Birth of the Bluegrass: Ecological Transformations in Central Kentucky to 1810
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Birth of the Bluegrass:
Ecological Transformations in Central Kentucky to 1810

In 1810, at the age of seventy-six, Daniel Boone visited Kentucky for the first time in more than a decade. He barely recognized the state. Boone told John James Audubon that he “rambled about to see if a deer was still living in the land. But ah! Sir, what a wonderful difference thirty years makes in the country!” Gone were the days when “you would not have walked out in any direction for more than a mile without shooting a buck or a bear. There were then thousands of Buffaloes . . . the land looked as if it never would become poor; and to hunt in those days was a pleasure indeed.”1 The dramatic decline in game animals that Boone lamented was just one of a wide range of transformations that occurred on the land in the decades after white Americans and those they enslaved settled the region. Fields of corn and hemp replaced canebrakes, and savanna-woodlands were repurposed as shaded pastures carpeted by an introduced species known as bluegrass. Buffalo, deer, and turkey populations declined precipitously, while domesticated species such as cattle, horses, and chickens flourished. By 1810, when Boone returned to Kentucky, the Bluegrass region had been converted from its presettlement state into a complex agroecosystem governed by a range of cultural and natural [End Page 155] influences.2 Most interpretations of this transformation emphasize the role of human actors. However, moving beyond the fixation on human influences and recognizing the importance of the ecological context for developments reveals a more complex story.3

In A Sand County Almanac (1949), Aldo Leopold, an intellectual leader of modern environmentalism, used the “cane-lands of Kentucky” as an example of why society needed “an ecological interpretation of history.” He argued that understanding the ecological processes by which introduced bluegrass replaced native vegetation could reshape our view of national history and force a recognition of the connections between environmental and cultural factors. Leopold posited high stakes for the question of central Kentucky plant succession: that the triumph of American settlement west of the Appalachians depended on the biological characteristics of a lowly species of grass. The dramatic implications of this framing made it an effective early example of the promise of environmental history.4 Yet, applying an agroecological lens that views agricultural landscapes [End Page 156] as modified ecological systems designed and maintained for human benefit demonstrates the dynamic, long-term interplay of people and ecology obscured even by Leopold’s attempt to bring the environment into our historical narratives as more than a backdrop.

Instead of the pristine wilderness Leopold described, explorers and settlers like Daniel Boone moved through and into a region with a long history of human occupation. Flourishing Native groups played a significant role in shaping the environment for centuries prior to whites’ arrival. The type and scope of ecological change shifted dramatically when Europeans landed on the Atlantic seaboard. Their arrival on the North American coast touched off changes that decimated local Native cultures and altered local environmental conditions long before the first European ventured into the region that became known as the Bluegrass. The next wave of transformation began during the 1770s when white settlers and enslaved African Americans introduced domesticated plant and animal species, new ideas about proper land use, and the labor to enact their visions. The combination helped create a new agroecosystem that applied the ecological productivity of the region to agricultural ends.5

Leopold overlooked the long-term transformations that resulted from evolving relationships between humans and their environment and therefore neglected the influences people had on the landscape prior to European arrival. By drawing on scientific, archaeological, and historical sources, this study aims to trace the dramatic changes in the central Kentucky landscape that occurred both before and after white settlers and those they enslaved created a dynamic agroecosystem designed to sustain and enrich the growing population of the region. In the process a new periodization of the ecological history of central Kentucky emerges.6 Rather than simply dividing early [End Page 157] Kentucky history into two periods—pre- and post-settlement—by utilizing...