History of Kentucky – the Blue Grass State


Kentucky capitol building in Frankfort

Kentucky capitol building in Frankfort

One of four U.S. states constituted as a commonwealth, Kentucky was originally a part of the state of Virginia. Once a noted hunting ground of the American Indians, it was continuously inhabited as early as 1,000 B.C. to about 1650, AD exclusively by Native Americans.

The first known European to travel into Kentucky was Hernando de Soto and his followers when they ascended the west bank of the Mississippi River in 1543. The region was included in the charter of Virginia in 1584. Other explorers followed including Colonel Abraham Wood, seeking trade with the Indians; Captain Batt, from Virginia in 1670; Jacques Marquette in 1673; Chevalier Robert de la Salle in 1682, and others.

More hardy pioneers followed, especially after Daniel Boone told of its fertile ground, lush valleys, and plentiful game. However, these first settlers would suffer at the hands of the Indians, who were angry at the intrusion upon their hunting grounds.

Daniel Boone

Daniel Boone

These many desperate encounters earned the region the name “Dark and Bloody Ground” and by 1790, a U.S. government report estimated that some 1,500 Kentucky settlers had been killed in Indian raids since the end of the American Revolution. To end these raids, George Rogers Clark, who was the militia leader in Kentucky, led an expedition of 1,200 men against several Shawnee Indian villages on the Wabash River in 1786, one of the first actions of the Old Northwest War.

After the American Revolution, the counties of Virginia beyond the Appalachian Mountains became known as Kentucky County. Eventually, the residents of Kentucky County petitioned for a separation from Virginia and in 1792, Kentucky became the 15th state to join the Union. Isaac Shelby, a military veteran from Virginia, was elected the first Governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

This opened up more and more settlement and by the mid-18th century, when greater numbers of European and colonial explorers came to the area, there were no major Native American settlements in the region. However, the Shawnee from the north and the Cherokee from the south continued to use the land for hunting. This led to more warfare with the Indians as new settlers encroached upon their traditional hunting grounds.

During the Civil War, Kentucky was a border state, frequently described as never having seceded. However, representatives from several counties met at Russellville in 1861 calling themselves the “Convention of the People of Kentucky.” On November 20th, they passed an Ordinance of Secession and soon established the Confederate Government of Kentucky with its capital in Bowling Green. Though recognized by the Confederate States of America, the Russellville Convention did not represent the majority of residents. As a result, Kentucky officially remained “neutral” throughout the war due to Union sympathies of many of the Commonwealth’s citizens.

When the Civil War was over, Kentucky was not subject to military occupation during the Reconstruction Period, as it was “officially” a neutral state.

However, it was subject to the Freedmen’s Bureau and a congressional investigation into the propriety of its elected officials and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment was a major political issue.  The state eventually rejected the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. When Democrats prevailed in the election, one of their first acts was to repeal the Expatriation Act of 1862, thus restoring the citizenship of ex-Confederate soldiers.

Due to new federal laws, the Ku Klux Klan became very active as many sought to re-establish white supremacy. Between 1867 and 1881, there were 115 incidents of shooting, lynching, and whipping of blacks. In 1867 Union activist James H. Bridgewater was assassinated by a band of “regulators” who distrusted and disliked federal interference.

A Blue Grass Horse farm in Kentucky

Horses graze on a farm in Kentucky bluegrass “horse country.”

In the early 20th Century, another era of violence occurred in Kentucky and adjoining districts in Tennessee referred to as the Black Patch Tobacco Wars. In 1904 tobacco planters formed a protectionist group called the Dark Tobacco District Planters’ Protective Association of Kentucky and Tennessee to oppose the corporate monopoly of the American Tobacco Company.

Controlling virtually all tobacco sales in the area, the monopoly forced small tobacco farmers to sell their crops at low prices. Retaliating against the larger organization, the farmer’s refused to sell their tobacco at lower prices and a vigilante wing of the Protective Association burned the company warehouses and assaulted farmers who broke the boycott.  The most violent civil uprising since the Civil War, the Governor was forced to declare martial law and the New York Times declared, “There now exists in the State of Kentucky a condition of affairs without parallel in the history of the world.”

Known as the “Bluegrass State,” Kentucky is renowned for its high-quality livestock, especially thoroughbred racing horses; its bourbon distilleries, and bluegrass music, as well as its abundant resources. It has the world’s longest cave system, Mammoth Cave National Park; the greatest length of navigable waterways and streams in the Lower 48 states; the largest free-ranging elk herd east of Montana, and the nation’s most productive coalfield.

Significant natural attractions include the Red River Gorge, one of Kentucky’s most visited places; Cumberland Gap, a chief passageway through the Appalachian Mountains in early American history; Land Between the Lakes and Big South Fork National River National Recreation Areas, and more.

Supporting a population of about 4.3 million people, Kentucky’s capitol is Frankfort and its largest city is Louisville.


© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated October 2020.

Also See:

Civil War Battles of Kentucky

Destinations Across America

Kentucky – The Blue Grass State

Kentucky Photo Galleries