The best books about Kentucky history

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

Who am I?

When students ask me if I am from Kentucky, I say “no, but I got here as quickly as I could.”  I chose to make the state my home and raise my family here, and I have studied its history for nearly three decades.  I am drawn to Kentucky’s story and the paradox it represents: on one hand, you have the Derby, rolling hills and pastures, and fine bourbon, but set against that polished, sophisticated image are the stereotypes of a lawless, illiterate, poor state.  As a borderland, not quite north or south, east or west, Kentucky offers a fascinating lens through which to view the nation’s history.    


I wrote...

A Simple Justice: Kentucky Women Fight for the Vote

By Melanie Beals Goan,

Book cover of A Simple Justice: Kentucky Women Fight for the Vote

What is my book about?

When the Declaration of Independence was signed by a group of wealthy white men in 1776, poor white men, African Americans, and women quickly discovered that the unalienable rights it promised were not truly for all. The Nineteenth Amendment eventually gave women the right to vote in 1920, but the change was not welcomed by people of all genders in politically and religiously conservative Kentucky. As a result, the suffrage movement in the Commonwealth involved a tangled web of stakeholders, entrenched interest groups, unyielding constitutional barriers, and activists with competing strategies.

In A Simple Justice, Melanie Beals Goan offers a new and deeper understanding of the women's suffrage movement in Kentucky by following the people who labored long and hard to see the battle won. 

The books I picked & why

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

By Stephen Aron,

Book cover of 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.


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

By Honor Sachs,

Book cover of 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. 


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

By Maryjean Wall,

Book cover of 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.

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

By James C. Klotter,

Book cover of 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.


Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945

By Ronald D Eller,

Book cover of 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. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Kentucky, Appalachia, and horse racing?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Kentucky, Appalachia, and horse racing.

Kentucky Explore 28 books about Kentucky
Appalachia Explore 17 books about Appalachia
Horse Racing Explore 22 books about horse racing

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like D Is for Derby: A Kentucky Derby Alphabet: A Kentucy Derby Alphabet, Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, and Mud Creek Medicine: The Life of Eula Hall and the Fight for Appalachia if you like this list.