When Virginia was established as one of America’s original 13 colonies, few white people had ever seen the territory immediately to the west. It was difficult to get to, with the overland route cut off by mountains that included a nearly unbroken 125-mile-long ridge now known as Pine Mountain. But in 1750, an exploring party led by Thomas Walker found the Cumberland Gap through the mountains at Virginia’s southern border. Walker drew maps that helped guide a younger, more famous frontiersman—Daniel Boone. Soon he and other explorers who had gone through the gap or ventured down the Ohio River were returning with reports of a beautiful land with an incredible abundance of wild game, running water, fine timber, and fertile rolling hills. As the American colonies got more crowded, many people looked toward this new Kentucky territory for land and opportunity.
French explorers had navigated and mapped the Mississippi River in the 17th century. At the time of Walker’s expedition, France claimed all the land between that river and the British colonies, along with a vast territory west of the Mississippi. But with no French settlements in the area, the main human activity in Kentucky at the time was hunting by Native Americans. The Cherokees, based in what is now Tennessee and North Carolina, had long known about and used the Cumberland Gap; the trail through it, which whites called the Wilderness Road, followed a game trail blazed by buffalo. From the north, the Shawnees, the Chickasaws, and other tribes made forays into Kentucky from villages in the present-day states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Native Americans typically had no conception of “owning” land in the European sense. Instead, rights to make use of resources were established by agreement, by custom, or by warfare. And rather than a European-style hierarchy, tribes tended to be organized into autonomous villages governed by councils of elders, no one of whom could speak for the whole village—much less the tribe. Some European pioneers attempted to “buy” land by dealing with a person they perceived as a tribal chief. But they soon learned that nothing had actually changed because the concept of buying and selling land and the pioneer’s assumptions about the authority of the chief were both meaningless to the tribe.
Disputes between France and Great Britain over their territorial claims in America led to the Seven Years’ War of 1754-1763. (This war was fought in several theaters; the North American component is also known in America as the French and Indian War.) With the white men at war, many Native Americans allied themselves with the French in hopes of driving the more numerous British settlers from their homeland. At the war’s end, France ceded all its territory east of the Mississippi River to England, thus settling the dispute as far as those two nations were concerned—but not, of course, in the eyes of the Natives, who continued to attack forts and settlements. In 1763, the British government issued a proclamation forbidding its colonists from crossing the Alleghenies. But the lure of the new territories was too strong, and pioneers continued to move west, establishing their first permanent settlement in Kentucky in 1774. As the natives fought back, violence and atrocities mounted on both sides.
These “Indian Wars” in the Ohio Valley would last for several more decades, even as America won its independence and Kentucky became the first state west of the Alleghenies in 1792. In the early 1800s, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh inspired many Native American warriors to join a united effort against the Americans, and they fought alongside the British in the War of 1812. After Tecumseh’s death at the Battle of the Thames in 1813, the alliance fell apart, and many of the remaining Natives left the Ohio Valley and the Southeast and moved farther west seeking new homes. Beginning in the 1830s, the U.S. government removed others via forced marches, including the Cherokees’ Trail of Tears.