An Overview of Kentucky and the Nation
The history of Kentucky is integral to the national story because the large themes and forces that inform the American experience have always expressed themselves in Kentucky. Celebrated historian Frederick Jackson Turner acknowledged this in 1894 when, referring to the successive phases of frontier development and Kentucky's place at the geographical and cultural crossroads of America, he wrote: "Stand at the Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization."
Kentucky's procession from the brief coexistence of settlers and Native Americans to the market economy of 19th-century capitalism involved the great issues of the early republic. Prominent Civil War historians routinely cite Kentucky's peculiar brand of Unionism, a nationalism that also encompassed brief neutrality and a proslavery, anti-Lincoln ethos, as both derivative of and critical to Northern and Southern war efforts. In Kentucky, more than anywhere else, the Civil War was a brother's war, a microcosm of national tragedy in the many divided families of this border state.
All the traumatic contingencies of Kentucky's history--frontier conflicts over land and culture, antebellum discord over slavery, Civil War crises, postwar racial violence and institutional failures, and 20th-century struggles over industrialization and identity in a mass culture--are also functions of the national experience. Conversely, Kentucky's continuities--agrarianism, fractious politics and the multigenerational bonds with place--embody constants of the national spirit.
Since the explorations of Rene-Robert Cavelier de La Salle, Thomas Walker and Daniel Boone, Kentucky has served as an archetype of American success, failure and possibility. National demographic and economic trends continue to find expression in Kentucky. Traditionally a rural environment of small, family-oriented farms, Kentucky has historically boasted a varied agricultural base with spectacular production in tobacco and horse breeding. Today, the economy is increasingly service-oriented, although a burgeoning automobile manufacturing establishment places Kentucky third in U. S. automotive production.
Although Kentucky's population in 2000 was ninety percent white, recent demographic trends have paralleled America's growing diversity. The Hispanic population has doubled since 1990, and small enclaves of Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Indian and Serbian immigrants are becoming more common.
The Kentucky Historical Society's collections and publications resources contain a wealth of information on nearly all topics in Kentucky history. Be sure to search our collections and learn more about what has been published in The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society.