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Bill Thayer

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History of Kentucky

Histories and Source Documents

Location is everything, or at least it has been in the case of Kentucky. To start with, we're now used to thinking of her as an eastern state, but if we look at a relief map, Kentucky is a western state, our first one: separated from the old states of the Atlantic seaboard by a mountain range very difficult to negotiate, her crops marketable only via the watercourses that flow into the Mississippi, when she sought statehood in the new American Union she met with fierce opposition for several years, only gaining admittance in 1792 after threatening to go over to Spain that controlled that river. Had Kentucky become Spanish, the United States as we know them would never have existed, and the history of the world would have run very differently.

In the great War Between the States that nearly destroyed America in the mid‑19c, Kentucky was a "border state", reproducing within its own confines the fratricidal cleft in the larger nation; its bloody division at the time is strikingly symbolized by the fact that both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were born here, and though the two men embracing on the seal and the flag of the Commonwealth are just meant to represent in a generic sort of way the frontiersman and the statesman, the motto encircling them is born squarely of the Kentucky experience:

United We Stand, Divided We Fall.

The isolation of the eastern, Appalachian part of Kentucky continues to play a significant rôle in her history: though some of the best coal in the United States was mined in the state in the early 20c, it was also some of the hardest coal to transport to the centers of industry where it was to be used; her coal country is littered with boom towns with once-bright futures, to which the railroads were brought at great expense — and from which the railroads have once again vanished, stranding whole areas in relative poverty and isolation, at least according to recent census figures.

For these and other reasons, the history of Kentucky is interesting, and she was the home of some of the most iconic of American figures: Henry Clay and Daniel Boone, but also Gary Powers and Earl Combs (and on a lighter note Victor Mature and Colonel Sanders). I hope to expand my pages soon to bring some of this rich history onboard.


[image ALT: A painted head-and‑shoulders portrait of a florid man with receding and greying sandy red hair, in an 18c military uniform with prominent gold epaulets. It is the American Revolutionary War general James Wilkinson.]

[ 8/22/11: a complete book, several other items; about 550 pages of print presented in 26 webpages ]

General James Wilkinson was one of the most conniving traitors this country ever saw; or then again, maybe not at all. Two diametrically opposite viewpoints: his great-grandson will square off against a respected historian (and just about everybody else).


[image ALT: A long straight 2‑lane street, edged with small trees, fading into the distance, with a single car travelling down it away from us. It is an early 20th‑century view of Jenkins, Kentucky.]

[ 4/7/07: about 140 pages of print presented in 29 webpages ]

The History of Jenkins, Kentucky, compiled in 1973 by the local Jaycees, is really a sourcebook rather than a history, but it's a fascinating window into American pioneer life in the twentieth century, a time we're not used to thinking of pioneers still: what happens when a relatively inaccessible part of the country is discovered to have a very major economic resource under its feet.


[image ALT: A woodcut of a group of people in the dress of working people of the late 19c, many of them armed with muskets, in front of a wooden fort. It is the icon on this site for George Rogers Clark's Memoir, 'The Conquest of the Illinois'.]

[ 8/25/08: 175 + xxv print pages, 1 photo, presented in 9 webpages ]

George Rogers Clark's The Conquest of the Illinois is one of the best books on my site, a fascinating record of the American Revolutionary War campaign that gave us the Northwest Territory without which our history would have taken a vastly different and less happy turn. A key primary source written by the victorious commander himself, it describes the winning of Kaskaskia and Cahokia in Illinois and the crucial capture of Vincennes in today's Indiana: but much of the story is interwoven with the settling of Kentucky.


[image ALT: A map of (what would become) the eastern United States at the end of the 19c, shaded to show the Spanish portion in the west and the American portion in the east; where the two regions touch is deliberately blurry. It is the icon on this site for Arthur Preston Whitaker's book, 'The Spanish-American Frontier: 1783‑1795'.]

[ 3/17/09: 245 print pages, 3 maps, presented in 15 webpages ]

The Spanish-American Frontier: 1783‑1795 (by Arthur Preston Whitaker), subtitled The Westward Movement and the Spanish Retreat in the Mississippi Valley, is about Spain and Louisiana and the Mississippi; but it also has much to say about Kentucky, which was central to the tangled intrigues.


[image ALT: A graphic of a middle-aged man in a heavy coat, holding a sheaf of papers in his hands, against the backdrop of a Gothic-arched niche. He is Charles Nerinckx, a pioneering Catholic priest in early‑19c Kentucky; this is the icon to my transcription of a biography of him by Camillus Maes.]

[ 619 pages of print, 1 engraving;
presented in 36 webpages ]

Bishop Camillus Maes' Life of Father Charles Nerinckx (1761‑1824) is not a history, but a devotional biography of its subject, a Belgian pioneer priest of Kentucky, founder of several churches in the Bardstown area, as well as of the Order of the Sisters of Loretto whose mother-house is still there. So despite the book's focus on religious matters, a careful reader will learn a fair amount about the conditions of the Commonwealth in the early 19c: travel, land, farming, economy.


[image ALT: A montage of five portraits of 18c men: Daniel Boone, Alexander McGillivray, John Sevier, Richard Henderson, James Robertson.]

[ about 100 pages of print ]

Pioneers of the Old Southwest by Constance Lindsay Skinner is one of the 50 good little books in the early‑20c "Chronicles of America" series, laying out clearly and reliably various facets of American history: here, the establishment of Kentucky and Tennessee, starting with the 17c and 18c colonial migrations to the "Back Country" of North Carolina and taking us up to the time of Daniel Boone's death in Missouri in 1820. The early settlements, the Indian wars, the French and Spanish intrigue are all well covered; chapters 5‑7 focus more particularly on Kentucky.


[image ALT: A close-up of a collection of papers spread out on a table. It is the icon used on this site to represent my American History Notes subsite]

[ 8/1/11: 75 pages of print presented in 6 webpages ]

The Kentucky material in my American History Notes for now consists of six items, although most of them are fairly important: the original Journal of the First Kentucky Convention in 1784‑1785 (there would eventually be nine of them before Kentucky became a state: I suspect we'll be doing further reading soon); "The Efforts of the Democratic Societies of the West to Open the Navigation of the Mississippi", detailing a grass-roots lobbying movement of frontier Americans, mostly Kentuckians, to get what they wanted, whether by pressuring the federal government or otherwise; "Louisville and Portland Canal", taking us thru the surprisingly slow and difficult financing of the canal around the Falls of the Ohio; and "The Defeat of the Secessionists in Kentucky in 1861", in which the author discusses how a predominantly South-leaning state came to be on the Union side almost from the beginning of the war; and "The Louisville and Nashville Railroad", detailing the crucial rôle of that road — almost all of it in Kentucky — during the War between the States, providing an important pathway for the North to invade the South, and thus fatally impacting the Commonwealth's neutrality. The last item is a slight piece of reminiscences of Governor Letcher.


[image ALT: zzz. It is a portrait of the Revolutionary War-period American general James Wilkinson.]

[ 6/16/09: 9 pages of typescript, 2 photos;
presented in 1 webpage, ]

Very, very minor — but in one sense, not: A Brief History of Kona, Letcher County is one of the rare items onsite that had never been published. Interesting, too: this little town of maybe a hundred inhabitants has a bit more history than one might expect, and even the shadow of Daniel Boone.


[image ALT: zzz. It is a portrait of the Revolutionary War-period American general James Wilkinson.]

[ 8/8/06: 3 webpages, 16 photos ]

Although technically a part of my gazetteer-type pages — see Kentucky Scrapbook, the parent site of this page, for other items of historical interest in the Commonwealth — the Marked Rock of Manchester will definitely interest some and should probably be singled out here: while I have no particular theory as to what the markings on this rock might be, the rock itself is undeniable, and constitutes a historical document of sorts.



[image ALT: A circular seal, wreathed in stylized goldenrod blossoms, in which two men stand facing each other in a very stiff hug. It is the seal of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.]

The icon I use to indicate this subsite is of course the central device on the flag of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.


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Site updated: 22 Aug 11