The Commonwealth of Kentucky, which was originally part of the State of Virginia, was admitted to the union on June 1, 1792. Known as “The Bluegrass State,” a name given because of the iconic blue grass which can be seen all over the state, Kentucky cannot simply be defined by the type of grass in the pastures of its horse farms. Kentucky can be identified by the thoroughbred horse industry, horse racing, Bourbon, college sports, history, unique cuisine, transportation, culture, Bluegrass music, tobacco, and automobile manufacturing… just to name a few.
The history of Kentucky can be traced back thousands of years to the prehistoric cultures which inhabited the state. Modern Native Americans in the state included Shawnee tribes from north of the Ohio River and Cherokee and Chicasaw tribes from south of the Cumberland River were a few of the Indian nations which made up Kentucky from about 1650 until the arrival of the first white settlers. The first explorers came into the land which would become the 15th state of the Union in the mid 1700s and in 1774, James Harrod constructed the first permanent settlement in Kentucky at Fort Harrod, the site of present-day Harrodsburg. Boonesboro was established in 1775, and many other settlements were created soon after. Kentucky grew rapidly as the first major settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains and settlers (primarily from Virginia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania) entered the region via the Cumberland Gap and the Ohio River. Kentucky County was formed out of land of Western Virginia on December 6, 1776 known as Fincastle County. Shawnee Indians sided with the British during the American Revolution and one of the last major battles of the war for American Independence, the Battle of Blue Licks, was fought along the Licking River in Northern Kentucky.
Soon after the end of the American Revolution, a separation movement began in Kentucky. Citizens of had grounds to separate from Virginia, as the state refused to recognize the importance of trade along the Mississippi River to Kentucky’s economy and trade with the Spanish colony of New Orleans, which controlled the mouth of the Mississippi, was forbidden. The Kentucky Constitutional Convention met in Danville in 1784 and in the next six years, nine more conventions would be held. Kentucky became the 15th state on June 1, 1792. Isaac Shelby was chosen as the first governor. Kentucky’s first constitution was drafted in April and May of that year (the constitution was rewritten in 1800, and again in 1850 and 1891), and Frankfort was chosen to be the site of the state capital.
In the years leading to the Civil War, Kentucky prospered. Population growth stimulated economic growth and soon Louisville emerged as the largest city in the Commonwealth due to railroads and steamships making it a commercial center. Agriculture, however, shaped the economy of the entire state, with hemp being the largest industry. Slavery became a reality in Kentucky, though not nearly has prevalent in other parts of the South.
In 1860, Kentucky native Abraham Lincoln was elected President, Southern states began to secede and the Civil War began. Kentucky remained a border state, declaring neutrality during the war. However, the state was torn apart by Northern allegiance and Southern sentiment, as brother literally fought brother during the bloodiest of all American wars. The Battle of Perryville was fought October 8, 1862 and was a decisive victory for the Unites States, as the Commonwealth remained in Union hands for the remainder of the war. Kentucky provided the second largest number of African-American soldiers to the Union during the Civil War. Many African-Americans enlisted at Camp Nelson as a way to escape slavery. Camp Nelson provided the Union Army with over 10,000 African-American soldiers, making it the third largest recruiting and training depot for African Americans in the nation. Though Kentucky refused to ratify it, slavery officially ended in Kentucky after 13th Amendment was ratified by enough state to become national law.
After the Civil war, Kentucky’s economy underwent dramatic changes. As the hemp industry declined, the development of burley tobacco contributed to a tremendous increase in tobacco production. Many Kentuckians made the change from subsistence farming to coal mining, particularly in the Appalachian region.
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. These new industries created many jobs for Kentuckians, though many citizens chose to leave the state to find jobs in other parts of the country.
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. Bootlegging became an industry in itself, creating small economies especially in the Appalachian region of the state. Kentucky, like the rest of the nation, faced great hardships during the Great Depression, including widespread unemployment and little economic growth. New Deal programs began to improve the state educational system and led to 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.
World War II helped to bring Kentucky out of its economic problems by providing new jobs, placing importance on industry and less importance on agriculture. 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 increased importance of higher education and training for technical occupations. Women in Kentucky took up jobs in factories and fought the battle on the home front as their husbands went to war. Rose Will Monroe, one of the models for “Rosie the Riveter,” was a native of Pulaski County. In the years following World War II, the interstate highway system allowed rural Kentucky to be connected to the more metropolitan locations. Kentucky was also an important part of the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders made trips to Kentucky and the Lexington Woolworth’s Store was the site of sit-in protests to end segregation.
Today’s Kentucky, while increasingly urban, holds true to its rural past. A mix of ante-bellum charm and contemporary flair make up the Bluegrass State. The state is rooted in culture, tradition and history. Big city celebrations like the Kentucky Derby Festival, the two-week party leading up to the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, go hand in hand with the celebrations of rural communities like the Clarkson Honeyfest in Grayson, County.
While it is part of the Upper South, Kentucky continues to be regarded in the same light as many of its Deep South counterparts. Even writers like Mark Twain took note of the state’s slow-paced lifestyle. “I want to be in Kentucky when the end of the world comes, because it’s always 20 years behind”