Dynamics Underlying Trans-Appalachian/Mississippi River Western Settlement

The Great Appalachian Valley

Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio were the first trans-Appalachian western states–all three would be states by 1803. European settlement was non-existent, and Native American tribes had site control. The region was the focus of both immigrant and domestic hopes and opportunities; the three states in the earliest days of the Early Republic were ground-zero for the land-based American Dreams and for economic opportunities–at literally great risk to life and limb. The trigger for post-Revolutionary War western settlement was, believe it or not, a biography of Daniel Boone published in 1784. Within a year a horde of migrants descended on Tennessee and Kentucky–the most earily accessible gateway into the trans-mountain Great Appalachian Valley. If land ownership was the first great task and its first great opportunity for economic growth of American Early Republic economic development–a core assertion of Part I–the first battleground would be Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio. In this chapter, we concentrate on the first two. Ohio will wait for a later chapter.

After the American Revolution, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee (and Georgia), however, were hotbeds of foreign intrigue. “French, British, Spanish and American interests mingled and crossed, no matter which power had formal title … the others never ceased to intrigue for its possession[1]. Don’t be mislead by the simplicity of textbooks. Until 1803, the American east of the Mississippi frontier was up for grabs–and what was west of the Mississippi was essentially unknown, and would remain so for decades. There were no roads, and rivers were hostile indeed–and first you had to climb over, find a way through, the Appalachian Mountains. It’s easy to sit home today and read about it, but this introductory module intends to briefly sketch out what that early homesteading involved. Not only will we miss the larger lessons to be learned, but we will not understand the price paid, the risk involved, the commitment and drive that were vital characteristics of our first agricultural entrepreneurs. We call them pioneers, but they will innovating economic opportunity in a hostile new wilderness.

1763 British Proclamation Line

The British, after their 1763 victory over the French, tried to seal off American colonial migration into the interior. The rationale was fighting with the Native Americans was too expensive, and victory was far from assured. The British Proclamation Line of 1763 which checked any claims each colony had on land in those regions–and put them in the business of restricting American western migration. After 1763 through most of the American Revolution it was illegal to migrate into the Greater Appalachian Valley. Virginia (and young George Washington) in particular had long expressed interest in these lands. The Proclamation Line was but one more obstacle to overcome. Colonial “settlers hungered to get across the mountains, and resentful of any efforts to stop them. The Revolution was fought in part to free the frontier from this confinement. As soon as the shooting began, Americans pushed into the ‘dark and bloody grounds’, opening up Kentucky, and paving the way for the founding of Louisville and Lexington [2].

Literally when Massachusetts Minute Men were fighting the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Daniel Boone was leading the first while permanent settlers into Kentucky to found its first settlements, one of which was Lexington, named after the battle so recently fought. What most of us don’t know was that Boone worked for Richard Henderson and his Transylvania Land Company. His job was to lead a settlement party into Kentucky, cut a trail which others could use (others were literally following him), and construct a settlement fort or station on the edge of Kentucky Bluegrass territory. Say, it another way, Boone was a paid economic developer.

A Moment of Respect for Geography and Topology

The trans-Appalachian Tennessee and Ohio Rivers–but also the Mississippi–were not only important modes of transportation, but were then legally controlled by England and Spain. Getting there in 1780’s from a coastal city or hinterland cannot really be imagined today–except in a Forrest Gump movie when you have an interstate highway. Distances are deceiving when you don’t have car, or modern sneakers. Wilmington NC (an Atlantic coastal port) is 500 miles from Lexington and 360 miles to Knoxville TN. Neither, of course, existed in 1780. It is almost 460 miles from Richmond VA to Louisville KY. But all this is how the crow flies (over the mountains); it takes almost nine hours today driving by car non-stop. In 1790 these are huge distances and impossible mountains. Geography and topography determined where we went and how we got there. Moving around then is not like how we move around today. Migrants did not fly like crows.

The relevant geographies discussed in the module are chiefly within the Great Appalachian Valley, not the more mountainous Appalachian highlands which lie on their east. Amazingly, it is much harder to get into both Kentucky and Tennessee from populated southern coastal areas, than from western Maryland/Pennsylvania/Virginia–using the Great Wagon Road (a former Indian path). The mountains that border the Piedmont, however, were almost impossible barriers until after the 1790’s. To access either Kentucky or today’s Tennessee one traveled down the Great Wagon Road, to the Great Valley Road  (neither of which, of course were “roads”)/the Indian warpath trails, down into the Shenandoah and Holston valleys, into what we call Watauga, and from there to head north through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. Most Kentucky migrants in this period came from Virginia on the Wilderness Road; those from Maryland (my wife’s family), and Pennsylvania most usually came down using the Ohio River and if they proceeded inland went on land. The state’s first “modern” road, the Maysville Turnpike, was not constructed until 1835. Usually what passed for roads in this period were buffalo trails–which BTW the last buffalo was alleged to have been seen in Kentucky in 1820.

Getting into a wilderness state, i.e.transportation access was a huge factor in determining which areas were settled first. Settlement occurred in phases, over periods of time, and demographically migrations by one or another ethnic group, or types of migrants varied over time. So each state attracted different combinations of migrants–and therefore a different mixture of political cultures, and they settled or clustered in one, but not another geography Simply put, Kentucky was settled more by Tidewater Virginians before 1800, and Tennessee by North Carolinians–Scots-Irish and Barbadian North Carolinians. Midland Quaker settlers, Daniel Boone is an excellent example of the last. Born in Pennsylvania, of dissident Quaker parents, Boone, as a fifteen year older,  moved with his parents down the Great Wagon Road into North Carolina. As a twenty-one year old he joined in the British army led by General Braddock (1755-6), and was very nearly killed in the battle that made George Washington famous. That was the start of his career as a frontiersman.

The Appalachians, for all practicable purposes were too difficult for migrants en masse to pass over and through. On Tennessee’s eastern boundary with North Carolina are the “Great Smokies”–6,600 foot mountain range, for example. Immediately to the west of these mountains was the promised land, and so what is today eastern Tennessee (we call it Watauga) is first area settled in volume during this period. It became the most viable, but not the only, gateway into the Great Appalachian Valley. Mountainous Eastern Kentucky, today’s Kentucky Appalachia, was thinly settled in Kentucky’s first decades–simply put, it was bypassed. So Tennessee’s Watauga River area (then. of course, part of North Carolina) was the best entry point into the two state area, an immensely fertile valley, with access to rivers (and beaver fur), housed most of Tennessee’s first residents–and it would dominate Tennessee politics through 1800. Watauga (Tennessee) paradise though it was, soon became the jumping off point for central Kentucky. Middle Kentucky, however, was the land of dreams for Daniel Boone and his corporate boss, Richard Henderson.

The only known portrait of Boone in his lifetime

Returning to North Carolina, Daniel married Rebecca, and became the proverbial great hunter, wagoner, and crack shot-He first ventured into eastern Tennessee in 1760-1. where he “killed a bear” and carved it into a tree–which Walt Disney put into his Davy Crockett song.  In 1771 he and his family squatted in East Tennessee–and hunted using the Gap to access Kentucky. He lost his eldest son to a Cherokee ambush. In any event his “amazing” story was published in a 1784 biography and it transformed him in his lifetime into a frontier celebrity in his lifetime, becoming a myth and legend in his lifetime, just like Robert Moses a couple of hundred years later.

In real life he was a walking and talking Kentucky-Tennessee booster,–a mobile chamber of commerce and supervisor of public works armed with a rifle/bushwhacking implements rather than a tax abatement–and homestead promoter. Kentucky was a hunter’s and farmer’s paradise. So, while  hard as it is to imagine, Daniel Boone was one of our first real estate promoters. In 1775 he enters the rank as Kentucky’s first white city-builder–Cherokee already had built several large towns in Tennessee. So after Tennessee’s Watauga, the next settlement was in Kentucky, a place called Boonesborough–Harrodsburg was technically first, but Boone’s book wrote history. He defined, can one say branded, Kentucky and Tennessee’s attraction image. Live in central Kentucky and you were 500 miles away from everything was his core message. Just what people wanted back then (later we shall see why).

Boone played no small part in shaping the motivations of the thousands of homesteaders that will populate Tennessee and Kentucky. We will pick up Daniel Boone in the sections below. He is just beginning his career as an economic developer. His Cumberland Road was the principal entrance into Kentucky. No wagons allowed, only by foot and horse. It took more than six weeks to travel it in 1787–when Andrew Jackson did it twelve yeas later, on his way to Nashville, and his future wife. Henry Clay on his way to Lexington did the same a decade later than Jackson–little had changed. During those years, once in Kentucky settlers could take advantage of the state’s natural bounty–it holds within its boundaries the nation’s second largest number of navigable rivers (Alaska is Number 1), and lands were rolling easily traveled. Kentucky would take an early lead in the population race with Tennessee, its principal city Lexington becoming the regional leader of the First Southwest.

The same would be true for Middle Tennessee, if only you could get to it. The only reasonable way  into it was through Boonesborough, then Lexington and then by trail and river to Middle Tennessee. Getting from Watauga to Middle Tennessee, just over another mountain range, was another matter entirely; it was almost impossible–except by heading north into Kentucky and then west and south–an upside down U. The only alternative from Watauga to Middle Tennessee, other than the upside down U through Kentucky was using a hodgepodge of rivers. That meant passing through one short but violent set of rapids, so the traveler could reach the mighty Mississippi, and then on to Nashville by using the Tennessee River. The trip would take about four or five months, and in toto consume about 1,000 miles. There was one huge obstacle to any of these routes: Native Americans, who “surprisingly”, did not greet the white European migrants with open arms, but rather with tomahawks and arrows. No one in their right mind would travel 1,000 miles through Indian-controlled rivers, except Andrew Jackson’s wife Rachael did–her father and mother are two of the original founders of Nashville Tennessee.

In chapters and states to follow, the reader might keep an eye on the initial population flows, and the varying pattern of ethnic flows–and be sensitive to how geography and topology and transportation technology sorted them out in geographic patterns. Many, if not most, of those initial cultural-geographic patterns still continue to this day. Certainly eastern and Middle Tennessee see things differently, and Lexington is not Nashville, which to be redundant is not Knoxville or Chattanooga or Memphis for that matter. Not only did neighboring states differ, but internally sub-regions developed differently as well. That this is so evident as early as 1790, supports the notion that American political-economic development, at least in the Early Republic, was bottom-up driven.

Great Wagon (Valley) Road fully developed in the 1830’s

Shared geography and topography worked differently in each state. Eastern Tennessee accessible was settled; eastern Kentucky was bypassed and not meaningfully settled until one hundred years later.Central Bluegrass Kentucky became the state’s birthplace and state capitol, viewed then as an outpost of Lexington–but central Middle Tennessee, in the heart of Indian territory and impossible to get to in 1780’s, lagged seriously behind, yet resisted identification with eastern Tennessee (Watauga) perceived as different in politics and ethnic composition–which it was, to a degree. Tennessee’s state capital would see-saw between the two for decades.Kentucky’s first decades would be dominated by Lexington, until western Louisville later caught up after the 1830’s. Western Tennessee, what will be Memphis rose at that time as well. Geography and topology, and the capacity of transportation technology all combined to shape the course of both state’s political, cultural and demographic evolution.

The two states shared an ethnic flow dominated by Scots-Irish, Tidewater and Virginian elite sons and daughters, Pennsylvania Midlands, and North Carolina plantation elites and South Carolina transports–and Black slaves. Scots-Irish were numerically dominant, but were on the margins of politics and the economy. Watauga Tennessee ethnically was more similar ethnically to Lexington Kentucky in 1790, but Middle Tennessee was Scots-Irish. Migration carries along with it political culture, and the reality that migrations into one or another geographic area sorted out these political cultures so that each ethnic culture became dominant in a particular geography–so apparent in 1790 and obvious by 1800–means that migrations should be examined for their tendency to exhibit a “big sort” effect in settlement. In any event, by 1800 it was very evident that Tennessee had developed hugely distinctive sub-state regions, and that much of Tennessee’s state system was going to have to sort out their rivalries.

But in retrospect, Kentucky’s settlement was similar in some ways to Tennessee, except, as we shall discover,(1)  the state of Virginia got involved in the former and North Carolina the latter. They each had different “motherlands”, and (2) Native Americans owned the land, and 350 miles into the hinterland, the tomahawk was the most effective military technology of the 1770’s and 1780’s.

Pre and Early Statehood Site Control and Conquest

This clash between European and Native Americans in the 1770’s through 1790’s (1) tosses our ED history squarely into a controversial moral and political nexus inviting polarized reactions from different readers; (2) cannot be avoided because the conflict serious affected state-building, economic development and the politics/policy agendas of voters; and (3) the clash was so fundamental, not only of cultures, values and economics, but in the policy goals sought be each party. Kentucky and Tennessee shared a Settlement-Conquest phase, but as we shall see the intensity and duration of the Native American Conquest was noticeably different–and consequential to economic and policy development. Kentucky’s head start in the population race owes a lot to its quicker resolution of Native American Conquest.

Treaties galore will abound–and they did not work well. There were always dissidents, and those that did not abide by the treaty. The migration of whites lasted for decades and ultimately overwhelmed Native American resistance. Unable to forge a meaningful and lasting compromise between cultures, the clash degenerated, as it had in 17th Century Puritan New England, into simple conquest. Whatever and wherever morality lies in the conquest of a geographical area by one culture over another, I leave to others. What I cannot ignore is that because of the conquest of Native Americans, the global competitive hierarchy became a critical influence in subsequent Kentucky/Tennessee political and economic development. Native American conquest became very complicated in this period, because the Shawnee–Cherokee in particular sided with the British in our Revolutionary War–which ranged from 1775-1783–and they continued to ally themselves with Spain and England after the Peace Treaty until the end of the War of 1812. The rise of Henry Clay is tied at the hip with this complication, and Andrew Jackson’s first claim to fame was as an Indian fighter.

Nanyehi, Nancy Ward, or Beloved Leader

The Appalachian Valley was known to various Native American tribes as the “Warriors Path” or the Great Indian Warpath. It led to the Big Salt Lick as well, a hunting ground unsurpassed by other geographies. We know the Big Salt Lick as Nashville. Raids to the Great Lakes and New York were conducted by Georgia and Tennessee tribes using this “path”. There were other paths such as the Natchez Trace that linked Louisville with Mobile on the Gulf Coast. In effect, Native Americans had their version of a National Defense Highway System. Tennessee, importantly, was the northern edge of an earlier “Mississippi Civilization” with its own cities (now “mounds”), one of which is Toqua which was settled around 1450 CD. De Soto, the Spanish explorer, also traipsed through Tennessee.

The general area became a battle ground in the 1600’s and 17oo’s between French and British traders, and then France and Britain–with the resident Native American tribes fully engaged. Indeed, trade with the Europeans became part of the tribal economy–to the extent it justified the picking of sides to support.This was a battleground long before the Early Republic began its westward expansion.

In this robust Native American cultural and economic clash, an amazing leader, Cherokee Nancy Ward or “Beloved Leader” was Tennessee’s arguably most impactful leader during the period of this module. Her role in the Native American struggle with whites was controversial, but impactful. In her way she attempted for each race and culture to play nice in their sandbox, but she lost the ability to control much of the warrior elite. Indian leadership during the two-phased Cherokee War–which lasted at least to 1795–was dominated by warrior dissidents like Dragging Canoe.

For better or worse, Native Americans were quite involved in a trade/commerce that was quite important to European economies and lifestyles. The Chickasaws, around Memphis, were strategic to this competition–and would remain so when the British, Indians and Americans continue the fight during the Revolutionary War period. While many tribes used these areas chiefly as hunting grounds, only the Shawnee-Cherokee-Chickasaws were settled there in large numbers. Several Native American “towns” existed in Tennessee–the Cumberland Gap area/Clinch River were also hotbeds of Native American rivalries and resistance. Watauga itself bordered on a key Native American center.. Tennessee and Kentucky  were serious battlegrounds up to and including the 1756 French and Indian War. In 1761 British General Grant invaded and destroyed fifteen Cherokee towns in Tennessee. Generally textbooks focus on Pontiac’s War in western New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, but the southern British campaign and the Cherokee War  impacted the geography under discussion [3].

Lost in the fog of history is War of Independence moved into the South–both Carolinas, Georgia and Southeastern Virginia. The campaign began around August, 1780, was fought in “the backwater” portion of these states. Consisting of formal battles and widespread guerrilla warfare, the southern campaign lasted to Yorktown’s surrender in late October 1781. During this period migration into the Kentucky and Tennessee hinterlands increased. Huge swarms of people, relative to the time, descended unannounced, carved out a  land claim–and if eligible, started voting in local elections. Many eventually served in the state militias, which became in the process the first state-wide institution of both states. The two Kentucky and Tennessee patriot generals who led the area’s resistance to the British, John Sevier and Issac Shelby, respectively became the state’s first governor. For both the distinction between Revolutionary War general and Indian fighter was slight indeed. Little researched, their power and charisma were linked to both and to the militias which they led. Both were heavy-duty plantation owners, slave holders, and land speculators.

Little Turtle

Unlike the Plains Tribes of the 1870/1880’s the trans-Appalachian tribes could slug it out pretty evenly with the American settlers–except for two factors: (1) t American migrants kept pouring in over these decades; Native Americans proved too few to keep up the resistance; (2) and, more importantly, Native American tribes were more used to fighting each other–and although they had come together under little Turtle/Tecumseh–tribal coalitions and even unity within a tribe was difficult to achieve and sustain. The ability of Native American tribal leadership to enforce any treaty they signed did not help.The third factor that ultimately forged a more sustainable resolution of the Cherokee War was the federal government, who effectively brokered between Native Americans and Kentucky/Tennessee local elites and residents. Whatever its deficiencies, the Washington-Knox Native American policy was on balance effective in bring the Conquest phase to a conclusion.

For more than twenty-five years during and after the American Revolution, neither Native Americans or American settlers were able to create and sustain “site control”. As late as 1782 the British-Shawnee Uprising  nearly wiped out the settlement of Lexington.  Nashville’s struggle lasted until 1795. It was this bitter and bloody period that Kentucky/Tennessee came to be called the “dark and bloody grounds“. In the pre-1800 trans-Appalachians, neither side had a critical technological advantage, and the Europeans a serious logistical disadvantage. That disadvantage combined with the guerrilla-raiding conducted mostly by Indians in which the latter could pick their targets, and time, and amass a local superiority in numbers.With no overwhelming military technological difference the series of wars defied resolution, and one could no truly discern any real difference when treaties were agreed upon,


Kentucky was more fortunate than Tennessee in that Kentucky was mostly used for hunting and raiding by Native Americans (semi migratory Shawnees (Algonquin) mostly from Ohio and Indiana and Illinois) and had few Native American settlements. Indian attacks during the Revolutionary War period on Kentucky were “instigated by the [English] commandant at Detroit, Governor Henry Hamilton, called the ‘Hair Buyer” …. The darkest hour in Kentucky’s struggle to survive Indian warfare occurred in August 1782[3a].  Kentucky  is of Iroquois derivation, meaning “meadow ground“. That was not true for Tennessee–in fact Tennessee was the name of a Cherokee town in Watauga area. At least five tribes lived in Tennessee of which the Cherokee and the Shawnee are probably the most well known today. That Tennessee was the Cherokee’s hometown proved to be a critical difference between Kentucky and Tennessee.

Native American Tribes Confronted in the Northwest Indian War

Things got even more complicated when the British signed over the Kentucky and Tennessee areas–along with most of Ohio and east of the Mississippi, south of the Great Lakes Midwest–to the Articles of Confederation national government. The 1783 Treaty of Paris gave us sovereignty over the area–which for all practical purposes was not exercised or acted on until the passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787–which was a legal plan only. The Article’s government made western land management one of its centerpiece agendas, but the 1789 new Constitution and Early Republic disrupted the pace, and forced its priority as an agenda item to compete with nation-building–and foreign affairs. Washington, himself, with his Secretary of War Henry Knox did develop a robust Native American strategy. Knox founded the “reservation and the trading post systems”, but with scarce resources, the Feds were always on their back foot.

General Arthur St Clair

Despite the Treaty of 1783, the British kept arming the tribes and even sent military advisers to them. Since both Virginia and North Carolina had different ideas on who should control these territories, and the Articles/Early Republic lacked for troops and money, state militias entered the fray. Most of the wars, raids and battles were predominately fought by state militias. It was George Rogers Clark (in 1786) who started off the Northwest Indian War, a phase now-referred to as the Ohio War or Little Turtle’s War. Little Turtle’s War was a federally-led war against British and their Indian allies. Clark was not particularly successful, although he captured sever key settlements is credited with establishing a fort, and therefore “founding” Louisville. Clark became a force in Kentucky politics ever after–and that in general proved disruptive.

General Anthony Wayne

With little real site control over this area, President Washington sent the General St. Clair with a federal, largely militia, army to establish site control. Two significant federal defeats (1790, 1791), the later nearly a massacre, resulted in over 1000 American soldiers killed the most costly  defeat to the Indians ever suffered by an American army. That Army was comprised of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee militia-settlers.

In its aftermath Washington then sent in “Mad” Anthony Wayne, with a properly trained regular army (the Legion). Wayne cleared out southern Ohio, and in the Battle of Fallen Rivers near southwestern Lake Erie in 1794 delivered a serious setback to Native American (Shawnee-led) resistance. The Treaties of Greenville with the Native Americans, and Jay’s Treaty with the British in 1795 brought the war to an end, and resulted in significant site control of the Ohio area (including northern Kentucky). General Wayne’s Indian removal was relatively successful, opening Ohio and Kentucky to large-scale settlement.

Each state would inherit the “heritage” of this struggle with Native Americans, and arguably, since the leadership of the military struggle with Indians became each state’s political elite, and the decentralizing role of the county militias reinforced a cultural tendency to govern most at the local level–thereby limiting any aggressive state-level policy agenda, we see each state’s policy system leaving critical policy areas, including economic development, to local vagaries.


Land, Land, Land

While all this was going on, Kentucky became a state in 1792 and Tennessee in 1796. In other words the pre-statehood period for both states was dominated by Indian wars–and a bitter struggle of Native Americans to hold their lands against a never-ending stream of American migrants. In the section below we will discuss settlement, city-building, but as will be discussed these were small stockade-villages, whose pre 1790 existence was constantly and meaningfully threatened. This is not a period in which economic development was top on anyone”s policy agenda–but it was the period in which state and economic base-building was conducted by the fourteen original states. It was also the period in which Washington’s Federalist tribe battled the emerging Democratic-Republican tribe led by Jefferson and Madison. It was also the period that Virginia and North Carolina figured out who owned what, and then had to decide what it was they wanted to do with each of their western territories. In other words, while many histories concentrate on federal or national politics and clashing policy agendas during this period, there were, arguably, even more conflict, complexity, and clashing policy agendas going on at the state and local levels.

In both state’s private land promotion schemes were bountiful–several impactful ones were conducted by English promoters effectively beyond the control of state and local authorities. Many of such schemes originated from Philadelphia–which, however crazy it sounds today, served as the financial center of the First Southwest. Eastern and Virginia Tidewater elites were heavily involved in land ownership schemes–including the nation’s President (who owned vast quantities of Kentucky acreage) and many of the Federalist Founding Fathers. Pre-statehood land promotion and homesteading was to lay the foundation for future Kentucky and Tennessee policy systems and politics. That it was conducted in the midst of a brutal war with Native American tribes gave to it a special character, a character which etched its legacy deeper due to its generation long persistence. Kentucky and Tennessee politics and policy were dominated by the politics and economics of settlement, land ownership, land rushes and speculation. The policy leaders of both states were extremely active in these schemes, and were major land owners as well–even the generals.

Added to the normal migrant flow, was inflow from revolutionary war officers and soldiers, unpaid by the State of Virginia were instead issued notes for land in Kentucky–which in proper time many used. The tie in of Revolutionary War military pay and pensions with land ownership–a very serious element of brewing populism–was by no means confined to Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

Frontier Population Attraction–the first ED Attraction Strategy as Practiced at Street-Level (except there were no street)

 Kentucky lacked whatever benefits came from these large entities which usually surveyed lots, platted communities, and even installed some rudimentary infrastructure–and BTW legally owned the land they sold. In the non-Northwest Territory land sales and booms were a hit or miss affair.  The typical Kentucky migrant confronted:

A speculator makes out a plan of a city with its streets, squares and avenues, quays and wharves, public buildings and monuments. The streets are lotted and the houses numbered, and the squares called after Franklin and Washington. The city itself has some fine name … this is engraved and forthwith hung up in as many steamboats, and hotels as the speculator’s interest may command. All of this time, the “city” is a mere vision. It’s very site is on the fork of some river in the far West, five hundred miles beyond civilization, probably under water or surrounded by dense forests and impassable swamps [4] 

In Kentucky’s case, the lack of legal surveys produced  a horde of conflicting claims, contested parcels.The near-total lack of “clear title” created a culture and practice of land ownership that seriously affected politics, economic sectors, local governance, taxation, and a variety of other dynamics. Among other impacts, the lack of clear title gave rise to a rather sizable legal profession which accumulated considerable power and wealth, and would eventually exercise considerable influence over the political and policy processes. Wealthy lawyers, if so inclined, also were able to accumulate land in quantities and in relatively quick order would become plantation owners, and a lawyer-planter class would emerge. Henry Clay is a better-known example of this [5] .

In any case, the lack of surveys effectively precluded any form of urban planning; the grid (which constituted the usual urban layout in the initial stockade/village) became the default urban pattern and as growth followed simple extension of the grid was imposed [6] . Today a literature exists supporting a “capitalist profit” motivation for the grid, but while no one denies the relevancy of profit in the causal dynamics associated with the grid, the grid’s widespread use and diffusion results from very many interacting factors and dynamics, the least of which was developer greed. Up to that point both Lexington, sort of founded in 1775, and Louisville endured persistent Native American attacks, and early migration produced a cluster of “stockade settlements”, called “stations”. These stations could hardly be called urban centers. Still, it is worth note that “urbanization”, such as it was, began seventeen years before Kentucky became a state.

I leave the reader with several segue way-related take aways.

First, initial settlement in both states preceded official incorporation. That meant (1) legal surveying did not precede household settlement, and there was no mechanism to establish a household claim. That in turn meant (2) a large number of what legally are called squatters carved out “claims”, parcels, and homes without any legal basis. The inevitable result this legal morass was jump-started (or at least made possible) an  unregulated “industry sector” developed to take advantage of the insatiable desire, and desperate need for western migration. Spontaneous unregulated entrepreneurial promotional entities rose up out of no where like weeds.

The more honest promoters legally acquired land, or at least thought they had. Many others did not. With or without actual land, these promoters advertised through handbills or the media wherever they could. They hawked land opportunities–and a new start on life–for a price. Newspapers, needing revenues, were very eager to publish these ads. As with most spasms of economic opportunity, a real estate industry emerged in the non-Northwest Territory geographies, and real estate politics and policy consumed both local and state policy systems. So for Kentucky and Tennessee pre-1800 urban planning is a euphemism for land rush into a semi-anarchistic pioneering settlement deep in Indian territory.

With all these pioneers rolling in, you would think Kentucky/Tennessee cities would have been bursting at the seams.

Sorry, for the most part, these folk were self-reliant Scots-Irish hardscrabble borderland farmers who wanted nothing to do with urban settlements–or even permanent. The numbers were small by today’s standards, although rates of growth were exceedingly high, pressure on the urban centers was minimal. This land rush is a rural and hinterland land rush whose goal was to stake claim to a family homestead.. Even with hostile Native American raids a serious reality, new migrants did not settle in the stockade/fort/village, but in its adjacent “suburbs” sometimes days away from the urban center. Individualistic, entrepreneurial, yeoman agriculture was Kentucky and Tennessee’s version of the American Dream–Thomas Jefferson couldn’t have been happier.There was nothing incremental about urban migration and land settlement in this period. It was boom, until it busted.



[1] Richard C. Wade, the Urban Frontier: Pioneer Life in Early Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Lexington, Louisville and St. Louis (University of Chicago Press, 1959), p. 1.

[2] Richard C. Wade, the Urban Frontier, p. 2.

[3] John R. Finger, Tennessee Frontiers: Three Regions in Transition (Indiana University Press, 2001) See Chapter 2.

[3a] Clement Eaton, A History of the Old South: the Emergence of a Reluctant Nation (3rd Ed), (Macmillan Publishers, 1975), p. 120

[4] Walter Havighurst, Wilderness for Sale (New York 1956), p. 106, cited in Reps, Town Planning in Frontier America, p. 272.

[5] Thomas D. Clark, a History of Kentucky, pp. 64-5.

[6] John W. Reps, Town Planning in Frontier America (Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 266-72