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ROAD TO STATEHOOD

In the 1780s, even prior to the end of the Revolutionary War, Americans faced numerous problems, such as governance of the new nation. Representation of the people was important to separating from England, and concerns related to this issue consistently arose among citizens. The actual location of the government was equally important because the government and, in turn, the representatives should be aware of and respond to their citizens’ issues while serving the greater good. These ideas helped form the basic ideology behind the American Revolution — republicanism.


While Americans valued republicanism (focused on representation, individual liberty and rights, and a citizen’s power in their government), westerners, like Kentuckians particularly found it important because of their unique problems and concerns, such as Native American relations, transportation, and land warrants. These issues, among others — like the geographic separation the Appalachian Mountains created between the Virginian government and what was then Kentucky County, Virginia — led to a special motivation for Kentuckians to create their own state.


The first mention of statehood came in 1780, just a couple years before the Battle of Blue Licks, which helped end the American Revolution in the west. As early as the mid–1770s, settlers streamed through Cumberland Gap and down the Ohio River into Kentucky, consistently facing Native American opposition. Far from being uninhabited territory, Native Americans, such as Cherokees and Shawnees felt threatened by white settlers. Kentuckians argued they needed armed forces — a state militia — to counter the "Indian threat." Kentucky, as a Virginia county, lacked the authority to raise such a force, and Virginia refused to do so because it was still paying Revolutionary War debts and did not want additional expenses. Also, most Virginians had not encountered "Indian threats" for years.


In 1784, Benjamin Logan invited Kentucky leaders, to Danville to discuss separation from Virginia. In December, Kentucky’s first of ten statehood conventions — meetings which eventually included men such as Humphrey Marshall, Harry Innes, and Robert Breckinridge — met and declared separation was the best solution to their problem. With the goal of uniting Kentuckians in the statehood movement, the first convention proposed the creation of a newspaper to help further the cause. In August 1787, John Bradford published the first edition of the <i>Kentucke</i> (changed to <i>Kentucky</i> in 1789) <i>Gazette</i>. Though charged with promoting a specific cause — statehood — Bradford printed foreign, national, and local news. Eventually the <i>Gazette</i> became one of the most open, democratic forums in the United States.


Transportation also helped drive statehood. Overland travel was difficult in the 18th century, so Kentuckians often used rivers as economic highways. At that time, Spain controlled the Mississippi River, the main highway for westerners and the port of New Orleans; it refused to recognize American rights to the river. In 1786, Secretary of State John Jay proposed the Jay–Gardoqui Treaty, which relinquished American claims to the Mississippi for 25 years.


With transportation key to economic development, some Kentuckians, including James Wilkinson and Harry Innes, pushed for complete independence. This became known as the "Spanish Conspiracy" and would allow Kentucky to join the Spanish Empire, though mostly for the profit of the individuals involved. The US Senate rejected the proposed treaty, defused the independence movement, and strengthened forces that wanted to keep Kentucky within the US. Even after statehood, Kentuckians remained cautious of distant national authority. They expressed this apprehension in 1798, through the Kentucky Resolutions, when they called on the federal government to repeal the Alien and Sedition Acts because they believed those measures violated Constitutional freedoms.


Additionally, the statehood movement drew momentum from Virginia’s land grant system. Virginia "paid" its militia with land warrants, which entitled them to property in its western counties, namely Kentucky. These warrants competed with other land grants. The claims were surveyed and described using "recognizable" boundaries — natural or manmade landmarks, and even other claims — and filed with the county surveyor. Unreliable landmarks, maps, and surveying tools, and unqualified surveyors led to overlapping claims and many disputes, handled in Virginia courts.


Kentuckians had unique issues and concerns — Native Americans, transportation, and land and legal questions. When matched with an ideology that governments should be accessible and responsive to the general good, this sparked a statehood movement. Richmond, Virginia’s capital was far away and Virginians had very different problems, so the state could not effectively govern the far–away Kentucky County. Finally, after ten conventions, held between 1784 and 1792 to work through concerns and issues, the "Commonwealth of Kentucky" became the fifteenth state in the Union on June 1, 1792.

Featured Author Thomas Kiffmeyer, Morehead State