Migration and Immigration


The Wilderness Road: A description of the routes of travel by which the pioneers and early settlers first came to Kentucky.

Over millennia, Indigenous Peoples lived in and migrated through Kentucky and the Ohio Valley. Various cultures might thrive for centuries and then disappear, leaving behind remnants of their civilization. Evidence of that habitation remains today in the mounds they built and the artifacts of their material culture unearthed. By the time of Native American contact with Euro-Americans, Kentucky was a shared hunting ground by Nations to the north and south with only a few scattered villages, and these soon were abandoned. The Northwest Territory was home to a number of American Indian Nations, some who had inhabited the region for centuries and some who were more recent immigrants.

By the late 18th century the tide of Euro-American immigration had breached the barrier of the Appalachians and begun pouring into Kentucky and later the Northwest Territory. The trickle of White American pioneers, often accompanied by enslaved African Americans, of the 1770s and 1780s became a flood by the end of the century. The Ohio River from the northeast and the Cumberland Gap through the Appalachians from the southeast were the two major routes immigrants traveled. By 1800 Kentucky’s population numbered approximately 220,000. The Bluegrass region was the center of settlement. Large sections of the Green River Country were reserved for military grants for Revolutionary War veterans. This also was true for areas of the Northwest Territory in what would become the states of Ohio and Indiana. Grants also were made in the territory for military service in later wars, especially the War of 1812. Their populations grew rapidly also and by 1818 Kentucky (1792), Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816) and Illinois (1818) all had achieved statehood.

For the hundreds of thousands of White settlers pouring into this “First American West” their migration was voluntary. The thousands of enslaved African Americans who also immigrated to Kentucky (and a much smaller number who were taken to live in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois during their pioneer period), had little or no choice. The 1800 census counted over 40,000 African Americans in Kentucky, almost all of them enslaved.

The early decades of the 19th century witnessed continued immigration to the region. They also witnessed migration farther west, south, and north to future states as those lands were wrested from their Native inhabitants and opened to settlement.