The history of Kentucky spans hundreds of years, and has been influenced by the state’s diverse geography and central location.
Although inhabited by Native Americans in prehistoric times, when explorers and settlers began entering Kentucky in the mid-1700s, there were no permanent Native American settlements in the region. Instead, the country was used as common hunting grounds by Shawnees from the north and Cherokees from the south. The Iroquois also claimed their possession until 1768, though did not occupy them. The first documented exploration of the area that would become Kentucky was made in 1750 by a scouting party led by Dr. Thomas Walker. The Iroquois claim to much of what is now Kentucky was purchased in the Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1768); that of the Shawnee and Mingo at the Treaty of Camp Charlotte concluding Dunmore’s War (1774), and that of the Cherokee at the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals (1775). However, this last treaty (The “Transylvania Purchase”) was not recognized by the royal colonial governments, nor by the renegade Cherokee Chief Dragging Canoe. As one of the acts of the American Revolution, settlers soon began pouring into the region in defiance of the Crown; Dragging Canoe responded by leading his faction into the Chickamauga Wars (1776-1794), at the height of the War for Independence. The Shawnees north of the Ohio River, were also unhappy about the settlement of Kentucky, and allied themselves with the British.
After 1775, Kentucky grew rapidly as the first settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains were founded, with settlers (primarily from Virginia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania) entering the region via the Cumberland Gap and the Ohio River. The most famous of these early explorers and settlers was Daniel Boone, traditionally considered one of the founders of the state. During this period, the settlers introduced agriculture to the area. Tobacco, corn, and hemp were the major crops of Kentucky, and the hunter gatherer aspects of Native American and settler life became less pronounced.
Kentucky’s second largest city, and former capital Lexington, is named for Lexington, Massachusetts, site of one of the first battles of the Revolution. A fort was built there during the last year of the war for defense against the English and their Native American allies. Kentucky was a battleground during the war; the Battle of Blue Licks, one of the last major battles of the Revolution, was fought in Kentucky. Due to the ongoing violence, by 1776 there were fewer than 200 settlers in Kentucky.
The westernmost part of Kentucky, west of the Tennessee River, was recognized as hunting ground belonging to the Chickasaw by the 1786 Treaty of Hopewell, and remained so until they sold it to the US in 1818.
After Kentucky County was created on December 6, 1776, the county militia was organized as follows:
David Robinson – county lieutenant
John Bowman – colonel
Anthony Bledsoe – lieutenant colonel
George Rogers Clark – major
John Todd – captain
Benjamin Logan – captain
Daniel Boone – captain
James Harrod – captain
In November, 1780, Virginia divided Kentucky County into three counties: Fayette, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Militia officers of these counties included:
John Todd – county lieutenant and colonel (killed at Blue Licks in 1782)
Daniel Boone – lieutenant colonel
John Floyd – county lieutenant and colonel (killed 1783)
Benjamin Logan – county lieutenant and colonel
Stephen Trigg – lieutenant colonel (killed at Blue Licks in 1782)
In January 1781, Governor Thomas Jefferson appointed George Rogers Clark as brigadier general, a special position created for an expedition against Detroit that never materialized. As a general, Clark was the highest ranking militia officer in Kentucky and supervised the work of the three Kentucky county colonels.
Separation from Virginia
Several factors contributed to the desire of the residents of Kentucky County to separate from Virginia. First, traveling to the state capital was long and dangerous. Second, offensive use of local militia against Native Americans required authorization from the Governor of Virginia. Last, Virginia refused to recognize the importance of trade along the Mississippi River to Kentucky’s economy. Trade with the Spanish colony of New Orleans, which controlled the mouth of the Mississippi, was forbidden.
The magnitude of these problems increased with the population of Kentucky County, leading Colonel Benjamin Logan to call a constitutional convention in Danville in 1784. Over the next six years, nine more conventions were held. During one, General James Wilkinson proposed secession from both Virginia and the United States to become a ward of Spain, but the idea was defeated. Finally, on June 1, 1792 the United States Congress accepted the Kentucky Constitution and admitted it as the 15th state.
The antebellum period
In late 1811 and early 1812, Western Kentucky was heavily damaged by a series of earthquakes referred to as the New Madrid earthquake, the largest recorded earthquake in the contiguous United States. These earthquakes caused the Mississippi River to change course, thus creating the Kentucky Bend. The “west” began at the Appalachians and young Lexington was the cultural center of the region. The nickname “Athens of the West” was appended to the community and enshrined in popular culture.
It was also during this period that Louisville emerged as the largest city in the state as the growth of commerce facilitated by railroads and steamships made it the commercial center of the state.
Civil War period
While remaining loyal to the Union, Kentucky was a border state during the American Civil War. The state was officially neutral until a new legislature took office on August 5, 1861 with strong Union sympathies. The majority of the Commonwealth’s citizens also had strong Union sympathies. On September 4, 1861, Confederate General Leonidas Polk broke Kentucky’s neutrality by invading Columbus, Kentucky. As a result of the Confederate invasion, Union General Ulysses S. Grant entered Paducah, Kentucky. On September 7, 1861, the Kentucky State Legislature, angered by the Confederate invasion, ordered the Union flag to be raised over the state capitol in Frankfort, declaring its allegiance with the Union. In November 1861, during the Russellville Convention, Southern sympathizers attempted to establish an alternative state government with the goal of secession but failed to displace the legitimate government in Frankfort. On August 13, 1862, Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Army of East Tennessee invaded Kentucky and on August 28, 1862, Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Mississippi entered Kentucky beginning the Kentucky Campaign. Bragg’s retreat following the Battle of Perryville left the state under the control of the Union Army for the remainder of the war.
Although Kentucky was a slave state, it was not subject to military occupation during the Reconstruction Period. It was subject to the Freedmen’s Bureau and a congressional investigation into the propriety of its elected officials. During the election of 1865, ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment was a major political issue. Kentucky eventually rejected the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Democrats prevailed in the election, and one of their first acts was to repeal the Expatriation Act of 1862, thus restoring the citizenship of Confederates.
After the war, the Ku Klux Klan was quite active in Kentucky. Between 1867 and 1881, the Frankfort Weekly Commonwealth newspaper reported 115 incidents of shooting, lynching, and whipping of blacks.
Reconstruction also saw the establishment of movements favoring equal citizenship for blacks and women’s suffrage. Laura Clay, daughter of noted abolitionist Cassius Clay, was an active leader in the suffrage movement.
Kentucky’s hemp industry declined as manila became the world’s primary source of rope fiber. This led to an increase in tobacco production, which was already the largest cash crop of Kentucky.
Religious movements were important in the early history of Kentucky. Perhaps the most famous event was the interdenominational revival in August 1801 at the Cane Ridge Meeting house in Bourbon County. As part of what is now known as the “Western Revival”, thousands began meeting around a Presbyterian communion service on August 6, 1801, and ended six days later on August 12, 1801 when both humans and horses ran out of food. Some claim that the Cane Ridge revival was propagated from an earlier camp meeting at Red River Meeting House in Logan County.
Assassination of Governor William Goebel
The election of William S. Taylor as Governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky on the Republican Party ticket in 1899 was an unexpected turn of events. To date, this is the closest gubernatorial election in Kentucky history. Supporters of William Goebel, his Democratic Party opponent, contested the election.
The Kentucky Senate formed a special Committee of Inquiry packed with Democratic members. As it became apparent to Taylor’s supporters that the committee would decide in favor of Goebel, they raised an armed force. On January 19, 1900, more than 1,500 armed civilians took possession of the Capitol. For more than two weeks, the United States watched as the Commonwealth of Kentucky slid towards civil war. The presiding governor declared martial law and activated the official Kentucky militia.
On January 30, 1900, Goebel, accompanied by two bodyguards, was shot by a sniper as he approached the Capitol. Though mortally wounded, Goebel was sworn in as Governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky the next day. Goebel died from his wounds on February 3, 1900.
For nearly four months after Governor Goebel’s death, Kentucky had two officials functioning as the commonwealth’s chief executive: Taylor, who insisted he was the governor, and J. C. W. Beckham, running mate of Governor Goebel, who was sworn in when the latter died.
Governor Beckham requested federal aid to determine Kentucky’s chief executive. The U.S. Supreme Court finally reached a decision on May 26, 1900, upholding the Commission’s ruling that Goebel was in fact Kentucky’s governor. Since his Lieutenant Governor (Beckham) had followed Kentucky’s line of succession, Beckham was now Governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Immediately following the court’s decision, Taylor fled to Indiana. He was later indicted as one of the conspirators in the assassination of Governor Goebel. Attempts to extradite him failed, and Taylor remained in Indiana until he died.
The early twentieth century
The coal industry made dramatic progress between the turn of the century and the first World War. Many Kentuckians made the change from subsistence farming to coal mining, particularly in the Appalachian region. Many Kentuckians left the state for work in manufacturing and industrial cities in the Midwest.
During the same years, German immigrants settled widely in northern Kentucky. Their presence led to social conflict as World War I progressed and anti-German sentiment increased.
World War I
Like the rest of the country, Kentucky experienced dramatic inflation during the war years. Much infrastructure was created; roads had to be greatly improved to accommodate the increasing popularity of the automobile. The war also led to the clear cutting of thousands of acres of Kentucky timber.
The tobacco and whiskey industries had boom years during the teens, although prohibition seriously harmed the economy when the Eighteenth Amendment took effect. Prohibition led to widespread bootlegging that continued on into the middle of the century.
The Great Depression
Like the rest of the country and much of the world, Kentucky faced great difficulty with the arrival of the Great Depression in the late 1920s. There was widespread unemployment and little economic growth. On the other hand, New Deal programs greatly improved the educational system in the state and led to the construction and improvement of a great deal of infrastructure. The creation of roads, construction of telephone lines, and rural electrification were significant developments for the state. The creation of the Kentucky Dam and its hydroelectric power plant greatly improved the lives of Western Kentuckians. Both the Cumberland River and the Mississippi River saw extensive improvements in navigability and flood control.
The 1937 flood
Beginning in January 1937, the Ohio River was in various flood stages for three months. The flood led to river fires when oil tanks in Cincinnati, Ohio were destroyed in the flood. In Kentucky, one-third of Kenton and Campbell counties were submerged, and 70% of the Louisville was under water for over a week. Paducah, Owensboro, and other Purchase area cities were devastated. Damages from the flood (nationwide) totaled 20 million dollars without adjusting for inflation. It led to extensive flood prevention efforts in the Purchase area, including the distinctive flood wall at Paducah.
World War II
For Kentucky, World War II signified the increased importance of industry and decreased importance of agriculture for the state’s economy. The war led to expansion of Fort Knox as well as the creation of an ordinance plant in Louisville. Louisville became the world’s largest source of artificial rubber. Shipyards at Jeffersonville and elsewhere generated numerous skilled jobs. Louisville’s Ford manufacturing center produced almost 100,000 Jeeps during the war. The war also lead to a greater demand for higher education, as technical skills were more in demand both during the war and afterwards.
Notable Kentuckians during the war
Husband Kimmel of Henderson County commanded the Pacific Fleet. Sixty-six men from Harrodsburg were on the Bataan Death March. Edgar Erskine Hume of Frankfort served as the military governor of Rome after its capture. Kentucky native Franklin Sousley was depicted in the photograph showing the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. Harrodsburg resident John Sadler witnessed the atomic bombing of Nagasaki as a prisoner of war. Seven Kentuckians received the Medal of Honor. 7,917 Kentuckians died during the war; 306,364 served.
Rose Will Monroe, one of the models for “Rosie the Riveter,” was a native of Pulaski County.
After the war
In the years afterward, the Interstate Highway System helped connect even the most remote areas of Kentucky to one another.
During the 1960s, the Woolworth’s Store in Lexington ended segregation as a result of local civil rights protests.
Agriculture, though still important, was supplanted in many areas by industry. By 1970, Kentucky had more urban residents than rural residents. Although decreasing in overall importance, tobacco production remains an important part of the state economy.
Marijuana is now the state’s largest cash crop. Though its cultivation is illegal, the plant appears throughout rural areas. Some observers see it as an extension of the bootlegging culture that was once pervasive in the region. Marijuana is widely grown in the hilly areas of Eastern Kentucky, where it is difficult for law enforcement to find and eradicate. It is cultivated statewide. A 1997 study by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws estimated that Kentucky produced over 800,000 marijuana plants annually, with a value to growers of over $1.3 billion.