old woodcut image of the Kentucky River

A Teacher’s Guide to

Kentucky’s Story

A nine-part Kentucky history series for grades 4 and 5, produced by KET.

See our online ITV catalog  for upcoming broadcasts and additional information for teachers.

The Need For Statehood

Program Goal

Students will name and discuss some of the factors which led to Kentucky's seeking statehood.

Program Summary

Slater Cassidy needs to get his goods to market and the only access is by wagon and river, over poor roads susceptible to Indian attack and wagon breakdowns. At the river, he must unload his goods and reload them into the boats which will carry them down the Mississippi to markets in New Orleans. While at the river, Slater meets Mr. Halfhill, a Virginian who is fascinated by the economic opportunities opening up in the new territory. Slater, however, has no kind words for Virginia or its legislature, which has failed to provide for the settler's needs. He stresses the need for Kentucky statehood. Upon his homecoming, Slater learns someone has laid claim to his land, so he heads out on yet another arduous trip, only to discover it is Halfhill himself who has successfully claimed his land.

Historical Background

The Road to Statehood (1780-1820)

In the years following the Revolution, Americans poured across the mountains and into the western country. They came down the Ohio River to Limestone (Maysville) and Louisville or overland through the Cumberland Gap, following buffalo trails and Indian pathways to the fertile meadows and hillsides of Kentucky's interior. Many of these settlers were former soldiers, recipients of land warrants and bounties for their military services. Others were speculators who had purchased warrants. Pell-mell they rushed in to find the acreage to which they were entitled. Because no systematic public survey had been conducted of Kentucky, the claimants used rocks, saplings, tree stumps and other obscure or ephemeral landmarks as boundary markers and survey points. Some registered their claims properly; others did not. The resulting crazy quilt of ambiguous, overlapping land claims generated thousands of lawsuits that gave work to a retinue of young lawyers. But litigation often victimized the original settlers and warrant recipients. Frequently they could not afford to plead their case in far-away court. Many of the later speculators, however, understood land laws and enjoyed easy access to attorneys and courts. Why did Virginia's laws encourage and sanction such abuses, the early settlers asked.

Other settlers wondered about Virginia's inability or disinterest in providing protection from Indian depredations, which Kentuckians believed were encouraged by the British authorities to the north and Spaniards to the south. In an effort to provide more local government and. military protection for the frontier, in 1780 Virginia created three military districts from Kentucky County-Fayette (honoring the Marquis de Lafayette), Jefferson (named for Thomas Jefferson), and Lincoln (for Benjamin Lincoln, a Revolutionary War hero). But the Old Dominion's lawmakers appointed Virginia-born gentry to the new county offices, thereby alienating many Kentuckians who had no affection for Virginia. Still, because the district militias could not act beyond their boundaries without the governor's permission, the safety of the western settlements remained uncertain.

The formidable mountain barrier and the distance of nearly a thousand miles that separated Kentuckians and the government at Virginia's capital further complicated Kentucky-Virginia relations. Many of the laws passed by the eastern legislature either did not apply to the frontiersmen or discriminated against them. A major bone of contention concerned trade and commerce. Virginia's economic interests, like her rivers, flowed to the east. Kentucky looked to the west and south, for the Ohio and Mississippi rivers served as her major highways. Kentucky agricultural produce, rafted down the Ohio and Mississippi, was loaded on ocean-going vessels at New Orleans (then owned by Spain) and carried to eastern U.S. and European markets. In 1783, Spain closed the port to Americans, eliminating the westerners' cheapest route for freighting. Profit minded Kentucky farmers demanded that the Virginia and United States governments force Spain to free usage of the river below Natchez and provide them with access to New Orleans' port and storage facilities. It was their right, the backwoodsmen insisted, to navigate the river.

Smarting under these and other grievances, a group of Kentuckians met at the log courthouse at Danville in December of 1784 to discuss ways to ward off a threatened Cherokee raid. At this, the first of an eventual ten conventions, they decided to hold an election to choose delegates from each military district to meet in a formal convocation. The following spring the elected representatives assembled in Danville and discussed the immense distance and uncertain communication lines between the Tidewater and the Bluegrass, as well as Virginia's inability to effectively administer her western country. They resolved that Kentucky should separate from Virginia. Three months later they prepared a petition from the Virginia legislature outlining the complaints that could be resolved only through division. In answer, Virginia passed the first of four enabling acts, stipulating that the Kentucky convention could vote on separation in the fall of 1786, but once detached, Kentucky must immediately join the Confederation of the United States. The act also suggested that Kentucky assume her share of Virginia's war debt, a pro-vision that westerners opposed.

One of the dominating figures at these early conventions was James Wilkinson, a nefarious schemer who encouraged Kentuckians to ignore the enabling act, separate immediately, and remain independent of the Articles of Confederation government. Wilkinson's sentiments received only minor support until the frontiersmen learned of a proposed treaty with Spain that would surrender the westerners' navigation rights on the Mississippi for a commercial agreement favorable to the easterners. Again, the representatives (excluding Wilkinson) convened at Danville to discuss separation. Wilkinson, who had seized the opportunity to emphasize Kentucky's dependence on the Mississippi, had taken a flatboat of goods to New Orleans. There he acquired a trade permit from the Spanish authorities in exchange for a pledge to use his influence to cement Kentucky-Louisiana relations. Returning to Kentucky, Wilkinson lived in grand style, entertained lavishly, and impressed his neighbors with the monetary benefits he acquired from friendship with the Spanish officials. Although only a few Kentuckians seriously considered joining the monarchial and Catholic Spanish Empire, many realized that an independent Kentucky could flirt with officials in the Crescent City long enough to open the river, a feat the weak Confederation government had failed to accomplish.

The ratification of the constitution in April of 1789 and the creation of a new national government instilled hope, and the revelation of Wilkinson's intrigue with the Spaniards encouraged the statehood supporters. In July 1790 the delegates at Danville accepted the terms of Virginia's fourth enabling act and shortly thereafter began the task of drafting a constitution. On July 1, 1792, after seven and a half years of bickering, Kentucky became the nation's fifteenth state.

Kentucky's first constitution was short but contained a number of unique features, including the abolition of religious and property qualifications for the franchise; for the first time, all free, white male residents over age twenty-one could vote. However, the elitists and propertied interests who controlled the constitutional convention also set limits on the power of the common man, believing him to be politically unstable. The statehood document stipulated that the people would elect the members of the lower house and an electoral college; however, the latter would then choose the governor and state senators. No provision was made for a lieutenant governor, but many state officials were to be appointed by the governor.

The most controversial subject debated by the framers of the constitution was the issue of slavery. Some delegates believed slavery was necessary for the state's economic development. A few favored gradual emancipation; others feared the results of close promimity between free Negroes and the slaves to the south. Eleven of the delegates were ministers who loudly opposed permitting slavery to continue in Kentucky. Despite protests, the resulting document protected the institution and prohibited the state legislature from passing any laws to interfere with or abolish it.

In 1799 a second constitution was drafted, changing several provisions of the earlier document. The electoral college was discarded, and governors and senators thereafter were elected by popular vote. Appellate jurisdiction was limited to the state's Supreme Court, to be established by the legislature.

Following Kentucky's first election, held in the spring of 1792, the electoral college chose General Isaac Shelby as Kentucky's first governor. To him and the first legislature went the task of implementing the constitution and setting the state government in motion. Unfortunately, statehood did not eradicate all problems. Skulking bands of Indians continued to kill and pillage isolated travelers and settlers for nearly a decade; taxes imposed by the federal government, especially on homemade whiskey, threatened the meager profits of many settlers; and foreign plots continued to inflame Kentucky tempers. In 1800 France acquired Louisiana from Spain and two years later the intendant at New Orleans revoked the Americans' "right" to deposit goods until they could be loaded on oceangoing vessels. To protect the West, in 1803 the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from debt-plagued Napoleon. When Spanish officials (who disapproved of France's sale) refused to vacate Louisiana, Kentuckians prepared to fight. Spain peacefully backed down. Intrigues and foreign affairs continued to concern the residents of the Bluegrass state, but with Spain and France out of Louisiana, the frontier's main highway to market was finally open. The West's economy was no longer at the mercy of foreign whims.

With the confirmation of statehood in 1792, the obtaining of navigation rights from Spain in 1795, the purchase of Louisiana in 1803, and the opening of the Green River Military District in 1797, Kentucky's population skyrocketed from 100,000 in 1792 to 220,000 in 1800 and 406,000 in 1810. As the population increased and dispersed across the state, the arguments presented prior to statehood about the inconvenience of government from afar now applied to the need for independent units of local government. Smaller counties would assure each resident that he could, in one day's travel, visit the county seat to vote, conduct business or obtain justice, and return home without having the expense of overnight lodging. During its first decade as a state, Kentucky grew from nine to forty-five counties; by mid-century the commonwealth contained more than one hundred local units. Eight of these were carved from the Jackson Purchase, obtained by treaty from the Cherokees in 1819.

The birth of new counties also meant the creation of additional political positions, many of which provided monetary as well as political riches to their holders. Few offices, if any, required training; in many cases even literacy was not a prerequisite. Yet county courts and their officers collected taxes, authorized the construction and maintenance of area road-ways, supervised health matters and issued emergency decrees during epidemics, maintained jurisdiction over orphans and apprentices, tried bastardy cases, established ferries, approved milldams, set tavern rates, administered the poor laws, and dispensed patronage. Considering their lack of training, most of the early magistrates performed their tasks admirably.

The selection of state and county officials generated lively politicking. Stump speaking-accompanied by the dispensing of barbecue, burgoo, and bourbon-attracted crowds who cheered and heckled the candidates and their campaigners. The election might last three days, during which liquor flowed freely, fisticuffs were commonplace, and voters cast their ballots viva voce. Nothing created greater excitement than a Kentucky election!

Suggested Activities

  1. Divide the class into small groups and ask each to measure the classroom's perimeter or a particular area on the playground. Supply a variety of means (yardsticks, four foot poles, pre-measured string, etc.) for the students to use. Each group will probably have a different result. Discuss how such measuring would complicate land surveys. Have each student claim a certain area as his own. Ask him or her to document the claim by drawing a map and designating their area using available landmarks. What problems do you see with reading such a map 5 or 10 years from now?
  2. Have students make a pictograph showing their routes from home to school or to church. Could a stranger to the area follow the maps? Talk about the problems of drawing maps to scale, marking important points, etc.
  3. Hold a spelling bee and use county names, towns, and county and state officials as spelling words.
  4. Hold a mock campaign and election. Try casting votes out loud and with colored ballots. Talk about how these methods of vote casting intimidated the voter.
  5. Ask an elected official to visit your classroom and talk about the current way elections are held and the importance of voter privacy. How is this different from the way elections were held in the past?

Web Picks


Clark, Thomas D.
Historic Maps of Kentucky
Lexington, 1979.

Coward, Joan Wells.
Kentucky in the New Republic: The Process of Constitution Making
Lexington, 1979.

Ireland, Robert.
The County Courts in Antebellum Kentucky
Lexington, 1972.

*Stone, Richard G.
A Brittle Sword: the Kentucky Militia, 1776-1912
Lexington, 1977.

Tachau, Mary K. Bonsteel.
Federal Courts in the Early Republic: Kentucky
Princeton, 1978.

Wattlington, Patricia.
The Partisan Spirit: Kentucky Politics, 1779-1792
N.Y., 1972.

*Denotes books from The Kentucky Bicentennial Bookshelf series.