Southern History Series: The Kentuckian Diaspora

The following excerpt on the settlement of Kentucky, the Lower Midwest and Missouri comes from Thomas C. Mackey’s article “Not a Pariah, but a Keystone: Kentucky and Secession” in Sister States, Enemy States: The Civil War In Kentucky and Tennessee:

“While geography explains why the Lincoln administration pursued different policies toward Kentucky than it did other border states like Maryland or Missouri, geography alone does not explain the significance of Kentucky in terms of secession. Ties of blood and livelihood must also be factored in. It is often overlooked that three of the four primary residents of the two White Houses of the Civil War years were Kentucky born – Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Jefferson Davis. Furthermore, Kentucky’s ties to the rest of the nation ran east and west. From the East had come Daniel Boone and other settlers through the Cumberland Gap, and, by 1860, the largest number of non-Kentucky born residents of the state came from Virginia, not surprising as Kentucky constituted the farthest western county of Virginia until its separation and statehood in 1792. As a result of this heritage, Kentuckians looked to Virginia (and, to a lesser but notable extent, North Carolina) for political leadership even if that leadership was a love/hate relationship. The historian Russell Weigley describes Kentucky as a “self-conscious daughter of Virginia,” as indeed it was.

In addition, Kentuckians had been a restless people, populating at least the southern parts of the western states of Indiana, Illinois, and Misssouri. The distinguished historian James A. Rawley went so far as to call Missouri “the child of Kentucky” because of the 100,000 residents of that state who claimed Kentucky birth. Thus, kinship and family ties stretched from the Old Dominion to the muddy banks of the Ohio to the Missouri River and beyond.”

The whole course of secession and the outcome of the War Between the States was determined to a large extent by Kentuckians. While the Ohio River is the natural geographic border between the North and the South, Kentuckians complicated the issue by settling all over southern Indiana and southern Illinois, which is why there were so many Copperheads there.

Kentuckians colonized Missouri and Indiana. The reason that Indiana sticks out like a sore thumb in the Midwest is because it doesn’t have a metropolis like Chicago to overwhelm the Kentuckians who populated the state. During the 20th century, millions of White Southerners also took the Hillbilly Highway out of Appalachia to settle in the Great Lakes region, the cities of the Sunbelt and even in the Western states. The cultural and genetic footprint of Kentucky is much larger than the state itself because it has exported millions of its people over time.

The following excerpt comes from John Alexander Williams book Appalachia: A History:

As events unfolded, however, the productivity gains and consequent job losses came quickly, the promised benefits slowly if at all. The UMWA health and welfare fund, financed by royalties on coal output, was depleted within a few years and its commitments sharply cut back or passed along to public welfare agencies. These developments led to a “great migration from Appalachia’s mining counties and the further impoverishment of many of those who were left behind. During the 1950s, the mining counties of Kentucky, the Virginias, Tennessee, and Alabama suffered population losses between 15 percent and 30 percent; the Pennsylvania anthracite counties lost smaller percentages, mainly because they had already started exporting people during the 1930s, just under a million of them from the core; even though metropolitan areas such as Charleston, Asheville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga expanded, they failed to grow as fast as comparable areas in other parts of the country …

Thus, Kentuckians and western West Virginians moved to Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, Virginians and eastern Virginians moved to Washington-Baltimore; Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas absorbed more of their own Appalachian migrants than did other states, thanks to the postwar growth of such cities as Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, and Greensboro.”

This excerpt comes from Richard B. Drake’s book A History of Appalachia:

“Many Appalachians solved their economic problem by migration. Hundreds of thousands did. The Appalachian “Great Migration” to the cities of the upper Midwest was already in process by 1950. The flow northward continued, and until the “Depression of 1957,” at which time the Detroit area suffered a significant economic setback, there was always a job if a mountaineer simply left his hills and struck out across the Ohio River. After 1957, the least-educated and older migrants often could not find work. Yet through the 1960s the flood continued. In all, over three million Appalachians left the region in the period from 1940 to 1970.”

3 million people left Appalachia between the 1940s and 1970s as the coal mines mechanized and laid off their workers. The North and West are full of millions of White people today who are descended from Southerners. 1 out of every 5 Californians is the descendant of an Okie.

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  1. Great article Hunter! I loved the line “Kentuckians colonized Missouri and Indiana. The reason that Indiana sticks out like a sore thumb in the Midwest is because it doesn’t have a metropolis like Chicago to overwhelm the Kentuckians who settled there.” Very true. I am 30 miles above the Ohio River, int he southern tip of Indiana, and I have Kentuckian blood in my veins (and Virginian too)!
    I talked a little about the colonization and Upper South heritage of early southern Indiana in a post on my blog last year, where I contrasted the lives of two Virginians (William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor) who influenced early Indiana.

  2. I’ll add a few things that might be interesting, Mr. W.–though you know I don’t know any of this history, or history in general, very well.

    1 — You might want to mention, re the initial settlement of Kentucky itself, the Cumberland Gap. It was the backdoor, out of the Great Appalachian Valley, which Daniel Boone brought to everyone’s attention in 1776, I’m pretty sure–yes, the same year as the Declaration of Independence. It was through that narrow topographical element that the settlement of the U.S. beyond the Appalachian system began.

    2 — Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather, who fought in the Revolutionary War, moved into Kentucky–through the Cumberland Gap, I imagine–from Virginia, in 1781, i.e., before the Revolutionary War was even over. The Boone and Lincoln families were acquainted and even had some connection via marriage.

    3 — Kentucky in those days would seem to have been, for the Americans of the original thirteen colonies, something like what Sicily had been for the ancient Greeks of the classic period: a New World, as I once heard it described, which was drawing settlers.

    4 — This explains an odd-sounding (to me) fact: When the Roman Catholic diocese of Baltimore was split up, in 1808, the new dioceses that were carved out of it were Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Bardstown, Kentucky (later moved to Louisville). The diocese of Baltimore had been created right after the American Revolution, before which, the thirteen British colonies had been, in the organization of the Catholic Church, missionary territory, under the control of the diocese in London (or something like that). At its creation, the Baltimore diocese had comprised the whole of the newborn U.S.; yet when the time had come for it to be broken up, in 1808, Kentucky ranked with Boston, New York, and Philadelphia as territory that the Church had to organize separately.

    5 –The Boone and Lincoln families both arrived in what is now the South via Pennsylvania and, before that, New England, I’m pretty sure. Both, too, were Quaker, I think. I don’t know what this says re genetics and the thesis in that book you often cite–Albion’s Seed, maybe.

    6 — A Daniel Boone descendant–a son, maybe–was the trailblazer across–Missouri, was it? Daniel Boone himself had moved there, not quite legally, maybe, when it was still Spanish territory. This was because he’d had some kind of disagreement with the U.S. government. Anyway, the son, or whichever descendant it was, basically pushes across Missouri the way Daniel himself had pushed through the Cumberland Gap. It’s as if the settlement of the entire U.S. interior is spawned by the actions of this one family.

    7 — Here’s a map that shows the “back door” that was the Cumberland Gap:

    8 — Lincoln’s grandfather, who, as I said above, had moved his family to Kentucky early on, was killed there, by Indians, in 1786. That shows how wild the territory was in those days. From what I’ve read, you had to stay pretty close to a U.S. fort there to have any kind of safety. As far as I can tell, this killing of the grandfather didn’t even get recorded. It was simply family lore, which Lincoln related when he was running for president. The grandfather’s two sons, one of whom would eventually father President Lincoln, had been with the grandfather when the killing took place.

    9 — When I consider that President Lincoln’s grandfather had fought in the Revolutionary War, I’m reminded of words Lincoln used in the Gettysburg Address: “our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation.” He wasn’t speaking figuratively.

    10 — The creation of the Diocese of Baltimore, separate from London, parallels the transformation of the Anglicans of what had been the thirteen colonies to “Episcopalians,” after the Revolutionary War.

    11 — The first Lincoln homestead in Virginia had been in the Shenandoah Valley, i.e., the Virginia portion of the Great Appalachian Valley. The Cumberland Gap, once it had been discovered, beckoned.

  3. My parents traveled on that “Hillbilly Highway” up into Indiana for work, back in the day. And stayed, while never losing their rootedness in eastern Kentucky . Great article; this one was personal for me and added much insight.

  4. My Grandparents also left Eastern Ky to settle in Detroit, where my dad was born, in the late 40’s. That depression of the 50’s brought them to Indianapolis.

    I’m the first of my family to come back home. I just wish there was work in Eastern Ky. It would make it far easier to settle back there. The hills South of Louisville will have to do for now.

    My as yet untested genetics are, according to the family geneologist, Irish, Scottish, Scots Irish, Welsh, English, French, German and of course, we had a one footed Cherokee princess in our family way back, who shacked up with a grandfather of mine rather than go West on the trail of tears.

  5. @hunter.

    Thanks for writing about Kentucky. As diaspora of the commonwealth, I usually feel like a red headed stepchild when it comes to discussions of the broader South and what the heck we are supposed to do now.

    I’ve never had a mint julep or whipped a darky with a horsewhip, or even worn a straw widehat so, muh southness is somewhat less than our deep South brethren.

    Kinda like the Irish and Scots as it pertains to eternal English rule, I’m not really of the inner circle.

    Thx for remembering my hillbilly ancestors.

    • Much of the Deep South (Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas) was settled from Tennessee and Kentucky.

      We will get to that at some point. Many of the original settlers floated down the Mississippi River like Huck Finn from the Upper South. Others came into Mississippi down the Natchez Trace from Nashville.

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