Kentucky History and Research Overview

By Family Tree Editors Premium


Long home to Indians, Kentucky lay within territory claimed by France in 1682. In the 1750s, British colonials began exploring west of the Appalachian Mountains, moving down the Ohio River or through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. Britain’s Proclamation of 1763 forbidding settlement west of the Appalachians was largely ignored by land speculators and adventurous North Carolinians and Virginians, who began building stockaded settlements in Kentucky in the 1770s. The region fell within the jurisdiction of Fincastle County, Va., in 1772 and became Kentucky County, Va., in 1776. During the American Revolution, Indians allied with the British raided the western frontiers, driving out many Kentucky settlers.

After the Revolution, bounty land for military veterans and cheap, fertile soil attracted settlers from the east, especially the worn-out tobacco lands of Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland. They often came via the Ohio River from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and later from Ohio and Indiana. Thousands from Virginia and the Carolinas traveled along the Wilderness Trail to the Cumberland Gap. Others arrived from neighboring Tennessee, and a few from Europe. After several calls for separation from Virginia, Kentucky became the 15th state in 1792.

The Ohio River became a commercial avenue, with towns springing up along its banks. Some textile, timber and mining industries developed in Kentucky, but most of the state’s residents were farmers and planters. Tobacco was king, and corn and wheat were staple crops of smaller farmers.

By 1860, the state’s population included about 20 percent slaves, 5 percent foreign-born, and less than 1 percent free blacks. Despite its slave-state status, Kentucky had a large anti-slavery population. Choosing not to secede, the state furnished troops to both sides during the Civil War. In this border state, many Kentuckians preferred neutrality, but military engagements took place within its boundaries.

Railroads, coal mining, and tobacco farming invigorated the economy after the war. The development of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s and the coming of World War II encouraged manufacturing growth in Kentucky. While coal and tobacco remained the leading industries, others gaining importance since World War II include lumber, whiskey and food processing. By 1970, Kentucky’s urban population surpassed its rural population by a small margin.

(click to enlarge)
STATE state map with county outlines


  • Someone reportedly born in Virginia before 1792 may have been born in what is now Kentucky.
  • The state archives, state historical society, and Filson History Society hold Kentucky research materials including censuses, county records and newspapers.
  • Kentucky was never public domain land; land grants originated with colonial and state governments. But the process of acquiring land was confusing and inconsistent before statehood. Microfilm of many Kentucky land grant records is at the state archives and the Kentucky Historical Society. Subsequent land transactions between individuals were recorded at any court of record. Some colonial Kentucky land entries are in Fincastle County records, with records of Montgomery County, Va., after Fincastle was abolished in 1777. No records of Kentucky County, Va., are known to survive.


  • Federal census population schedules: 1810, 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930
  • Federal mortality schedules: 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880
  • Federal slave schedules: 1850, 1860. Schedules name slaveholders but rarely name slaves.
  • Special census of Civil War Union veterans and widows: 1890 (incomplete)


  • Bibliography of County Resources by the Kentucky Historical Society (Kentucky Historical Society, 1990)
  • A Bibliography of Kentucky History by John Winston Coleman (University of Kentucky Press, 1949)
  • Biographical Cyclopedia of the Commonwealth of Kentucky by Eileene Sandlin (Southern Historical Press, ca. 1980)
  • The Biographical Encyclopaedia of Kentucky of the Dead and Living Men of the Nineteenth Century (J.M. Armstrong, 1878)
  • The Centenary of Catholicity in Kentucky by Ben. J. Webb (McDowell Publications, ca. 1980)
  • Early Families of Eastern and Southeastern Kentucky and their Descendants by William C. Kozee (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1973)
  • Early Kentucky Tax Records, from the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1984)
  • The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Traditions by Alice Allison Dunnigan (Associated Publishing, 1982)
  • Genealogies of Kentucky Families: From the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society by James C. Klotter (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1981)
  • Guide to Kentucky Archival and Manuscript Collections by Barbara Teague and Jane A. Minder (Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, ca. 1988)
  • A History of Kentucky Baptists: from 1769 to 1885 by John H. Spencer (J.R. Baumes, 1886)
  • The History of Kentucky by Zachariah Frederick Smith (Prentice Press, 1886; reprint, Courier-Journal Job Printing Co., 1980)
  • A History of Kentucky, Embracing Gleanings, Reminiscences, Antiquities, Natural Curiosities, Statistics, and Biographical Sketches by William B. Allen (Bradley and Gilbert, 1872; reprint, Green County Historical Society, 1972)
  • A History of Kentucky and Kentuckians, 3 vols., by E. Polk Johnson (Lewis, 1912)
  • Kentucky Bible Records from the Files of the Genealogical Records Committee, Kentucky Society, Daughters of the American Revolution (Kentucky Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, ca. 1962-1981)
  • Kentucky Family Records edited by Mrs. Edgar L. Cox (West Central Kentucky Family Research Association, 1969; reprint; McDowell Publications, 1991)
  • Kentucky Genealogical Research by George K. Schweitzer (The Author, 1981)
  • Kentucky; A History of the State by W.H. Perrin, et al. (Reprint: Southern Historical Press, 1979)
  • Kentucky Index of Biographical Sketches in State, Regional and County Histories by Michael L. Cook (Cook Publications, 1986)
  • Kentucky Research Outline by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (online at
  • A Sesqui-Centennial History of Kentucky by Frederick A. Wallis (Historical Record Association, 1945)

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From the Family Tree Sourcebook
Also available: the State Research Guide Book, State Research Guides CD and The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy.