History of slavery in Kentucky

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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,[1] rather than the Deep South, enslaved African Americans represented up to 25% of the population up to the Civil War, concentrated in the city of Louisville and the fertile Bluegrass Region, a center of tobacco and horse farms.


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. After 1830 as tobacco production decreased in favor of less labor-intensive crops, planters sold slaves to the Deep South where demand was high as cotton cultivation was rapidly expanded. 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 from Virginia brought their slaves with them. As permanent settlers started arriving in the late 1770s and especially after the American Revolution, they brought along slaves to clear and develop land. Early settlements were called stations and were developed around forts for protection against Native Americans, with whom there were numerous violent conflicts. Most early settlers were from Virginia, and they continued to rely on slave labor as they developed larger, more permanent farms.

Planters who grew hemp and tobacco, which were labor-intensive crops, held the most slaves. Subsistence farming could be done without slave labor, although some subsistence farmers had a few slaves with whom they would work. Some owners also used enslaved African Americans in mining and manufacturing operations, riverboats and waterfront labor, and skilled trades in cities.

Farms in Kentucky tended to be smaller than the later plantations of the Deep South, so most slaveholders had a small number of slaves. As a result, many slaves had to find spouses "abroad", on a neighboring farm. Often men did not get to live with their wives and children.

Free blacks were among the slaveholders; in 1830 free blacks held slaves in 29 of Kentucky's counties[citation needed]. In some cases, people would purchase a spouse or children, or other relatives who were not emancipated in order to protect them until being able to free them. After the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion of 1831, the legislature passed new restrictions against owners freeing their slaves.[2]

Kentucky exported more slaves than did most states. From 1850 to 1860, 16 percent of enslaved African Americans were sold out of state, as part of the forced migration to the Deep South of a total of more than one million African Americans before the Civil War. Many African Americans were sold directly to plantations in the Deep South from the Louisville slave market, or transported by slave traders along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to slave markets in New Orleans (hence the later euphemism for any sort of betrayal, to be "sold down the river"). Kentucky had a surplus of slaves due to reduced labor needs from 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 slave-holding families took slaves with them on forced migration. These factors combined to create greater instability for enslaved families in Kentucky than in some of the Deep South states.

Fugitive slaves[edit]

Because of Kentucky's proximity to free states, separated by 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 a 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, as proposed by the American Colonization Society, 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 state. 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 households of Louisville owned slaves,[dubious ] and the city had the largest slave population in the state. In addition, for years the slave trade from the Upper South had contributed to its prosperity and growth. Through the 1850s, the city exported 2500-4000 slaves a year in sales to the Deep South. The trading city had grown rapidly and had 70,000 residents by 1860.[3]

John Gregg Fee established a network of abolitionist schools, communities and churches in Eastern Kentucky, where slaveholders were the fewest in number. In the turmoil following John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, Fee and his supporters were driven from the state by a mob in 1859.

Civil War[edit]

Kentucky did not outlaw slavery during the Civil War, as Maryland and Missouri did. However, about 75% of slaves in Kentucky were freed or escaped to Union lines during the war.

The Kentucky legislature considered a conditional ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment that would have denied blacks constitutional rights and required them to leave the state within ten years of freedom. Instead, it rejected the amendment.[4] Slavery legally ended on December 18, 1865, when the Amendment went into effect. At that moment, 65,000 Kentuckians became legally emancipated.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tobacco and Staple Agriculture
  2. ^ Notable Kentucky African Americans Database: <Slave Owners, Slaves, Free Blacks, Free Mulattoes in Kentucky, 1850-1870 [by county N-Z, University of Kentucky, accessed 2 December 2013
  3. ^ Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820-1860
  4. ^ Vorenberg, Final Freedom (2001), p. 217.
  5. ^ Lowell Harrison & James C. Klotter, A New History of Kentucky, University Press of Kentucky, 1997; p. 180; ISBN 9780813126210


Further reading[edit]

  • Kentucky Slave Narratives, Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938, American Memory, Library of Congress
  • Coleman, J. Winston (July 1943). "Delia Webster and Calvin Fairbank, Underground Railroad Agents". Filson Club Historical Quarterly 17 (3). Retrieved 2011-12-06. 
  • Coulter, E. Merton (1926). The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8446-1131-X. 
  • Griffler, Keith P. (2004). Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-2298-8. 
  • Howard, Victor B. (1983). Black Liberation in Kentucky: Emancipation and Freedom, 1862-1884. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-1433-0. 
  • Lucas, Marion B. (2003). A History of Blacks in Kentucky from Slavery to Segregation 1760-1891. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-916968-32-4. 
  • Morris, Thomas D. (1996). Southern Slavery and the Law: 1619-1860. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-4817-4. 
  • Runyon, Randolph Paul (1996). Delia Webster and the Underground Railroad. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-0974-4. 
  • Tallant, Harold D. (2003). Evil Necessity: Slavery and Political Culture in Antebellum Kentucky. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-2252-X.