The name Kentucky comes from the Iroquois Native American tribe, though by the time the first white settlers began arriving in the area, there weren’t any Indians left. Early American explorers like Daniel Boone guided settlers to Kentucky, and the state has always had a pioneering spirit about it. Today, the culture is easy going, celebrating outdoor recreation, legendary bourbon, and a rich legacy of horse breeding and racing.
Around 1775, the first white settlers entered the land of Kentucky. They came up the Ohio River and over the Cumberland Gap. Many were guided by pioneering explorers like Daniel Boone, a legend of Kentucky’s early days. To see what the state looked like in the late 1700’s, spend some time at Daniel Boone National State Park where the area remains undeveloped.
Corn, hemp, and tobacco were the main crops grown by the first people, but from the very beginning, Kentucky loved horses. They were used for transportation, labor, and racing. Nearly 90 percent of the state’s residents owned at least one horse, and soon the state became famous for breeding superior stallions fed on bluegrass.
Lexington and Louisville were the first major cities to emerge in Kentucky, and remain the state’s most prominent areas today. During the Civil War, the state was right on the border between the north and south, and officially claimed to be neutral, but really sided with the Union north.
Following the Civil War, the state went through tumultuous times. The Ku Klux Klan was active in trying to establish white supremacy in the state. Family feuds were common in the mountainous Appalachian area and the bluegrass-based bourbon distillers fought back against the government’s prohibition movement. During the Gilded Age, Kentucky saw a women’s suffrage movement led by Laura Clay, the daughter of abolitionist Cassius Clay.
At the end of the 1800’s, German immigrants flooded into the state, particularly Louisville and their influence is still evident today in towns like Covington. The Kentucky Derby began in 1875 at Churchill Downs, and since then the obsession with horses has never come down. After 1900, coal became a major resource for the economy, supporting the state through WWI. The Great Depression hit Kentucky especially hard, but by WWII it had bounced back, manufacturing jeeps and protecting American gold at Fort Knox.
Kentucky is about horses and bourbon. The state is largely rural with only two notable urban centers, Louisville and Lexington. Horse farms creep right up to the edge of downtown, where big purse races like the Kentucky Derby are held each year. Horse racing, breeding, and riding are essential components to the cultural fabric of Kentucky.
Almost as important is bourbon. Famous the world over, the dark liquor all comes from this single state and a little cross section of Tennessee. With so much nature around, it is to be expected that Kentuckians love recreation. It’s casual, personal connection with outdoor sports like fishing, hunting, and boating are the most popular activities.
The last piece of the cultural landscape is music. This state loves bluegrass, country, and folk to almost religious levels. From the Appalachian foothills right down to the corner where the Midwest begins, Kentucky is filled with craftspeople, musicians, artists, and loads of friendly folk.