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Coordinates: 37°30′N 85°00′W / 37.5°N 85°W / 37.5; -85

Commonwealth of Kentucky
Bluegrass State
United we stand, divided we fall
Deo gratiam habeamus
(Let us be grateful to God)
Anthem: My Old Kentucky Home
Map of the United States with Kentucky highlighted
Map of the United States with Kentucky highlighted
CountryUnited States
Before statehoodPart of Virginia (District of Kentucky)
Admitted to the UnionJune 1, 1792 (15th)
Largest cityLouisville
Largest metroKentuckiana
 • GovernorAndy Beshear (D)
 • Lieutenant GovernorJacqueline Coleman (D)
LegislatureKentucky General Assembly
 • Upper houseSenate
 • Lower houseHouse of Representatives
JudiciaryKentucky Supreme Court
U.S. senatorsMitch McConnell (R)
Rand Paul (R)
U.S. House delegation5 Republicans
1 Democrat (list)
 • Total40,408 sq mi (104,659 km2)
 • Land39,895 sq mi (102,895 km2)
 • Water681 sq mi (1,764 km2)  1.7%
Area rank37th
 • Length379 mi (610 km)
 • Width170 mi (250 km)
750 ft (230 m)
Highest elevation4,145 ft (1,265 m)
Lowest elevation250 ft (78 m)
 • Total4,467,673
 • Rank26th
 • Density110/sq mi (42.5/km2)
 • Density rank21st
 • Median household income
 • Income rank
 • Official languageEnglish[3]
Time zones
eastern halfUTC−05:00 (Eastern)
 • Summer (DST)UTC−04:00 (EDT)
western halfUTC−06:00 (Central)
 • Summer (DST)UTC−05:00 (CDT)
USPS abbreviation
ISO 3166 codeUS-KY
Trad. abbreviationKy
Latitude36° 30′ N to 39° 09′ N
Longitude81° 58′ W to 89° 34′ W
Kentucky state symbols
Flag of Kentucky.svg
Seal of Kentucky.svg
Living insignia
ButterflyViceroy butterfly
Wildlife animalGray squirrel
FishKentucky spotted bass
Horse breedThoroughbred
InsectWestern honeybee
TreeTulip poplar
Inanimate insignia
GemstoneFreshwater pearl
RockKentucky agate
SloganKentucky Unbridled Spirit
SoilCrider Soil Series
OtherChevrolet Corvette (state sports car)
State route marker
Kentucky state route marker
State quarter
Kentucky quarter dollar coin
Released in 2001
Lists of United States state symbols

Kentucky (UK: /kɛnˈtʌki/ ken-TUK-ee, US: /kən-/ (About this soundlisten) kən-),[4] officially the Commonwealth of Kentucky, is a U.S. state in the Southern region of the country. It was admitted into the Union as the 15th state on June 1, 1792, splitting from Virginia in the process.[5] Kentucky is the 37th most extensive and the 26th most populous of the 50 United States.

The bluegrass region in the central part of the state contains the state's capital, Frankfort, as well as its two largest cities, Louisville and Lexington. Together they comprise more than 20% of the state's population.[3] Kentucky shares borders with Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio to the north, West Virginia and Virginia to the east, Tennessee to the south, and Missouri to the west.

Kentucky is known as the "Bluegrass State", a nickname based on Kentucky bluegrass, a species of grass found in many of its pastures, which has supported the thoroughbred horse industry in the center of the state.[6] It is home to the world's longest cave system: Mammoth Cave National Park, as well as one of the greatest lengths of navigable waterways and streams in the contiguous United States and the two largest man-made lakes east of the Mississippi River. The state is also known for horse racing, bourbon, moonshine, coal, "My Old Kentucky Home" historic state park, automobile manufacturing, tobacco, bluegrass music, college basketball, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the Kentucky colonel.

My Old Kentucky Home, a well-known historic mansion for which Kentucky's state song, "My Old Kentucky Home", was written in 1852 by Stephen Foster
Narrow country roads bounded by stone and wood plank fences are a feature in the Kentucky Bluegrass region


In 1776 the counties of Virginia beyond the Appalachian Mountains became known to European Americans as Kentucky County,[7] named for the Kentucky River.[8] The precise etymology of the name is uncertain,[9] but likely based on an Iroquoian name meaning "(on) the meadow" or "(on) the prairie"[10][11] (cf. Mohawk kenhtà:ke, Seneca gëdá'geh (phonemic /kẽtaʔkeh/), "at the field").[12]

Others have suggested the term Kenta Aki, which could have come from an Algonquian language and was possibly derived from Shawnee. Folk etymology translates this as "Land of Our Fathers". The closest approximation in another Algonquian language, Ojibwe, translates as "Land of Our In-Laws", thus making a fairer English translation "The Land of Those Who Became Our Fathers".[13] In any case, the word aki means "land" in most Algonquian languages. Some also theorize that the name Kentucky may be a corruption of the word Catawba, in reference to the Catawba people who inhabited Kentucky.


A map of Kentucky

Kentucky is situated in the Upland South.[14][15] A significant portion of eastern Kentucky is part of Appalachia.

Kentucky borders seven states, from the Midwest and the Southeast. West Virginia lies to the northeast, Virginia to the east, Tennessee to the south, Missouri to the west, Illinois to the northwest, and Indiana and Ohio to the north. Only Missouri and Tennessee, both of which border eight states, touch more.

Kentucky's northern border is formed by the Ohio River and its western border by the Mississippi River; however, the official border is based on the courses of the rivers as they existed when Kentucky became a state in 1792. For instance, northbound travelers on U.S. 41 from Henderson, after crossing the Ohio River, will be in Kentucky for about two miles (3.2 km). Ellis Park, a thoroughbred racetrack, is located in this small piece of Kentucky. Waterworks Road is part of the only land border between Indiana and Kentucky.[16]

Kentucky has a non-contiguous part known as Kentucky Bend, at the far west corner of the state. It exists as an exclave surrounded completely by Missouri and Tennessee, and is included in the boundaries of Fulton County. Road access to this small part of Kentucky on the Mississippi River (populated by 18 people as of 2010)[17] requires a trip through Tennessee.

The epicenter of the powerful 1811–12 New Madrid earthquakes was near this area, causing the powerful Mississippi river to flow backwards in some places. Though the series of quakes changed the area geologically and affected the (small number of) inhabitants of the area at the time, the Kentucky Bend is the result of a surveying error, not the New Madrid earthquake.[18]


Kentucky's regions (click on image for color-coding information)

Kentucky can be divided into five primary regions: the Cumberland Plateau in the east, which contains much of the historic coal mines; the north-central Bluegrass region, where the major cities and the capital are located; the south-central and western Pennyroyal Plateau (also known as the Pennyrile or Mississippi Plateau); the Western Coal Fields; and the far-west Jackson Purchase.

The Bluegrass region is commonly divided into two regions, the Inner Bluegrass encircling 90 miles (140 km) around Lexington, and the Outer Bluegrass that contains most of the northern portion of the state, above the Knobs. Much of the outer Bluegrass is in the Eden Shale Hills area, made up of short, steep, and very narrow hills.

The Eastern Kentucky Coalfield is known for its rugged terrain.
Kentucky's Inner Bluegrass region features hundreds of horse farms.
Metropolis Lake

The Jackson Purchase and western Pennyrile are home to several bald cypress/tupelo swamps.


Köppen climate types of Kentucky

Located within the southeastern interior portion of North America, Kentucky has a climate that is best described as a humid subtropical climate (Köppen: Cfa), only small higher areas of the southeast of the state has an oceanic climate (Cfb) influenced by the Appalachians.[19] Temperatures in Kentucky usually range from daytime summer highs of 87 °F (31 °C) to the winter low of 23 °F (−5 °C). The average precipitation is 46 inches (1,200 mm) a year.[20] Kentucky has four distinct seasons, with substantial variations in the severity of summer and winter.[21] The highest recorded temperature was 114 °F (46 °C) at Greensburg on July 28, 1930, while the lowest recorded temperature was −37 °F (−38 °C) at Shelbyville on January 19, 1994. The state rarely experiences the extreme cold of far northern states, nor the high heat of the states in the Deep South. Temperatures seldom drop below 0 degrees or rise above 100 degrees. Rain and snowfall totals about 45 inches per year.

Climate varies markedly within the state. The northern parts tend to be about 5 degrees cooler than those in western parts of the state. Somerset in the south-central part receives 10 more inches of rain per year than, for instance, Covington to the north. Average temperatures for the entire Commonwealth range from the low 30s in January to the high 70s in mid-July. The annual average temperature varies from 55 to 60 °F (13 to 16 °C): of 55 °F (13 °C) in the far north as an average annual temperature and of 60 °F (16 °C) in the extreme southwest.[22][23]

In general, Kentucky has relatively hot, humid, rainy summers, and moderately cold and rainy winters. Mean maximum temperatures in July vary from 83 to 90 °F (28 to 32 °C); the mean minimum July temperatures are 61 to 69 °F (16 to 21 °C). In January the mean maximum temperatures range from 36 to 44 °F (2 to 7 °C); the mean minimum temperatures range from 19 to 26 °F (−7 to −3 °C). Temperature means vary with northern and far-eastern mountain-regions averaging five degrees cooler year-round, compared to the relatively warmer areas of the southern- and western region of the state. Precipitation also varies north to south with the north averaging of 38 to 40 inches (970 to 1,020 mm), and the south averaging of 50 inches (1,300 mm). Days per year below the freezing point vary from about sixty days in the southwest to more than a hundred days in the far-north and far-east.[24]

Monthly average high and low temperatures for various Kentucky cities ( °F)
City Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Lexington 40.9/24.8 45.5/27.9 55.3/35.4 65.7/44.7 74.3/54.2 82.8/62.7 86.1/66.5 85.6/65.2 78.8/57.6 67.5/46.6 55.4/37.2 43.9/28
Louisville 43/26.8 47.8/29.9 57.9/37.8 68.8/47.3 77.1/57 85.3/66 88.7/69.9 88.3/68.5 81.5/60.5 70.1/48.9 57.9/39.5 45.8/30
Owensboro 41.2/23.2 46.6/26.8 58.3/36.7 69.3/45.9 78.1/54.5 86.4/62.8 89.2/66.6 88.2/64.4 82.4/58.3 71.6/45.7 58.1/37.4 45.9/28.2
Paducah 43.4/25.8 48.9/29.5 59/37.7 69.4/46.6 78/56.3 86.2/64.9 89.3/68.5 89/66.1 82.1/57.8 71/46.7 58.4/37.9 46.3/28.6
Pikeville 44/23 50/25 60/32 69/39 77/49 84/58 87/63 86/62 80/56 71/42 60/33 49/26
Ashland 42/19 47/21 57/29 68/37 77/47 84/56 88/61 87/59 80/52 69/40 57/31 46/23
Bowling Green 45/26.4 50/29.6 59.8/37 69.7/45.6 77.8/55 86.1/63.9 89.4/67.9 88.9/66.1 82.1/58 71.2/46.3 59.4/37.5 47.9/29.2

Climate change[edit]

Köppen climate types in Kentucky, showing that the state is almost entirely humid subtropical.

Climate change in Kentucky encompasses the effects of climate change, attributed to man-made increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, in the U.S. state of Kentucky.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency reports: "Kentucky's climate is changing. Although the average temperature did not change much during the 20th century, most of the commonwealth has warmed in the last 20 years. Average annual rainfall is increasing, and a rising percentage of that rain is falling on the four wettest days of the year. In the coming decades, the changing climate is likely to reduce crop yields and threaten some aquatic ecosystems. Floods may be more frequent, and droughts may be longer, which would increase the difficulty of meeting the competing demands for water in the Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers".[32] In May 2019, The Kansas City Star noted that climate change is suspected in the increasing number of tornadoes in the region, "the band of states in the central United States ... that each spring are ravaged by hundreds of tornadoes — is not disappearing. But it seems to be expanding", resulting in a higher frequency of tornadoes in states including Kentucky.[33]

Natural disasters[edit]

Deadliest weather events in Kentucky history Date Death Toll Affected Regions
March 1890 middle Mississippi Valley tornado outbreak March 27, 1890 200+ Louisville, W KY
Gradyville flood June 7, 1907 20 Gradyville
May–June 1917 tornado outbreak sequence May 27, 1917 66 Fulton area
Early-May 1933 tornado outbreak sequence May 9, 1933 Tornado 38 South Central KY
Ohio River flood of 1937 Early 1937 unknown Statewide
April 3, 1974 tornado outbreak April 3, 1974 72 Statewide
March 1, 1997 Flooding Early March 1997 18 Statewide
Tornado outbreak sequence of May 2004[34] May 30, 2004 0 Jefferson County, KY
December 21–24, 2004 North American winter storm[35] December 21–24, 2004 unknown Statewide
Widespread Flash Flooding[36] September 22–23, 2006 6 Statewide
January 2009 North American ice storm[37] January 26–28, 2009 35 Statewide
2009 Kentuckiana Flash Flood[38] August 4, 2009 36 Kentuckiana
Tornado outbreak of March 2–3, 2012 March 2, 2012 22 Statewide

Lakes and rivers[edit]

Lake Cumberland is the largest artificial American lake east of the Mississippi River by volume.

Kentucky has more navigable miles of water than any other state in the union, other than Alaska.[39]

Kentucky is the only U.S. state to have a continuous border of rivers running along three of its sides—the Mississippi River to the west, the Ohio River to the north, and the Big Sandy River and Tug Fork to the east.[40] Its major internal rivers include the Kentucky River, Tennessee River, Cumberland River, Green River and Licking River.

Though it has only three major natural lakes,[41] Kentucky is home to many artificial lakes. Kentucky has both the largest artificial lake east of the Mississippi in water volume (Lake Cumberland) and surface area (Kentucky Lake). Kentucky Lake's 2,064 miles (3,322 km) of shoreline, 160,300 acres (64,900 hectares) of water surface, and 4,008,000 acre feet (4.9 billion cubic meters) of flood storage are the most of any lake in the TVA system.[42]

Kentucky's 90,000 miles (140,000 km) of streams provides one of the most expansive and complex stream systems in the nation.[43]

Natural environment and conservation[edit]

Once an industrial wasteland, Louisville's reclaimed waterfront now features thousands of trees and miles of walking trails.

Kentucky has an expansive park system, which includes one national park, two National Recreation areas, two National Historic Parks, two national forests, two National Wildlife Refuges, 45 state parks, 37,896 acres (153 km2) of state forest, and 82 Wildlife Management Areas.

Kentucky has been part of two of the most successful wildlife reintroduction projects in United States history. In the winter of 1997, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources began to re-stock elk in the state's eastern counties, which had been extinct from the area for over 150 years. As of 2009, the herd had reached the project goal of 10,000 animals, making it the largest herd east of the Mississippi River.[44]

The state also stocked wild turkeys in the 1950s. There were reported to be less than 900 at one point. Once nearly extinct here, wild turkeys thrive throughout today's Kentucky.[45] Hunters officially reported a record 29,006 birds taken during the 23-day season in Spring 2009.[46]

A female gray wolf shot in 2013 in Hart County, Kentucky by a hunter was the first verified sighting of the species in Kentucky in modern times.[47]

Natural attractions[edit]

Red River Gorge is one of Kentucky's most visited places.
Forest at Otter Creek Outdoor Recreation Area, Meade County, Kentucky


Native American settlement[edit]

It is not known exactly when the first humans arrived in what is now Kentucky. Based on evidence in other regions, humans were likely living in Kentucky prior to 10,000 BCE, but "archaeological evidence of their occupation has yet to be documented".[54] Around 1800 BCE, a gradual transition began from a hunter-gatherer economy to agriculturalism. Around 900 CE, a Mississippian culture took root in western and central Kentucky; by contrast, a Fort Ancient culture appeared in eastern Kentucky. While the two had many similarities, the distinctive ceremonial earthwork mounds constructed in the former's centers were not part of the culture of the latter.

In about the 10th century, the Kentucky native people's variety of corn became highly productive, supplanting the Eastern Agricultural Complex, and replaced it with a maize-based agriculture in the Mississippian era. French explorers in the 17th century documented numerous tribes living in Kentucky until the Beaver Wars in the 1670s; however, by the time that European colonial explorers and settlers began entering Kentucky in greater numbers in the mid-18th century, there were no major Native American settlements in the region.

As of the 16th century, the area known as Kentucky was home to tribes from five different culture groups—Iroquoian, Sioux, Algonquian, Muskogean & Yuchi. Around the Bluestone River was the Siouan Tutelo. North of the Tennessee River was the Yuchi & south of it was the Cherokee. Much of the interior of the state was controlled by the Algonquian Cisca[55] & the confluence region of the Mississippi & Ohio was home to the Chickasaw. During a period known as the Beaver Wars, 1640–1680, another Algonquian tribe called the Maumee, or Mascouten was chased out of southern Michigan.[56] The vast majority of them moved to Kentucky, pushing the Kispoko east and war broke out with the Tutelo that pushed them deeper into Appalachia, where they merged with the Saponi & Moneton. The Maumee were closely related to the Miami of Indiana. Later, the Kispoko merged with the Shawnee (who broke off from the Powhatan on the east coast) & the Thawikila of Ohio to form the larger Shawnee nation that inhabited the Ohio River Valley into the 19th century.

The Shawnee from the northwest and Cherokee from the south also sent parties into the area regularly for hunting.

Today there are two state recognized tribes in Kentucky, the Southern Cherokee Nation of Kentucky and the Ridgetop Shawnee.[57][58]

French claim and exploration[edit]

Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle was a French explorer who claimed all of the land along the Mississippi River Valley, including Kentucky, for France. In July 1669, Robert de la Salle organized twenty four men and six canoes for his expedition. During this venture, he met Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette, the first white men to explore and map the Mississippi River, in Hamilton, Ontario.[59] The expedition eventually reached the Ohio River, allegedly, which it followed as far as Louisville, Kentucky.

European settlement and conflict with Native Americans[edit]

In 1774 James Harrod founded the first permanent European settlement in Kentucky at the site of present-day Harrodsburg. As more settlers entered the area, warfare broke out with the Native Americans over their traditional hunting grounds.[60]

A 1790 U.S. government report states that 1,500 Kentucky settlers had been killed by Native Americans since the end of the Revolutionary War.[61] In 1786 George Rogers Clark led a group of 1,200 men in actions against Shawnee towns on the Wabash River to begin the Northwest Indian War.[62]

Establishment as county and then as a state[edit]

On December 31, 1776, the region of Virginia beyond the Appalachian Mountains was established as Kentucky County by the Virginia General Assembly.[7] (Kentucky County was abolished on June 30, 1780, when it was divided into Fayette, Jefferson, and Lincoln counties.) On several occasions the region's residents petitioned the General Assembly and the Confederation Congress for separation from Virginia and statehood. Ten constitutional conventions were held in Danville between 1784 and 1792.

One petition, which had Virginia's assent, came before the Confederation Congress in early July 1788. Unfortunately, its consideration came up a day after word of New Hampshire's all-important ninth ratification of the proposed Constitution, thus establishing it as the new framework of governance for the United States. In light of this development, Congress thought that it would be "unadvisable" to admit Kentucky into the Union, as it could do so "under the Articles of Confederation" only, but not "under the Constitution", and so declined to take action.[63]

On December 18, 1789, Virginia again gave its consent to Kentucky statehood. The United States Congress gave its approval on February 4, 1791.[64] (This occurred two weeks before Congress approved Vermont's petition for statehood.[65]) Kentucky officially became the fifteenth state in the Union on June 1, 1792. Isaac Shelby, a military veteran from Virginia, was elected its first Governor.[66]

19th century[edit]

Designed by the Washington Monument's architect Robert Mills in 1845, the U.S. Marine Hospital in Louisville is considered the best extant antebellum hospital in the country.

Central Kentucky, the bluegrass region, was the area of the state with the most slave owners. Planters cultivated tobacco and hemp (see Hemp in Kentucky) and were noted for their quality livestock. During the 19th century, Kentucky slaveholders began to sell unneeded slaves to the Deep South, with Louisville becoming a major slave market and departure port for slaves being transported downriver.

Kentucky was one of the border states during the American Civil War.[67] Although frequently described as never having seceded, representatives from 68 of 110 counties met at Russellville calling themselves the "Convention of the People of Kentucky" and passed an Ordinance of Secession on November 20, 1861.[68] They established a Confederate government of Kentucky with its capital in Bowling Green.[69]

Though Kentucky was represented by the central star on the Confederate battle flag,[70] it remained officially "neutral" throughout the war due to the Union sympathies of a majority of the Commonwealth's citizens. Some 21st-century Kentuckians observe Confederate Memorial Day on Confederate leader Jefferson Davis' birthday, June 3, and participate in Confederate battle re-enactments.[71][72] Both Davis and U.S. president Abraham Lincoln were born in Kentucky.

On January 30, 1900, Governor William Goebel, flanked by two bodyguards, was mortally wounded by an assassin while walking to the State Capitol in downtown Frankfort. Goebel was contesting the Kentucky gubernatorial election of 1899, which William S. Taylor was initially believed to have won. For several months, J. C. W. Beckham, Goebel's running mate, and Taylor fought over who was the legal governor, until the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in May in favor of Beckham. After fleeing to Indiana, Taylor was indicted as a co-conspirator in Goebel's assassination. Goebel is the only governor of a U.S. state to have been assassinated while in office.[73]

20th century[edit]

Statue of William Goebel in Frankfort

The Black Patch Tobacco Wars, a vigilante action, occurred in Western Kentucky in the early 20th century. As a result of the tobacco industry monopoly, tobacco farmers in the area were forced to sell their crops at prices that were too low. Many local farmers and activists united in a refusal to sell their crops to the major tobacco companies.

An Association meeting occurred in downtown Guthrie,[74] where a vigilante wing of "Night Riders", formed. The riders terrorized farmers who sold their tobacco at the low prices demanded by the tobacco corporations. They burned several tobacco warehouses throughout the area, stretching as far west as Hopkinsville to Princeton. In the later period of their operation, they were known to physically assault farmers who broke the boycott. Governor Augustus E. Willson declared martial law and deployed the Kentucky National Guard to end the wars.

On October 15, 1959, a B-52 carrying two nuclear weapons collided in midair with a KC-135 tanker near Hardinsburg, Kentucky. One of the nuclear bombs was damaged by fire but both weapons were recovered.[75]

Law and government[edit]

Kentucky is one of four U.S. states to officially use the term commonwealth. The term was used for Kentucky as it had also been used by Virginia, from which Kentucky was created. The term has no particular significance in its meaning and was chosen to emphasize the distinction from the status of royal colonies as a place governed for the general welfare of the populace.[76] Kentucky was originally styled as the "State of Kentucky" in the act admitting it to the union, since that is how it was referred to in Kentucky's first constitution.[77]

The commonwealth term was used in citizen petitions submitted between 1786 and 1792 for the creation of the state.[citation needed] It was also used in the title of a history of the state that was published in 1834 and was used in various places within that book in references to Virginia and Kentucky.[78] The other three states officially called "commonwealths" are Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands are also formally commonwealths.

Kentucky is one of only five states that elects its state officials in odd-numbered years (the others being Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia). Kentucky holds elections for these offices every 4 years in the years preceding Presidential election years. Thus, Kentucky held gubernatorial elections in 2011, 2015 and 2019.

Executive branch[edit]

The governor's mansion in Frankfort

The executive branch is headed by the governor who serves as both head of state and head of government. The lieutenant governor may or may not have executive authority depending on whether the person is a member of the Governor's cabinet. Under the current Kentucky Constitution, the lieutenant governor assumes the duties of the governor only if the governor is incapacitated. (Before 1992 the lieutenant governor assumed power any time the governor was out of the state.) The governor and lieutenant governor usually run on a single ticket (also per a 1992 constitutional amendment), and are elected to four-year terms. The current governor is Andy Beshear, and the lieutenant governor is Jacqueline Coleman. Both are Democrats.[79][80]

Other elected constitutional offices include the Secretary of State, Attorney General, Auditor of Public Accounts, State Treasurer and Commissioner of Agriculture. Currently, Republican Michael G. Adams serves as the Secretary of State. The commonwealth's chief prosecutor, law enforcement officer, and law officer is the Attorney General, currently Republican Daniel Cameron. The Auditor of Public Accounts is Republican Mike Harmon. Republican Allison Ball is the current Treasurer. Republican Ryan Quarles is the current Commissioner of Agriculture.

Legislative branch[edit]

Kentucky's legislative branch consists of a bicameral body known as the Kentucky General Assembly.

The Senate is considered the upper house. It has 38 members, and is led by the President of the Senate, currently Robert Stivers (R).

The House of Representatives has 100 members, and is led by the Speaker of the House, currently David Osborne of the Republican Party.[81]

In November 2016, Republicans won control of the House for the first time since 1922, and currently have supermajorities in both the House and Senate.[82]

Judicial branch[edit]

The judicial branch of Kentucky is called the Kentucky Court of Justice[83] and comprises courts of limited jurisdiction called District Courts; courts of general jurisdiction called Circuit Courts; specialty courts such as Drug Court[84] and Family Court;[85] an intermediate appellate court, the Kentucky Court of Appeals; and a court of last resort, the Kentucky Supreme Court.

The Kentucky Court of Justice is headed by the Chief Justice of the Commonwealth. The chief justice is appointed by, and is an elected member of, the Supreme Court of Kentucky. The current chief justice is John D. Minton Jr.

Unlike federal judges, who are usually appointed, justices serving on Kentucky state courts are chosen by the state's populace in non-partisan elections.

Federal representation[edit]

A map showing Kentucky's six congressional districts

Kentucky's two U.S. Senators are Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, both Republicans. The state is divided into six Congressional Districts, represented by Republicans James Comer (1st), Brett Guthrie (2nd), Thomas Massie (4th), Hal Rogers (5th) and Andy Barr (6th) and Democrat John Yarmuth (3rd).

In the federal judiciary, Kentucky is served by two United States district courts: the Eastern District of Kentucky, with its primary seat in Lexington, and the Western District of Kentucky, with its primary seat in Louisville. Appeals are heard in the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, based in Cincinnati, Ohio.


State sign, Interstate 65

Kentucky's body of laws, known as the Kentucky Revised Statutes (KRS), were enacted in 1942 to better organize and clarify the whole of Kentucky law.[86] The statutes are enforced by local police, sheriffs and deputy sheriffs, and constables and deputy constables. Unless they have completed a police academy elsewhere, these officers are required to complete Police Officer Professional Standards (POPS) training at the Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Training Center on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond.[87] Additionally, in 1948, the Kentucky General Assembly established the Kentucky State Police, making it the 38th state to create a force whose jurisdiction extends throughout the given state.[88]

Kentucky is one of the 32 states in the United States that sanctions the death penalty for certain murders defined as heinous. Those convicted of capital crimes after March 31, 1998 are always executed by lethal injection; those convicted on or before this date may opt for the electric chair.[89] Only three people have been executed in Kentucky since the U.S. Supreme Court re-instituted the practice in 1976. The most notable execution in Kentucky was that of Rainey Bethea on August 14, 1936. Bethea was publicly hanged in Owensboro for the rape and murder of Lischia Edwards.[90] Irregularities with the execution led to this becoming the last public execution in the United States.[91]

Kentucky has been on the front lines of the debate over displaying the Ten Commandments on public property. In the 2005 case of McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that a display of the Ten Commandments in the Whitley City courthouse of McCreary County was unconstitutional.[92] Later that year, Judge Richard Fred Suhrheinrich, writing for the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of ACLU of Kentucky v. Mercer County, wrote that a display including the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Ten Commandments, the Magna Carta, The Star-Spangled Banner, and the national motto could be erected in the Mercer County courthouse.[93]

Kentucky has also been known to have unusually high political candidacy age laws, especially compared to surrounding states. The origin of this is unknown, but it has been suggested[by whom?] it has to do with the commonwealth tradition.

A 2008 study found that Kentucky's Supreme Court to be the least influential high court in the nation with its decisions rarely being followed by other states.[94]


Presidential elections results[95]
Year Republican Democrat
2016 62.54% 1,202,942 32.69% 628,834
2012 60.49% 1,087,190 37.80% 679,370
2008 57.37% 1,048,462 41.15% 751,985
2004 59.55% 1,069,439 39.69% 712,733
2000 56.50% 872,492 41.37% 638,898
1996 44.88% 623,283 45.84% 636,614
1992 41.34% 617,178 44.55% 665,104
1988 55.52% 734,281 43.88% 580,368
1984 60.04% 822,782 39.37% 539,589
1980 49.07% 635,274 47.61% 616,417
1976 45.57% 531,852 52.75% 615,717
1972 63.37% 676,446 34.77% 371,159
1968 43.79% 462,411 37.65% 397,541
1964 35.65% 372,977 64.01% 669,659
1960 53.59% 602,607 46.41% 521,855
Treemap of the popular vote by county, 2016 presidential election

Where politics are concerned, Kentucky historically has been very competitive. It leaned slightly toward the Democratic Party since 1860, when the Whig Party dissolved. The state was not included as among the "Solid South" that prevailed in the former Confederacy after states disenfranchised blacks at the turn of the century. The southeastern section had aligned with the Union during the war and tended to support Republican candidates.

In a reversal of the demographics of party alignment in the post-Civil War nineteenth century, in the 21st century, state Democrats include liberal whites, African Americans, and other minorities. As of March 2020, 48.42% of the state's voters were officially registered as Democrats, and 42.75% were registered Republican, who tend to be conservative whites. Some 8.83% were registered with some other political party or as Independents.[96] Despite this, a majority of the state's voters have generally elected Republican candidates for federal office since around the turn of the 21st century.

From 1964 through 2004, Kentucky voted for the eventual winner of the election for President of the United States; however, in the 2008 election the state lost its bellwether status. Republican John McCain won Kentucky, but he lost the national popular and electoral vote to Democrat Barack Obama (McCain carried Kentucky 57% to 41%). 116 of Kentucky's 120 counties supported former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the 2012 election while he lost to Barack Obama nationwide.[97][98]

Voters in the Commonwealth supported the previous three Democratic candidates elected to the White House in the late 20th century, all from Southern states: Lyndon B. Johnson (Texas) in 1964, Jimmy Carter (Georgia) in 1976, and Bill Clinton (Arkansas) in 1992 and 1996. In 21st-century presidential elections, the state has become a Republican stronghold, supporting that party's presidential candidates by double-digit margins from 2000 through 2016. At the same time, voters have continued to elect Democratic candidates to state and local offices in many jurisdictions.

Voter registration and party enrollment as of March 2020[96]
Party Number of voters Percentage
Democratic 1,680,046 48.42%
Republican 1,483,086 42.75%
Other 306,276 8.83%
Total 3,469,408 100%


Kentucky Population Density Map
Historical population
Census Pop.
2019 (est.)4,467,6733.0%
Source: 1790–2000[99]
2018 Estimate[101]

The United States Census Bureau estimates that the population of Kentucky was 4,467,673 on July 1, 2019, a 2.96% increase since the 2010 United States Census.[101]

As of July 1, 2016, Kentucky had an estimated population of 4,436,974, which is an increase of 12,363 from the prior year and an increase of 97,607, or 2.2%, since the year 2010. This includes a natural increase since the last census of 73,541 people (that is 346,968 births minus 273,427 deaths) and an increase due to net migration of 26,135 people into the state. Immigration from outside the United States resulted in a net increase of 40,051 people, and migration within the country produced a net decrease of 13,916 people. As of 2015, Kentucky's population included about 149,016 foreign-born persons (3.4%). In 2016 the population density of the state was 110 people per square mile (42.5/km²).[101]

Kentucky's population has grown during every decade since records have been kept. But during most decades of the 20th century there was also net out-migration from Kentucky. Since 1900, rural Kentucky counties have had a net loss of more than 1 million people to migration, while urban areas have experienced a slight net gain.[102]

Kentucky's center of population is in Washington County, in the city of Willisburg.[103]

Race and ancestry[edit]

Race/Ethnicity (2010)
White, non-Hispanic 86.3%
Black or African American 7.8%
Hispanic or Latino (of any race) 3.1%
Asian 1.1%
American Indian or Alaska Native  0.2%
Pacific Islander 0.1%
Kentucky racial breakdown of population
Racial composition 1990[104] 2000[105][106] 2015 (Est.)[107]
White 92.0% 90.1% 87.8% 88.1%
Black 7.1% 7.3% 7.8% 8.3%
Asian 0.5% 0.7% 1.1% 1.4%
Native American and
Alaska Native
0.2% 0.2% 0.2% 0.3%
Native Hawaiian and
other Pacific Islander
0.1% 0.1%
Other race 0.2% 0.6% 1.3%
Two or more races 1.0% 1.7% 1.8%

According to U.S. Census Bureau official statistics, the largest ancestry in 2013 was American totalling 20.2%.[108] In 1980, before the status of ethnic American was an available option on the official census, the largest claimed ancestries in the commonwealth were English (49.6%), Irish (26.3%), and German (24.2%).[109][110][111][112][113][114][115] In the state's most urban counties of Jefferson, Oldham, Fayette, Boone, Kenton, and Campbell, German is the largest reported ancestry. Americans of Scots-Irish and English stock are present throughout the entire state. Many residents claim Irish ancestry because of known "Scots-Irish" among their ancestors, who immigrated from Ireland, where their ancestors had moved for a period from Scotland during the plantation period.

As of the 1980s, the only counties in the United States where over half of the population cited "English" as their only ancestry group were in the hills of eastern Kentucky (virtually every county in this region had a majority of residents identifying as exclusively English in ancestry).[116]

The Ridgetop Shawnee organized in the early 21st century as a non-profit to gain structure for their community and increase awareness of Native Americans in Kentucky. In the 2000 census, some 20,000 people in the state identified as Native American (0.49%). In June 2011, Jerry "2 Feather" Thornton, a Cherokee, led a team in the Voyage of Native American Awareness 2011 canoe journey, to begin on the Green River in Rochester, Kentucky and travel through to the Ohio River at Henderson.[117]

African Americans, who were mostly enslaved at the time, made up 25% of Kentucky's population before the Civil War; they were held and worked primarily in the central Bluegrass region, an area of hemp and tobacco cultivation, as well as raising blooded livestock. The number of African Americans living in Kentucky declined during the 20th century. Many migrated during the early part of the century to the industrial North and Midwest during the Great Migration for jobs and the chance to leave segregated, oppressive societies. Today, less than 9% of the state's total population is African-American.[citation needed]

The state's African-American population is highly urbanized and 52% of them live in the Louisville metropolitan area; 44.2% of them reside in Jefferson County. The county's population is 20% African American. Other areas with high concentrations, beside Christian and Fulton counties and the Bluegrass region, are the cities of Paducah and Lexington. Some mining communities in far Southeastern Kentucky have populations that are between five and 10 percent African-American.[citation needed]


In 2000 96.1% of all residents five years old and older spoke only English at home, a decrease from 97.5% in 1990.[118]

Pronunciation of "Butler County, Kentucky" by Dorothy Murphy, lifelong resident of Central City, Kentucky

Speech patterns in the state generally reflect the first settlers' Virginia and Kentucky backgrounds. South Midland features are best preserved in the mountains, but some common to Midland and Southern are widespread.[118] After a vowel, the /r/ may be weak or missing. For instance, Coop has the vowel of put, but the root rhymes with boot. In southern Kentucky, earthworms are called redworms, a burlap bag is known as a tow sack or the Southern grass sack, and green beans are called snap beans. In Kentucky English, a young man may carry, not escort, his girlfriend to a party.[118]

Spanish is the second-most-spoken language in Kentucky, after English.[118]


Lexington Theological Seminary (then College of the Bible), 1904
Religion in Kentucky (2014)[119]
religion percent
No religion
Other faith

As of 2010, the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA)[120] reported the following groupings of Kentucky's 4,339,367 residents:

Kentucky is home to several seminaries. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville is the principal seminary for the Southern Baptist Convention. Louisville is also the home of the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, an institution of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Lexington has one seminary, Lexington Theological Seminary (affiliated with the Disciples of Christ). The Baptist Seminary of Kentucky is located on the campus of Georgetown College in Georgetown. Asbury Theological Seminary, a multi-denominational seminary in the Methodist tradition, is located in nearby Wilmore.

In addition to seminaries, there are several colleges affiliated with denominations:

Louisville is home to the Cathedral of the Assumption, the third-oldest Catholic cathedral in continuous use in the United States. The city also holds the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and their printing press. Reflecting late 19th, 20th and 21st-century immigration from different countries, Louisville also has Jewish, Muslim,[121] and Hindu communities.

In 1996 the Center for Interfaith Relations established the Festival of Faiths, the first and oldest annual interfaith festival to be held in the United States.[122]

The Christian creationist apologetics group, Answers in Genesis, along with its Creation Museum, is headquartered in Petersburg, Kentucky.

Cities and towns[edit]


The best selling car in the United States, the Toyota Camry, is manufactured in Georgetown, Kentucky.
The best selling truck in the United States, the Ford F-Series, is manufactured in Louisville, Kentucky.

Early in its history, Kentucky gained recognition for its excellent farming conditions. It was the site of the first commercial winery in the United States (started in present-day Jessamine County in 1799) and due to the high calcium content of the soil in the Bluegrass region quickly became a major horse breeding (and later racing) area. Today Kentucky ranks 5th nationally in goat farming, 8th in beef cattle production,[123] and 14th in corn production.[124] Kentucky has also been a long-standing major center of the tobacco industry – both as a center of business and tobacco farming.

Today Kentucky's economy has expanded to importance in non-agricultural terms as well, especially in auto manufacturing, energy fuel production, and medical facilities.[125]

Kentucky ranks 4th among U.S. states in the number of automobiles and trucks assembled.[126] The Chevrolet Corvette, Cadillac XLR (2004–2009), Ford Escape, Ford Super Duty trucks, Ford Expedition, Lincoln Navigator, Toyota Camry,[127] Toyota Avalon,[127] Toyota Solara, Toyota Venza,[127] and Lexus ES 350[127] are assembled in Kentucky.

Kentucky has historically been a major coal producer, but the coal industry has been in decline since the 1980s, and the number of people employed in the coal industry there dropped by more than half between 2011 and 2015.[127]

As of 2010, 24% of electricity produced in the U.S. depended on either enriched uranium rods coming from the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant (the only domestic site of low grade uranium enrichment), or from the 107,336 tons of coal extracted from the state's two coal fields (which combined produce 4% percent of the electricity in the United States).[128]

Kentucky produces 95% of the world's supply of bourbon whiskey, and the number of barrels of bourbon being aged in Kentucky (more than 5.7 million) exceeds the state's population.[127][129] Bourbon has been a growing market – with production of Kentucky bourbon rising 170 percent between 1999 and 2015.[127] In 2019 the state had more than fifty distilleries for bourbon production.[130]

Kentucky exports reached a record $22.1 billion in 2012, with products and services going to 199 countries.[131]

According to the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, the primary state agency in Kentucky responsible for creating new jobs and new investment in the state, new business investment in Kentucky in 2012 totaled nearly $2.7 billion, with the creation of more than 14,000 new jobs. One such investment was L'Oréal in Northern Kentucky, which added 200 jobs on top of the 280 already in existing facilities in Florence and Walton.[132]

Fort Knox, a United States Army post best known as the site of the United States Bullion Depository, which is used to house a large portion of the United States official gold reserves, is located in Kentucky between Louisville and Elizabethtown. In May 2010, the Army Human Resource Center of Excellence, the largest office building in the state at nearly 900,000 square feet (84,000 m2) opened at Fort Knox. The new complex employs nearly 4,300 soldiers and civilians.[133]

Kentucky contains two of the twenty U.S. Federal PenitentiariesUSP Big Sandy (in the east in Martin County near Inez) and USP McCreary (in the south in McCreary County in the Daniel Boone National Forest).

The total gross state product for 2019 Q1 was $213.313 billion.[134] Its per-capita income was US$25,888 in 2017.[135] An organization called the Institute for Truth in Accounting estimated that the state government's debts exceeded its available assets by US$26,300 per taxpayer as of 2011, ranking the state as having the 5th highest such debt burden in the nation.[136]

As of October 2019, the state's unemployment rate is 4.3%.[137] In 2014 Kentucky was found to be the most affordable U.S. state in which to live.[138]


Tax is collected by the Kentucky Department of Revenue.[139]

There are six income tax brackets, ranging from 2% to 6% of personal income.[140] The sales tax rate in Kentucky is 6%.[141]

Kentucky has a broadly based classified property tax system. All classes of property, unless exempted by the Constitution, are taxed by the state, although at widely varying rates.[142] Many of these classes are exempted from taxation by local government. Of the classes that are subject to local taxation, three have special rates set by the General Assembly, one by the Kentucky Supreme Court and the remaining classes are subject to the full local rate, which includes the tax rate set by the local taxing bodies plus all voted levies. Real property is assessed on 100% of the fair market value and property taxes are due by December 31. Once the primary source of state and local government revenue, property taxes now account for only about 6% of the Kentucky's annual General Fund revenues.[143]

Until January 1, 2006, Kentucky imposed a tax on intangible personal property held by a taxpayer on January 1 of each year. The Kentucky intangible tax was repealed under House Bill 272.[144] Intangible property consisted of any property or investment that represents evidence of value or the right to value. Some types of intangible property included: bonds, notes, retail repurchase agreements, accounts receivable, trusts, enforceable contracts sale of real estate (land contracts), money in hand, money in safe deposit boxes, annuities, interests in estates, loans to stockholders, and commercial paper.

Government-promoted slogans[edit]

In December 2002, the Kentucky governor Paul Patton unveiled the state slogan "It's that friendly",[145] in hope of drawing more people into the state based on the idea of southern hospitality. This campaign was neither a failure nor a success.[citation needed] Though it was meant to embrace southern values, many Kentuckians rejected the slogan as cheesy and ineffective.[145] It was quickly seen that the slogan did not encourage tourism as much as initially hoped for. So government decided to create a different slogan to embrace Kentucky as a whole while also encouraging more people to visit the Bluegrass.[146]

In 2004, then Governor Ernie Fletcher launched a comprehensive branding campaign with the hope of making the state's $12–14 million advertising budget more effective.[147] The resulting "Unbridled Spirit" brand was the result of a $500,000 contract with New West, a Kentucky-based public relations advertising and marketing firm, to develop a viable brand and tag line.[148] The Fletcher administration aggressively marketed the brand in both the public and private sectors. Since that time, the "Welcome to Kentucky" signs at border areas have an "Unbridled Spirit" symbol on them.


Tourism has become an increasingly important part of the Kentucky economy. In 2019 tourism grew to $7.6B in economic impact. Key attractions include horse racing with events like the Kentucky Derby and the Keeneland Fall and Spring Meets, bourbon distillery tours and natural attractions such as the state’s many lakes and parks to include Mammoth Cave, Lake Cumberland and Red River Gorge.[149]

The state also has several religious destinations such as the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter of Answers in Genesis.[150][151]

The Horse Industry[edit]

Spring running of Keeneland in Lexington, KY

Horse Racing has long been associated with Kentucky. Churchill Downs, the home of the Derby, is a large venue with a capacity exceeding 165,000.[152] The track hosts multiple events throughout the year and is a significant draw to the city of Louisville. Keeneland Race Course, in Lexington, hosts two major meets, the Spring and Fall running. Beyond hosting races Keeneland also hosts a significant horse auction drawing buyers from around the world. In 2019 $360M were spent on the September Yearling sale.[153] The Kentucky Horse Park in Georgetown hosts multiple events throughout the year, including international equestrian competitions and also offers horseback riding from April to October.[154]


At 484 miles (779 km) long, Kentucky Route 80 is the longest route in Kentucky, pictured here west of Somerset.


Kentucky is served by six major Interstate highways (I-24, I-64, I-65, I-69, I-71, and I-75), seven parkways, and six bypasses and spurs (I-165, I-169, I-264, I-265, I-275, and I-471). The parkways were originally toll roads, but on November 22, 2006, Governor Ernie Fletcher ended the toll charges on the William H. Natcher Parkway and the Audubon Parkway, the last two parkways in Kentucky to charge tolls for access.[155] The related toll booths have been demolished.[156]

Ending the tolls some seven months ahead of schedule was generally agreed to have been a positive economic development for transportation in Kentucky. In June 2007, a law went into effect raising the speed limit on rural portions of Kentucky Interstates and parkways from 65 to 70 miles per hour (105 to 113 km/h).[157]

Road tunnels include the interstate Cumberland Gap Tunnel and the rural Nada Tunnel.


High Bridge over the Kentucky River was the tallest rail bridge in the world when it was completed in 1877.

Amtrak, the national passenger rail system, provides service to Ashland, South Portsmouth, Maysville and Fulton. The Cardinal (trains 50 and 51) is the line that offers Amtrak service to Ashland, South Shore, Maysville and South Portsmouth. The City of New Orleans (trains 58 and 59) serve Fulton. The Northern Kentucky area is served by the Cardinal at Cincinnati Union Terminal. The terminal is just across the Ohio River in Cincinnati.

Norfolk Southern Railway passes through the Central and Southern parts of the Commonwealth, via its Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Texas Pacific (CNO&TP) subsidiary. The line originates in Cincinnati and terminates 338 miles south in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

As of 2004, there were approximately 2,640 miles (4,250 km) of railways in Kentucky, with about 65% of those being operated by CSX Transportation. Coal was by far the most common cargo, accounting for 76% of cargo loaded and 61% of cargo delivered.[158]

Bardstown features a tourist attraction known as My Old Kentucky Dinner Train. Run along a 20-mile (30 km) stretch of rail purchased from CSX in 1987, guests are served a four-course meal as they make a two-and-a-half-hour round-trip between Bardstown and Limestone Springs.[159] The Kentucky Railway Museum is located in nearby New Haven.[160]

Other areas in Kentucky are reclaiming old railways in rail trail projects. One such project is Louisville's Big Four Bridge. When the bridge's Indiana approach ramps opened in 2014, completing the pedestrian connection across the Ohio River, the Big Four Bridge rail trail became the second-longest pedestrian-only bridge in the world.[161] The longest pedestrian-only bridge is also found in Kentucky—the Newport Southbank Bridge, popularly known as the "Purple People Bridge", connecting Newport to Cincinnati, Ohio.[162]


Kentucky's primary airports include Louisville International Airport (Standiford Field (SDF)) of Louisville, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) of Cincinnati/Covington, and Blue Grass Airport (LEX) in Lexington. Louisville International Airport is home to UPS's Worldport, its international air-sorting hub.[163] Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport is the largest airport in the state, and is a focus city for passenger airline Delta Air Lines and headquarters of its Delta Private Jets. The airport is one of DHL Aviation's three super-hubs, serving destinations throughout the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia, making it the 7th busiest airport in the U.S. and 36th in the world based on passenger and cargo operations.[citation needed] CVG is also a focus city for Frontier Airlines and is the largest O&D airport and base for Allegiant Air, along with home to a maintenance for American Airlines subsidiary PSA Airlines and Delta Air Lines subsidiary Endeavor Air. There are also a number of regional airports scattered across the state.

On August 27, 2006, Blue Grass Airport was the site of a crash that killed 47 passengers and 2 crew members aboard a Bombardier CRJ designated Comair Flight 191, or Delta Air Lines Flight 5191, sometimes mistakenly identified by the press as Comair Flight 5191.[164] The lone survivor was the flight's first officer, James Polehinke, who doctors determined to be brain damaged and unable to recall the crash at all.[165]

A barge hauling coal in the Louisville and Portland Canal, the only manmade section of the Ohio River


As the state is bounded by two of the largest rivers in North America, water transportation has historically played a major role in Kentucky's economy. Louisville was a major port for steamships in the nineteenth century. Today, most barge traffic on Kentucky waterways consists of coal that is shipped from both the Eastern and Western Coalfields, about half of which is used locally to power many power plants located directly off the Ohio River, with the rest being exported to other countries, most notably Japan.

Many of the largest ports in the United States are located in or adjacent to Kentucky, including:

As a state, Kentucky ranks 10th overall in port tonnage.[166][167]

The only natural obstacle along the entire length of the Ohio River is the Falls of the Ohio, located just west of Downtown Louisville.

Subdivisions and settlements[edit]


Kentucky is subdivided into 120 counties, the largest being Pike County at 787.6 square miles (2,040 km2), and the most populous being Jefferson County (which coincides with the Louisville Metro governmental area) with 741,096 residents as of 2010.[168]

County government, under the Kentucky Constitution of 1891, is vested in the County Judge/Executive, (formerly called the County Judge) who serves as the executive head of the county, and a legislature called a Fiscal Court. Despite the unusual name, the Fiscal Court no longer has judicial functions.

Consolidated city-county governments[edit]

Kentucky's two most populous counties, Jefferson and Fayette, have their governments consolidated with the governments of their largest cities. Louisville-Jefferson County Government (Louisville Metro) and Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government (Lexington Metro) are unique in that their city councils and county Fiscal Court structures have been merged into a single entity with a single chief executive, the Metro Mayor and Urban County Mayor, respectively. Although the counties still exist as subdivisions of the state, in reference the names Louisville and Lexington are used to refer to the entire area coextensive with the former cities and counties. Somewhat incongruously, when entering Lexington-Fayette the highway signs read "Fayette County" while most signs leading into Louisville-Jefferson simply read "Welcome to Louisville Metro".

Major cities[edit]

The Metro Louisville government area has a 2018 population of 1,298,990. Under United States Census Bureau methodology, the population of Louisville was 623,867. The latter figure is the population of the so-called "balance"—the parts of Jefferson County that were either unincorporated or within the City of Louisville before the formation of the merged government in 2003. In 2018 the Louisville Combined Statistical Area (CSA) had a population of 1,569,112; including 1,209,191 in Kentucky, which means more than 25% of the state's population now lives in the Louisville CSA. Since 2000, over one-third of the state's population growth has occurred in the Louisville CSA. In addition, the top 28 wealthiest places in Kentucky are in Jefferson County and seven of the 15 wealthiest counties in the state are located in the Louisville CSA.[170][not specific enough to verify]

The second largest city is Lexington with a 2018 census population of 323,780, its metro had a population of 516,697, and its CSA, which includes the Frankfort and Richmond statistical areas, having a population of 746,310. The Northern Kentucky area, which comprises the seven Kentucky counties in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky metropolitan area, had a population of 447,457 in 2018. The metropolitan areas of Louisville, Lexington, and Northern Kentucky have a combined population of 2,402,958 as of 2018, which is 54% of the state's total population on only about 19% of the state's land. This area is often referred to as the Golden triangle as it contains a majority of the state's wealth, population, population growth, and economic growth, it is also where most of the state's largest cities by population are located. It is referred to the Golden triangle as the metro areas of Lexington, Louisville, and Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati outline a triangle shape. Interstates I-71, I-75, and I-64 form the triangle shape. Additionally all counties in Kentucky that are part of a MSA or CSA have a total population of 2,970,694, which is 67% of the state's population.

As of 2017 Bowling Green had a population of 67,067, making it the third most-populous city in the state. The Bowling Green metropolitan area had an estimated population of 174,835; and the combined statistical area it shares with Glasgow has an estimated population of 228,743.

The two other fast growing urban areas in Kentucky are the Bowling Green area and the "Tri Cities Region" of southeastern Kentucky, comprising Somerset, London and Corbin.

Although only one town in the "Tri Cities", namely Somerset, currently has more than 12,000 people, the area has been experiencing heightened population and job growth since the 1990s. Growth has been especially rapid in Laurel County, which outgrew areas such as Scott and Jessamine counties around Lexington or Shelby and Nelson Counties around Louisville. London significantly grew in population in the 2000s, from 5,692 in 2000 to 7,993 in 2010. London also landed a Wal-Mart distribution center in 1997, bringing thousands of jobs to the community.

In northeast Kentucky, the greater Ashland area is an important transportation, manufacturing, and medical center. Iron and petroleum production, as well as the transport of coal by rail and barge, have been historical pillars of the region's economy. Due to a decline in the area's industrial base, Ashland has seen a sizable reduction in its population since 1990; however, the population of the area has since stabilized with the medical service industry taking a greater role in the local economy. The Ashland area, including the counties of Boyd and Greenup, are part of the Huntington-Ashland, WV-KY-OH, Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). As of the 2000 census, the MSA had a population of 288,649. More than 21,000 of those people (as of 2010) reside within the city limits of Ashland.

The largest county in Kentucky by area is Pike, which contains Pikeville and suburb Coal Run Village. The county and surrounding area is the most populated region in the state that is not part of a Micropolitan Statistical Area or a Metropolitan Statistical Area containing nearly 200,000 people in five counties: Floyd County, Martin County, Letcher County, and neighboring Mingo County, West Virginia. Pike County contains slightly more than 68,000 people.

Only three U.S. states have capitals with smaller populations than Kentucky's Frankfort (pop. 25,527), those being Augusta, Maine (pop. 18,560), Pierre, South Dakota (pop. 13,876), and Montpelier, Vermont (pop. 8,035).


The J.B. Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville, Kentucky's urban research university.

Kentucky maintains eight public four-year universities. There are two general tiers: major research institutions (the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville) and regional universities, which encompasses the remaining 6 schools. The regional schools have specific target counties that many of their programs are targeted towards (such as Forestry at Eastern Kentucky University or Cave Management at Western Kentucky University), however most of their curriculum varies little from any other public university.

UK and UofL have the highest academic rankings and admissions standards although the regional schools aren't without their national recognized departments – examples being Western Kentucky University's nationally ranked Journalism Department or Morehead State University offering one of the nation's only Space Science degrees. UK is the flagship and land grant of the system and has agriculture extension services in every county. The two research schools split duties related to the medical field, UK handles all medical outreach programs in the eastern half of the state while UofL does all medical outreach in the state's western half.

The state's sixteen public two-year colleges have been governed by the Kentucky Community and Technical College System since the passage of the Postsecondary Education Improvement Act of 1997, commonly referred to as House Bill 1.[171] Before the passage of House Bill 1, most of these colleges were under the control of the University of Kentucky.

Transylvania University, a liberal arts university located in Lexington, was founded in 1780 as the oldest university west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Berea College, located at the extreme southern edge of the Bluegrass below the Cumberland Plateau, was the first coeducational college in the South to admit both black and white students, doing so from its very establishment in 1855.[172] This policy was successfully challenged in the United States Supreme Court in the case of Berea College v. Kentucky in 1908.[173] This decision effectively segregated Berea until the landmark Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

There are 173 school districts and 1,233 public schools in Kentucky.[174] For the 2010 to 2011 school year, there were approximately 647,827 students enrolled in public school.[175]

Kentucky has been the site of much educational reform over the past two decades. In 1989 the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled the state's education system was unconstitutional.[176] The response of the General Assembly was passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) the following year. Years later, Kentucky has shown progress, but most agree that further reform is needed.[177]

The West Virginia teachers' strike in 2018 inspired teachers in other states, including Kentucky, to take similar action.[178]


Although Kentucky's culture is generally considered to be Southern, it is unique in that it is also influenced by the Midwest and Southern Appalachia in certain areas of the state. The state is known for bourbon and whiskey distilling, tobacco, horse racing, and college basketball. Kentucky is more similar to the Upland South in terms of ancestry that is predominantly American.[179]

Nevertheless, during the 19th century, Kentucky did receive a substantial number of German immigrants, who settled mostly in the Midwest, along the Ohio River primarily in Louisville, Covington and Newport.[180] Only Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia have higher German ancestry percentages than Kentucky among Census-defined Southern states, although Kentucky's percentage is closer to Arkansas and Virginia's than the previously named state's percentages. Scottish Americans, English Americans and Scotch-Irish Americans have heavily influenced Kentucky culture, and are present in every part of the state.[181] As of the 1980s the only counties in the United States where more than half the population cited "English" as their only ancestry group were all in the hills of eastern Kentucky (and made up virtually every county in this region).[116]

Kentucky was a slave state, and blacks once comprised over one-quarter of its population; however, it lacked the cotton plantation system and never had the same high percentage of African Americans as most other slave states. While less than 8% of the total population is black, Kentucky has a relatively significant rural African American population in the Central and Western areas of the state.[182][183][184]

Kentucky adopted the Jim Crow system of racial segregation in most public spheres after the Civil War. Louisville's 1914 ordinance for residential racial segregation was struck down by the US Supreme Court in 1917. However, in 1908 Kentucky enacted the Day Law, "An Act to Prohibit White and Colored Persons from Attending the Same School", which Berea College unsuccessfully challenged at the US Supreme Court in 1908; in 1948, Lyman T. Johnson filed suit for admission to the University of Kentucky; as a result in the summer of 1949, nearly thirty African American students entered UK graduate and professional programs.[185] Kentucky integrated its schools after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education verdict, later adopting the first state civil rights act in the South in 1966.[186]

Old Louisville is the largest Victorian Historic neighborhood in the United States.

The biggest day in American horse racing, the Kentucky Derby, is preceded by the two-week Derby Festival[187] in Louisville. The Derby Festival features many events, including Thunder Over Louisville, the Pegasus Parade, the Great Steamboat Race, Fest-a-Ville, the Chow Wagon, BalloonFest, BourbonVille, and many others leading up to the big race.

Louisville also plays host to the Kentucky State Fair[188] and the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.[189] Bowling Green, the state's third-largest city and home to the only assembly plant in the world that manufactures the Chevrolet Corvette,[190] opened the National Corvette Museum in 1994.[191] The fourth-largest city, Owensboro, gives credence to its nickname of "Barbecue Capital of the World" by hosting the annual International Bar-B-Q Festival.[192]

Old Louisville, the largest historic preservation district in the United States featuring Victorian architecture and the third largest overall,[193] hosts the St. James Court Art Show, the largest outdoor art show in the United States.[194] The neighborhood was also home to the Southern Exposition (1883–1887), which featured the first public display of Thomas Edison's light bulb,[195] and was the setting of Alice Hegan Rice's novel, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.[196]

Hodgenville, the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, hosts the annual Lincoln Days Celebration, and also hosted the kick-off for the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration in February 2008. Bardstown celebrates its heritage as a major bourbon-producing region with the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.[197] Glasgow mimics Glasgow, Scotland by hosting the Glasgow Highland Games, its own version of the Highland Games,[198] and Sturgis hosts "Little Sturgis", a mini version of Sturgis, South Dakota's annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.[199]

Winchester celebrates an original Kentucky creation, Beer Cheese, with its Beer Cheese Festival held annually in June.[200] Beer Cheese was developed in Clark County at some point in the 1940s along the Kentucky River.[201]

The residents of tiny Benton pay tribute to their favorite tuber, the sweet potato, by hosting Tater Day.[202] Residents of Clarkson in Grayson County celebrate their city's ties to the honey industry by celebrating the Clarkson Honeyfest.[203] The Clarkson Honeyfest is held the last Thursday, Friday and Saturday in September, and is the "Official State Honey Festival of Kentucky".


Renfro Valley, Kentucky is home to Renfro Valley Entertainment Center and the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and is known as "Kentucky's Country Music Capital", a designation given it by the Kentucky State Legislature in the late 1980s. The Renfro Valley Barn Dance was where Renfro Valley's musical heritage began, in 1939, and influential country music luminaries like Red Foley, Homer & Jethro, Lily May Ledford & the Original Coon Creek Girls, Martha Carson, and many others have performed as regular members of the shows there over the years. The Renfro Valley Gatherin' is today America's second oldest continually broadcast radio program of any kind. It is broadcast on local radio station WRVK and a syndicated network of nearly 200 other stations across the United States and Canada every week.

The U.S. 23 Country Music Highway Museum in Paintsville provides background on the country music artists from Eastern Kentucky.

Contemporary Christian music star Steven Curtis Chapman is a Paducah native, and Rock and Roll Hall of Famers The Everly Brothers are closely connected with Muhlenberg County, where older brother Don was born. Merle Travis, Country & Western artist known for both his signature "Travis picking" guitar playing style, as well as his hit song "Sixteen Tons", was also born in Muhlenberg County. Kentucky was also home to Mildred and Patty Hill, the Louisville sisters credited with composing the tune to the ditty Happy Birthday to You in 1893; Loretta Lynn (Johnson County), Brian Littrell and Kevin Richardson of the Backstreet Boys, and Billy Ray Cyrus (Flatwoods).

However, its depth lies in its signature sound—Bluegrass music. Bill Monroe, "The Father of Bluegrass", was born in the small Ohio County town of Rosine, while Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, David "Stringbean" Akeman, Louis Marshall "Grandpa" Jones, Sonny and Bobby Osborne, and Sam Bush (who has been compared to Monroe) all hail from Kentucky. The Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum is located in Owensboro,[204] while the annual Festival of the Bluegrass is held in Lexington.[205]

Kentucky is also home to famed jazz musician and pioneer, Lionel Hampton.[206] Blues legend W. C. Handy and R&B singer Wilson Pickett also spent considerable time in Kentucky. The R&B group Midnight Star and Hip-Hop group Nappy Roots were both formed in Kentucky, as were country acts The Kentucky Headhunters, Montgomery Gentry and Halfway to Hazard, The Judds, as well as Dove Award-winning Christian groups Audio Adrenaline (rock) and Bride (metal). Heavy Rock band Black Stone Cherry hails from rural Edmonton. Rock band My Morning Jacket with lead singer and guitarist Jim James originated out of Louisville, as well as bands Wax Fang, White Reaper, Tantric. Rock bands Cage the Elephant, Sleeper Agent, and Morning Teleportation are also from Bowling Green. The bluegrass groups Driftwood and Kentucky Rain, along with Nick Lachey of the pop band 98 Degrees are also from Kentucky. King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew is from Covington. Post rock band Slint also hails from Louisville. Noted singer and actress Rosemary Clooney was a native of Maysville, her legacy being celebrated at the annual music festival bearing her name. Noted songwriter and actor Will Oldham is from Louisville.[207] More recently in the limelight are country artists Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers, and Chris Knight.

In eastern Kentucky, old-time music carries on the tradition of ancient ballads and reels developed in historical Appalachia.


Kentucky has played a major role in Southern and American literature, producing works that often celebrate the working class, rural life, nature, and explore issues of class, extractive economy, and family. Major works from the state include Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, widely seen as one of the impetuses for the American Civil War; The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (1908) by John Fox Jr., which was the first novel to sell a million copies in the United States; All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946), rated as the 36th best English-language novel of the 20th century; The Dollmaker (1954) by Harriette Arnow; Night Comes to the Cumberlands (1962) by Harry Caudill, which contributed to initiating the U.S. Government's War on poverty, and others.

Author Thomas Merton lived most of his life and wrote most of his books – including The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), ranked on National Review's list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the century – during his time as a monk at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. Author Hunter S. Thompson is also a native of the state. Since the later part of the 20th century, several writers from Kentucky have published widely read and critically acclaimed books, including: Wendell Berry (fl. 1960–), Silas House (fl. 2001–), Barbara Kingsolver (fl. 1988–), poet Maurice Manning (fl. 2001–), and Bobbie Ann Mason (fl. 1988–).

Well-known playwrights from Kentucky include Marsha Norman (works include 'night, Mother, 1983) and Naomi Wallace (works include One Flea Spare, 1995).

The Hot Brown


Kentucky's cuisine is generally similar to traditional southern cooking, although in some areas of the state it can blend elements of both the South and Midwest.[208][209] One original Kentucky dish is called the Hot Brown, a dish normally layered in this order: toasted bread, turkey, bacon, tomatoes and topped with mornay sauce. It was developed at the Brown Hotel in Louisville.[210] The Pendennis Club in Louisville is the birthplace of the Old Fashioned cocktail. Also, western Kentucky is known for its own regional style of barbecue. Central Kentucky is the birthplace of Beer Cheese.

Harland Sanders, a Kentucky colonel, originated Kentucky Fried Chicken at his service station in North Corbin, though the first franchised KFC was located in South Salt Lake, Utah.[211]


Kentucky's Churchill Downs hosts the Kentucky Derby.

Kentucky is the home of several sports teams such as Minor League Baseball's Triple-A Louisville Bats and Class A Lexington Legends and the Class A Bowling Green Hot Rods. They are also home to the Frontier League's Florence Y'alls and several teams in the MCFL. The Lexington Horsemen and Louisville Fire of the now-defunct af2 had been interested in making a move up to the "major league" Arena Football League, but nothing has come of those plans.

The northern part of the state lies across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, which is home to a National Football League team, the Bengals, and a Major League Baseball team, the Reds. It is not uncommon for fans to park in the city of Newport and use the Newport Southbank Pedestrian Bridge, locally known as the "Purple People Bridge", to walk to these games in Cincinnati. Also, Georgetown College in Georgetown was the location for the Bengals' summer training camp, until it was announced in 2012 that the Bengals would no longer use the facilities.[212]

As in many states, especially those without major league professional sport teams, college athletics are prominent. This is especially true of the state's three Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) programs, including the Kentucky Wildcats, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, and the Louisville Cardinals. The Wildcats, Hilltoppers, and Cardinals are among the most tradition-rich college men's basketball teams in the United States, combining for 11 National championships and 24 NCAA Final Fours;[citation needed] all three are high on the lists of total all-time wins, wins per season, and average wins per season.[citation needed]

The Kentucky Wildcats are particularly notable, leading all Division I programs in all-time wins, win percentage, NCAA tournament appearances, and being second only to UCLA in NCAA championships.[213] Louisville has also stepped onto the football scene in recent years, including winning the 2007 Orange Bowl as well as the 2013 Sugar Bowl, and also producing 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. Western Kentucky, the 2002 national champion in Division I-AA football (now Football Championship Subdivision (FCS)), completed its transition to Division I FBS football in 2009.

The Kentucky Derby is a horse race held annually in Louisville on the first Saturday in May. The Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville has hosted several editions of the PGA Championship, Senior PGA Championship and Ryder Cup since the 1990s.

The NASCAR Cup Series has a race at the Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Kentucky, which is within an hour driving distance from Cincinnati, Louisville and Lexington. The race is called the Quaker State 400. The NASCAR Nationwide Series and the Camping World Truck Series also race there, and previously the IndyCar Series.

Ohio Valley Wrestling in Louisville was the primary location for training and rehab for WWE professional wrestlers from 2000 until 2008, when WWE moved its contracted talent to Florida Championship Wrestling. OVW later became the primary developmental territory for Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA) from 2011 to 2013.

In 2014 Louisville City FC, a professional soccer team in the league then known as USL Pro and now as the United Soccer League, was announced. The team made its debut in 2015, playing home games at Louisville Slugger Field. In its first season, Louisville City was the official reserve side for Orlando City SC while making its debut in Major League Soccer at the same time. That arrangement ended in 2016, when Orlando City established a directly controlled reserve side in the USL.

State symbols[edit]

Insignia Symbol Binomial nomenclature Year adopted[214]
Official state bird Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis 1926
Official state butterfly Viceroy butterfly Limenitis archippus 1990
Official state dance Clogging 2006
Official state beverage Milk 2005
Official state fish Kentucky spotted bass Micropterus punctulatus 2005
Official state fossil Brachiopod undetermined 1986
Official state flower Goldenrod Soldiago gigantea 1926
Official state fruit Blackberry Rubus allegheniensis 2004
Official state gemstone Freshwater pearl 1986
State grass Kentucky bluegrass Poa pratensis Traditional
Official state motto "United we stand, divided we fall" 1942/1792
Official state slogan "United we stand, divided we fall" 2004[215]
Official state Latin motto "Deo gratiam habeamus" ("Let us be grateful to God") 2002
Official state horse Thoroughbred Equus caballus 1996
Official state mineral Coal 1998
Official state outdoor musical The Stephen Foster Story 2002
Official state instrument Appalachian dulcimer 2001
State nickname "The bluegrass state" Traditional
Official state rock Kentucky agate 2000
Official state soil Crider soil series 1990
Official state tree Tulip poplar Liriodendron tulipifera 1994
Official wild animal game species Gray squirrel Sciurus carolinensis 1968
Official state song "My Old Kentucky Home" (revised version) 1928/1986
Official state silverware pattern Old Kentucky blue grass: the Georgetown pattern 1996
Official state music Bluegrass music 2007[216]
Official state automobile Chevrolet Corvette 2010

Official state places and events[edit]

Unless otherwise specified, all state symbol information is taken from Kentucky State Symbols.

Kentucky colonel[edit]

The distinction of being named a Kentucky colonel is the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Commissions for Kentucky colonels are given by the Governor and the Secretary of State to individuals in recognition of noteworthy accomplishments and outstanding service to a community, state or the nation. The sitting governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky bestows the honor of a colonel's commission, by issuance of letters patent. Kentucky colonels are commissioned for life and act officially as the state's goodwill ambassadors.[218]


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Surveys and reference[edit]

Specialized scholarly studies[edit]

External links[edit]

Preceded by
List of U.S. states by date of admission to the Union
Admitted on June 1, 1792 (15th)
Succeeded by