Get facts and photos about the 15th state.
People first came to the land now called Kentucky at least 14,000 years ago, possibly following mammoths and other large game that migrated here. Thousands of years later, Native American tribes including the Cherokee, Shawnee, Chickasaw, and Yuchi lived on the land.
It wasn’t until 1774 when the first permanent white settlement was founded. Pioneers James Harrod and Daniel Boone founded other settlements in the following years.
For a while the eastern section of present-day Kentucky was considered part of Virginia, but in 1792 it was declared its own state. The western part of Kentucky was later added in 1818 after being purchased from the Chickasaw tribe.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Kentucky was officially neutral. Yet 140,000 of its citizens went to fight in the war.
WHY’S IT CALLED THAT?
Most experts think that the name Kentucky comes from a Native American language, but they don’t agree on which one. It may have come from the Wyandot name for the area, Kah-ten-tah-teh, which can be roughly translated as “Land of Tomorrow.” It’s also possible that it comes from the Shawnee name for the area, Kain-tuck-ee, which means “At the Head of the River.” Or it may have been derived from the Iroquoian or Mohawk word Kentucke meaning “among the meadows.”
GEOGRAPHY AND LANDFORMS
Kentucky is bordered by Indiana and Ohio in the north, where the Ohio River creates a wiggly boundary. It has West Virginia (separated from Kentucky by the Big Sandy River) and Virginia to the east, Tennessee to the south, and Missouri and Illinois to the west.
Kentucky contains six different geographical regions. Farthest east is the Mountain Region, a part of the Appalachian Mountain chain. Forests, high ridges, and narrow, V-shaped valleys are here, plus the state’s highest point, Big Black Mountain. This is also a land of coal fields—10,500 square miles of coal are under this area, known as the Eastern Kentucky Coal Field.
Go west to the horseshoe-shaped Knobs region, where erosion has created hundreds of knob-shaped hills called monadnocks. Part of Daniel Boone National Forest is here.
In the middle of the Knobs is the Bluegrass region, named for the bluish-green grass that grows there. Its hills, sinkholes, caves, and springs were all created when the local limestone weathered, or broke down.
The Pennyroyal region (also spelled Pennyrile) is named after a type of mint plant that grows there. Spreading west across the center of the state, this area is rocky with trees, lakes, and lots of caves. One of these caverns is Mammoth Cave, the world’s longest—it stretches over 350 miles!
Surrounded by the Pennyroyal is the Western Coalfield Region, a hilly area overlying 4,680 square miles of coal. John James Audubon State Park, named after the famous artist and naturalist, is in this region.
The Jackson Purchase in the far west, which was added to Kentucky in 1818, is lowland filled with ponds, lakes, and swamps.
Black bears, bobcats, red foxes, minks, and river otters are common Kentucky mammals. Gaze at the sky, and you might see a peregrine falcon, bald eagle, mountain bluebird, Kentucky warbler or northern cardinal (the state bird). Check the ground and trees for reptiles like the six-lined racerunner, broadhead skink, or Eastern corn snake. Amphibians such as the Kentucky spring salamander or the Jefferson salamander hang out near water.
The tulip poplar (the state tree) is native to the eastern United States, as is the Kentucky coffeetree. Other native trees include red maple, sassafras, northern red oak, and bald cypress. Look for colorful native wildflowers such as wild columbine, purple coneflower, dwarf iris, and the endangered Kentucky lady’s slipper, a type of orchid.
With almost half the state covered in forests, it’s not surprising that Kentucky is one of the country’s top three producers of hardwood. It’s also the third-largest coal producer in the United States, thanks to its vast natural coalfields. Limestone is another top resource.
—Lots of famous people come from Kentucky, including President Abraham Lincoln; Mildred and Patty Hill, who wrote the tune to “Happy Birthday to You”; and boxer Muhammad Ali.
—You can visit the Louisville Slugger museum and factory, where the first of its now-famous baseball bats were manufactured in the 1880s. You can’t miss the place—outside is a 120-foot-tall steel bat!
—Fort Knox is home to the United States Bullion Depository, an underground vault containing one of the world’s largest gold reserves—estimated to be about 260 billion dollars’ worth!
—Eastern Kentucky is home to so many country-music stars that a stretch of highway was renamed the "Country Music Highway."