930s resulted in outbreaks of violence, drawing national attention to "bloody" Harlan, and in 1937 a U.S. Senate subcommittee began an investigation into allegations that workers' civil rights were being violated. Further violence ensued, and it was not until 1939 that the UMW was finally recognized as a bargaining agent for most of the state's miners. Labor disputes and strikes have persisted in the state; some are still accompanied by violence.

After World War I improvements of the state's highways were made, and a much-needed reorganization of the state government was carried out in the 1920s and 30s. Since World War II, construction of turnpikes, extensive development of state parks, and a marked rise in tourism have all contributed to the development of the state. Kentucky benefited from the energy crisis of the 1970s, enjoying new prosperity when its large coal supply was in great demand during the 70s and 80s. The broader economy, however, recovered slowly from a decline in manufacturing during the same period.


See S. A. Channing, Kentucky (1977); F. G. Davenport, Ante-Bellum Kentucky: A Social History, 1800–1860 (1943, repr. 1983); J. Goldstein, Kentucky Government and Politics (1984); W. Winton, Pioneer Ghosts of Kentucky (1987).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Kentucky History: Selected full-text books and articles

A Concise History of Kentucky By James C. Klotter; Freda C. Klotter University Press of Kentucky, 2008
A New History of Kentucky By Lowell H. Harrizon; James C. Klotter University Press of Kentucky, 1997
Kentucky Rising: Democracy, Slavery, and Culture from the Early Republic to the Civil War By James A. Ramage; Andrea S. Watkins University Press of Kentucky, 2011
Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852 By James C. Klotter; Daniel Rowland University Press of Kentucky, 2012
Pioneer Life in Kentucky, 1785-1800 By Daniel Drake; Emmet Field Horine H. Schuman, 1948
Lincoln and the Bluegrass: Slavery and Civil War in Kentucky By William H. Townsend University of Kentucky Press, 1955
Sentimentalism and Honor in the Early American Republic: Revisiting the Kentucky Tragedy By Bruce, Dickson D., Jr The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 2, Spring 2002
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Reconceiving Interpretive Autonomy: Insights from the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions By Moore, Wayne D Constitutional Commentary, Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall 1994
Kentucky Cavaliers in Dixie: The Reminiscences of a Confederate Cavalryman By Geo. Dallas Mosgrove University of Nebraska Press, 1999
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