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COUNTY TO COMMONWEALTH

In 1775, as few as 150 settlers resided in Kentucky. During the American Revolution, Kentucky’s population significantly increased, in part because General George Rogers Clark’s Ohio Valley campaign of 1778–1779 demonstrated that Kentucky as a safe place to live.




In 1776, the Virginia Assembly divided its westernmost county, Fincastle, into three counties, one of them being Kentucky County. This division afforded Kentucky County its own militia. Early militia leaders included well known frontier residents James Harrod, Simon Kenton, and Daniel Boone, who was commissioned to command Boonesboro. By 1780, Virginia’s Kentucky County had been subdivided into three counties: Fayette, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Nelson County was added in 1784, and Bourbon, Madison, and Mercer counties were created in 1785. In 1784, the state of Virginia began paying its militia with warrants for land located in these western counties. Many soldiers migrated there to claim this land.




By 1788, the number of Kentucky residents had increased to 62,000. The first federal census, conducted in 1790, reported 73,077 inhabitants. A decade later, the population almost tripled to 220,955. Although this rate of growth would not be sustained, resident numbers continued to increase rapidly for at least another decade. Kentucky’s late 18th–century residents represented several different ethnic or national groups. In 1790, most white Kentuckians were of English descent. Other notable groups included Scots and Scotch–Irish, Irish, Welsh, German, French, Dutch, and Swedish. Some 11,830 African–Americans lived in the region; all but 114 were enslaved.




Many settlers moved to Kentucky seeking economic opportunity. They typically traveled by foot or horseback from Virginia through Cumberland Gap or from Pennsylvania, by boat, down the Ohio River. Many sought fertile land for farming in the Bluegrass and Green River regions. Before the passage of the 1779 Virginia Convention Land Act, settlers obtained land through one of three types of claims: military–related claims, claims purchased from the Transylvania Company, and squatter’s claims. Aware of the conflicts created by multiple types of land claims, Virginia legislators established a court of land commissions to settle disputes. An act of 1781 allowed county courts to complete land surveys for individuals that could not afford them. Unfortunately, problems eventually arose with the existing acts which allowed wealthy individuals to obtain large holdings. As a result, by 1792, approximately two–thirds of Kentucky’s adult males were not property owners.




While the District of Kentucky was politically a part of Virginia, redistribution of land in Kentucky was unlikely. Many landless people supported Kentucky’s separation from Virginia in hopes of obtaining land. The Virginia Constitution of 1776 established a procedure by which Kentucky could separate from the state. Thomas Paine argued in his 1780 pamphlet, "The Public Good," that the differences between Kentucky and Virginia were so great that the two would be better off apart.




More important than the question of "difference," however, was the Native American issue. Kentucky residents were concerned with the threat of attack by Native Americans from outside the District. Settlers could not take offensive action against Native Americans without prior approval from Virginia. In 1784, Benjamin Logan, a colonel in Kentucky’s Lincoln County militia, called a district court meeting in Danville to discuss the potential Native American threat. Following a debate over whether to attack the Native Americans illegally, the delegates scheduled another meeting in Danville on December 2, 1784. This meeting directly addressed the issue of separation from Virginia and was the first of ten Constitutional Conventions conducted in Kentucky through 1792, when Kentucky attained statehood.




Featured Authors Amanda Fickey, UK Karl Raitz, UK