Kentucky Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Kentucky, popularly known as the Bluegrass State, was the first state west of the Appalachian Mountains populated by settlers from the original thirteen English colonies.

History of Kentucky

Kentucky, popularly known as the Bluegrass State, was the first state west of the Appalachian Mountains populated by settlers from the original thirteen English colonies. From its earliest days it served as a gateway from east to west and as a border state between the North and South. For most of its history an agricultural and mining state, during the second half of the twentieth century Kentucky began a rapid transformation into a modern industrial economy.

Early History and Settlement

Evidence suggests that Native Americans first entered the area of modern Kentucky as long as fifteen thousand years ago and were primarily hunters and gatherers. Later, agriculture and trade were established leading to a period around 450 b.c.e. known as the Adena culture, when burial mounds were constructed in the northern Kentucky area. Around 1000 c.e. two distinct Native American cultures developed in the area, the Mississippian in the west and the Fort Ancient in the east; the two groups had many similarities, including the cultivation of beans and corn from the south and the use of agricultural implements including the hoe. The first European explorers found the Cherokee, Delaware, Iroquois, and Shawnee Indian tribes in the territory, although the central portion was not permanently settled by any of these groups. Instead, it seems to have been used as a common hunting ground by all of them. It may also have been reserved for a battlefield for their disputes.

During the mid-1700’s English settlers from the colonies on the East Coast, in particular from Virginia, began to push over the mountains into the area known as Kentucky. The word itself is derived from an Indian word which most likely means “land of tomorrow.” Among these English explorers and settlers was Dr. Thomas Walker, who charted the Cumberland Gap, the entryway to Kentucky, and was the first European to build a permanent shelter in the area.

Another and more famous traveler was Daniel Boone, who explored the area first in 1767 and again in 1769. In his second journey, Boone reached as far as the central plateau of the state, soon known as “bluegrass country” for its distinctive vegetation. Boone’s initial attempt at settlement in 1773 was a failure, but the following year James Harrod and colonists from Pennsylvania established Harrodstown. Boone returned the year after, and Fort Boonesborough was established in 1775. In 1776 the state of Virginia formally claimed the entire territory, giving it the name of the County of Kentucky.

Revolution and Statehood

Native Americans were bewildered and angered by the various treaties they had made with the settlers. The Native Americans felt that these treaties had robbed them of the use of the lands which had been common to all for generations; ownership, in the European sense of the word, was an alien concept to the American Indians. As a result, many tribes throughout the area beyond the mountains allied themselves with the British during the American Revolution, and their attacks on Kentucky threatened the entire American settlement. In response, pioneer George Rogers Clark launched an offensive against the British and Native American strongholds north of the Ohio River. In a campaign that pitted small forces against one another in extremely difficult terrain in the middle of winter, Clark won a crucial victory when he forced the besieged British to surrender the frontier fort of Vincennes in 1779. However, Kentucky remained under threat from British and Native American attack until the Battle of Blue Licks in 1782, which has been called “the last battle of the Revolution.”

Shortly after the Revolution ended in American independence, Kentuckians began agitating for their own independence, with the creation of a state separate from Virginia. During the 1780’s, ten separate conventions were held, which gradually drafted the provisions that eventually established Kentucky as a state in its own right. On June 1, 1792, Kentucky was admitted to the Union as the fifteenth state, with Frankfort as its capital. It was the first state of the new United States established west of the Allegheny Mountains.

During the years that followed, Kentucky encouraged one struggle, the War of 1812 against England, and sought to avoid a second, the American Civil War. Kentucky’s most famous statesman of the years before the Civil War, Henry Clay, played a key role in both efforts. As a War Hawk congressman in the early 1800’s, Clay advocated a conflict with Great Britain that he and others hoped could lead to the United States acquiring Canada. Later, as a U.S. senator, Clay helped craft the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850, which delayed, if they did not prevent, war between the states over slavery.

The Civil War and Early Modern Times

As a border state, Kentucky shared qualities of both the North and the South. The majority of its residents were small farmers who owned few or no slaves, and they were inclined to neutrality in the Civil War. There were a number of slaveholders in the broad central portion of the state, and while their sympathies were with the South, they also sought to remain aloof from the struggle. The northern part of the state shared in the developing commerce of the Ohio Valley, and crops of tobacco and cotton were often shipped south down the Mississippi to New Orleans; thus all parts of the state feared that war would disrupt this commerce. Along the eastern, more mountainous portions of the state, where slaves were few, pro-Union sentiment was strongest. Perhaps the fact that most dramatically illustrated the state’s precariously balanced position was the fact that both Abraham Lincoln, president of the Union, and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, were born in Kentucky within a year of one another.

As the controversy over slavery grew more intense and the nation drifted toward war, Kentucky hoped to find yet one more compromise to avert struggle. When the Civil War finally erupted in 1861, Kentucky declared its official neutrality and was promptly invaded by both the Confederacy and the Union, which seized strategic points in the state. Some seventy thousand Kentuckians served with the Union forces; approximately thirty thousand rallied to the Confederacy. After a powerful Confederate thrust north was turned back in the summer of 1862, Kentucky was kept firmly in Union hands for the duration of the war.

Following the Civil War, Kentucky continued to develop its agriculture, most notably the tobacco industry. In addition, the state expanded its reputation for outstanding horse breeding and racing; the first Kentucky Derby was held in Louisville in 1875. Whiskey, especially bourbon, had been produced in the state since the 1820’s and became world famous for its quality. The expansion of the railroads into the eastern, more mountainous portions of the state opened new coal fields for exploitation, often through the destructive process of strip mining, which left a barren wasteland behind. Life for coal miners and their families was hard and often dangerous.

The Great Depression, which began in 1929, coupled with years of drought and then flood, caused enormous damage to Kentucky’s economy. By 1940 Kentucky ranked last in the nation for per capita income. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and then the economic energy unleashed by World War II brought a measure of recovery to the state, including even parts of the Appalachian Mountains. However, poverty remained an endemic problem, especially in Appalachia, even through President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs of the mid-1960’s.

The Modern Era

After World War II, northern Kentucky in particular experienced an economic boom, with growth in manufacturing companies, which supplied industries in fields such as chemicals, automotives, office supplies, electric appliances, and wood products. In addition, the state took the lead in fields such as health care, with Humana, a Kentucky-formed company and one of the largest health care corporations in the United States, having established its headquarters in Louisville. State government actively sought to recruit industry, especially “light industry” which can fit into the Kentucky environment with minimal impact on natural resources. Such concerns are important, as horse breeding and tourism are major parts of Kentucky’s overall economic picture and depend on precisely these natural resources for their continued viability.

Kentucky also took its place in the developing automobile industry in the Southeast. Under Democratic governor Martha Layne Collins, the state recruited a $3.5 billion investment by Japanese automaker Toyota in Kentucky, which, by the early 1990’s, was employing more than twenty thousand workers. The success of Toyota in Kentucky was one of the reasons that other international automobile makers chose to locate in the area, most notably BMW in South Carolina in 1993 and Mercedes-Benz in Alabama in 1994. In addition to the automobile manufacturing plants themselves, the companies also attracted large numbers of suppliers for the parts needed in the production of the finished vehicle.

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