Kentucky Family History Research

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This entry was originally written by Wendy Bebout Elliott, Ph.D., FUGA, for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
the Kentucky Family History Research series.
History of Kentucky
Kentucky Vital Records
Census Records for Kentucky
Background Sources for Kentucky
Kentucky Maps
Kentucky Land Records
Kentucky Probate Records
Kentucky Court Records
Kentucky Tax Records
Kentucky Cemetery Records
Kentucky Church Records
Kentucky Military Records
Kentucky Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
Kentucky Archives, Libraries, and Societies
African Americans of Kentucky
Kentucky County Resources
Map of Kentucky


Few American settlers had moved into the region of present-day Kentucky prior to the completion of the western portion of the border survey between Virginia and North Carolina in 1748. When the French and Indian War (Seven Years War) ended, the Ohio River was designated as the boundary between settlers and native inhabitants. Kentucky came under the jurisdiction of Augusta County, Virginia. Fincastle County, Virginia, was organized in 1772 to include all of present-day Kentucky with Harrodsburg designated the county seat. The following year the McAfee brothers and others surveyed land along the Salt River. In 1774, James Harrod founded Harrodsburg as the first permanent English settlement in Kentucky by a group that arrived via the Ohio River.

That same year Richard Henderson purchased from the Native Americans all land lying between the Ohio, Kentucky, and Cumberland rivers for his Transylvania Company. John Finley’s stories of Kentucky land precipitated Daniel Boone’s subsequent exploration. Boone blazed the trail from the Cumberland Gap (at the junction of present-day Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee) to the interior. This path between the Cumberland Gap and central Kentucky became known, through the Transylvania Company’s publicity, as the Wilderness Road. In 1775 the Transylvania Company established Boonesborough as its headquarters.

During the Revolutionary War, the Virginia government virtually ignored the settlements in Kentucky. The resulting lack of military assistance and isolation from the eastern portion of Virginia led to troubles with native tribes and precipitated a desire among the settlers for Kentucky to achieve statehood. Between 1784 and 1790, nine conventions met at Danville demanding separation from Virginia; however, none of these attained success in gaining a division.

Congress admitted the Commonwealth of Kentucky to the Union as the fifteenth state on 1 June 1792 after the first constitution was drafted on 3 April of that year. Established as a commonwealth state, Danville became its first capital. Early settlers included Revolutionary War veterans staking claims to bounty-land grants. Scots-Irish, German, and English individuals and families from Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee soon joined the veterans in Kentucky.

The disputed southern boundary between Kentucky and Tennessee remained unsettled until 1820 when Kentucky accepted the faulty Walker Line, drawn too far north of 36° 30’, between the Cumberland Gap and the western Tennessee River. Several sections of the Line remained questionable until surveyors conducted another survey in 1859. Since families who lived in the disputed area did not know in which state they resided, records are frequently located in both states. Due to changing county boundaries and divisions, Kentucky counties affected include (west to east) Trigg, Christian, Todd, Logan, Simpson, Allen, Monroe, Cumberland, Clinton, Wayne, McCreary, Whitley, Knox, and Bell.

Ideology over the slave issue divided the populace before and during the Civil War. Many large landowners supported slavery, but the small farmers and mountain families did not. Officially, Kentucky, the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, was neutral during the Civil War only until September 1861, when it actively began support of the Union, even though the Confederate States continued to act as if Kentucky were one of theirs.

Following the Civil War, tobacco and coal became leading commodities in Kentucky’s economy. Kentucky’s bluegrass pastures have produced an exceptional number of thoroughbred horses, leading to worldwide recognition in horse racing. Fort Knox, originally Camp Knox, began as a permanent military post and later became an official U.S. gold depository. In the twentieth century Fort Campbell served as a major training center for military recruits.

Genealogical research in the state is aided by excellent research facilities and printed materials on Kentucky’s early settlement.

A source for legal issues is J. Barbour and John D. Carroll. The Kentucky Statutes: Containing All General Laws Including Those Passed at Session of 1894. Louisville: Courier-Journal Job Printing, 1894. It is a must for understanding early regulations for land and taxation.

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