The first European country to claim what is now Kentucky was France, whose explorers had navigated the Great Lakes and Mississippi River through the interior of North America beginning in the 16th century. But when Dr. Thomas Walker led an expedition through the Cumberland Gap of the Appalachian Mountains in 1750, he began a rush by English settlers to claim land in the fertile new territory to the west.
Disputes over that territory, as well as Canada, were among the factors that led to the Seven Years’ War between England and France. In the 1763 treaty that ended that war, France ceded all its lands east of the Mississippi, and Kentucky became a county of the colony of Virginia. The French, of course, were not the only other people with a stake in the Ohio River valley. Numerous Native American villages dotted the lands north of the river, in what is now Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Farther south, the Cherokee occupied the Smoky Mountains. But the new Kentucky County was a kind of buffer zone, a land of abundant game used mostly as a hunting ground by tribes from both north and south. Though white pioneers did encounter resistance from hunting parties, the relative lack of Native settlements helped make Kentucky more immediately attractive to settlers than the lands north or south. The first permanent white settlement in Kentucky, Fort Harrod, was established in 1774. Just six years later, the town of Lexington had grown large and prosperous enough to host the first university west of the Alleghenies (Transylvania, whose name means “the place across the forest”). And in 1792, Kentucky became the first “western” American state.
Unfortunately, the speed with which the state had been settled, the multiple entities claiming jurisdiction, and the upheavals of the times—Kentucky was settled largely during the American Revolution—created a legacy of chaos when it came to land claims. Huge tracts of land were claimed by entrepreneurs who hired surveyors like Daniel Boone to mark it out for them, then resold it in pieces. Other large land grants were made, often sight unseen and sometimes overlapping previous claims, as rewards for service to the Virginia government or in the Continental Army. Laws regarding what you had to do to retain title to a piece of land were vague and confusing. And definitions of the boundaries of a property often relied on geographical features that could change.
A Virginia law of the late 1770s attempted to sort out some of the confusion by promising smaller tracts of land in Kentucky to any homesteader who would “improve” it in certain defined ways. But many individual pioneers who thought they had met those terms later found themselves being sued or evicted by someone with a previous claim.
Because of this uncertainty about land ownership, many who had at one time seen Kentucky as a land of opportunity started looking elsewhere in the early decades of the 19th century. The area bounded by Pennsylvania, the Great Lakes, the Ohio River, and the Mississippi River had been organized into the Northwest Territory in 1787. Much of the land was still quite wild. But under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government, it was sectioned off into well surveyed and defined plots, and rules for obtaining and keeping title to it were clear. As many of the Native American inhabitants were driven out of the area, white settlers moved in rapidly. Ohio became the first state carved out of the territory in 1803. Indiana followed in 1816—around the same time Thomas Lincoln moved there with his family, including young son Abraham—and Illinois in 1818.