The Landscape of the New Republic: Kentucky County Names

Benjamin H. Irvin
Brandeis University

In war we have produced a Washington, whose memory will be adored while liberty shall have votaries, whose name will triumph over time, and will in future ages assume its just station among the most celebrated worthies of the world . . .
--Thomas Jefferson(1)

In June of 1775, as Kentucky folklore would have it, a small band of explorers pitched camp on the banks of Elkhorn Creek. These men, who had followed the Ohio River southwest from Monongahela country, had settlement on their minds. They immediately set about exploring the area and building cabins and the other sorts of improvements that might support their claim to the land. Just at that moment, intelligence arrived from the east: on April 19th, the minutemen of Massachusetts had repelled General Gage's troops at Lexington and Concord.(2) So excited were the frontiersmen about their fellow colonists' victory that they commemorated the victory by naming their settlement Lexington.

As the battle of Lexington, Massachusetts signified the outbreak of the Revolution, so too did the settlement of Lexington, Kentucky signify the push for trans-Appalachian expansion. The war with Britain did little to stem the tide of westward migration. While Colonel George Rogers Clark and his troops were assaulting Vincennes just northwest of the Ohio, an army of surveyors, speculators, and squatters was marching into Kentucky. Between 1775 and 1790, Kentucky's non-Native American population exploded from a meager 150 to a staggering 73,000.(3) The influx of so many settlers put an enormous pressure on the Virginia legislature. As a few frontier outposts multiplied into several villages and towns, settlers began to clamor for local administration of government, for representation in Virginia's General Assembly, and most importantly, for protection from Native American groups that were fighting on behalf of their British allies and in defense of their own traditional hunting grounds. On December 6, 1776, just five months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the General Assembly responded to this pressure by creating the county of Kentucky. Within four years, Kentucky county would itself be divided into three new counties, and by the time that the Commonwealth of Kentucky was admitted to the union in 1792, the proud young state boasted a total of nine county governments. The formation of Kentucky counties was in many ways emblematic of the new union and its westward ambitions. With their surveyor's levels and their maps the settlers of Kentucky had divided the land; with their pleas and their petitions they had secured their independence; and with their judges and their representatives they would govern themselves. Throughout, they had demonstrated their autonomy and self-sufficiency. Yet in naming their counties, Kentuckians demonstrated a fervent allegiance to the young nation and its republican ideals.

A large number of Kentucky's first counties were named after heroes of the Revolutionary War. The first county formed after Kentucky achieved statehood was named, of course, after then-president George Washington. Two counties took their names from foreign-born soldiers who had come to America's aid: Fayette county was named after the French noble who volunteered to fight without pay, Pulaski after a Pole who was fatally wounded in the battle for Savannah(4). General Joseph Warren, the Boston patriot killed at Bunker Hill, was also honored with a county name, as were a host of other generals: Benjamin Lincoln, James Garrard, Nathanael Greene, Samuel Hopkins, Henry Knox, Francis Marion, Hugh Mercer, Richard Montgomery, Peter Muhlenberg, Charles Scott, and William Woodford. Though time has obscured many of these officers, their names remain on the map of Kentucky as a testament to their eighteenth-century fame.

In addition to Revolutionary war heroes, many Kentucky counties were named after prominent statesmen of the new republic. The most revered of these was Thomas Jefferson, Governor of Virginia and author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson and Madison both earned counties before their presidencies; Monroe had to wait until after his election. Joining them in the ranks of Kentucky counties were fellow Virginians Patrick Henry and George Mason. Benjamin Franklin was immortalized in 1794. Other famous politicians who lent their names to Kentucky counties included John Breckinridge, Jefferson's Attorney General, Albert Gallatin, Jefferson's Secretary of the Treasury, and William Nelson, Senator from Virginia. As late as 1829, almost half a century after the war's end, the people of Kentucky honored John Hancock, president of the First Continental Congress, with his own county. He was the seventh signer of the Declaration to have a county named after him.

Soldiers and statesmen were not, however, the most common sources of county names. Far more numerous were the men who had skirmished with Indians on the trans-Appalachian frontier. The torrent of migration into the state had created hostilities between the settlers and Native American groups living north of the Ohio. During the Revolution many Kentuckians, including some who had fought in Lord Dunmore's war and some who would later fight in the War of 1812, waged border campaigns to protect their settlements from northern invasion. For example, George Rogers Clark, who had previously earned the esteem of his fellow settlers by convincing the Virginia legislature to supply Kentucky forts with gunpowder, earned a generalship after defeating the British and their Indian allies at Vincennes. Clark county was named in his honor in 1792. Similarly, Major Silas Harlan and Colonel Stephen Trigg were both memorialized with a county after being killed by the Indians in the Battle of Blue Licks. Other noteworthy Indian fighters to give their names to Kentucky counties include Isaac Shelby, who later served as governor of the commonwealth, Benjamin Logan, who attended Kentucky's constitutional convention, and Abraham Owen, who sat in the Kentucky senate. All told, more than twenty Kentucky counties took their names from those who battled Indians in the Revolutionary period.(5) By naming their counties after these men, Kentucky legislators consummated on the map what had already been accomplished on the battlefield: the wresting of the land from the Indians. It is indicative of the early migrants' territoriality that virtually no Native American place names survive in Kentucky today.(6)

Like the settlers of Lexington, Kentucky legislators chose names for their counties that honored the patriots and their campaign for independence. But the naming of Kentucky counties did more than honor great men of the day. It erected a pantheon to the gods of the Revolution and it enshrined the virtuous leaders of the republic. In so doing, the naming of Kentucky counties provided a unifying identity for the diverse migrants that continued to pour into the commonwealth. By inscribing these names upon the land, the residents of Kentucky claimed that land for themselves. Kentucky, their county names proclaimed, no longer belonged to the Indians and would never belong to the British; it belonged instead to the people of the United States.


  1. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the state of Virginia, ed. William Peden (New York, 1982), p. 64.
  2. One suspects that by the time this word-of-mouth had reached frontier Kentucky the minutemen had trounced the whole English army.
  3. Lowell H. Harrison, Kentucky's Road to Statehood, (Lexington, 1992), pp. 5-8.
  4. Bourbon county was also named for a European. As with the cities of Louisville, Paris, and Versailles, that county's name was a tribute to the Louis XVI, the French monarch who had supported the American insurrection.
  5. Others include Adair, Ballard, Boone, Caldwell, Christian, Clay, Estill, Fleming, Floyd, Grant, Greenup, Hardin, Henderson, Kenton, Morgan, Oldham, Russell, Todd, Wayne, and Whitley.
  6. "Kentucky," a Cherokee derivative of uncertain meaning, is the obvious exception. See Thomas P. Field, "The Indian Place Names of Kentucky," in Lowell H. Harrison and Nelson L. Dawson, eds., A Kentucky Sampler (Lexington, 1977), pp. 11-23.

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