History of slavery in Kentucky

History of slavery in Kentucky

The history of slavery in Kentucky dates from the earliest permanent European settlements in the state until the end of the Civil War. Although Kentucky was generally classified as the Upper South or a Border state, [ [http://www.virginiaplaces.org/agriculture/tobaccostaple.html Tobacco and Staple Agriculture ] ] rather than the Deep South, enslaved African Americans made up a substantial percentage of the population. Early Kentucky history was built on the labor of slavery, and it was an integral part of the state. From 1790 to 1860 the slave population of Kentucky was never more than one quarter of the total population, with lower percentages after 1830 as planters sold slaves to the Deep South. Slave populations were greatest in the central "bluegrass" region of the state, which was rich in farmland. In 1850, 23 percent of Kentucky's white males held enslaved African Americans.

Early travelers to Kentucky in the 1750s and 1760s brought their slaves with them. As permanent settlers started arriving in the late 1770s, they held slaves in the station-based settlements, organized around forts. Settlers, chiefly migrants from Virginia, continued to rely on slave labor as they established more permanent farms.

Planters who grew hemp and tobacco made the greatest use of slave labor, as these were labor-intensive crops. Subsistence farming could be done without slave labor. Some owners also used enslaved African Americans in mining and manufacturing operations.

Farms in Kentucky tended to be smaller than the plantations of the Deep South, so ownership of large numbers of slaves was uncommon. Many slaves had to find spouses on a neighboring farm, and often fathers did not get to live with their wives and families.

Kentucky exported more slaves than did most states. From 1850 to 1860, 16 percent of enslaved African Americans were sold out of state. Many African Americans were sold directly to plantations in the Deep South, or transported by traders along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to slave markets in New Orleans. The sales were the result of reduced labor needs due to changes in local agriculture, as well as substantial out-migration by white families from Kentucky. In the 1840s and 1850s, white families migrated west to Missouri and Tennessee, even southwest to Texas. The larger slaveholding families took slaves with them on forced migration to Tennessee and Missouri. These factors combined to create greater instability for enslaved families in Kentucky than in some of the Deep South states.

Fugitive slaves

Because of Kentucky's proximity to free states, separated by just the Ohio River, it was relatively easier for a slave from Kentucky to escape to freedom. Notable fugitive slaves from Kentucky included Henry Bibb, Lewis Clarke, Margaret Garner, Lewis Hayden, and Josiah Henson. A mass escape attempt occurred in August 1848 when 55 to 75 armed slaves fled from several counties, representing one of the largest coordinated escape attempts in American history. They were captured by the state militia several days later after a shootout.


The abolition movement had existed in the state since at least the 1790s, when Presbyterian minister David Rice unsuccessfully lobbied to include slavery prohibition in each of the state's first two constitutions, created in 1792 and 1799. Baptist ministers David Barrow and Carter Tarrant formed the Kentucky Abolition Society in 1808. By 1822 it began publishing one of America's first anti-slavery periodicals.

Conservative emancipation, which argued for gradually freeing the slaves and assisting them in a return to Africa, gained substantial support in the state from the 1820s onward. Cassius Marcellus Clay was a vocal advocate of this position. His newspaper was shut down by mob action in 1845. The anti-slavery "Louisville Examiner" was published successfully from 1847 to 1849.


In Kentucky, slavery was not so widely considered an economic necessity as it was in most other slave states. The small-farm nature of Kentucky meant that slave labor was not so critical to profits as it was for the labor-intensive crops of the Deep South, such as cotton, sugar, and rice farming.

Controversial laws in 1815 and 1833 limited the importation of slaves into Kentucky, which created the strictest rules of any slave states. The "Nonimportation Act of 1833" banned any importation of slaves for commercial or personal purpose. The ban was widely violated, especially in counties near the Tennessee border. In 1849 the writing of the state's pro-slavery constitution meant repeal of the ban against importing.

Slavery was the principal issue of the third constitutional convention held in 1849. While the convention was convened by anti-slavery advocates who hoped to amend the constitution to prohibit slavery, they greatly underestimated pro-slavery support. The convention became packed with pro-slavery delegates, who drafted what some historians consider the most pro-slavery constitution in United States history.

After the embarrassing defeat, abolitionists lost political power during the 1850s. Nonetheless, anti-slavery newspapers were still published in Louisville and Newport. More than half the residents of Louisville owned slaves, and the city had the largest slave population in the state. The trading city had grown rapidly and had 70,000 residents by 1860. [ [http://books.google.com/books?id=ikRimuUJ0bcC&pg=PA14&lpg=PA14&dq=louisville+%22not+southern%22&sour Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820-1860] ] John Gregg Fee established a network of abolitionist schools, communities and churches in Eastern Kentucky. In the turmoil following John Brown's raid, Fee and his supporters were driven from the state by a mob in 1859.

Civil War

Kentucky did not outlaw slavery during the Civil War, as other border states did. Nevertheless, about 75% of slaves in Kentucky were freed or escaped to Union lines during the war. Slavery finally ended with ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. However, Kentucky would not ratify it until 1976.

Further reading

* [http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mesn&fileName=070/mesn070.db&recNum=0 Kentucky Slave Narratives] , collected by the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938
*cite book |last=Coulter |first=E. Merton |title=The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky |publisher=University of North Carolina Press |year=1926 |isbn=084461131X


*cite book|title=Slavery Times in Kentucky|year=1940|author=Coleman, J. Winston
*cite book|title= The Antislavery Movement in Kentucky|year=1978|author=Harrison, Lowell H.
*cite journal|journal=Filson Club Historic Quarterly|title=Memories of Slavery Days in Kentucky|year=1973|month=July|pages=242–57

ee also

*The Filson Historical Society
*History of Kentucky
*Kentucky in the American Civil War
*Louisville in the American Civil War

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