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History of slavery in Kentucky


History of slavery in Kentucky

The history of slavery in Kentucky dates from the earliest permanent European settlements in the state, until the end of the Civil War. Kentucky was classified as the Upper South or a Border state,[1] and enslaved African Americans represented up to 25% of the population before the Civil War, concentrated in the cities of Louisville and Lexington, both in the fertile Bluegrass Region, a center of tobacco plantations and horse farms.


  • Overview 1
  • Fugitive slaves 2
  • Abolitionism 3
  • Politics 4
  • Civil War 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Bibliography 8
  • Further reading 9


Early Kentucky history was built on slave labor, and it was an integral part of the state's economy. 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, many planters sold their slaves to markets in the Deep South, where the demand for agricultural labor rose rapidly as cotton cultivation was expanded. Kentucky's slave population was concentrated 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, especially after the American Revolution, they brought along slaves to clear and develop the land. Early settlements were called stations and developed around forts for protection against Native Americans, with whom there were numerous violent conflicts. Most of the early settlers were from Virginia, and they continued to rely on slave labor as they developed larger, more permanent plantations.

Planters who grew hemp and tobacco, which were labor-intensive crops, held more slaves than did smaller farmers who cultivated mixed crops. Subsistence farming could be done without any slave labor, although some subsistence farmers held a few slaves with whom they would work. Some owners also used enslaved African Americans in mining and manufacturing operations, for work on riverboats and along the waterfront, and to work in skilled trades in towns.

Early 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, African American men had to live apart from their wives and children.

Free blacks were among the slaveholders; in 1830, free blacks held slaves in 29 of Kentucky's counties.[2] In some cases, people would purchase their spouse, their children, or other enslaved relatives in order to protect them until they could free them. After the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion of 1831, the legislature passed new restrictions against owners freeing their slaves, requiring acts of the legislature to gain freedom.[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 a million African Americans before the Civil War. Many slaves were sold directly to plantations in the Deep South from the Louisville slave market, or were transported by slave traders along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to slave markets in New Orleans (hence the later euphemism "sold down the river" for any sort of betrayal). 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.

Beginning in the 1820s and extending through the 1840s and 1850s, many white families migrated west to Missouri and Tennessee, or southwest to Texas. The larger slave-holding families took slaves with them, as one kind of forced migration. These factors combined to create greater instability for enslaved families in Kentucky than in some other areas.

Fugitive slaves

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 developed in the state by 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 as integral to the economy as it developed in the Deep South. The small-farm nature of much 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. But Louisville became a major slave market, which generated considerable profits.

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.

Slavery was the principal issue that led to 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. It repealed the prohibition on bringing slaves into the state.

After the embarrassing defeat, abolitionists lost political power during the 1850s. But, anti-slavery newspapers were still published in Louisville and Newport. More than half the households of Louisville owned slaves, 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

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

The Kentucky legislature considered a conditional ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, to deny freedmen and other blacks constitutional rights and require 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


  1. ^ Tobacco and Staple Agriculture
  2. ^ a b Notable Kentucky African Americans Database: , 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


  • Coleman, J. Winston (1940). Slavery Times in Kentucky. 
  • Harrison, Lowell H. (1978). The Antislavery Movement in Kentucky. 
  • A New History of KentuckyLowell Hayes Harrison, and James C. Klotter, , Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1997
  • "Memories of Slavery Days in Kentucky".  
  • Vorenberg, Michael .Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment. Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN 9781139428002

Further reading

  • 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.  
  • 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.  
  • Howard, Victor B. (1983). Black Liberation in Kentucky: Emancipation and Freedom, 1862-1884. University Press of Kentucky.  
  • Lucas, Marion B. (2003). A History of Blacks in Kentucky from Slavery to Segregation 1760-1891. University Press of Kentucky.  
  • Morris, Thomas D. (1996). Southern Slavery and the Law: 1619-1860. University of North Carolina Press.  
  • Runyon, Randolph Paul (1996).  
  • Tallant, Harold D. (2003). Evil Necessity: Slavery and Political Culture in Antebellum Kentucky. University Press of Kentucky.  
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