Louisville City Guide

By Sunny Jane Morton Premium

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In the late 1700s, the Falls of the Ohio were the only obstacle on the Ohio River’s otherwise easy path to the Mississippi. The series of shallow rapids required careful navigation and portaging of cargo. The tiny river town of Louisville, Ky., sprang up along the falls’ bank. By 1850, it was a major American city. If your ancestors were Louisvillians, you’re in luck: This city’s records are as easy to navigate as the Ohio River, minus the Falls.
A river tale 

Kentucky was prime frontier real estate long before it was settled. The French claimed it first, then England. But Britain forbade settlement with the Proclamation of 1763. Then Virginia began awarding military land patents redeemable anywhere within its own claimed boundaries—which included Kentucky. Surveyors mapped Kentucky and settlers trickled in well before the area technically opened.

Veterans of the French and Indian and Lord Dunmore’s wars claimed land around the Falls. Louisville grew with nearby French families, and Pennsylvanians and Marylanders from upriver. When the Spanish lifted trade restrictions on the Mississippi River, steamboats began upstream commerce, and Louisville built mills and factories.

Irish and German immigrants arrived during the antebellum era, though anti-immigration riots in 1855 frightened thousands away. The town was officially neutral in the Civil War, but its residents weren’t. Union supporters switched loyalties over emancipation of their slaves. Postwar Louisville assumed a stronger Southern identity. New residents included Eastern European Jews, who joined German and Polish Jews in the Preston Street area, and freed blacks. 

During World War I, Camp Taylor housed nearly 50,000 soldiers locally. Surrounding swamps incubated tuberculosis, a public health problem until the 1960s. In 1937, floods buried most of Louisville; 175,000 people were evacuated. World War II manufacturing helped the city bounce back.

Louisville saw a period of decline after the war. Desegregation efforts and other Civil Rights activities in this “most northerly Southern city” led to tensions, including a 1968 riot. Urban renewal has given the city a facelift and fresh energy since the 1980s.


Record navigation

Before Kentucky became a state in 1792, Louisville belonged to Virginia, first as part of Fincastle County (1772), then Kentucky County (1776), then an enormous Jefferson County (1780) with Louisville as county seat. Today, Louisville and a much smaller Jefferson County form a unified metro government.

If you’re local, start with the Louisville Metro Archives (LMA), the Filson Historical Society and the Louisville Free Public Library (LFPL). The Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives (KDLA) and the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) in Frankfort have statewide records. 

If you’re far away, start record shopping at the KDLA website; staff take a variety of requests. Hit a snag? Contact the Louisville Genealogical Society. These are the records you’ll navigate:

Vital records: Statewide birth and death records begin in 1911; marriage and divorce records begin in mid-1958. Order from the Office of Vital Statistics. City and county vital records go back further: births to 1852, marriages to 1781 and deaths to 1866. Find them at LMA (click on Reference Material), KHS, KDLA and the Family History Library (FHL) (do a place-name search for Jefferson County). 

Burial records: You can search interments at Louisville’s largest cemetery, Cave Hill, which opened in 1848. Otherwise, use the Kentucky Cemetery Records Database (choose Search Our Collections). lists burials for several Jefferson County cemeteries, including Jewish ones. Look for early African-American burials in Forest Home, Louisville and Berrytown cemeteries. 

Various repositories have cemetery records, including the FHL (search county and city resources). The FHL has coroner’s records, the Filson has funeral home records, and KHS has an indexed collection of mortuary records.

Church records: Louisville’s strong Catholic presence comes from its early French settlers, German 
immigrants and English migrants from Maryland. Presbyterians and Episcopalians have a lengthy local pedigree, too. The Jewish community emerged in the 1840s; Baptists and Methodists gained converts throughout the 1800s.

Contact existing congregations for records. For defunct congregations, look to church administrative offices such as the Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville and the Presbyterian Historical Society <>. Some Episcopalian and African-American church records are at KHS. 

City directories: These date to 1832; directories for 1861 and 1864 to 1923 are searchable on subscription site Fold3 . A handful are on Full or nearly full runs of city directories are at KHS, the Filson, LFPL and the FHL. 

Deeds: The Kentucky Land Office has digitized land grants doled out by Virginia in its Virginia and Old Kentucky patent databases. If a patent mentions a treasury warrant or certificate of settlement and preemption, search companion databases on the same site. An index to Kentucky land grants is also on Kentucky repositories with early land records include LMA and KHS. Subsequent land sales are recorded at the Jefferson County Clerk’s Office. Staff will search indexes and send copies of deeds for a fee. Or search deed books back to 1783 at LMA or KHS, request a record search from KDLA, or order Jefferson County deed books and indexes (1783-1911) on microfilm from the FHL.

Financial records: The Filson, KDLA, KHS and FHL have county tax lists, some as early as 1782. African-American ancestors might appear in the records of the Freedman’s Savings Bank, which had a Louisville branch from 1865 to 1874. Search digitized bank records at

Newspapers: Papers circulated in the early 1800s; consult Early Louisville, KY Newspaper Abstracts, 1806-1828 by Lola Frazer Crowder. The 1807 Louisville Gazette is searchable, along with dozens of other papers, at Chronicling America. The FHL, KHS and LFPL also have newspaper collections. A long-time daily, The Courier-Journal, began publishing in 1868. Find microfilmed issues at most major libraries and an index for most of the 20th century at LFPL.

Probate: Start with’s digitized collection of Kentucky Probate Records, 1792-1977. Mail requests for copies of wills to the county clerk’s office. 

Kentucky vital records indexes on subscription sites and, and the free also has record images for Kentucky births (1852-1910), marriages (1852-1914) and deaths (1852-1953).

Fast Facts 

Settled: 1778
Incorporated: 1828
Nicknames: Derby City, Falls City, River City
State: Kentucky
County: Jefferson
County Seat: Louisville
Other Parent Counties: Kentucky, Fincastle (both in Virginia)
Area: 398 square miles
Motto: Industry and punctuality by persevering
Primary Historical Ethnic Groups: English, Scots, Irish, German, African-American
Primary Historical Industries: Horse racing, manufacturing, shipping, slave trade
Famous Residents: Muhammad Ali, Thomas Edison, Jennifer Lawrence, Diane Sawyer, Zachary Taylor, Hunter S. Thompson
1850: 43,194
1900: 204,731
Current: 597,337
  • Jewish Louisville: Portrait of a Community by Carol Ely (Jewish Community Federation)
  • Kentucky Ancestry: A Guide to Genealogical and Historical Research by Roseann Reinemuth Hogan (Ancestry)
  • New History of Kentucky by Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter (University Press of Kentucky)
  • Old Louisville by David Dominé (Arcadia Publishing)
  • Two Hundred Years at the Falls of the Ohio: A History of Louisville and Jefferson County by George H. Yater (Heritage Corp. of Louisville and Jefferson County
Organizations and archives 
Top historic sites
201 W Riverside Drive, Clarksville, IN 47129, (812) 280-9970

Just across the Ohio River from Louisville, cultural and natural history come together at an interpretive center featuring

the local history of the area. Though much of the falls have been flooded, you still can see the 390 million-year-old
fossil beds.

1310 S Third St., Louisville, KY 40208, (502) 635-5083

Founded in 1884, this society houses its collections in a historic mansion and a museum in the carriage house. Exhibits explain frontier-era Kentucky, as well as local connections to Lewis and Clark and Abraham Lincoln.

561 Blankenbaker Lane, Louisville, KY 40207, (502) 897-9845

This former farm and National Historical Landmark tells the story of early settlement, the American Revolution,

western expansion and everyday life—including that of slaves—on the Kentucky frontier.

1101 E Market St., Jeffersonville, IN 47130, (812) 283-3728

Once owned by the founder of Howard Shipyards, the largest inland shipyard in the United States, this mansion

displays riverboat and steamboat artifacts.

2308 Portland Ave., Louisville, KY 40212, (502) 776-7678

Learn how the Ohio River shaped the Louisville area—and vice versa—in this museum in an 1852 mansion. View

newsreels of the 1937 flood, listen to the story of a woman steamboat master and view historical exhibits.
Records at a glance

Birth records 

Begin: 1852, with some interruption

Research tips: Order copies back to 1911 for $10 from the state vital statistics office (request a “genealogy” or “long-form” copy). Research older city and county records online at and, or at local and state archives.

Death records 

Begin: 1866, with some interruption 

Research tips: Order copies back to 1911 for $6 from the state vital records office. Research older city and county records online at and, or at local and state archives.


Begin: 1783 

Research tips: Send written request and $5 to county clerk’s office (you’ll be billed for copies). Search the Kentucky Land Office website for digitized land grants. 

City directories 

Begin: 1832 

Research tips: Find directories at the Kentucky Historical Society, Filson Historical Society, Louisville Public Library and Family History Library (FHL). Assorted directories are online at and Fold3.

Marriage records 

Begin: 1781 

Research tips: Order copies back to 1956 for $6 from the state vital records office. Research older city and county records online at and, or at local and state archives.


Begin: 1784 

Research tips: Use the digitized Kentucky probate collection at or send a written request and $5 to

the county clerk’s office (you’ll be billed for photocopies).
  • 1780: Virginia government approves Louisville charter 


  • 1792: Kentucky becomes a state
  • 1803: Lewis and Clark depart Louisville
  • 1815: First steamboat arrives from New Orleans
  • 1839: Horse race is precursor to Kentucky Derby
  • 1855: Democrats and Know-Nothings erupt in Bloody Monday election riots
  • 1875: First Kentucky Derby takes place
  • 1883: First Louisville Slugger baseball bats produced
  • 1890: F4 tornado damages downtown Louisville
  • 1968: Rioting and looting results in two deaths and $200,000 in damages
  • 1974: Another tornado rips through Louisville1975 Public schools ordered to merge and desegregate
Related Resources 




 From the September 2012 issue of Family Tree Magazine