Settlement:  Side 1

Between 1750 and 1840, British colonists and later United States citizens acquired and settled the millions of square miles between the Appalachians Mountains and the Mississippi River.  The Ohio River bisects this vast region, flowing 981 miles from Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh) to the Mississippi River with only one natural break in navigation at the rapids misnamed “the Falls of the Ohio.”

To the north, in the “Old Northwest,” dozens of Native American societies coexisted with thinly scattered French fur trappers and traders.  Far to the south, the “Five Civilized Indian Nations”—the Choctaws, Cherokees, Chickasaw, Creeks and Seminoles—occupied most of the modern southern states.

Kentucky was the crucial middle ground, the first American “west,” settled after the French and Indian War (1754-1763) by explorers and land-hungry pioneers primarily from Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.  However, because Kentucky was an extension of Virginia, the state with largest slave population in the nation, Kentucky was settled both by slaveholders and those in search of what Daniel Boone called “a good poor man’s country.”  Thus, the search for freedom and prosperity for some meant displacement and enslavement for others.

Settlement was not without its challenges.  The Iroquois Confederacy, the Shawnee, the Delaware, the Chickasaws and the Cherokees all claimed some portion of the region and resisted settlement by launching frequent raids well into the 1780s—one of which cost the life of Abraham Lincoln, grandfather of the future president, at Long Run Park near Louisville on May 19, 1786

Notwithstanding the dangers, the “Buzzel . . . about Kentuck . . . as a new found Paradise” attracted thousands of hopeful settlers from the east.


Settlement:  Side 2

In 1778, General George Washington issued secret orders to Lieutenant Colonel George Rogers Clark to raise an army, descend the Ohio River and attack British strongholds in the Northwest Territory.  Clark mustered roughly 150 men and, with several families of settlers, the Falls of the Ohio on May 27, 1778, landing on Corn Island offshore from modern downtown Louisville.  On June 26, 1778, with a portentous full solar eclipse in progress, Clark departed for Kaskaskia and later Vincennes where he won decisively and secured American ownership of the Northwest. In the spring of 1779, the settlers moved ashore and, at a public meeting on April 17, 1779, established the town of Louisville in honor of Louis XVI of France.

The history of Louisville, from the beginning, has been many interlocking histories.  British colonists and European immigrants, poor frontiersmen and members of the Virginia gentry with political and family connections that led to massive land-grants—all crossed the Appalachians seeking opportunities unavailable to them in the east.  Although the Falls determined the location of Louisville, the geography of the Ohio Valley near the Falls determined for two generations the overall patterns of settlement in Jefferson County.Early settlements in the county radiated from a network of partially fortified “stations.”  Settlers lived in or near such stations, in which they sought refuge when threatened by Native American raiding parties.

Steamboats appeared on the Ohio River in 1811 and, by 1830, a canal coiled around the Falls of the Ohio, and Louisville evolved from a frontier outpost into the key city on the border between North and South.  By 1850, Louisville was the tenth largest city in the nation—a thriving urban, mercantile and industrial city in a largely rural and agricultural state.


Selected Sources

Aron, Stephen.  How the West was Lost: The Transformation of Kentucky from Daniel Boone to Henry Clay (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996): 48.

Bakeless, John.  Background to Glory:  The Life of George Rogers Clark (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1957): 54-60, 119, 234-235.

Clark, Thomas D.  A History of Kentucky (Ashland, KY: The Jesse Stuart Foundation, 1988): 19-77.

Durrett, Reuben T.  The Centenary of Louisville (Louisville: John P. Morton and Company, 1893): 44-46

Filson, John.  The Discovery, Settlement and Present of Kentucke (Wilmington, Delaware, 1784).

Hammon, Neal 0.  “Early Louisville and the Beargrass Stations.”  Filson Club History Quarterly, 52(1978): 147-165.

Harrison, Lowell H., and Klotter, James C.  A New History of Kentucky (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997).

Henderson, A. Gwynn.  Kentuckians before Boone (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992).

History of the Ohio Falls Cities and their Counties, Vol. I (Cleveland: L. A. Williams, 1882): 15-20.

Hurt, R. Douglas.  The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720-1830 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996).

McMurtrie, Henry.  Sketches of Louisville (Louisville:  S. Penn, 1819): 171-180

Pirtle, Alfred.  James Chenoweth:  The Story of the Earliest Boys of Louisville and Where Louisville Started (Louisville: Standard Printing Company, 1921).

Tapp, Hambleton.  A Sesqui-centennial History of Kentucky (Louisville: Historical Record Association, 1945).

Waldman, Carl.  Atlas of the North American Indians (New York: Facts on File Publications, 1985).