history of slavery in Kentucky
dates from the earliest permanent European settlements in the state
until the end of the Civil
Although Kentucky was generally classified as the
or a Border state
, rather than the
, enslaved African Americans
made up a substantial percentage of the population. Early Kentucky
history was built on the labor of slavery, and it was an integral
part of the state. From 1790 to 1860 the slave population of
Kentucky was never more than one quarter of the total population,
with lower percentages after 1830 as planters sold slaves to the
Deep South. Slave populations were greatest in the central
"bluegrass" region of the state, which was rich in farmland. In
1850, 23 percent of Kentucky's white males held enslaved African
Early travelers to Kentucky in the 1750s and 1760s brought their
slaves with them. As permanent settlers started arriving in the
late 1770s, they held slaves in the station-based settlements,
organized around forts. Settlers, chiefly migrants from Virginia,
continued to rely on slave labor as they established more permanent
Planters who grew hemp
made the greatest use of slave labor
, as these were labor-intensive crops.
Subsistence farming could be done without slave labor. Some owners
also used enslaved African Americans in mining and manufacturing operations
Farms in Kentucky tended to be smaller than the plantations of the
Deep South, so ownership of large numbers of slaves was uncommon.
Many slaves had to find spouses on a neighboring farm, and often
fathers did not get to live with their wives and families.
Kentucky exported more slaves than did most states. From 1850 to
1860, 16 percent of enslaved African Americans were sold out of
state. Many African Americans were sold directly to plantations in
the Deep South, or transported by traders along the Ohio and
Mississippi rivers to slave markets in New Orleans. The sales were
the result of reduced labor needs due to changes in local
agriculture, as well as substantial out-migration by white families
from Kentucky. In the 1840s and 1850s, white families migrated west
to Missouri and Tennessee, even southwest to Texas. The larger
slaveholding families took slaves with them on forced migration
to Tennessee and Missouri.
These factors combined to create greater instability for enslaved
families in Kentucky than in some of the Deep South states.
Because of Kentucky's proximity to free
, separated by just the Ohio River, it was relatively
easier for a slave from Kentucky to escape to freedom. Notable
included Henry Bibb
, Lewis Clarke
, Margaret Garner
, Lewis Hayden
, and Josiah Henson
. A mass escape attempt occurred
in August 1848 when 55 to 75 armed slaves fled from several
counties, representing one of the largest coordinated escape
attempts in American history. They were captured by the state militia
several days later after a
The abolition movement
had existed in
the state since at least the 1790s, when Presbyterian
minister David Rice
unsuccessfully lobbied to include
slavery prohibition in each of the state's first two constitutions,
created in 1792 and 1799. Baptist ministers David Barrow
and Carter Tarrant formed the
in 1808. By 1822 it began publishing one of America's
first anti-slavery periodicals.
Conservative emancipation, which argued for gradually freeing the
slaves and assisting them in a return to Africa, gained substantial
support in the state from the 1820s onward. Cassius Marcellus
was a vocal advocate of this position. His newspaper was
shut down by mob action in 1845. The anti-slavery Louisville Examiner
successfully from 1847 to 1849.
In Kentucky, slavery was not so widely considered an economic
necessity as it was in most other slave
. The small-farm nature of Kentucky meant that slave
labor was not so critical to profits as it was for the
labor-intensive crops of the Deep South, such as cotton, sugar, and
Controversial laws in 1815 and 1833 limited the importation of
slaves into Kentucky, which created the strictest rules of any
slave states. The Nonimportation Act of 1833
importation of slaves for commercial or personal purpose. The ban
was widely violated, especially in counties near the Tennessee
border. In 1849 the writing of the state's pro-slavery constitution
meant repeal of the ban against importing.
Slavery was the principal issue of the third constitutional
convention held in 1849. While the convention was convened by
anti-slavery advocates who hoped to amend the constitution to
prohibit slavery, they greatly underestimated pro-slavery support.
The convention became packed with pro-slavery delegates, who
drafted what some historians consider the most pro-slavery
constitution in United States history.
After the embarrassing defeat, abolitionists lost political power
during the 1850s. Nonetheless, anti-slavery newspapers were
still published in Louisville and Newport.
than half the residents of Louisville owned slaves, and the city
had the largest slave population in the state. In addition, for
years the slave trade from the Upper South had contributed to its
prosperity and growth. Through the 1850s, the city exported
2500-4000 slaves a year in sales to the Deep South. The trading
city had grown rapidly and had 70,000 residents by 1860.
John Gregg Fee
established a network
of abolitionist schools, communities and churches in Eastern
Kentucky, where slaveholders were the fewest in number.
turmoil following John Brown's
raid on Harper's
Ferry, Fee and his supporters were driven from the state
by a mob in 1859.
did not outlaw slavery during the Civil War, as Maryland and Missouri did.
Nevertheless, about 75% of slaves in Kentucky were freed or escaped
to Union lines during the war. Slavery finally ended with
ratification of the Thirteenth
in 1865. However, Kentucky would not ratify it until