What Is Kentucky?

I was looking into the data and history on Kentucky. My motivation was diverse. I was thinking about violence, but I was more generally considering what makes Kentucky such a unique state.

North of Kenutcky, there is Ohio and Indiana. That is the earliest settlement areas of the Midwest. These particular Lower Midwest states are as influenced by Southern culture as Kentucky is influenced by Midwestern culture. Hence, the hybrid name of Kentuckiana.

In my visit to Kentucky, I mostly saw the central part of the state. Traveling through rural areas, I was surprised how much it felt like the Midwest. It wasn’t all that different from nearby Indiana, where my own Kentucky ancestors moved to. The main difference is that the barns in Kentucky are painted black because many of them were originally built to dry tobacco, although these days much of the land is being used for grazing cattle, just like in the Midwest.

Many of my Kentucky ancestors were of German heritage, another commonality with Midwesterners. Near where they lived, there is a Shaker village. The Shakers are more commonly associated with the North. Here in Iowa and throughout the Midwest, there are many Quakers and Amish as well, two other religious groups that are also found in the Upper South but not the Deep South.

Furthermore, the limestone country straddles the border region of the Upper South and Lower Midwest. My Kentuckiana family worked in the limestone industry about a century ago. Limestone country is some of the most beautiful land in the country. The streams and rivers cut through the limestone in wondrous ways. All of this border region is defined by water, where it flows and where it gathers.

Western Kentucky is a narrow part of the state. This is where it touches the narrow part of Illinois. Abraham Lincoln’s early life began in Kentucky, involved years in Southern Indiana, and then later on as an adult his political career began in Illinois. That was a common path of westward movement for many families.

The whole state of Kentucky stretches westward, defined by that very movement of the population pushing the boundary of civilization. At that western edge, the state touches upon the Mississippi river, the last great boundary of the frontier. Just across that water is Missouri with a similar set of cultural, historical, and geographic issues as Kentucky. I’m not familiar with this part of Kentucky, but I’m sure there are some old river towns there and I’m sure more industrialization happened because of it.

To the South of Kentucky, Tennessee stretches lengthwise as the twin of Kentucky. They are like two children who were adopted by different parents. Both grew up in an early history of violence. Tennessee remains one of the most violent states in the country, and yet Kentucky has somehow become one of the least violent states in the country. However, the memory of Kentucky violence is not buried all that deep.

This brings me to Eastern Kentucky and especially the Southeast stretch. This is where Appalachia dominates. So, this is where is found the long history of the worst rural poverty, the most infamous violence and fueds, and of course mining and labor organizing.

Here the state borders Virginia and West Virginia. It is through these states that Kentucky had its strongest influence of what would later come to be thought of as Southern culture. Virginia was the earliest slave colony, where a completely different line of my family was part of the first generation of slaveholding aristocracy. A couple centuries after the colonial settlement, West Virginia broke away because of the Civil War, but that wasn’t just a political split but also a cultural split. West Virginia was more defined by Appalachia and the Scots-Irish settlers.

The struggle for control of Kentucky involved many divides. It was the birth state of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s family, like Daniel Boone and my own family, left for various overlapping reasons. There was a lot of legal conflict there and so it was a highly litigious society, because of the complications of the metes and bounds system in creating property boundaries (a British system that was used throughout the South and parts of the early Midwest, specifically Southern Ohio). There was also the slave issue that pushed many people further west toward the free territories and states.

Even after the Civil war, there was still a class war element to this. The Black Patch Tobacco War was an expression of this (the Black Patch is Western Kentucky where the soil grew a dark tobacco). There was the first developments of big agriculture. A monopoly had formed that was squeezing out small tobacco farmers, and they weren’t happy about it.

The pressure on small family farms was common throughout the Midwest as well, but the difference was the response. This is where Kentuckians showed their Southern side by organizing the Night Riders who were the strong arm of the small farmers’ association. These Night Riders terrorized anyone who didn’t join the Association. Property was destroyed and people killed. They didn’t wait for distant government, state or federal, to help them with oppressive big biz and a local plutocratic ruling class. They had a tradition of taking care of their own problems.

The dark side of this is that the Night Riders ended up being hard to distinguish from the Ku Klux Klan. Blacks joined the Association at higher rates than whites, because they were hurt the most by the suppression of tobacco prices. Still, none of this mattered to the racially-motivated opportunists. Some of the terrorism was directed at innocent black farmers. They were either killed or sent packing, and their land and property was stolen (or bought cheaply at the threat of violence).

This shows a weird mix of Southern and Northern social patterns.

The violent mob way of dealing with the problem was Southern. This was also seen in the Southern-tinted edge of the Lower Midwest — for example, the KKK was a big player in Southern Indiana. A similar thing was found with the Italian Black Hand and the later Mafia in Northern cities, but my point is that this wasn’t a common way of dealing with problems in places like the rural Upper Midwest or even the Northern parts of the rural Lower Midwest (Italian immigrants and their descendants have never been a majority in the Midwest and so that ethnic culture never defined the Midwest).

Yet the Kentucky history of sundown towns where blacks disappeared from entire communities and regions is more typical of the rural North than of the rural Deep South. As in the Lower Midwest states, the blacks in rural areas had been large in number and then disappeared. This is how blacks ended up in concentrated numbers in big cities, such as Lexington or Chicago.

There used to be many blacks in rural Kentucky. However, when I visited there, I didn’t see a single black person in the rural areas. Similarly, the first settlement in the Iowa town I live in (Iowa City) was a free black community and some nearby towns had a fair number of black families a century or so ago. Then most of the blacks disappeared from the area for most of the 20th century, until recent years when they’ve begun to return.

In the rural Deep South, there aren’t many sundown towns. People forget that the rural Deep South has a large black population, as it has had since it was first settled. However, the rural Upper South is more like the rural North in this aspect.

This difference is seen in the diverging trajectories of Kentucky and Tennessee. They were split during the Civil War. Lincoln understood the symbolic and strategic importance of Kentucky. This is why one of the early actions the Union army took was to secure a famous Kentucky racehorse because of its symbolic value. The Confederates took another good racing horse that was sired by it. However, it was the Union that won the state, for the same basic reason West Virginia split off, there was too much of the population that saw little personal benefit from being loyal to a slave owning aristocracy. Also, the Northern cultural influence was quite significant.

Tennessee is clearly Southern, but Kentucky is different. It isn’t part of a single region. Rather, it connects quite diverse regions. The Lexington metropolitan area is quite a different world from rural Appalachia. In 2002, an Eastern Kentucky sheriff was assassinated during a political rally. That is an area of all kinds of violence, once famous for moonshine and now famous for illegal drugs. It is what people think of as Kentucky, but it is just one part of the state.

Still, I don’t mean to even dismiss that small corner of Kentucky or the whole of Appalachia. I’ve written about how it is misleading to speak of blacks as having weak and broken families (see here and here). Black family ties and communities are surprisingly strong, when considering all that they have going against them. Stronger in many ways than what is found among middle-to-upper class whites.

The same goes for poor whites in Appalachia. They actually put a lot of value on family and religion, just like blacks. In some ways, it is because their values are so strong that they are so poor. They refuse to leave their families and their homes, their land and their communities just to chase dreams of wealth and social mobility. They are traditional conservatives, something mainstream American conservatives don’t understand with their obsession about some unbalanced notion of fiscal conservatism, economic well-being and success at nearly any cost.

That is something rural Appalachians do share with rural people all over the country. Many people see them as having been left behind. That might be the case for some of these people who feel trapped by circumstances, but I wouldn’t generalize. These poor people could move, but they’ve chosen not to. Besides, where are they going to move to? The entire country is economically hurting. Would being poor elsewhere be an improvement? Sure, in the big city, they could get better access to public services and maybe better education… but at what cost? They would lose everything and everyone they know. They would lose their roots and their cultural identity.

My family left that world behind. They chased the American Dream and slowly climbed the social ladder. My Indiana-born mother, descendant of poor Kentuckians, went to college and became an upper middle class professional. She assimilated into mainstream culture, including losing her Hoosier accent. Yet, for all the sacrifices made, the middle class is now under attack as has been happening a long time for the poor working class. Not unlike the Black Patch Tobacco War or the Appalachian mining strikes, big business is making life hard for so many people and so few feel that big government is on their side.

States like Kentucky are more representative of America than others may think. Kentucky isn’t just some backwater frozen in time. Kentuckians are a part of what it means to be American.

* * * *

An additional thought:

I realized that I had left out one of my favorite things. Kentucky and some of the nearby states have something that defines the region more than anything else, at least in my mind. It is what defines this particular culture and how it manifests in communities and politics.

I became familiar with this type of culture through my experience of North Carolina, specifically the Blue Ridge Mountains. North Carolina is another fascinating state with an unusual history. Some consider its early rebellious population as being the true starting point of the American Revolution.

Like Appalachia, all of North Carolina wasn’t as easily accessible. It formed an area of refuge between two great slave societies, Virginia and South Carolina. This laid the foundation for a different kind of political tradition, more progressive than its coastal neighbors.

This can be seen in the many diverse communities, communes, monasteries, retreats, and colleges. The reason I was in North Carolina was as an employee for several summers at the Black Mountain YMCA camp. It previously had been a well known alternative college that attracted some of the greatest thinkers at the time. That was my introduction to a different kind of Southern culture than I had grown familiar with from years living in South Carolina.

In the mountains, roads crisscrossed in such a way that I felt like I might come across almost anything around the next bend. There were hidden nooks everywhere and thick forests covered the land. There is a sense of freedom in this that people have sought for centuries.

Appalachia is similar the Upper South in general, specifically Kentucky. Even on the western side of Kentucky, there are rolling hillsides and winding roads. It’s not like the parts of the Deep South that have been heavily developed and it’s not like the flat farmlands to the horizon of much of the Midwest. It’s inferior soil and rocky landscape has protected it. A very different feel from Iowa, for example, which is the most developed state in the country. Big agriculture tried to rule Kentucky, but the conditions weren’t right for it. There just aren’t many massive farms in Kentucky, as found in the Midwest.

So, the land is cheaper. If you want to live on your own private mountain or start your own alternative community, a place like Kentucky is a good choice. The Upper South was less known for building infrastructure, but there are enough roads for travel purposes. For good and bad, there is a tradition of being against big government and high taxes. The live-and-let-live worldview allows a certain kind of freedom, even though in the poorest areas it also leads to some not so nice results. A fair number of rural Southerners still like to take care of their own problems, if we are to go by the data.

I wouldn’t want to go tromping through the poorest of Appalachia any more than I’d want to walk through the poorest of inner cities. Still, that has little to do with the average person living in these places. If we ended the War On Drugs, there probably would be great and positive changes seen in poor communities all over the country. There is a long history for why poor people, blacks and whites, have a lot less trust of outsiders and of government. There is a reason that so many poor people, rural and urban, learn to take care of their own problems, as best they can.

I wouldn’t be the first person to see a cultural connection between poor white Southerners and poor black Northerners. Those poor black Northerners mostly descend from poor Southern populations. It is a common culture. Many of the rural blacks who left Kentucky ended up in Northern inner cities. Even some of the rural whites who headed north also found themselves in similar circumstances, although like my family it was a bit easier for them to escape through upward mobility, not always though. The prejudice against Southern whites was strong among Northern whites because they were competing over the same jobs with the same white privilege.

Anyway, I was wanting to note that the Midwest did have some of the same community traditions as the Upper South. That is seen with the communities of Amish, Shakers, and Quakers. The Amish have been successful in refusing to fully assimilate to mainstream American society, not unlike certain populations of Appalachians. It was more challenging, however, in the more highly populated and developed Midwest to escape the forces of and demands for assimilation.

I find it comforting that there are still communities and populations that have managed to maintain some of their traditional cultures and ways of life. Outsiders may think that the self-isolated Amish and rural Appalachians are backwards, but that is being dismissive. Some people even think monks choosing a life of asceticism in a monastery is also backwards. Everyone who doesn’t perfectly assimilate is somehow wrong or strange. As an immigrant nation, the dominant society has become obsessed with assimilation, sometimes force entire populations to assimilate against their will or at least to destroy whatever culture they had before.

I’d like to see a revival of the American tradition of resistance to assimilation. I don’t mean simply assimilating to yet another monolithic culture, such as a blanket Southern identity. I’d like to see communities be more independent, not just culturally but also economically and most important politically. That is what a place like Kentucky reminds me of, a place where the forces of assimilation and resistance have been fighting it out for a long time.

I don’t mean to romanticize rural life or poor communities. I just see how the dominant society and how big biz has destroyed the independence that Americans once had. Independence has to be built on identity, on the sense of who you are in your immediate community and relationships.

* * * *

Possible Sundown Towns In Kentucky
by James W. Loewen, University of Illinois

General Info On Sundown Towns in Tennessee
by James W. Loewen, University of Illinois

Terror in the Night
by Ron Soodalter, Kentucky Monthly

Blacks, Gun Cultures, and Gun Control: T.R.M. Howard, Armed Self-Defense, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi
by David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, Second Amendment Foundation

The Politics of Despair: Power and Resistance in the Tobacco Wars
by Tracy Campbell

Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power
by David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito

Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America
by Elliot Jaspin

A History of Blacks in Kentucky: In pursuit of equality, 1890-1980
by George C Wright

Origins of the New South, 1877–1913: A History of the South
by C. Vann Woodward

Kentucky: Portrait in Paradox, 1900-1950
by James C. Klotter

Appalachia in the Making: The Mountain South in the Nineteenth Century
edited by Mary Beth Pudup, Dwight B. Billings, Altina Laura Waller

15 thoughts on “What Is Kentucky?

  1. interesting stuff. Identity is a powerful tool that some have paid special attention to, and discovered how to manipulate. John Taylor GATTO says in his books on education in USA that our school system, modeled on Prussia’s [~1850’s], is designed to break children AWAY from the two traditionally primary sources of identity: family and church. Essentially the two communities OTHER than the PUBLIC. [& then business attacked/ corrupted that last remaining source.]

    • Public schools should go back to more local community control. I know there were problems with that in the past (e.g., segregation). But I’d rather deal with those problems than the problems we now have with schools being used primarily for national assimilation and creating good/obedient citizen-workers.

  2. “Kentuckians are a part of what it means to be American.”

    There’s no single identity on what it means to be american, unless you’re showing certain regional nationalistic bias.

    • I didn’t fully communicate what I meant when I said that. It’s not just that to think otherwise would be biased, but that such bias is the norm for our country. It’s something I’m acutely aware of living in what is dismissively called flyover country.

    • There is the book “Deer Hunting with Jesus” by Joe Bageant. He describes the poor whites of West Virginia. I like his writings because he balances penetrating criticism with empathy. He is describing his own people living in his own home town, but he puts it all into a larger context of what is happening in the US and the world.

  3. It’s fascinating. Precisely how a person can reconcile Social Darwinism and runaway capitalism with religion is quite odd.

    I think that it’s a matter that people will always use something to justify their actions.

    • That connection didn’t always exist.

      Some of the harshest and most successful fights against capitalism came from religion, including from right-wingers and conservatives. Plutocracy, kleptocracy, corporatism, crony capitalism, and Social Darwinism weren’t always considered as American as apple pie.

      Populists, especially religious populists, used to fight against economic corruption and oppression. Class war was understood as a reality.


      “He reminds readers that although “class war” is considered un-American today, bracing populist rhetoric was once the lingua franca of the nation. American presidents bashed “moneycrats” and “economic royalists,” and immigrant garment workers demanded not just “bread and roses” but threatened “bread or blood.” Among many such arresting anecdotes is one featuring the railway tycoon George Pullman. When he died in 1897, Fraser writes, “his family was so afraid that his corpse would be desecrated by enraged workers, they had it buried at night . . . in a pit eight feet deep, encased in floors and walls of steel-reinforced concrete in a lead-lined casket covered in layers of asphalt and steel rails.”

      “Of course violence went both ways. Protests and strikes consistently faced bloody attacks from both state forces and hired guns, prompting the formation of various armed worker militias. Populists and socialists were attacked as everything from “ungrateful hyenas” to “mad dogs,” while conservative newspapers openly called on the state to “exterminate” the “mob.” The class war, in other words, was no mere metaphor.”

  4. If it were not religion, it would be something else.

    I mean, look at what else is used:

    The appeals of individuals:
    – Bootstraps myth
    – Rugged individualist
    – Self made man
    – Super entrepreneur

    I classify these under 1 category – appeal to narcissism.

    Other examples:
    – American exceptionalism
    – Myth of “freedom and choice” (peddled most aggressively by the big tobacco companies)
    – Free enterprise myth

    Religion is no different than these – an attempt to deny the realities of society.

    • There is all that.

      Religion is a powerful force in motivating people. It is often used to rationalize the status quo. But it also has been used to challenge the status quo. The Civil Rights movement wouldn’t have been possible without religion.

      I would say that religion isn’t anything by itself. It’s not what people believe so much as it is that they want to believe something. People want the world to make sense and seem just. People believe in God for the same reason they believe in capitalism.

      The specifics don’t really matter. Few believers ever give the specifics much thought. Such belief systems tend to fall apart when given too much thought.

      That is also what gives them immense power. People will fight and die for a belief, even if it isn’t real. Sometimes they will fight to make it real, as with an ideal. When people believe in a just God, sometimes they start wondering why the world isn’t just, and then they get righteous and dangerous to the powers that be.

      Belief can be manipulated, but in the end it can’t be controlled. Beliefs can take on lifes of their own, for good or ill.

    • There are several points I’d make.

      First and foremost, I often think we live in the most propagandized society in world history. It isn’t just about being uninformed and misinformed. There is an active agenda to disinform.

      That brings me to the second point. The public isn’t stupid. The most misinformed part of the population is also the most informed. These people are also the most politically active.

      Last but not least, this system of propaganda and disinformation is so successful, powerful, and entrenched (not to mention so well funded) that it creates a hermetically-sealed reality tunnel. The most ‘stupid’ and clueless part of the population are the paternalistic ruling elite, who don’t realize the epistemic closure of their own minds. The propaganda system begins in the Ivy League colleges where every generation of ruling elite gets brainwashed.

      The best system of social control is that which isn’t perceived as such by those being controlled. Even those who think they are in control are really just cogs in the machine. Once set in place, the system controls itself through inertia. It would require an outside force to disrupt it.

      The danger of conmen is that they end up believing their own con. The only way to persuade others is to first be persuaded. This is why many religions will send young people out to prosyletyze. Research shows explaining something to someone will encourage conviction (along with a sense of knowledge and understanding) in the one doing the explaining, because of how people seek to lessen the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. A political demagogue, media hack, etc can only tell a bullshit story so often before believing it themselves.

      It isn’t that the ruling elite are merely manipulating the public. They are clueless as the rest of us, probably more clueless since power disconnects people from reality on the ground. It is in their self-interest to not realize that they are being manipulated by big money and a system so far beyond them. It’s an open secret that can’t ever be fully acknowledged, even by those involved in it. It’s dissociation of the most extreme kind.

      The narrative is all that matters. The stories we tell ourselves are powerful. It doesn’t matter that the ruling elite don’t have a clue about what the American public believes, values, and wants. They aren’t representing the people, not even the shrinking number who actually vote. They are representing the status quo and the dominant ideological worldview. They don’t just represent it, but embody it. It is all they know.

      The entire political, economic, and media system serves the purpose of maintaining and defending this self-enclosed reality tunnel. The amount of effort and money that goes into this is beyond imagining.

    • It’s not really new. But it is different. It is far more sysematic and institutionalized than in the past. The power structure and mechanisms of social control are far more psychologically and technologically advanced. Also, the military and police power is immense to enforce it all through actual violence or mere implied threat. A person could end up in prison, sued into debt, or otherwise have their life and career destroyed.

  5. The danger of conmen is that they end up believing their own con. The only way to persuade others is to first be persuaded. This is why many religions will send young people out to prosyletyze. Research shows explaining something to someone will encourage conviction (along with a sense of knowledge and understanding) in the one doing the explaining, because of how people seek to lessen the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. A political demagogue, media hack, etc can only tell a bullshit story so often before believing it themselves.

    This may be by far the most dangerous thing of all. A cult of personality, only they believe they are really as good as they say they are.

    On that note, I did get your email – I will send something later on.

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