Kentucky was granted statehood in 1792, becoming the first U.S. state west of the Appalachian Mountains. Frontiersman Daniel Boone was one of Kentucky’s most prominent explorers, and many immigrants followed the trail he blazed through the Cumberland Gap, known as the Wilderness Road.
The state remained officially neutral during the Civil War, and its population was deeply divided. Soldiers from Kentucky served in both the Union and Confederate armies. Known primarily as an agricultural area into the 20th century, Kentucky is also a major U.S. coal producer and site of the U.S. military bases Fort Knox and Fort Campbell. It is also known as the home of the legendary Kentucky Derby horse race and bluegrass music.
The First People in Kentucky
For 200 years, most historians argued that Native Americans didn’t live in the area now known as Kentucky and instead used the land sporadically for hunting and trapping. However, petroglyphs, stone tools and other archeological evidence suggests that Indigenous people have lived on the land for more than 12,000 years. The myth of an unpopulated Kentucky prior to European settlement was popularized by a book published in the late 1700s, written by a land speculator and entrepreneur who hoped to encourage new settlements in Kentucky.
Before Europeans arrived, Kentucky was home to many tribes speaking a wide range of languages, including Algonquian, Iroquoian and Muskogean. When Kentucky joined the Union in 1792, over 20 tribes legally claimed land in Kentucky, including the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Chippewa, Delaware, Eel River, Haudenosaunee, Kaskaskia, Kickapoo, Miami, Ottawa, Piankeshaw, Potawatomi, Shawnee, Wea and Wyandot. The Mingo, Yamacraw and Yuchi also called Kentucky home.
The Cherokee were one of the largest groups in Kentucky and the first to come into contact with Spanish explorers in the mid-1500s. British settlers in Virginia developed a robust trading relationship with the Cherokee starting in the early 1600s. The British also brought smallpox epidemics that halved the Cherokee population in the 1700s. During the Seven Years War, the Cherokee fought against the French with the British. Following England’s 1763 victory, the British stipulated that Kentucky was Indian Territory and could not be purchased or taken from the Cherokee without their permission.
Wilderness Road to Statehood
Dr. Thomas Walker and surveyor Christopher Gist first explored the area now known as Kentucky in 1750 and 1751. The outbreak of the Seven Years War prevented further exploration until frontiersman Daniel Boone visited Kentucky in 1769 and recognized the potential of the area’s natural resources. In 1775, a group of settlers created the Transylvania Company with the purpose of settling the land between the Kentucky, Ohio and Cumberland rivers.
Working for the Transylvania Company, Boone forged the Wilderness Road over Kentucky’s Cumberland Gap. The path led more than 200,000 settlers—including many Scotch-Irish and German migrants from western Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia—to Kentucky by the end of the century. Ft. Harrod was established in 1773, and Harrodsburg became Kentucky’s first permanent settlement in 1774. Boone also established the Boonesborough fort in his name.
Virginia annexed Kentucky and made it a county of its colony in 1776. After the colonists won the Revolutionary War, Kentucky settlers began a separatist movement for independence from Virginia. On June 1, 1792, the Union admitted Kentucky as the 15th state.
Native American Land Cessions and Trail of Tears
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, a growing number of white settlers arriving in Kentucky on the Wilderness Road clashed with Indigenous people over land. Hoping to push settlers out of Kentucky, Native American warriors from the Shawnee, Hurons, Shawnee, Wyandot, Mingo and other tribes fought against the colonists alongside their British trading partners in the Revolutionary War.
In 1775, Transylvania Company representatives and Boone compelled the Cherokee to sign the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, which sold the company much of the Cherokee’s land in modern-day Kentucky and Tennessee. However, Virginia—which counted Kentucky as a county at the time—nullified the treaty in 1776 while granting the Transylvania Company 200,000 acres along the Ohio River.
The Cherokees eventually ceded some of their Kentucky land to the American colonists in 1785, but settlers did not ultimately respect the established boundaries. Over the following decade, the Cherokee joined a confederacy of other Native American groups—including the Shawnee, Delaware, Wyandot and Miami—to fight the colonists, often with the aid of the British.
Several treaties between the government and Indigenous people over the 1790s brought an end to the battles and attempted to establish Cherokee territory. But by the early 1800s a flood of new settlers began demanding new land in Kentucky. Between 1805 and 1811, the Cherokee and Chickamauga ceded their lands to the United States government. In 1818, the Chickasaw sold their Kentucky territory west of the Tennessee River with the Jackson Purchase.
Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, a nationwide movement began to relocate Native Americans to territory west of the Mississippi River. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which led to the government takeover of Native American lands in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee.
Some Native Americans voluntarily moved to “Indian Territory,” or modern-day Oklahoma. Those who resisted were forcibly removed by the military on a long and deadly path, known as the Trail of Tears, through Kentucky and several other states. A few Indigenous people managed to escape and remain in Kentucky. Today some Cherokee still live in Kentucky, but the state has no federally- or state-recognized Native American tribes.
Slavery and the Civil War
Slavery existed in Kentucky since the first settlers arrived, and it was written into the state’s original constitution. By 1830, Black people made up 24 percent of Kentucky’s population. An 1833 law banned the importation and sale of slaves, but was overturned in 1849. At the same time, a movement to ban slavery in Kentucky was unsuccessful.
During the Civil War, Kentucky remained a neutral state. Around 100,000 troops fought for the North, and 40,000 troops fought for the South, including almost 24,000 African American soldiers. The Battle of Richmond in Madison County, Kentucky, led to the Union capture of the capital city of Frankfort. The Battle of Perryville in October of 1862 was the largest and last Civil War battle in Kentucky, leaving 1,600 dead and 5,400 wounded.
After the Civil War ended, Kentucky did not ratify the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which officially ended slavery. Throughout Reconstruction until the mid-1950s, Black people in Kentucky fought for the right to vote and other equal treatment under the law. The state’s oppressive segregation laws were gradually dismantled by the civil rights movement. The state only officially ratified the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution in 1976—more than 100 years after they were enacted. Provisions for segregation and a poll tax were removed from the state constitution in 1996.
Bourbon, Horse Racing and Bluegrass Music
Kentucky’s climate is ideal for producing and distilling whiskey, which has been produced in the state since the first white settlers arrived. Whiskey was first produced in Bourbon county, which became nationally recognized as a whiskey variation by the mid-19th century. Kentucky has since become the world’s bourbon capital: According to the Kentucky Distillers Association, as of 2022, more than 95 percent of the world’s bourbon whiskey is produced in Kentucky.
Kentucky’s moderate climate and geography is also ideal for raising and training horses. They came into the territory with the first frontiersmen. Kentucky is home to the first known circular horse racing track, constructed in the 1780s. The world-famous Kentucky Derby has been held at Churchill Downs in Louisville every May since 1875.
Bluegrass music’s roots trace to the 1600s, brought to Kentucky and surrounding states by Irish, Scottish and English settlers. Bill Monroe, born in Kentucky, is often considered the “father of bluegrass” music. Monroe is credited with popularizing a style of country music that he named “bluegrass,” after the Bluegrass Region in his home state.
Date of Statehood: June 1, 1792
Population: 4,505,836 (2020)
Size: 40,411 square miles
Nickname(s): Bluegrass State
Motto: United we stand, divided we fall
Tree: Tulip Poplar
- Despite the fact that there were no battles fought within the state, more than half of all Americans killed in action during the War of 1812 were from Kentucky.
- In late August of 1888, nine members of the Hatfield family were tried and convicted at the Pike County Courthouse in Kentucky for a raid on Randall McCoy’s home, in which his son and daughter were killed, his wife was beaten unconscious and his home was burned to the ground. The long-running feud between the Hatfields of West Virginia and the McCoys of Kentucky claimed a dozen members of the two clans. In 2003, the families signed a formal truce, putting an official end to the hostilities.
- The “Happy Birthday to You” melody was the creation of sisters Mildred and Patty Hill in 1893. While working at Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School, the duo created a song for teachers to sing to students entitled “Good Morning to All.” In 1924, Robert Coleman first published the “Happy Birthday to You” lyrics along with the tune. It is now one of the most popular songs in the English language.
- The annual three-day Hillbilly Days Festival attracts more than 100,000 people to Pikeville. The event began in 1977 as a way to celebrate Appalachian culture while raising money for the Shriners Hospitals for Children.
- Although he is more closely associated with Illinois, Abraham Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky.
- Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., boxing champion Muhammad Ali was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17, 1942.
- Fort Knox was established as the U.S. Treasury Gold Vault in 1936. The United States Bullion Depository contains the largest gold reserve in the world. As of 2021, the facility held 147.3 million ounces of gold—or half of the United States Treasury’s stored gold.
- Kentucky’s original black barns were treated with creosote to deter termites. The dark color trapped heat and sped up tobacco curing. Later, barns were painted black purely for aesthetic purposes.
United States Census Bureau, Quick Facts: Kentucky
Encyclopedia of North Carolina, Transylvania Company
Wilderness Road: Virginia's Heritage Migration Route, Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail
Kentucky Historical Society, Transylvania Company
Mitchell County Historical Society, Sycamore Shoals and the Start of the March
National Park Service: Mammoth Cave, Early Native Americans
Kentucky Historical Society, The Walker Expedition
Library of Congress, Today in History - June 7, Daniel Boone
American Battlefield Trust, The Revolutionary War in Kentucky
Kentucky Department of Tourism, Kentucky History
Southern Cherokee Nation of Kentucky, Cherokee In Kentucky?
Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, Indigenous Americans in Kentucky
Kentucky Historical Society, Jackson Purchase
United States Census Bureau, Kentucky 230th Anniversary of Statehood (1792): June 1, 2022
City of Harrodsburg, City History
Kentucky Genealogical Society, Pioneer Families Had Dangerous Paths into Kentucky
Kentucky Historical Society, Jackson Purchase
Library of Congress, Indian Territory
Public Broadcasting Service, Indian Removal
Stay in Clay, Native Americans of Clay County & Kentucky
500 Nations, Kentucky's Recognized Tribes
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Indigenous Lands Acknowledgment
Kentucky Historical Society, The Trail of Tears
American Battlefield Trust, Richmond
American Battlefield Trust, Perryfield
Kentucky Department of Tourism, Civil War
Kentucky Historical Society, Slavery Laws in Old Kentucky
Kentucky Department of Tourism, Kentucky History
Kentucky Historical Society, Explore KY’s Civil Rights History
Public Broadcasting Service, Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky
United States Mint, Fort Knox Bullion Depository
Library of Congress, A traditional black Kentucky tobacco barn
Kentucky Distillers’ Association, Kentucky Bourbon
Kentucky Historical Society, Bourbon Whiskey
Bluegrass Heritage Foundation, A Brief History of Bluegrass Music
Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, Bluegrass Region
Kentucky Historical Society, Explore KY’s Horse History
Library of Congress, Kentucky Horse Country