Modern archaeologists classify Kentucky's prehistoric past into six cultures that spanned 13,000 BC to 1,650 AD. These cultures were the Paleo-Indian culture, the Archaic culture, the Woodland culture, the Adena culture, the Mississippian culture and the Fort Ancient culture. From about 1650 until the arrival of the first white settlers, Native American battles broke out over control of the "Great Meadow" between the Shawnee tribes from north of the Ohio River and the Cherokee and Chickasaw tribes from south of the Cumberland River. During this time, no Indian nation held possession of the land that would eventually become Kentucky.
Dr. Thomas Walker and Christopher Gist led the first surveying parties into Kentucky in 1750 and 1751, respectively, but the outbreak of the French and Indian War in 1754 delayed further exploration of the state for over a decade. Daniel Boone visited Kentucky in 1767. In 1769, with a party of hunters led by John Finley, he returned to Kentucky for a two-year exploration of the region. 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.
One of the last Native American battles in Kentucky occurred at the Battle of Blue Licks in 1782 (where Blue Licks State Park stands today), although small skirmishes and raids would continue until 1813. Kentucky was originally declared to be a part of Virginia and was made a separate county of that state in 1776. Soon after the end of the American Revolution, a separation movement began in Kentucky. In 1792, after nine conventions to discuss the separation, Kentucky was made a separate state and was admitted to the Union as the fifteenth state. 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 Kentucky capital city. In 1818, the westernmost region of the state was annexed, following its purchase from the Chickasaw Indians.
When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Kentucky was torn apart by conflicting loyalties. Officially a neutral state, brother often fought against brother as Kentucky supplied approximately 100,000 troops to the North and 40,000 troops to the South. Ironically, Kentucky was the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln and the Confederate president Jefferson Davis. The two great men were born in log cabins within one year and 100 miles of each other. Kentucky's strategic potential was recognized by both sides in the conflict, and several bloody engagements and many guerrilla raids occurred throughout the state. The most violent battle took place near Perryville in 1862, with a toll of 1,600 dead and 5,400 wounded.
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.
The U.S. Treasury Gold Vault was established at Fort Knox in 1936. During World War II, Kentucky began to shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy, but it was not until 1970 that the state had more urban than rural dwellers. Tourism developed into a major industry, aided by an impressive state park system and new highways across the state.
For additional information about the history of Kentucky, refer to:
- "Kentucky: A Bicentennial History" by Steven A. Channing;
- "A History of Kentucky" by Thomas D. Clark;
- "History of Kentucky" by Richard H. Collins;
- "The Kentucky Encyclopedia" edited by John E. Kleber;
- "Our Kentucky, A Study of the Bluegrass State" edited by James C. Klotter;
- "A New History of Kentucky" by Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter.