Pioneer Migration to Kentucky


The following is a good article about migration to Kentucky. It was taken from an article on but the previous link no longer works.

Table of Contents

  1. 1. Westward Movement: The Kentucky Microcosm
  2. 2. Motivations for Migration
  3. 3. Kentucky: The Symbol
  4. 4. Pioneer Routes
  5. 5. Population Trends
  6. 6. References

Westward Movement: The Kentucky Microcosm

In tracking a family's movements from place to place, what family historian has not wondered why his or her family moved to that particular town in Illinois or Oklahoma or California at that particular time? We all wonder, justifiably, what could possibly motivate a family to make such a monumental, expensive, physically arduous, and potentially dangerous journey. While the motivations of individuals or families can rarely be known for certain, we can surmise a great deal from studying the large migration trends throughout history.

The great westward migration in the United States was accomplished over time and in many stages. One of the first migration routes was over the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains into Kentucky and Tennessee. Later, the frontier pushed farther west to the plains, and then to the West Coast.

As our pioneer families packed their worldly belongings and bid farewell to friends and kin, they were not only making a very personal decision, but they were also participating in a massive social movement. Frontier theorists believe that the migrations into Kentucky exemplify the complexity of population movements and social change. Therefore, the settlement of Kentucky represents a fascinating and unique opportunity to study in a microcosm the westward movement in United States history. An exploration of this particular westward movement can tell us about the migration experiences of our ancestors—whether they migrated to Kentucky or to the West Coast.

Motivations for Migration

Early settlers were on the move almost as soon as they set foot on the eastern shores, constantly and impatiently pushing the border outward from the European settlements into the western wilderness. Our high school history classes taught us that many of our ancestors came to the New World in pursuit of religious freedom. These pioneers wanted freedom to live and worship the way they believed, surrounded by their loved ones. But such a monumental decision is rarely based on one single factor. Most families migrated for social and economic, as well as religious, reasons.

Settlement of the Kentucky frontier was influenced by a variety of factors. The political environment and economic conditions in Virginia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania made it ripe for such a migration. Virginia’s role in the migratory pattern began early in the eighteenth century as settlement moved steadily westward from the Tidewater into the Piedmont. The rapid increase in settlers set the stage for a great wave of land speculation in western lands. By the mid-eighteenth century, the slow trickle of westward movement began to show signs of a flood. Settlement of Kentucky after the revolution resulted in a very rapid population growth. The number of Kentuckians nearly tripled between 1790 and 1800. Population grew from 61,133 residents to 179,873. (Purvis, 261).

The political stage was also set. Religious differences had grown into factional differences between the upper class Tidewater residents and the yeoman farmers. Land policy was favorable, and the government encouraged settlement through the sale of cheap land in Kentucky.

An expanding population in the eastern states was also a major factor of migration to Kentucky. The influx of Revolutionary War soldiers contributed to the rise in Kentucky’s population as they and their families joined the migration into Kentucky to claim service bounty lands. Many settlers bought land cheaply from Revolutionary War veterans.

Under the primogeniture laws of Virginia, older sons inherited their fathers’ estates and younger sons were forced to seek their fortunes elsewhere. As a result, Kentucky became almost as popular as North Carolina in providing a place for these younger sons to migrate.

The European lifestyle and methods of farming resulted in an economy and population that depended on acquiring new, fertile land to sustain growth. The rapid exhaustion of the Tidewater’s tillable land encouraged movement into healthy land in Kentucky. Without rotation of crops or artificial fertilizers, new land had to be cleared for cultivation every seven years (Clark, 61). Farmers boasted about the number of farms they depleted during their lives. As a result, there was pressure for new land, not only because of a rapidly expanding population, but because of the deteriorating value of land for agricultural uses. Faced with less productive agricultural lands and the promise of new land in Kentucky, one can understand why thousands of Virginians and North Carolinians set out over the Blue Ridge Mountains into the rich farming areas of the Bluegrass, the Ohio River Basin, and the western regions of Kentucky.

The great migration movement to the West brought many types of people over the mountains. First came the adventurous explorers, trappers, and hunters. They were followed by surveyors who opened the country to settlement. Later, land squatters began the task of taming the wilderness. They cut down trees, burned underbrush, and planted small cornfields. But the squatters were soon supplanted by speculators who sent agents into the new settlements to buy the small farms and develop large plantations. The squatters were forced to move westward to new lands and leave the ever-expanding Kentucky settlements to another set of newcomers.

Kentucky: The Symbol

The promise that drew many of these early frontier families to Kentucky was one of plentiful, cheap, fertile land; in some cases, Kentucky was a promised land. It had become a romantic, nearly mythical paradise of the eighteenth century fueled by extravagant reports from Indian and white explorers. Land speculators naturally used these stories to their advantage in advertisements and booklets in the hopes of driving up the prices of their land.

The early colonists heard all manner of tales about the western frontier. They heard these accounts from land speculators who were motivated by the need to encourage settlement into the area and thus profit financially from heavy demand for their lands. They heard from adventurers and early exploration parties about fertile land for farming, virgin forests, and animal herds that made hunting sound like child’s play. They heard even taller tales about hidden treasures, lost silver mines, gold, and the abundance of other valuable minerals. Later, they heard from their own families and friends about the advantages of the new lands.

Kentucky came to represent, both geographically and socially, the boundary between the old European social order, with its limitations on freedom and restrictions of social mobility, and the wilderness, with all its opportunities for change and a new way of life. In short, Kentucky had come to symbolize paradise, and it retained this image even after the frontier had been pushed far beyond the Mississippi.

Pioneer Routes

Early settlers of Kentucky generally took one of two major routes: the northern route along the Ohio River or the southern route through the Wilderness Gap and its many tributary branches into the eastern and central regions of Kentucky. Both points of entry into the Kentucky wilderness were also important stops on existing trails that may have been used by local wildlife and Native Americans. In large part, the establishment of pioneer stations and forts took place along these preexisting trails (O’Malley).

The southern Wilderness Road route was taken by a majority of pioneers who came to Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap along the famous Wilderness Road from Virginia through the Appalachian Mountains. The Gap was critical in the settlement of the West because it was the only natural route through the Appalachian Mountains. As a result, the Wilderness Trail continued to be an important route for settlers moving west until the Civil War. Of the approximately 400,000 pioneers who traveled west before 1800, it is estimated that three quarters of them used the Cumberland Gap route (Kincaid). And while those settlers originated from as far north as Pennsylvania, the majority came from Virginia and North Carolina.

In frontier times, the Wilderness Road was a southern loop for connecting pioneer roads reaching from the Potomac River in Virginia to the falls of the Ohio River in western Kentucky. The portion of the road from Kingsport, Tennessee to the bluegrass regions of Kentucky that gave the road its name was no more than a narrow, difficult, hazardous trail winding over mountains. From 1775 to 1796 this segment of the road was nothing more than a horse path. No wagon passed over it during that period of time when more than 200,000 people made their way into Kentucky and beyond. It continued as an important feeder thoroughfare for the western settlements until the Civil War (Kincaid).

Population Trends

By 1820, Kentucky’s population more closely resembled Virginia’s than North Carolina’s, substantiating the popular view that there was a large migration of pioneers from Virginia during these early years. After 1820, Kentucky ceased to attract large numbers of settlers into its borders and thus began the great net migration loss of surplus population that lasted for the next 150 years (Purvis, 266).

By 1880, eighty percent of Kentucky residents who had been born outside of the state came from just five states: Tennessee, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and North Carolina. Of the 454,000 who had moved to other states by 1880, nearly seventy-five percent had moved to Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Texas, Kansas, and Ohio (Ford, 12).

Thus, Kentucky has been a state that families migrated through. Analysis of the population figures shows that the state has lost more people to migration than it attracted in every decade since 1820, with the exception of the 1840s.

As we follow the course of history and watch the frontier as it pushed farther west to the plains and to the West Coast, we learn even more about our heritage. Our pioneer families were participating in a massive social movement. And understanding these movements will lead us to uncover more clues about our past—and their lives. The first migration route, over the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains into Kentucky and Tennessee, only sparks our understanding of the paths our ancestors may have taken.


Brown, Richard. The Free Blacks of Boyle County, Kentucky, 1850-1860. The Register of the 190 Pioneer Migration to Kentucky

Kentucky Historical Society 87 (1989): 426-438.

Coleman, J. Winston. Sketches of Kentucky’s Past. Lexington: Winburn Press, 1979.

Clark, Thomas. A History of Kentucky. Lexington: John Bradford Press, 1960.

Ford, Thomas R. "Kentucky in the 1880s". Kentucky Reviews Vol. 3, No. 2. (1982).

Kincaid, Robert L. The Wilderness Road. New York: Bobbs Merrill Company, 1947.

Moore, Arthur. The Frontier Mind. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1947.

O’Malley, Nancy. Stockading Up. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press, 1987.

Purvis, Thomas L. "The Ethnic Descent of Kentucky’s Early Population, 1790-1820." The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 80 (1982): 253-266.

Savelle, Max and Darold D. Wax. A History of Colonial America. Hinsdale, Illinois: Dryden Press, 1973.

Roseann Reinemuth Hogan, Ph.D., has been researching her family history since 1978. Her special interests include oral histories and social history.

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© Bobby Daniel