- Introduction: Kentucky and the Struggle for the Early American West
As Dr. Thomas Walker led a small party through the Cumberland Gap and into Virginia’s Kentucky district in the spring of 1750, the land speculator and eventual agent for the Loyal Land Company marveled at the abundant game and majestic natural world he and his five companions encountered. Despite Dr. Walker’s enthusiasm for the speculative potential offered by the surveying and sale of the land, he failed to fully understand the important role Kentucky would play in the political, economic, and cultural development of North America and the broader Atlantic world over the next fifty years. What Walker and many early historians of the United States failed to grasp was that Kentucky truly stood at the center of a rapidly transforming transatlantic world and that the events that would unfold in the region in the decades after Dr. Walker’s journey shaped the development of the western frontier, the early American republic, and the Atlantic world.1
The articles in this special issue of the Register of the Kentucky [End Page 291] Historical Society reveal the myriad ways in which early Kentucky and its diverse inhabitants both transformed and were transformed by events, rhetoric, and ideologies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The contributing authors build upon the evolving historiography that seeks to situate America’s frontiers within the larger history of North America and the Atlantic world and to demonstrate the region’s significance in the political, economic, and social maturation of the early United States. From the negotiated rules and customs related to North American hunting and land use to the French Revolution–inspired rhetoric of the Democratic Society of Kentucky, the topics examined in this issue demonstrate that early Kentucky was far from an isolated and insignificant backcountry. Instead, the authors provide compelling evidence that the regional leaders at the forefront of Kentucky’s political movements and evolving political culture played influential roles in the creation of the United States and in several of the most pressing issues confronting the young nation. Additionally, Kentucky’s earliest residents found themselves at the nexus of the international competition to control the trans-Appalachian West—a vast, valuable, and contested region stretching west from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River and south from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.2
In an effort to situate early Kentucky and the articles in this special issue within the larger regional, national, and international historical and historiographic contexts, this introduction examines Kentucky from all three angles. In the second half of the eighteenth century, frontier Kentucky was part of a larger region that scholars have labeled the trans-Appalachian West. The trans-Appalachian West was a diverse region inhabited and claimed by several imperial powers and various [End Page 292] Amerindian groups, including the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Shawnee, and a myriad of additional Ohio and Mississippi Valley Native communities. From the French and Indian War to the post-Revolutionary resistance movements, these Native American communities fought against and alongside the French, British, and Americans in a series of imperial conflicts. For the region’s Native inhabitants, these Euro-American wars of conquest were part of a much-longer war for control of the trans-Appalachian West. For the Euro-American inhabitants of Kentucky, Indian warfare remained a defining and troubling constant in their lives and posed a tangible threat to their settlements, families, political visions, and economic aspirations.
For early Kentuckians, Indian defense remained a top priority, and they expected their governments, both before and after the Revolution, to provide adequate support for their efforts to quell Indian violence and to eliminate the threat posed by regional Amerindians. During most of the period this special issue explores, clashes between regional Indian warriors, determined to protect their families and land claims, and Americans, equally committed to defending their kin and homes, defined life on the Kentucky frontier. Despite efforts by the British following the French and Indian War (i.e., the Proclamation of 1763) and the United States following the American Revolution (i.e., the Treaty of Hopewell) to pacify the trans-Appalachian West...