Kentucky Emigration and Immigration

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Daniel Boone escorting settlers through the Cumberland Gap.

Immigration[edit | edit source]

Pre-statehood settlers of Kentucky were mostly of English, German and Ulster Scots descent who migrated from the Atlantic seaboard states. Immigrants from North Carolina and southwestern Virginia came by way of the Cumberland Gap and over the Wilderness Road. Immigrants from Maryland and Pennsylvania came on flatboats and rafts down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh.

Other early immigrants included small groups of French, Swiss, and Welsh. During the mid-19th century the Ohio River brought many German immigrants and settlers from New England and the Middle Atlantic states. Many Irish settled in Louisville during this time.

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In 1790, historians estimate Kentucky's population was English (52%), Scots-Irish or Scots (25%), Irish (9%), Welsh, (7%), German (5%), French (2%), Dutch (1%), and Swedish (0.2%) in ethnicity.[1]

1820 statistics vary slightly: English (57%), Scots-Irish or Scots (18%), Welsh (9%), Irish (8%), German (6%), French (2%), Dutch (1%), and Swedish (0.2%).[1]

There was a large African American population in Kentucky prior to the Civil War. The coal boom of the early 1900s brought additional African Americans and new immigrants from Europe to work in the Cumberland Plateau area. Further information on specific settlement patterns can be found in county and local histories.

Land speculator John Filson's early history, which "portrayed Kentucky as a natural paradise, where peace, plenty, and security reigned," and contained a narrative of Daniel Boone, became very popular.[2]

Filson influenced many of our ancestors to venture out to this newly opening area of settlement:

  • Filson, John. The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke: and an Essay Towards the Topography and Natural History of that Important Country: to which is Added, an Appendix, Containing, I. The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon, One of the First Settlers, Comprehending Every Important Occurrence in the Political History of that Province. II. The Minutes of the Piankashaw Council, Held at Post St. Vincents, April 15, 1784. III. An Account of the Indian Nations Inhabiting within the Limits of the Thirteen United States ... IV. The Stages and Distances between Philadelphia and the Falls of the Ohio; from Pittsburg to Pensacola and Several Other Places. The Whole Illustrated by a New and Accurate Map of Kentucke and the Country Adjoining, Drawn from Actual Surveys. Wilmington, Del.: Printed by James Adams, 1784. Digital version at University of Nebraska Lincoln Digital Commons. Users may also download a free color map of Kentucky created in 1784 at this site. 1793 edition at Internet Archive.

How did your ancestor find the correct destination out West? Quite possibly they had a copy of Brown's book:

  • Brown, Samuel R. The Western Gazetteer or Emigrant's Directory, Containing a Geographical Description of the Western States and Territories, viz. The States of Kentucky, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, Tennessee and Mississippi: and the Territories of Illinois, Missouri, Alabama, Michigan, and North-Western. Auburn, N.Y.: H.C. Southwick, 1817. Digital versions at Northwestern Illinois University Library Digitization Projects and World Vital Records ($).

What was it like to move from Virginia to Kentucky in the late 1700s? Daniel Trabue's journal makes a fascinating read:

  • Young, Chester Raymond. Westward into Kentucky, The Narrative of Daniel Trabue. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1981. FHL Book 976.9 H2td.

Mrs. Mary Dewees, a genteel lady, kept a journal of her voyage from Philadelphia to Kentucky in the fall of 1787. Her company had to wait until late fall for the river water to rise high enough at Pittsburgh to transport their flatboat. She provides many details of what such a trip was like and her diary makes a great read:

  • Cochran, Samuel P. "Mrs. Mary Dewees's Journal from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1787-1788," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 28 (1904):182-198. Digital version at Internet Archive - free.

Westward Migrants[edit | edit source]

Many settlers moved from Kentucky to areas further west. In 1816 a small army of settlers began moving to Indiana, then on to Illinois. In the following years many more people migrated westward from the state, giving Kentucky claim to the title "Mother of Western States."

Free native-born Kentuckians, alive in 1860, who had left the state, most popularly resettled in:[3]

State Persons Born in Kentucky
Missouri 99,814
Indiana 68,588
Illinois 60,193

Dorothy Williams Potter in Passports of Southeastern Pioneers 1770-1823 (FHL Book 975 W4p) identifies some migrants from Kentucky into territories that are now Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri.

Records[edit | edit source]

Most foreign-born immigrants who came to Kentucky arrived at the ports of New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, or other Atlantic and Gulf ports. Passenger lists for these ports are available at the National Archives and the Family History Library. For additional details, see: United States Emigration and Immigration.

Some published sources about migration to and from Kentucky include:

  • Bender, Lucy Rearden. Marriage, Birth and Death Records of Families with Proved Lineages of American Revolution Ancestors: Who Emigrated from Virginia to Kentucky and From There to Texas, 1850–1895. Langley Field, Va.: n.p., 1937. FHL film 851114, item 2; book 976.4 V2b. This indicates the name of the Revolutionary ancestor and his or her date of birth, marriage, or death.
  • Connor, Seymour V. Kentucky Colonization in Texas: A History of the Peters Colony. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1983. Free Name Search; purchase at FHL book 976.4 H2cs
  • Kincaid, Robert L. The Wilderness Road. Harrogate, Tenn.: Lincoln Memorial University Press, 1955. FHL book 973 H2k. This tells the history of the Wilderness Road, which extended from southwestern Virginia to central Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap. It was a major route for settlers heading west.
  • Peden, Henry C. Jr. Marylanders to Kentucky, 1775–1825. Westminster, Md.: Family Line, 1991. FHL book 976.9 W2p
  • Peden, Henry C., Jr. More Marylanders to Kentucky, 1778–1828. Westminster, Md.: Family Line, 1997. FHL book 976.9 W2pe These books contain biographies of Kentucky residents who migrated from Maryland.

See Kentucky Cultural Groups for sources on German immigrants to Kentucky. Other sources on emigration and immigration can be found in the Place Search of the FamilySearch Catalog under:



Migration Trails[edit | edit source]

For the history and location of some of the old roads in Kentucky used by immigrants, see:

  • Brown, Cecil. Old Roads in Kentucky: The Wilderness Road, Indian War Roads, Trails of the Buffalo, Early Road Customs. 1929. Reprint, Lexington, KY: Margaret I. King Library, University of Kentucky, 1953. FHL 156888 item 3 This is a microfilm edition of a work originally published in 1929.
  • Dollarhide, William. Map Guide to American Migration Routes, 1735–1815. Bountiful, Utah: AGLL Genealogical Services, 1977. FHL 973 E3d This includes a place-name index and shows migration trails through Kentucky.

There are maps of several migration trails into Kentucky and other states in The Handy Book for Genealogists, 8th ed. Revised. Logan, Utah: Everton Publishing, 1991. FHL 973 D27e 1991; 6th ed. This is a popular source for its capsule summaries of state and county histories and some of the records available in each county.

The Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company operated in Kentucky. Many people travelled by train through the area. To learn more, see:

  • Hines, Edward Warren. Corporate History of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company: And Roads in Its System. Louisville, Ky.: J.P. Morton, 1905. Digital version at University of Kentucky.

The United States Emigration and Immigration Wiki article lists several important sources for finding information about immigrants to the United States. These nationwide sources include many references to people who settled in Kentucky. Tracing Immigrant Origins introduces the principles, search strategies, and additional record types you can use to identify an immigrant ancestor’s original hometown.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Thomas L. Purvis, "The Ethnic Descent of Kentucky's Early Population: A Statistical Investigation of European and American Source of Immigration, 1790-1820," Register of The Kentucky Historical Society, Vol. 80 (1982):263.
  2. Much of his motivation, no doubt, was to attract settlers to purchase his unoccupied land grants. "The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke (1784) ...", Digital Commons@University of Nebraska - Lincoln.
  3. William O. Lynch, "The Westward Flow of Southern Colonists before 1861," The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Aug. 1943):303-327. Digital version at JSTOR ($).