When the Eastern seaboard of North America was being colonized in the 1600s, Kentucky was part of the inaccessible country beyond the mountains. After Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, claimed all regions drained by the Mississippi and its tributaries for France, British interest in the area quickened. The first major expedition to the Tennessee region was led by Dr. Thomas Walker, who explored the eastern mountain region in 1750 for the Loyal Land Company. Walker was soon followed by hunters and scouts including Christopher Gist. Further exploration was interrupted by the last conflict (1754–63) of the French and Indian Wars between the French and British for control of North America, and Pontiac's Rebellion, a Native American uprising (1763–66).
With the British victorious in both, settlers soon began to enter Kentucky. They came in defiance of a royal proclamation of 1763, which forbade settlement west of the Appalachians. Daniel Boone, the famous American frontiersman, first came to Kentucky in 1767; he returned in 1769 and spent two years in the area. A surveying party under James Harrod established the first permanent settlement at Harrodsburg in 1774, and the next year Boone, as agent for Richard Henderson and the Transylvania Company, a colonizing group of which Henderson was a member, blazed the Wilderness Road from Tennessee into the Kentucky region and founded Boonesboro. Title to this land was challenged by Virginia, whose legislature voided (1778) the Transylvania Company's claims, although individual settlers were confirmed in their grants.
Kentucky was made (1776) a county of Virginia, and new settlers came through the Cumberland Gap and over the Wilderness Road or down the Ohio River. These early pioneers of Kentucky and Tennessee were constantly in conflict with the Native Americans. The growing population of Kentuckians, feeling that Virginia had failed to give them adequate protection, worked for statehood in a series of conventions held at Danville (1784–91). Others, observing the weaknesses of the U.S. government, considered forming an independent nation. Since trade down the Mississippi and out of Spanish-held New Orleans was indispensable to Kentucky's economic development, an alliance with Spain was contemplated, and U.S. General James Wilkinson, who lived in Kentucky at the time, worked toward that end.
However, in 1792 a constitution was finally framed and accepted, and in the same year the Commonwealth of Kentucky (its official designation) was admitted to the Union, the first state W of the Appalachians. Isaac Shelby was elected the first governor, and Frankfort was chosen capital. U.S. General Anthony Wayne's victory at the battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 effectively ended Native American resistance in Kentucky.
In 1795, Pinckney's Treaty between the United States and Spain granted Americans the right to navigate the Mississippi, a right soon completely assured by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Enactment by the federal government of the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) promptly provoked a sharp protest in Kentucky (see Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions). The state grew fast as trade and shipping centers developed and river traffic down the Ohio and Mississippi increased.
The War of 1812 spurred economic prosperity in Kentucky, but financial difficulties after the war threatened many with ruin. The state responded to the situation by chartering in 1818 a number of new banks that were allowed to issue their own currency. These banks soon collapsed, and the state legislature passed measures for the relief of the banks' creditors. However, the relief measures were subsequently declared unconstitutional by a state court. The legislature then repealed legislation that had established the offending court and set up a new one. The state became divided between prorelief and antirelief factions, and the issue also figured in the division of the state politically between followers of the Tennessean Andrew Jackson, then rising to national political prominence, and supporters of the Whig Party of Henry Clay, who was a leader in Kentucky politics for almost half a century.
In the first half of the 19th cent., Kentucky was primarily a state of small farms rather than large plantations and was not adaptable to extensive use of slave labor. Slavery thus declined after 1830, and for 17 years, beginning in 1833, the importation of slaves into the state was forbidden. In 1850, however, the legislature repealed this restriction, and Kentucky, where slave trading had begun to develop quietly in the 1840s, was converted into a huge slave market for the lower South.
Antislavery agitation had begun in the state in the late 18th cent. within the churches, and abolitionists such as James G. Birney and Cassius M. Clay labored vigorously in Kentucky for emancipation before the Civil War. Soon Kentucky, like other border states, was torn by conflict over the slavery issue. In addition to the radical antislavery element and the aggressive proslavery faction, there was also in the state a conciliatory group.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Kentucky attempted to remain neutral. Gov. Beriah Magoffin refused to sanction President Lincoln's call for volunteers, but his warnings to both the Union and the Confederacy not to invade were ignored. Confederate forces invaded and occupied part of S Kentucky, including Columbus and Bowling Green. The state legislature voted (Sept., 1861) to oust the Confederates and Ulysses S. Grant crossed the Ohio and took Paducah, thus securing the state was secured for the Union. After battles in Mill Springs, Richmond, and Perryville in 1862, there was no major fighting in the state, although the Confederate cavalryman John Hunt Morgan occasionally led raids into Kentucky, and guerrilla warfare was constant.
For Kentucky it was truly a civil war as neighbors, friends, and even families became bitterly divided in their loyalties. Over 30,000 Kentuckians fought for the Confederacy, while about 64,000 served in the Union ranks. After the war many in the state opposed federal Reconstruction policies, and Kentucky refused to ratify the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
As in the South, an overwhelming majority of Kentuckians supported the Democratic party in the period of readjustment after the war, which in many ways was as bitter as the war itself. After the Civil War industrial and commercial recovery was aided by increased railroad construction, but farmers were plagued by the liabilities of the one-crop (tobacco) system. After the turn of the century, the depressed price of tobacco gave rise to a feud between buyers and growers, resulting in the Black Patch War. Night riders terrorized buyers and growers in an effort to stage an effective boycott against monopolistic practices of buyers. For more than a year general lawlessness prevailed until the state militia forced a truce in 1908.
Coal mining, which began on a large scale in the 1870s, was well established in mountainous E Kentucky by the early 20th cent. The mines boomed during World War I, but after the war, when demand for coal lessened and production fell off, intense labor troubles developed. The attempt of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) to organize the coal industry in Harlan co. in the 1930s resulted in outbreaks of violence, drawing national attention to "bloody" Harlan, and in 1937 a U.S. Senate subcommittee began an investigation into allegations that workers' civil rights were being violated. Further violence ensued, and it was not until 1939 that the UMW was finally recognized as a bargaining agent for most of the state's miners. Labor disputes and strikes have persisted in the state; some are still accompanied by violence.
After World War I improvements of the state's highways were made, and a much-needed reorganization of the state government was carried out in the 1920s and 30s. Since World War II, construction of turnpikes, extensive development of state parks, and a marked rise in tourism have all contributed to the development of the state. Kentucky benefited from the energy crisis of the 1970s, enjoying new prosperity when its large coal supply was in great demand during the 70s and 80s. The broader economy, however, recovered slowly from a decline in manufacturing during the same period.