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A State For The Frontiersmen     

The history of Kentucky is a rather long, complicated affair.  It was opposed by several other states and even called, "that bloody ground called Kentucky."  All this before it even entered statehood.  Called Ken-tah-ten by the Iriquois Indians, this land was interpreted to mean "land of tomorrow."  It was a free, beautiful land overflowing with wild game, herbs, flowers, streams, rivers, and lakes.  It was the west of the day and the west was wildly beautiful and vast. 

By the late 1700's the Spanish, French, and English began to explore this mountainous region and soon it was determined that the land should be surveyed and stakes made on the land.  However, the French made claim to all lands emptying from the Mississippi River and it's tributaries and the battle began for Kentucky. 

Daniel Boone first came to survey Kentucky in 1767.  He would later come with a surveying group to establish a settlement at Harrodsburg, Kentucky.  He and other frontiersmen and women then established the Wilderness Road stretching from Tennessee into the Kentucky region, making it easier and safer for settlers to flock to the area. 

   Wilderness Road         Original Cabin

   (The Wilderness Road as seen today)                        (Wilderness Road cabin)

Kentucky was officially made a county of Virginia in 1776.  It was called Kentucky County and was, in essence, just another county of the Virginia colony.  It encompassed what is now the entire state of Kentucky and was under Virginia law. 

Settlers soon began coming through the Cumberland Gap and over through the Wildnerness Road or down the Ohio River to settle in Kentucky County.  What greeted them, however, was not land flowing with milk and honey, but a land loved and inhabited by Indians.  There were immediate consequences from the lack of communication and from mounting fear on both sides.  But Virginia had it's own worries and could not be motivated to take notice of the Kentucky settlers who desperately needed protection. 

So, in a series of conventions held at Danville between 1784 and 1791, a plan was devised to make a stand for statehood.  There was even mention of making Kentucky a new nation!  In 1792 a constitution was finally framed and accepted and within the year statehood was granted to the Commonwealth of Kentucky.  Kentucky was the first state west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Kentucky was nearly immediately divided into three counties. Jeffersonville, Fayette, and Lincoln counties. These three counties encompassed the middle to the eastern half of the state. The western edge of Kentucky was still rather unexplored and remained Chickasaw Indian lands. By 1785 there were more counties pending legislature. It was a time of enormous growth and those who were truly adventurous sought the riches Kentucky could offer.

A Man is Rich Who Has Land and Family 

The settlers of colonial Kentucky were mostly farming people with a love of family and land.  They brought their entire families and, for the most part, remained on their little piece of land for their entire lives.  The forests provided deer, rabbit, squirrel, and bear.  Herbs like chamomile, sage, and parsley grew wild and abudant in the deep mountain terrain. 

                  Hensley Settlement

          (Wilderness Road homestead)                                           (Typical wagon of the early 1800's)

The people who made the newly established state of Kentucky their home were strong, independent people.  Often living days away from neighbors, weeks away from a town or village.  These families were in-and-of themselves small colonies.  Large families were the norm and children were indeed numerous.  The average family was 10 children!  When a woman died (usually before the age of 50) the husband would take on another wife to help care for the children and tend the house, but if this woman was young she might also bear him children.  It was not uncommon to have a man who'd been married three times to have 15-20 children!

Gardening, cooking, cleaning, sewing, healing - the work of the woman of the house was hard.  It was a long day for the female head of house.  She would often rise long before dawn and retire to her straw tick mattress long after dusk.  Her garden was the mainstay of the family and it was she who had to make sure that it was plowed, planted, tended, harvested and put "away" for the winter months.  Without the family garden there would be no food on the table.  There was corn, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, beets, and cane for sugar.  The corn would be ground down to make flour to make cornbread, a staple of the mountain folk.  They had cows for milk, cane for sugar, corn for bread, and they had chickens for eggs; enough for a large family to survive on without ever having to leave the farm.  Unless things went bad.

The use of homeopathic medicines is not a new fad.  It was THE ONLY source of healthcare prior to the 19th century for most parts of the world!  And especially for the isolated mountain homes of Kentucky.  There were no doctors to fetch for birthing babies.  There weren't surgeons to set bones or dentists to pull teeth.  It was more often than not the female head of the household who took on these tasks with nothing more than a bottle of whiskey and a basket of herbs and roots.  What she learned in the way of the healing arts she learned by her mother and her mother learned from her mother.  Few if any knew how to read, let alone write.  It was like memorizing the entire American Medical Association textbook! 

Men were the hunters and builders, finding and killing the meat for the household.  They built the barns, outhouses, and outbuildings that made up the family farm.  He tended the animals and harvested the hay.  They went to town when it was absolutely required and made the mountain farm livable and safe against wild animals and Indians.  He was also the family historian.  He carried within him the history of his family; the stories of great-grandma Iree who came to America from Ireland, the tale of Uncle Silas who whalloped a bear and then turned it as docile as a dog for a house pet.  There were no books (often not even a family Bible) to give entertainment since most early Kentuckians could not read.  There weren't churches or schools, nor neighbors - they just had what they carried in their heads.  And so it was the father who told stories of long ago while sitting about the evening fire. And those stories, like the herbal arts of the woman, were passed on to the eldest son to carry on to the next generation. Without him there would be no stories of Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett. 

In the Still Of the Night

It is said that the first reported rye whiskey showed up in Kentucky around 1788 by a German immigrant named Jakob Boehm.  Jim Bean traces it's heritage straight back to this man! 


          (Whiskey Still early 1900's)                 (Authorities Destroying a Still 1920's)

Town Taverns were hours from home while corn and rye were staple crops.  The frontiersmen of Kentucky took it upon themselves to make their own liqour.  Corn liquor was a foul drink prone to making men stupidly drunk. 

But it was also profitable.  Hauling corn and rye into town to sell could be exceptionally difficult with poor roads and rough terrain.  But when the rye or corn was distilled into whiskey they could carry much more and get more money out of it, too! While the average horse was capable of hauling only 4 bushels of corn at a time, the same horse could haul the equivalent of 24 bushels if the grain was manufactured into whiskey.  The liquid whiskey occupied less space and was easier to carry to market. Until Congress passed the 1791 Excise Tax, every farm probably had it's own still.  For the next 128 years it was considered legal to own a still - provided you paid the taxes.  It wasn't until the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed that it became illegal to own a still.

A Language Without A Name

The men and women who settled Kentucky were of hearty stock.  They had to be able and willing to withstand hardship, deprivation, severe winters, and brutal summers.  They had to have known that they might live and die in the same house and never see another extended family member again.  What kind of a people would be willing and able to withstand such trials?  The Scots-Irish.


The settlers of Kentucky were people used to little freedom, no land, and daily suffering on a governmental level.  When they emigrated to the colonies of Virginia, Charleston, and Maryland they must have been rather shocked and discouraged to see that there really wasn't any more freedom than what they had left behind.  There were still landlords and overseers.  There were taxes and slave-wages for immigrants and religious bigotry - albeit free religious speech. 

So when the lands to the west of the Appalachians opened for settling the Scots-Irish moved in droves.  They claimed their stake and dug their roots.  They sang their Irish songs and spoke their Scottish brogue.  They sewed their Gaelic alphabet samplers and drank their Scottish brews.  It was green, it was hilly, it was as though they had found the mirror image of their homeland.  More importantly than all other things - they had land!  More priceless than gold, land was invaluable.  They had finally found their niche in the world, albeit isolated and rough.

But what of the language?  Why the unusual drawl we hear today and the foreign-sounding words.  The truth of the matter is that the early Kentuckians spoke Elizabethan English.  Some of the words still in use can be found in Shakespeare and Chaucer and even the King James Bible!  Don't believe me?  Click here to read an excellent article on the history of the Appalachian language.

History is not kind when it comes to accents.  The odd mixture of Irish, Scottish, and German root accents have become mixed with the Americanized Queen's English that we all speak.  It is something rather to be proud of than to be ashamed of.  The ancestry of Irish and Scottish in the hills of Kentucky run so deep and so strong, that not even modern English has altered it much. It a rather wonderous thing to think that when you hear a Kentuckian speak you are listening to 300 year old Elizabethan English.  But even more wonderous is the fact that you are listening to the ancestors of hundreds of years ago; the men and women who put their entire lives into making Kentucky a strong, beautiful land - truly the "land of tomorrow."