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The history of Kentucky spans hundreds of years, and has been influenced by the state's diverse geography and central location.
The name "Kentucky" derived from an Iroquois name for the area south of the Ohio River. There were many variations of the word during early pioneer times, including " Kentucke", “Kaintuckee” and “Cantuckey.” The meaning of the Iroquois name is disputed by historians, but it is believed to mean “meadowland.”
The state’s official nickname is the “Bluegrass State,” which is derived from the famed species of grass grown in central Kentucky, Bluegrass, or Poa. “The nickname also recognizes the role that the Bluegrass region has played in Kentucky’s economy and history.”
Although inhabited by Native Americans in prehistoric times, when explorers and settlers began entering Kentucky in the mid-18th century, 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 hunted there until 1768. The 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 renegade Cherokee Chief Dragging Canoe. During the American Revolution, settlers soon began pouring into the region; 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, 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 hunting stage of frontier life faded away.
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 British 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 U.S. in 1818.
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.
Several factors contributed to the desire of the residents of Kentucky to separate from Virginia. First, traveling to the state capital was long and dangerous. Second, offensive use of local militia against Indian raids 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, 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.
Land speculation was an important source of income as the first settlers sold out their claims for cash to newcomers and moved further west. The great majority of Kentuckians were farmers. They grew most of their own food, using the corn crop to feed hogs and to distill into whiskey. They obtained their cash from sales of burley tobacco, hemp, horses and mules. The hemp was spun and woven for cotton bale bagging and ropes. Tobacco required expertise, and attracted planters from Maryland and Virginia whose own lands were near exhaustion. Tobacco was a labor intensive crop, and plantations in the Bluegrass region used slave labor, but on a smaller scale than the cotton plantations of the Deep South.
Adequate transportation routes proved crucial to Kentucky's economic success in the early antebellum period. The rapid growth of stagecoach roads, canals and railroads early in the century drew many Easterners to the state. For example, towns along the Maysville Road from Washington to Lexington grew rapidly to accommodate the demand. Surveyors and cartographers had always made their fortunes in early Kentucky and especially by the antebellum period, such as David H. Burr (1803-1875) who served as geographer to the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1830s and '40s.
Kentuckians loved horses, using them for transportation, motive power, breeding, and racing. Taxpayers owned 90,000 horses in 1800, with 87% of all householders owning at least one, and two-thirds of the taxpayers owning two or more. Breeding thoroughbreds for racing is a Bluegrass specialty. Louisville began sponsoring the world-famous Kentucky Derby at the Churchill Downs track in 1875.
Mules were cheaper to own than horses, and were well adapted to small farms. Mule breeding became a specialty in Kentucky, and many of the mule breeders moved west to Missouri to expand their operations after 1865.
The Second Great Awakening, based in part on the Kentucky frontier, saw a rapid growth in church members. Revivals and missionaries converted many previously unchurched folk, and drew them into the Baptist, Methodist, Christian and Presbyterian churches.
In August 1801 at the Cane Ridge Meeting house in Bourbon County. As part of what is now known as the "Western Revival", attracted thousands of religious seekers under the leadership of Presbyterian preacher Barton W. Stone. The preaching, singing and converting went on for a week until both humans and horses ran out of food.
The Baptists flourished in Kentucky. Many had immigrated as a body from Virginia. For examples, the Upper Spottsylvania Baptist congregation left Virginia and came to Kentucky in September 1781 as a group of 500 to 600 people. Some were slaveholders; among the slaves was Peter Durrett, who helped Capt. William Ellis guide the party. Held by Rev. Joseph Craig, Durrett was a Baptist preacher and part of Craig's congregation in 1784. About 1790 he founded the First African Baptist Church in Lexington, the oldest black Baptist congregation in Kentucky and the third oldest in the United States. He was so popular that his funeral was said to be second in size only to that of the statesman Henry Clay.
Many anti-slavery Virginians moved to Kentucky as well, making the new state a battleground over slavery. Churches and friends divided over the issue of the immorality of slaveholding; in Kentucky the antislavery position was marginalized both politically and geographically. Emancipationist Baptists created their own churches in Kentucky around antislavery principles. While emancipationists viewed their cause as one with republican ideals of virtue, the proslavery Baptists insisted there was a boundary between church and state; this allowed them to define slavery as a civil matter. The proslavery position, based on the importance of slave labor on many plantations, became the dominant Baptist belief in Kentucky. Emancipationist leadership declined through death and emigration, and Baptists in the Upper South healed rifts in their churches and associations.
Barton W. Stone (1772–1844) founded the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the 1830s, when his followers joined with the followers of Alexander Campbell. Stone broke with his Presbyterian background to form the new sect that rejected Calvinism, required weekly communion and the baptism of adults, accepted the Bible as the source of truth, and sought to restore the values of primitive Christianity.
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. It claimed to be the "Athens of the West."
Kentucky was heavily rural, but two important cities emerged. Louisville emerged as the largest city in the state, as the growth of commerce facilitated by steamboats and the construction of railroads made it the commercial center of the state. It attracted many Germans and Irish Catholic immigrants during their large mid-19th-century emigrations from Europe.
Lexington was the center of the Bluegrass Region, an agricultural area featuring production of tobacco and hemp, as well as the breeding and training of high-quality livestock, including horses. It was the base for many prominent planters, most notably Henry Clay, who became a politician and statesman. This central part of the state had the highest concentration of enslaved African Americans, whose labor supported the plantation economy.
In 1846 Kentucky paid close attention to the Mexican war. Some citizens enthusiastically supported the war, while others—especially Whigs who followed Henry Clay, opposed the war and refused to participate. The quest for honor was especially important, as a rising generation sought their self-identity and a link with heroic ancestors. The state easily met its quota of 2500 volunteer troops in 1846 and 1847. Although the war's popularity declined after a year or two, clear majorities supported it throughout, in part because residents believed victory would bring new lands for the expansion of slavery.
Kentuckian units won praise at the battles of Monterey and Buena Vista. Although many took sick, few died. Gaining honor and glory, as well as emotional maturity and a sense of the world at large, Kentucky units returned home in triumph. The war weakened the Whig party as the Democratic party rose to dominance during this 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, as some people sought to re-establish white supremacy. Between 1867 and 1881, the Frankfort Weekly Commonwealth newspaper reported 115 incidents of shooting, lynching, and whipping of blacks.
Kentucky became internationally known for its violent feuds, especially in the mountains. They pitted the men in extended clans against each other for decades, often using assassination and arson as weapons, along with ambushes, gunfights, and pre-arranged shootouts. Some of the feuds were continuations of violent local Civil War episodes. Journalists often wrote about the violence, using stereotypes that city folks had developed about Appalachia; they interpreted the feuds as the inevitable product of profound ignorance, poverty, and isolation, and perhaps even interbreeding. In reality, the leading participants were typically well-to-do local elites with networks of clients who were fighting for local political power.
The Gilded Age saw the emergence of a women's suffrage movement. Laura Clay, daughter of noted abolitionist Cassius Clay, was the most prominent leader. At the same time a prohibition movement began, which was challenged by the distillers (based in the Bluegrass) and the saloonkeepers (based in the cities).
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.
In 1860–1900 German immigrants settled in cities in northern Kentucky, especially Louisville. The most famous ethnic German leader in the late 19th century was William Goebel (1856–1900). From his base in Covington, he became a state senator in 1887, fought the railroads, and took control of the state Democratic party in the mid-1890s. Goebel's 1895 election law took control of vote counting away from local officials and gave it to officials controlled by the Assembly, which the Democrats controlled. He used that power to be certified as governor in 1900. The apparent election of William S. Taylor as governor on the Republican ticket in 1899 was an unexpected turn of events.
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: Republican Taylor, who insisted he was the governor, and Democrat J. C. W. Beckham, running mate of Governor Goebel, who was sworn in when the latter died. 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 Kentucky's governor. Since his Lieutenant Governor (Beckham) had followed Kentucky's line of succession, Beckham was now governor.
Immediately following the court's decision, Taylor fled to Indiana. He was later indicted as one of the conspirators in the assassination. Attempts to extradite him failed, and Taylor remained in Indiana until he died. Realizing how close they came to civil war, Kentucky leaders calmed the voters and managed to finish the decade with less heat and little violence.
The coal industry made dramatic progress between around the start of the 20th century and World War I. Many Kentuckians made the change from subsistence farming to coal mining, particularly in the Appalachian region. Many others left the state for better-paying jobs in manufacturing and industrial cities in the Midwest.
Like the rest of the country, Kentucky experienced dramatic inflation during the war years. Much infrastructure was created; the state built many roads 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, which continued into the middle of the century.
Congressman Alben W. Barkley gained statewide stature by leading a crusade against the coal and gambling special interests during his 1923 campaign for Governor of Kentucky. Barkley narrowly lost the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. That sole electoral defeat helped propel him into the U.S. Senate in 1926. Barkley became US Senate leader for the Democrats in 1937 and vice president with Harry S. Truman in 1948.
In the 1920s the progressives focused their attacks on gambling. The anti-gambling crusade sprang from the religious attack on machine politics led by Helm Bruce and the Louisville Churchmen's Federation. The reformers had their greatest support in rural Kentucky, with support from the Ku Klux Klan and Fundamentalist Protestant clergymen. Barkley became the political spokesman of the anti-gambling group and nearly secured the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1923; four years later, former governor J. C. W. Beckham won the party's nomination as the anti-gambling candidate. Urban Democrats deserted Beckham, however, and Republican Flem Sampson was elected. Beckham's defeat marked the end of the Progressive movement in Kentucky.
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 1938 Democratic Senate primary featured an intense showdown between Barkley, liberal spokesman for the New Deal, and conservative governor Happy Chandler. The governor was a gifted public speaker, combining voice control, emotionalism, and singing with an unusual ability to personalize his speeches. He could remember everyone's name, and in turn they became emotionally involved in his campaign speeches. Barkley's methodical campaigning was bolstered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's strong endorsement. Barkley handily defeated the Chandler, with 56% of the vote. Farmers, labor unions, and city machines gave Barkley his margin, a vote which reaffirmed the popularity of the New Deal in Kentucky. Only a few months later, Chandler was appointed to the state's other Senate seat upon the death of Senator Mills Logan. [
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.
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.
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. As a prisoner of war, Harrodsburg resident John Sadler witnessed the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan. Seven Kentuckians received the Medal of Honor. 7,917 Kentuckians died during the war; 306,364 served.
In the years afterward, the Interstate Highway System helped connect even the most remote areas of Kentucky to one another.
Progressive, solid, and unspectacular, Democrat Lawrence W. Wetherby served as governor during 1950–55. As lieutenant governor under Earle Clements, he was out of the limelight. After Clements moved on to the US Senate, Wetherby took over and was elected to his own term in 1951, emphasizing the themes of roads, tourism, and economic development. One of the few Southern governors who worked to carry out desegregation after the Brown Decision in 1954, Wetherby's administration ran into a string of bad luck and its candidate for governor, Bert T. Combs, was defeated by Happy Chandler in 1955.
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, bolstered by New Deal legacy that gives financial advantages to holders of tobacco allotments.
During the 1960s, the Woolworth's Store in Lexington ended practices of segregation as a result of successful local civil rights sit-in. This was part of an era of activist efforts to achieve integration. Due to demographic and economic changes, Woolworth went out of business in 1990 and the historic building was demolished in 2004.
Governor Edward Thompson "Ned" Breathitt, Jr., took pride in his civil rights leadership as governor 1963–67. Race was a major issue in his victories in the 1963 primary and general elections. At the urging of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Breathitt led the National Governors Conference in supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson later appointed Breathitt to the "To Secure These Rights" commission, charged with implementing the Act. Breathitt was unable to get a civil rights bill passed by the state general assembly in 1964, but did pass a bill in 1966. Breathitt said that civil rights legislation would have passed without him. He thought his opposition to strip mining had more to do with the demise of his political career.
Martha Layne Collins served as Kentucky's first woman governor from 1983 to 1987 and cochaired the Democratic National Convention in 1984. Prior to that, Collins had been a schoolteacher and party worker for the state's Democrats at all levels and served as lieutenant governor from 1979 to 1983. In 1983, she defeated Jim Bunning for the governorship. Throughout her public life she emphasized education and economic development; a feminist, she viewed all issues as "women's issues." She took special pride in having procured the Toyota plant for Georgetown. Nevertheless in 2000, the state ranked 49th in the percentage of females serving in state or national political offices. The traditional system has favored "old boys" thanks to political elites, incumbency, and long-entrenched political networks.
Paul E. Patton, a Democrat, served as governor from 1995 to 2003. Winning a close race in 1995, he benefited from economic good times and succeeded with most of his initiatives and priorities. After winning reelection by a large margin in 1999, Patton suffered from the state's economic reversal and also from public exposure of an extramarital affair. Near the end of his second term, Patton was also accused of abusing his patronage powers and incurred further criticism when he pardoned four of his former supporters who had been convicted of violating the state's campaign finance laws.