The best books about Kentucky history

Melanie Beals Goan Author Of A Simple Justice: Kentucky Women Fight for the Vote
By Melanie Beals Goan

The Books I Picked & Why

How the West Was Lost: The Transformation of Kentucky from Daniel Boone to Henry Clay

By Stephen Aron

How the West Was Lost: The Transformation of Kentucky from Daniel Boone to Henry Clay

Why this book?

Ever since John Filson wrote the first history of the state in 1784, the Kentucky frontier has captured the public’s imagination. Aron goes beyond heroic accounts and stories of triumph to understand how egalitarian aims and the sense that the West could become a “good poor man’s country” failed to pan out for so many. The west did not become the land of opportunity for Native Americans or slaves, nor did it provide a fresh start for many poor white men and women. Two iconic figures, Boone and Clay, serve as familiar bookends, neatly framing Aron’s story and tying their worlds to the one we recognize today.


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Home Rule: Households, Manhood, and National Expansion on the Eighteenth-Century Kentucky Frontier

By Honor Sachs

Home Rule: Households, Manhood, and National Expansion on the Eighteenth-Century Kentucky Frontier

Why this book?

Following in the footsteps of scholars, such as Kristen Hoganson, who have put a new gender spin on well-chronicled events, Sachs takes a familiar story—the story of America’s first frontier—and tells it in a fresh and compelling way by emphasizing how manliness and mastery shaped public policy and household relationships. Life in the west was risky and chaotic. Settlers coped by celebrating domestic order and by demanding the right for men to rule their own households. This patriarchal ideal, however, often led to violence, both outside the home and within. The individuals Sachs spotlights like, widow and powerful businesswomen Annie Christian, and outcast criminal and murderer Bartholomew Fenton, provide a totally new perspective on frontier life. 


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How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders

By Maryjean Wall

How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders

Why this book?

As a journalist, Wall reported on horse racing in Kentucky for many years before becoming a serious student of history, which makes her writing really readable. Today, most people classify Kentucky as a southern state, but before and immediately following the Civil War it was considered the west. This book explains the switch, giving horsemen credit for rehabbing the Bluegrass State’s tarnished image, albeit to serve their own financial interests. Besides introducing readers to the post-war history of Kentucky, it provides a useful introduction to horse culture. After reading it, you will understand why the Kentucky Derby is so steeped in tradition and why black jockeys, once so plentiful in the sport, are rare.


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Kentucky Justice, Southern Honor, and American Manhood: Understanding the Life and Death of Richard Reid

By James C. Klotter

Kentucky Justice, Southern Honor, and American Manhood: Understanding the Life and Death of Richard Reid

Why this book?

Jim Klotter, Kentucky’s preeminent historian, takes an obscure nineteenth-century Kentucky Superior Court Judge, Richard Reid, and uses his life and death to understand the tragic ways southern honor forced men to prove themselves. John Jay Cornelison attacked Reid at his law Mount Sterling law office in 1884, setting off an unexpected series of events. Reid’s story reveals the conflicts between old, traditional southern ways, and the new urban, industrial order, and Klotter tells it masterfully.  The book is filled with suspense and sharp analysis, but it is also a quick read.


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Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945

By Ronald D Eller

Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945

Why this book?

Uneven Ground is a book about Appalachia, but it is also a story of American economic development and a cautionary tale about the failures of capitalism. Eastern Kentucky lies in the heart of central Appalachia, an area rich in resources but home to some of the nation’s poorest people. Eller knows more about the region’s challenges than anyone and he provides a compelling indictment of development narratives that emphasize industrialization and false promises of “progress.” His book offers hope that out-of-the-box thinking and a new definition of “the good life” can lead to healthy and more equitable communities in the mountains. 


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