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Genealogical Research in Kentucky

Genealogy Research Kentucky

Tracing your family history in Kentucky can be a fascinating trip through time. Kentucky was home to iconic of American figures such as Henry Clay and Daniel Boone. Locating the relevant genealogical records you’ll need to find your ancestors however can be a frustrating experience. To help you avoid those frustrations when tracing your Kentucky ancestry, we’ll show you which records you’ll need, and help you to understand:

  • What they are
  • Where to find them
  • How to use them

These records can be found both online and off, so we’ll introduce you to online websites, indexes and databases, as well as brick-and-mortar repositories and other institutions that will help with your research in Kentucky. So that you will have a more comprehensive understanding of these records, we have provided a brief history of the “Bluegrass State” to illustrate what type of records may have been generated during specific time periods. That information will assist you in pinpointing times and locations on which to focus the search for your Kentucky ancestors and their records.

A Brief History of Kentucky

Kentucky was quite inaccessible to settlement during the colonization era due to the rugged mountain terrain that separated it from the coastal colonies. France first claimed the area in the early 18th century which caused British interest in the region to be heightened. Hunters and explorers scouted the eastern mountain region during this time, but settlement was delayed by the French and Indian Wars between 1754 and 1763. After the British proved victorious, settlers began to migrate to the area, albeit against a British proclamation forbidding any settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains.

One of the first of these early settlers was Daniel Boone, who helped to blaze the Wilderness road which stretched from Tennessee into the Kentucky area, and established one of the first settlements known as Boonesboro. The legality of the settlement at Boonesbor was challenged by Virginia who laid claim to the area. Kentucky became a county of Virginia in 1776, and settlers from there began journeying to the area. The early Virginian settlers had many conflicts with the Native American populace, though their resistance was ended at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.

Kentucky was admitted to the Union in 1792, and as it entered the 19th century, it remained a state of small plantations and farms. Slave labour was not popular in Kentucky, and the importation of slaves into the state was banned in 1833. That law was repealed in 1850 however, and Kentucky soon became a major slave market for the lower South. Emancipationists fought against the new law and consequently by the outbreak of the Civil War, Kentucky was divided by this conflict.

Kentucky attempted to remain neutral at the outbreak of the Civil War, and the state refused to sanction Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers. Confederate forces entered Kentucky and occupied areas in the south, including Bowling Green and Columbus. The state voted to oust the Confederates in September, 1861, and General Grant invaded and took Paducah, securing the state’s Union status.

The effects of the Civil War were felt nowhere as strongly in Kentucky, where neighbors, friends, and families became bitterly divided. More than 60,000 troops from Kentucky fought for the Union, approximately 30,000 for the Confederate forces. Many opposed the Reconstruction policies after the war, and ratification of the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments were refused by the State.

Following the war commercial and industrial recovery was fueled by the construction of railroads, though Kentucky remained a one crop agricultural state – tobacco. The price of tobacco plummeted after the Civil War, and buyers and growers clashed sparking what was known as the Black Patch War. Night riders from both sides terrorized each other, and general lawlessness prevailed for more than a year until a truce was forced by the state militia in 1908.

  • Important Dates in Kentucky History
    • 1750 - Thomas Walker explores Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap
    • 1751 - Christopher Gist explores area along Ohio River.
    • 1763 - France cedes area including Kentucky to Britain.
    • 1775 - Boiling Springs and St. Asaph settled.
    • 1782 - "Last battle of American Revolution" fought at Blue Licks, near Mount Olivet.
    • 1792 - Kentucky becomes the 15th state on June 1, 1792.
    • 1796 - Wilderness Road opened to wagons.
    • 1798 - Legislature passes Kentucky Resolutions opposing United States Alien and Sedition Acts.
    • 1812 - Kentuckians bear brunt of war with England north of the Ohio and in New Orleans.
    • 1818 - Westernmost region of the state was annexed, following its purchase from the Chicasaw Indians.
    • 1819 - The first commercial oil well was on the Cumberland River in McCreary County Kentucky in 1819.
    • 1830 - Louisville and Portland Canal opened.
    • 1861 - Kentucky declares its neutrality in American Civil War.
    • 1862 - The first major battle on Kentucky soil during the Civil War was fought near Prestonsburg, January 10, 1862, bloodiest Civil War Battle to be fought on Kentucky soil was the Battle of Perryville, Oct. 8, 1862.

Famous Battles Fought in Kentucky

Civil War battles were fought at Richmond, Mills Springs, and Perryville in 1862, but after that there were no major battles in Kentucky. Below you fill find a list of the major battles that took place on Kentucky soil along with links to websites where you can learn more about them.

These battle accounts can be very effective in uncovering the military records of your ancestor. They can tell you what regiments fought in which battles, and often include the names and ranks of many officers and enlisted men.

Battle of Blue Licks, 1782 – American Revolutionary War

Battle of Perryville, 1862 – Civil War

Battle of Mill Springs, 1862 – Civil War

Battle of Richmond, 1862 – Civil War

Common Kentucky Genealogical Issues and Resources to Overcome Them

Boundary Changes: Boundary changes are a common obstacle when researching Kentucky ancestors. You could be searching for an ancestor’s record in one county when in fact it is stored in a different one due to historical county boundary changes. The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries can help you to overcome that problem. It provides a chronological listing of every boundary change that has occurred in the history of Kentucky.

Name Changes: Surname changes, variations, and misspellings can complicate genealogical research. It is important to check all spelling variations. Soundex, a program that indexes names by sound, is a useful first step, but you can't rely on it completely as some name variations result in different Soundex codes. The surnames could be different, but the first name may be different too. You can also find records filed under initials, middle names, and nicknames as well, so you will need to get creative with surname variations and spellings in order to cover all the possibilities. For help with surname variations read our instructional article on How to Use Soundex.

Kentucky Genealogical Organizations and Archives

Genealogical resources include not only records, but the organizations that house them, or can direct you to them. These institutions include: Archives, Libraries, Genealogical Societies, Family History Centers, Universities, Churches, and Museums.

Kentucky Archives

  • Following are links to their websites, and a summary of the records.
    • Kansas Historical Society (State Archives) – county records, census, manuscripts, historical newspapers, maps, photographs, Native American index, surname list, military name index

      6425 SW 6th Avenue
      Topeka, KS 66615-1099
      Tel: 785-272-8681

    • Kansas State University – manuscript collections, literary papers, diaries and journals, photographs, broadsides, maps, audio visual items, oral histories, and printed material.

      University Archives
      Farrell Library
      Manhattan, KS 66506
      Tel: (913) 532-7456

Additional Kentucky Genealogical Resources

Kentucky Mailing Lists

Mailing lists are internet based facilities that use email to distribute a single message to all who subscribe to it. When information on a particular surname, new records, or any other important genealogy information related to the mailing list topic becomes available, the subscribers are alerted to it. Joining a mailing list is an excellent way to stay up to date on Kentucky genealogy research topics. Rootsweb have an extensive listing of Kentucky Mailing Lists on a variety of topics.

Kentucky Message Boards

A message board is another internet based facility where people can post questions about a specific genealogy topic and have it answered by other genealogists. If you have questions about a surname, record type, or research topic, you can post your question and other researchers and genealogists will help you with the answer. Be sure to check back regularly, as the answers are not emailed to you. The message boards at the Kentucky Genealogy Forum are completely free to use.

Kentucky Newspapers and Periodicals

Many genealogy periodicals and historical newspapers contain reprinted copies of family genealogies, transcripts of family Bible records, information about local records and archives, census indexes, church records, queries, land records, obituaries, court records, cemetery records, and wills.

  • Kentucky newspapers and periodicals that you can search online or on-site.
    • Kansas Historical Society (State Archives) – African American publications, Civilian Conservation Corps, Labour Populist publications, Socialist publications, Territorial period newspapers, History of Kansas newspapers from1916

      6425 SW 6th Avenue
      Topeka, KS 66615-1099
      Tel: 785-272-8681

    • Kansas Heritage Center – most of the newspapers published in Dodge City from 1876 to the present and newspapers from several other Kansas towns.

      PO Box 1207
      Dodge City KS 67801-1207
      Tel: 620-227-1616
      Fax: 620-227-1701

    • – free searchable database of Kansas newspaper archives, 1841-1981
    • Library of Congress Digital Newspaper Directory – free searchable database of historical U.S. newspapers dating from 1690-present
    • The Online Books Page – links to historical books and periodicals available for viewing online, dating from mid-16th century
    • – largest online database of historical newspapers in the world.

Historical Kentucky Maps and Gazetteers

Maps are an integral part of genealogical research. They help us to locate landmarks, towns, cities, parishes, states, provinces, waterways and roads and streets. They also help us to determine when and where boundary changes might have taken place, and give us a visualization of the area we’re researching in.

For locating place names, a gazetteer is the best possible resource for any genealogist. Gazetteers are also sometimes called “place name dictionaries”, and can help you to locate the area in which you need to conduct research.

Kentucky City Directories

City directories are similar to telephone directories in that they list the residents of a particular area. The difference though is what is important to genealogists, and that is they pre-date telephone directories. You can find an ancestor’s information such as their street address, place of employment, occupation, or the name of their spouse. A one-stop-shop for finding city directories in Kentucky is the Kentucky Online Historical Directories which contains a listing of every available historical directory related to Kentucky.

Kentucky Genealogical Records

Birth, Death, Marriage and Divorce Records – Also known as vital records, birth, death, and marriage certificates are the most basic, yet most important records attached to your ancestor. The reason for their importance is that they not only place your ancestor in a specific place at a definite time, but potentially connect the individual to other relatives. Below is a list of repositories and websites where you can find Kentucky vital records

Kentucky began recording official records of births and deaths in 1911. Marriage licenses were required starting in 1867, but not filed at state level until 1913.

  • Copies of vital records after those dates must be requested from the:
    • Kansas Office of Vital Statistics

      Charles B. Curtis State Office Building
      1000 SW Jackson Street
      Suite 120
      Topeka, KS 66612-1221
      Tel: 785-296-1400.

    • Kansas Genealogical Society – various historical vital records

      KGS, PO Box 103
      Dodge City, KS 67801-0103
      Tel: (620) 225 - 1951

    • Kansas Historical Society (State Archives) – extensive collection of vital records dating from pre-territorial times

      6425 SW 6th Avenue
      Topeka, KS 66615-1099
      Tel: 785-272-8681

Marriage and Divorce Records

Marriages prior to May 1913 were recorded in the district county courts where the marriage took place. Kentucky marriage licenses did not include the names of the parents unless the bride or groom was underage. Records can be found at:

Divorce records from 1861 until July 1951 were recorded in the Kentucky District Courts.

Copies of official divorce records after July 1951 can be ordered from the Kentucky Office of Vital Statistics.

Census Reports

Census records are among the most important genealogical documents for placing your ancestor in a particular place at a specific time. Like BDM records, they can also lead you to other ancestors, particularly those who were living under the authority of the head of household.

Kentucky Church Records

Church and synagogue records are a valuable resource, especially for baptisms, marriages, and burials that took place before 1900. You will need to at least have an idea of your ancestor’s religious denomination, and in most cases you will have to visit a brick and mortar establishment to view them.

Most church records are kept by the individual church, although in some denominations, records are placed in a regional archive or maintained at the diocesan level. Local Historical Societies are sometimes the repository for the state’s older church records.

Central Repositories for Denominational Records

Most of the records of individual denominations are kept in central repositories.

Kentucky Military Records

More than 40 million Americans have participated in some time of war service since America was colonized. The chance of finding your ancestor amongst those records is exceptionally high. Military records can even reveal individuals who never actually served, such as those who registered for the two World Wars but were never called to duty.

Kentucky Cemetery Records

As convenient as it is to search cemetery records online, keep in mind that there are a few disadvantages over visiting a cemetery in person. They are:

  • Tombstone information is not always accurately transcribed
  • The arrangement of the graves in a cemetery can be crucial as family members are often buried next to each other or in the same grave. This arrangement is not always preserved in the alphabetical indexes that are found online.
  • Databases that can be searched online for Kentucky Cemetery records
    • African American Cemeteries Online – African American, slave, and Native American cemetery records
    • Access Genealogy – huge database of Kentucky cemetery record transcriptions
    • Find a Grave – over 100 million grave records can be searched on this site. Search can be conducted by name, location, or cemetery name.
    • - A free online database containing approximately 4 million cemetery records from around the world.
    • Billion Graves – as the name implies, you can search a billion records including headstone photos, transcriptions, cemetery records, and grave locations.

Kentucky Obituaries

Obituaries can reveal a wealth about our ancestor and other relatives. You can search our Kentucky Newspaper Obituaries Listings from hundreds of Kentucky newspapers online for free.

Kentucky Wills and Probate Records

The documents found in a probate packet may include a complete inventory of a person’s estate, newspaper entries, witness testimony, a copy of a will, list of debtors and creditors, names of executors or trustees, names of heirs. They can not only tell you about the ancestor you’re currently researching, but lead to other ancestors.

Most of these records must be accessed at a county court or clerk’s office, but some can be found online as well. You can obtain copies of the original probate records by writing to the county clerk.

Kentucky probate records have been recorded by the probate division clerks of the Kentucky District Courts and include dockets, wills, oaths, inventories, letters, bonds, appraisements, accounts, court orders, claims, and final settlements.

Kentucky Immigration and Naturalization Records

The naturalization process generated many types of records, including petitions, declarations of intention, and oaths of allegiance. These records can provide family historians with information such as a person's birth date and place of birth, immigration year, marital status, spouse information, occupation, witnesses' names and addresses, and more.

Most overseas immigrants came to Kentucky through east coast ports such as New, and then traveled by railway to Kentucky. Earlier immigrants landed at New Orleans and then traveled by steamboats upriver to Kentucky. The U.S. National Archives has passenger lists or indexes of American ports for 1820 to 1940, as well as immigration and naturalization records for the entire United States. These records can also be accessed at the National Archives Regional Branch in Kentucky City

Kentucky Native American Records

Missing Matriarchs – Resources for Researching Female Kentucky Ancestors

Marriages have been recorded in county records since the creation date of individual counties. State-wide registration began in 1958. The first divorces were granted by the Kentucky State Legislature, though from 1849-1959, county courts held jurisdiction. Additional records to those listed previously which may be of assistance are:

Marriage and Divorce Records

Marriages have been recorded in county records since the creation date of individual counties. State-wide registration began in 1958. The first divorces were granted by the Kentucky State Legislature, though from 1849-1959, county courts held jurisdiction. Additional records to those listed previously which may be of assistance are:

  • Fayette County Clerk marriage bonds, 1803-1898, and minister marriage returns, 1795-1851 (film 0009014 ff.) at the William T. Young Library, University of Kentucky, Lexington
  • Floyd County Circuit Court order books, 1808-1934 (film 1843752 ff.) at the Floyd County Courthouse in Prestonburg
  • Lincoln County Clerk of the County Court marriage records, 1781-1961 (film 1904116 ff.) at the Lincoln County Courthouse in Stanford


  • Kentucky Quilts and Their Makers, Mary Washington Clark (University Press of Kentucky, 1993)
  • Appalachian Women: An Annotated Bibliography, Sidney S. Farr (Robert Clarke & Co. 1870)
  • Coal Miners Wives: Portraits of Endurance, Carol Giesen (University of Kentucky Press, 1995)
  • Kentucky Families: A Bibliographic Listing, Donald M. Hehir (Heritage Books, 1993)
  • Women in Kentucky, Helen Deiss Irvin (University of Kentucky Press, 1979)

Selected Resources for Kentucky Women’s History

Women’s Coalition of Kentucky
Blazer Library
Kentucky State University
East Main Street
Frankfort, KY 40601

University of Kentucky Libraries
Euclid Avenue and Rose St.
Lexington, KY 40601

Camden-Carroll Library
Morehead State University
150 University Blvd
Morehead, KY 40351

Common Kentucky Surnames

The following surnames are among the most common in Kentucky and are also being currently researched by other genealogists. If you find your surname here, there is a chance that some research has already been performed on your ancestor.

Abell, Adams, Alexander, Allen), Anderson, Antle, Armstrong, Banks, Barnett, Barrett, Bashaw, Batterton, Beauchamp, Bell, Berry, Bird, Black, Blue, Bozarth, Bradley, Branch, Breckenridge, Bridges, Brown, Bryan, Bullard, Burch, Burtle, Calvert, Campbell, Cantrall, Cartmell, Cartwright, Cassity, Clayton, Cloyd, Constant, Courtney, Crafton, Craig, Crowder, Darneille, Davies, Davis, Dawson, Delay, Dick, Dickerson, Dodds, Dohoney, Dozier, Drennan, Duncan, Earnest, Easley, Eaton, Edwards, Elliott, Ellis, Enyart, Etherington, Etherton, Ezell, Fletcher, Flick, For, Forrest, Foster, Fullinwider, Gaines, Gibson, Goff, Graham, Graves, Greening, Greenslate, Hammons, Hampton, Harrison, Hays, Hickman, Higgins, Highsmith, Hinchee, Hubbard, Jacobs, James, Johnson, Jones, Kendall, Kennedy, Lagow, Lanterman, Laswell, Laughlin, Leeper, Lewis, Lightfoot, Lindsay, Lloyd, Lyon, Mann, Martin, Maxcy, McBride, McCoy, McCune, McGinnis, McGowan, McIlvain, Merriman, Miller, Moffitt, Moore, Morgan, Nation, Nuttall, Organ, Peddecord, Pickrell, Price, Rankin, Ray, Raybourn, Rich, Ridgeway, Riley, Robinson, Rogers, Schultz, Scott, Sexton, Shutt, Smith, Summers, Taylor, Thompson, Threllkild, Tolley, Tomlinson, Turpin, Underwood, Utterbach, Vigal, Viney, Walker, Wallace, Walls, Watkins, Watts, Webb, Weger, White, Whitesides, Williams, Willis, Wills), Wilmot, Wilson, Withrow, Woodruff, Workman, Wright), Wyckoff, Yancey, Yates, Yoakum), York, Young), Younger, Zinn

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